In the early sixteenth century an Italian courtier named Balthazar Castiglione wrote a book that turned out to be an important guide for gentlemanly behavior. It was called: The Book of the Courtier.
For my part I was struck by Castiglione’s notion that one did not manifest true courage by running into a burning building to save a child. Since any sentient human being would do as much, there is nothing distinguishing about the act. Moreover, courage and character lay in consistently doing the right thing, not just doing it in extreme circumstances. Thus, Castiglione said, to be a man of courage one had to do the right thing when it didn’t matter, when no one was watching.
Now, there are several variations on this theme. Jonah Goldberg reminds us of two: Character is what you do when no one is watching, and, Character is what you do when only God is watching. Another is Chinese, perhaps Confucian: A sincere man does not take advantage of a darkened room. This means that, given the opportunity to do something in private that he would never do in public, the sincere man refrains. The insincere man, of course, asks only whether he can get away with doing in public what other people do in private. It’s called doubling down on amorality.
In less philosophical terms, the concept is telling you to use good table manners when you are eating alone.
One notes an interesting point here. If you look at the psychoanalytic practice of free association you will recognize that it forces patients to speak in a way that they would never do in public. It tells them that they must say whatever comes to mind, regardless of how trivial or obnoxious. The exercise can only undermine one's character and one's ability to socialize.
Be that as it may, if you learn to do the right thing when no one is watching, you are more likely to fulfill Castiglione’s predicate: good behavior should seem effortless and automatic. And it should look as though it has not been thought out in advance. It is seriously disquieting to converse with someone who seems to be reading from a script.
Castiglione was showing how to develop good habits.He was saying that we must behave well when it doesn’t matter—in my terms, use good table manners when eating alone—because then it will become nearly automatic. We will not have to think about whether we should use these or those table manners, but will always use the same manners, without thinking.
If you have two sets of table manners, you will often need to think before acting. Perhaps the hesitation or hitch is not especially grave around the dinner table, but when engaging in a conversation, being a beat or two off tempo suggests that you are not really engaged.
Some of you know that I have already opined on these points. I take the occasion of returning to them today because I was inspired by Jonah Goldberg’s remarks on his most recent G-File.
Goldberg also offers a definition of reputation:
Gossip mattered less when everybody was pretty much in plain view of everybody else all day long. But as bands grew to tribes and clans, gossip took on ever greater importance as the social sinew of reputation. Boiled down, reputation is what people say about you when you’re not around to hear it.
Surely, gossip is monumentally important to the formation of human society. If it was not important, people would not keep doing it. And reputation is also of exceptional importance. In many ways we are what people say about us when we are not around to hear it.
I would note here the therapy culture has been telling people, for many years now, that what matters is how they feel about themselves, not how they look to others.
One must emphasize that the therapy culture has been handing out very bad advice. Your character is based more on how you behave and less on how you feel. It is based on how your actions represent you in the eyes of others and less on how you feel about yourself.
When people are told to ignore what other people think of them, they are more likely to become more vulnerable to gossip… and especially its evil twin, slander. If they have not learned how to manage their reputation and if they do not know that there are steps they can take to safeguard it, they will feel completely powerless when someone defames their character.
Some philosophers might frame the issue in terms of the question of other minds. Without getting into the metaphysics, the problem with reputation management and other minds is that you have (apparently) very little control over what other people think of you. It’s one thing to say that you ought to reconfigure your own mind, but when your problem is how other people see you and what other people think of you… how do you go about changing that? How do you erase an image in someone else's mind?
Why does reputation matter? Goldberg suggests that reputation tells us who we can and cannot trust. It is far more economical than to try to judge each individual individually. One understands that most people today believe that we should judge each individual as an individual, that we should ignore what other people say or think about him, and that we certainly should not judge him in relation to other people who belong to his family or his community.
It feels unjust to judge a person by what others say about him and it seems even more unjust to judge him by the reputation of a group he belongs to.
One feels great sympathy for the individualistic approach, but the truth is, judging people by their reputation or the reputation of their group is so much more economical that it is not about to go out of fashion. If you think about it, if we spend our time trying to judge every individual as an individual we will get nothing else done.
All this becomes that much more anguishing when we recognizing that reputation need not be based on fact. It need not have anything to do with what we have or have not done. We are tempted to wring our hands and gnash our teeth over the injustice of it all, but we do better to consider that there are some constructive ways to address the issue.
In all things, behavior trumps gossip. Thus, if you behave as a person of character at all times calumny will appear to be misplaced.
If you should hear gossip about someone else, you must begin by considering the source. If someone speaks well or ill about someone else, you should take it as a hypothesis. Be skeptical of its validity and await the results of your own experience. This means that you neither accept nor reject gossip whole cloth. You test people, to see whether their reputations are accurate or slanderous. And when someone gossips about you, you tell him to do the same.
However much you are going to be influenced by someone’s reputation, nothing says that you have to take it as gospel truth.
But then, how do you repair your reputation when it has been damaged, either through your own fault or not.
Different people have different approaches to this problem. If you have done something to damage your reputation, you should apologize. Then you should behave in a way that contradicts the mistaken impression you gave.
Unfortunately, slander paralyzes the soul. Thus, those who respond most effectively to it are those who know how to do the right thing without thinking, when no one is watching.
Some people believe that you must vigorously and publicly denounce any and all calumny. Others will say that you should ignore it. Here there is no strict rule. If a slanderous comment is widely known and widely believed, it ought to be addressed openly and forthrightly. If very few people have heard of it or take it seriously, you do better to ignore it. If you publicize a slander that few are aware of, you bring it to their attention and tend to diminish your reputation.
One needs to be cautious about giving one-size-fits-all advice. It would be like telling all women to lean in. So much depends on the players, the game and the different possible moves that we cannot give a definitive formula that works in all cases.
If someone impugns your good character in public you should react with anger but you should not come across as an intemperate lout, someone who has so little self-control that he manifests weak character. Your task—should you accept it—is to draw attention to the offense while not making yourself look bad.