In his Discours de la Methode, first published at Leiden in 1637, Rene Descartes postulated that human beings consist of a body and a soul (or mind, depending on how one translates the French lexeme ame) and that it was the soul/ mind that distinguishes humans from animals. To conceptualise the relationship between body and soul/mind more clearly, Descartes used the metaphor of the moving machine, or automaton, which in the seventeenth century was undoubtedly driven by clockwork with springs, cogwheels, and so on, to refer to the movements, gestures and postures of the human body. The movements made by the animal automaton were under the control of “interior passions”. The major distinction between animals and humans, however, resided in the human capacity for thought and language. For Descartes, this was the ame, which was not like a “pilot in his ship” (Descartes 1973: 159) but was independent of the body and would therefore not die with it.

The French conduct writers in the last 20 to 25 years of the seventeenth century adapted Descartes’ metaphor to Cicero’s concept of the honestus vir (honnete homme, “honest/upright man”) and postulated a direct relationship between the mechanical functioning of the individual human body and the state of a person’s soul. Ketcham (1985 : 50) quotes the following passage from the English translation of the Abbe de Bellegarde’s Reflexions upon the Politeness of Manners, which appeared in 1698 under its original French title Reflexions sur la politesse des mwurs, avec des maximes pour la societe civile, suite des Reflexions sur le ridicule:

There’s so great a Correspondence betwixt those Springs that move the Heart,

and those that move the Countenance; that we may judge by this outward Dial-

plate, how the Clock-work goes in the Soul. (1717: 40)

The harmonious correspondence between the body and the mind/soul—the perfect union between an individual’s outward behaviour (the body) and her character (the mind/soul)—was called “politeness” or “modesty”, and the disharmony or disjunction of body and soul/mind was called “affectation” (cf. Ketcham 1985: 50). De Bellegarde defines “affectation” as follows:

Affectation is the falsification of the whole Person, which deviates from all that is Natural, whereby it might please to put on an ascititious Ayre, wherewithal to

become Ridiculous____People corrupted with this Vice, have nothing natural in

their way of Talking, Walking, Dressing, turning their Eyes or Head, these are Motions unknown to other Men. (1717: 58, in Ketcham 1985: 50-51)

Politeness is therefore a “natural” quality, and its opposite is affectation. Both are revealed in an individual’s actions and, above all else, in her words. So from the very outset language use is taken as an indicator of that harmony between body and soul known as “politeness”.

But there is a major problem with this definition. If politeness is natural and the harmonious union between the body and the soul, would we not have to say that a person with an evil soul, whose behaviour “naturally” reflects this character, is also polite? To counteract this argument, the conduct writers posit that the perfect union between body and soul is a virtue, not a vice. Hence, only if an individual is naturally good can we talk of “politeness”.

De Bellegarde goes one step further and posits that the virtue of politeness should “have its Principle in the Soul, as being the Product of an accomplish’d Mind, centring on it self, and Master of its Thoughts and Words” (1717: 2, in Ketcham 1985: 51). In other words, to rescue the concept of politeness, we need to make a distinction between the soul and the mind, such that the soul (which could be roughly correlated here with the notion of character) is the product of the mind, but only after this has been refined or polished (i.e. has become “accomplish’d”). This suggests that the raw product, like a diamond, has to be polished to turn it into a “soul”, and, as we shall see, it can only be polished if the individual is a member of the gentry or aristocracy. The rising middle classes, and most certainly the labouring classes, were excluded from any possibility of being polished—of having a soul and becoming “polite”.

Once again, however, this contradicts the principle that politeness is natural. Polishing one’s mind or having it polished is a social process of education and acculturation. The kind and degree of accomplishment that is the goal of the process is socially and ideologically constructed. It is determined not by the individual himself but by repeated habitual interactions with others, with the result that it is socially reproduced.

In fact, de Bellegarde contradicts his earlier assertions about the ideal harmony between the “accomplished”, self-possessed mind and exterior behaviour in the examples he gives, which display individuals almost wholly concerned to please others by carrying out actions (including forms of verbal behaviour) intended to influence those others. He gives a second definition of the polite individual as one who “puts on all Appearances, and transforms himself into all Shapes, the better to gain his Point” (1717: 2), the purpose being to “purchase the Esteem and Affection of Men” (1717: 39). This commercial idea will be taken up again later, as it lies at the crux of the development of the concept of “politeness” in eighteenth-century Britain.

In the conduct writers, and in particular in de Bellegarde’s work, we can identify the following self-contradictory and somewhat confusing aspects of politeness:

  • 1. Politeness is the ideal union between the character of an individual and her external actions (e.g. the language which that individual uses).
  • 2. Politeness is the ability to please others through one’s external actions (e.g. through the language one uses).
  • 3. Politeness is a natural attribute of a “good” character.
  • 4. Politeness is a socially acquired state of mind which is adjudged to have reached a state of being “polished” and of thereby being in conformity with a set of socially accepted forms of behaviour.

The contradictions evident here make it possible to argue that an individual is born polite, that there is a natural connection between his soul/mind and bodily actions (including language). On the other hand, it is just as easy to argue that a person may acquire the ability to please and influence others whatever the circumstances of his birth. The contradictions also make it very easy to argue that politeness can be acquired only if one is socialised into the “correct” set of socially accepted norms, that is, if one is born into the appropriate social class. Those who are born outside that class can never acquire politeness. The attribution of “affectation” can always be used to categorise the behaviour of those who are not class members.

It is precisely this social interpretation of politeness that was mythologised when taken up by writers on language, morals, society and philosophy in Britain. The claim that politeness is a natural attribute of certain individuals and not of others is used to exclude the latter from the ranks of the former. In eighteenth-century Britain, politeness is thus caught up in a subdiscourse that we may call the “ideology of gentrification”. Within this discourse, language behaviour was interpreted as one of the most significant markers, if not the most significant marker, of politeness. “The ideology of gentrification” becomes inextricably linked through the language myths with what Milroy and Milroy (1999) have called “the ideology of standard English”. The link became so strong that “standard English” was ultimately almost synonymous with “polite English” or “the English of polite society”, and even found its way into some of the prescriptive grammar books of the eighteenth century.

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