Refinement and sanctity in social relations

by Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira

Saint of the Day — December 18, 1965 — Saturday

“A Roman and Apostolic Catholic, the author of this text submits himself with filial devotion to the traditional teaching of Holy Church. However, if by an oversight anything is found in it at variance with that teaching, he immediately and categorically rejects it.”

 The words “Revolution” and “Counter-Revolution” are employed here in the sense given to them by Prof. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira in his book Revolution and Counter-Revolution, the first edition of which was published in the monthly Catolicismo, Nº 100, April 1959.



For us to understand relations between refined treatment and sanctity, we must know well what treatment is, and what refinement is. Would that we knew what sanctity is. Treatment is, properly speaking, something fully external, at least in its most immediate meaning. And it is a set of formulas whereby we express our attitude of soul to others.

In other words, treatment involves two things: first, behavior, and second, manners. But it is made of elevation of spirit. It is when we know, for example, how to treat others with benignity, strength, fidelity, nobility or something else. This is not exactly the same as manners. For example, a friend owes money to another friend. The way in which this credit-debt relationship is dealt with and develops, is something that has to do with treatment. But in what sense? It is one friend dealing with the other around a naturally tense situation. And that treatment can be more elevated, less elevated, more generous or less generous, independently of the manners and courtesy employed therein.

Now, the manners of courtesy are formulas, attitudes of the face, hands and the whole person, his language etc. which are, so to speak, secondary and extrinsic elements of treatment.

It so happens that sanctity necessarily leads to a very elevated treatment in the first sense of the word, a fundamental sense of the word, that is, treatment in its profound aspect. A person who is saintly, by the fact of being saintly – for sanctity is the root of every perfect conduct towards others – has an exemplary conduct and treatment. And so he treats others with full distinction, kindness and respect, or with all the strength, energy and severity that the circumstances demand. Sanctity here is coincidental with perfection in treatment.

Still in this general meaning of treatment, can there be non-holy persons who give others excellent treatment? Yes. When there is a great tradition of Catholic civilization, this tradition does not die from a moment to the next. And although morality can decay very rapidly, the tradition of treatment continues for a while.

To employ an image of St. Pius X which he applied to something else: when you put roses in a jar, it may become impregnated with their perfume, which may linger after the roses are taken away. Likewise, can a certain chivalrous treatment, a certain nobility in treatment, in the best sense of the word, subsist as a Catholic tradition, in an ambience very little Catholic, or no longer Catholic, which has already apostatized?

For example, some noble treatment in certain lords is still a remote tradition of the time when England was Catholic. But it is something which is dying. And someone who is very elegant when dealing with money can suddenly become very inelegant regarding the same subject. Or if it is not regarding money, it is regarding adultery or something else. So, for example, he will think it unchivalrous to go to a friend’s house and steal a spoon from him; but he does not think it unchivalrous to go into his friend’s house and steal his wife.

This subject is picturesque in that there are traditions that become kind of fixed and rigid and end up having a whole artificial life, like things that threaten to die and really end up dying. So, refined treatment in this profound sense of the word has ceased when the state of grace ceased. Refined treatment is like an ivy you cut off at the root; a few flowers can still open up, giving an illusion of life. But that is a post-life. That ivy is dead. For when you take the love of God away, true love of men cannot exist. And where there is neither love of God or of men, treatment in the elevated sense of the word is, evidently, something bound to disappear. It is something condemned to die.

Nature has magnificent symbols of these situations. They told me that the beard in some cadavers still grows a little. It is a remnant of vital development in something already dead. So there can also be an apparent flourishing of manners in a civilization already dead. Thus, from a certain and very limited standpoint we can say that treatment continued to be splendid in aristocratic and Christian Western Europe until recently, but in a very defective and erroneous way, tending to fall. It was the remnant of a magnificent thing that had existed.

What difference is there between treatment and manners? Manners are a number of formulas, gestures and attitudes much of which is natural but also with something arbitrary and conventional whereby nations arrive, by general consent, to express their states of mind and their good treatment. Peoples can be very virtuous before having perfect manners. They may have a very elevated treatment and only correct or sufficient manners, still with a remnant of barbarianism. Not with savagery, but a remnant of triviality, banality, lack of elegance which after all may exist.

