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Romano Guardini on Courtesy



What, then, is courtesy?

Originally the word courtesy denoted proper behavior at the court of the ruler, in a noble environment. Then it lost this particular meaning and took on a more general one, proper behavior as such, the result of a good up-bringing; it is in this sense that we shall use it.

People live together in narrow spaces, within a house, an office, a factory, in conference rooms, in the crowded streets, in traffic, in the limited confines of a densely populated country. Consequently, their spheres of action are always touching each other. Their purposes cross just as their paths do. Here there is constant danger of friction, of the kindling of anger; and every sensible persons wishes to encounter courtesy. He will try to find forms which express concern for a proper association of the multitudes, which lessen the violence of antagonism and of cross-purposes, and which move people to be obliging and enable them to receive consideration from others.

This is courtesy. It is an everyday affair, but how important for the whole of life!

. . . . Courtesy is very important and very helpful in our life. It is not a great act, such as standing beside someone in great danger or freeing him from some pressing need or distress, but it is one of the little things which lighten the ever perceptible difficulties of life. It is consideration for the mood of our neighbor, sympathy for his weariness, smoothing over a painful situation, and so forth. A constant attempt to make life easier and to obviate the many, and often strange, threats that endanger it this is courtesy.

Here belongs also that facilitating of life which St. Paul means when he says, "Anticipate one another in showing honor." But why does he use the noble expression, "Showing honor?" Because man possesses what we call "dignity." A thing does not have dignity; it only requires the treatment suitable to its nature unless we mean that deep, even mysterious quality which belongs to it as an essential structure, and which we perceive so keenly in a noble object. But "dignity" in the true sense of the word is found only in the person. A thing can be bought and sold, can be given and received, used and destroyed. All this is proper, as long as we act according to the nature of the thing. But this cannot be done in the case of a person. The fact that we feel this marks the beginning of culture, and it indicates a great and ever increasing threat that man today is forced more and more inot the role of a thing. But man is a person and this means that every man is unique. No man can be replaced. His achievements, his work, and his property may be replaced, but not the man himself. Every man is unique, in his relation to God and in God's relation to him.

This uniqueness demands a special attitude on our part "honor." This is shown in our daily intercourse, by the forms of courtesy proper to every situation. . .

Courtesy is a thing of beauty and makes life beautiful. It is "form": an attitude, gesture, or action, which does not merely serve a purpose, but also expresses a meaning which has value in itself, namely the dignity of man. At their highest point these gestures and actions become a drama which represents a lofty mode of being; for example, in the ceremonies of state or in the ritual of liturgical celebrations. Of course, there is also the danger inherent in every symbol; that is, that it may become artificial, unnatural and hence untrue.