<< The Body Politic

Suffering fools gladly

Friday, January 4th, 2013

In this morning’s New York Times, David Brooks writes about “suffering fools gladly,” noting that politeness and manners “end up shaping the people we are within.” Brooks suggests that civility is an important aspect of a strong civil society—a point that was not lost on George Washington, for example, who made a point to conform himself to his “Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company.”

Brooks writes:

Recently I was reading a magazine profile of a brilliant statistician. The article mentioned, in passing, that this guy doesn’t suffer fools gladly.

I come across that phrase a lot. I’ve read that Al Gore and former Representative Barney Frank don’t suffer fools gladly. Neither, apparently, did Steve Jobs, George Harrison, Pauline Kael or even Henry David Thoreau. [...]

Today, the phrase is often used as an ambiguous compliment. It suggests that a person is so smart he has trouble tolerating people who are far below his own high standards. It is used to describe a person who is so passionately committed to a vital cause that he doesn’t have time for social niceties toward those idiots who stand in its way. It is used to suggest a level of social courage; a person who has the guts to tell idiots what he really thinks. [...]

This sounds fine in the abstract, but when you actually witness somebody in the act of not suffering fools gladly, it looks rotten. Once I watched a senior member of the House of Representatives rip into a young reporter after she nervously asked him an ill-informed question.

She was foolish about that particular piece of legislation, but, in the moment, he looked the bigger fool. He was making a snap judgment about a person with no real information about her actual qualities. He was exposing a yawning gap between his own high opinion of himself and his actual conduct in the world. He was making the mistake, which metaphysical fools tend to make, that there is no connection between your inner moral quality and the level of courtesy you present to others.

Smart people who’ve thought about this usually understand that the habits we put in practice end up shaping the people we are within. “Manners are of more importance than laws,” Edmund Burke wrote. “Manners are what vex or soothe, corrupt or purify, exalt or debase, barbarize or refine us, by a constant, steady, uniform, insensible operation, like that of the air we breathe in.”

Brooks continues with lessons drawn from Jane Austen and G.K. Chesterton. Read the whole thing here.

 

AEI