…The opposite of meanness is, I’d say, grace, with its natural and not yet theological meaning. It’s more than etiquette. It’s a free and cheerful willingness to put other people at their ease, by giving them genuine praise, by dressing well but not to show off, by knowing how to accept a gift and how to give one in return. It is gentleness in manner and speech. Such grace is not yet charity, just as a well-set table is not a meal. But a well-set table itself is a good and generous thing.
The gracious person shies away from dirt and double-dealing. He would be ashamed to utter foul words in front of a camera. She could no more accept a quarter of a million dollars for a speech—even if she were the daughter of Demosthenes or Cicero—than she could rifle the pockets of children. He doesn’t decide not to swagger; it would not occur to him to swagger. She doesn’t hold her tongue from accusing her enemies of hatred; it would not occur to her to make such an accusation.
Where then is the grace?
…We are not talking about great virtue. But there are preambles to great virtue, the natural habits that sweep the floor, brighten the room, and prepare the way for a cleaner and brighter gift. I’m not the best dressed man in any room, I don’t like standing on ceremony, and formality can be a painful thing for me. Still—do we really expect greatness of heart from someone whose deportment is mean, or whose speech is vicious? Do we expect backbone from a slouch?
Can such grace help conceal a moral wreck? Yes, possibly. Honey can mask a poisoned drink, too. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t sweet. One more good thing to recover.
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