Manners are elaborate. For example, a saint can have less good manners than a non-saint. Manners are slowly elaborated by civilizations. They are the product of a whole society. And the relation that exists is always the same: perfection in treatment winds up by generating, in time, splendid manners. Thus, splendid manners are a kind of more remote fruit of treatment. And therefore, a fruit a bit more remote of virtue. But also they are a fruit of virtue. And they necessarily live only from virtue. So if there were not virtue, manners would be extremely inferior. And when virtue dies, treatment is gradually deformed, while manners still continue. Because they are a more exterior and material thing whose disappearance is more conspicuous and shocking.

We have civilizations, for example in France on the eve of the Revolution, with extremely refined manners but already showing that something was going to fall and to die. Thus, treatment necessarily and immediately derives from virtue and from virtues. Manners necessarily derive from virtues because they are a consequence of treatment; but they are not an immediate consequence of refined or splendid manners, which are the fruit of a whole civilization.

Now, obviously a person can have good treatment on some points and have no virtue; a fortiori, he can have good manners and have no virtue on some points. But in time his good manners will disappear.

To finish, I would like to say this: a well-made history of civilizations would show that perfect manners existed only as a fruit of Catholic civilization; and that no manners perfect in everything existed before it. There were peoples whose aristocracies, from some standpoints, had excellent manners. And from a certain angle even insuperable. The Chinese people, for example. Even Greeks, Romans etc., had, from some standpoints,  good laws, good art, good literature etc. But his is only in one aspect or another, and never with the elevation that things reached in Catholic civilization.

Consider a Roman banquet, for example. One speaks of Roman civilization, classic civilization… In a Roman banquet, all the participants would be lying down eating and drinking nonstop with indecent and unequalled gluttony. And getting drunk to the point of having to be carried away from the room. When one of them would feel overly full – excuse the prosaic expression — he would arise and go to a side room where slaves had the special ability to provoke them to vomit by tickling their palate with feathers. So the person would return everything he had eaten and drunk. Then, slaves would come with water jars, the person would wash his hands and, if he wanted, dry them with the hair of the slave, which served as a towel. So you understand how the slave would be soiled with all kinds of filth.

Now, imagine the scene in its details: the glutton, man or woman, opens his mouth and the slave make his palate itch and then after some attempts, finally the gastric explosion takes place. So this man is dizzy, his heart is beating maddeningly, he gasps for air, and then stumbles back to the banquet:: bring me a piglet. And the whole thing starts over.

Are these manners? Usually the feast would finish with an orgy in the garden; and in the morning, when the slaves who had not served overnight would come to put things in order, they would find even dirt in the mouths of the banquet invitees, who had eaten the most excellent foods imaginable at that time, like pyramids of parrots’ tongues. You understand what this represents as far as manners are concerned! This is horror when it comes to manners. I could cite one hundred other things in one hundred other kinds of civilizations.

I will finish with a word about the lack of manners of the Brazilian. What does it consist of? I am speaking of the Portuguese-Brazilian. It is a kind of inhibition and boobishness whereby every polite formula or elegant and interesting saying, every kind attitude is replaced with a kind of grey welcome, from north to south. From the Prata to the Amazonas, from the sea to the mountain ranges, isn’t it? Ah! You’re coming? Well, sit down! Do you want coffee? (Hoping he neither wants to sit down or to have coffee, what a bother). The person says: Yes, I do. So, how’s Chica doing?

In other words, this is the last thing you want when it comes to treatment. Mutual coldness. It is all done with a kind of color-fading of the soul which has a moral root and a religious root. One sees, for example, well-placed Brazilians say: how beautiful is our sea, our panorama… but no one dares to ask: what does the caiçara [beach-side caipira] who lives there think of the sea? A fish depot which has the inconvenience of moving, because if it were immobile it would be ideal, that’s all he wants. He is alien to the meaning of all things and worries only about that little fish he is going to eat with some third-rate flour while enjoying his little life there.

In the final analysis, this is a lack of love for great things, which results from a lack of the love of God. And it causes this fading all over Brazil. Take for example, ipê trees. Someone said he knows an ipê in a Brazilian city which is a true marvel. Everybody goes by and don’t even look. You could make popcorn under it , scatter popcorn all over the ground. … If someday somebody cuts the ipê tree down, it does not matter. The only thing that matters is electing the city councilman and politicking. Poor manners, poor treatment, a result of lukewarmness.

So here you have a commentary on sanctity and refinement.