Because life is a series of edits

Some Presidential Self-Help

In Holidays on February 18, 2008 at 8:01 am

Our first President, George Washington, copied the following list as a teenager (probably as a homework assignment) from a pamphlet called “Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation.” The list contained 110 such rules, was composed by French Jesuits in 1595, and was later rendered into English.

According to historian Richard Brookhiser, who published an annotated edition of “Rules of Civility,” it’s unclear how the publication reached America, but its effect on Washington’s character and behavior were profound. Thus, in honor of President’s Day, here are fifteen from the list, as chosen by David Holzel contributing at Mental Floss:

  1. Every action in company ought to be done with some sign of respect to those that are present.
  2. Sleep not when others speak, sit not when others stand, speak not when you should hold your peace, walk not on when others stop.
  3. Spit not into the fire, nor stoop low before it, neither put your hands into the flames to warm them, nor set your feet upon the fire, especially if there be meat before it.
  4. Kill no vermin, as fleas, lice, ticks etc., in the sight of others. If you see any filth or thick spittle put your foot dexterously upon it, if it be upon the clothes of your companions put it off privately, and if it be upon your own clothes return thanks to him who puts it off.
  5. Read no letters, books, or papers in company, but when there is a necessity for the doing of it you must ask leave. Come not near the books or writings of another so as to read them unless desired, or give your opinion of them unasked. Also look not nigh when another is writing a letter.
  6. Let your countenance be pleasant but in serious matters somewhat grave.
  7. Shew not yourself glad at the misfortune of another though he were your enemy.
  8. To one that is your equal, or not much inferior, you are to give the chief place in your lodging, and he who ‘tis offered ought at the first to refuse it, but at the second to accept though not without acknowledging his own unworthiness.
  9. Mock not nor jest at anything of importance, break no jests that are sharp, biting, and if you deliver any thing witty and pleasant, abstain from laughing thereat yourself.
  10. Let your conversation be without malice or envy, for ‘tis a sign of tractable and commendable nature, and in all causes of passion permit reason to govern.
  11. Speak not of doleful things in a time of mirth or at the table; speak not of melancholy things as death and wounds, and if others mention them, change if you can the discourse. Tell not your dreams, but to your intimate friend.
  12. Be apt not to relate news if you know not the truth thereof. In discoursing of things you have heard name not your author. Always a secret discover not.
  13. In company of those of higher quality than you, speak not till you are ask’d a question, then stand upright, put off your hat, and answer in few words.
  14. Speak not evil of the absent for it is unjust.
  15. Make no show of taking great delight in your victuals. Feed not with greediness. Eat your bread with a knife (i.e. cut it into small pieces), lean not on the table, neither find fault with what you eat.

Happy President’s Day.

  1. Were those the best 15? Some of them are good suggestions, and should be taken to heart. Several others sound a bit strange.

  2. Holzel didn’t clarify these as the “best;” just “some.”

    The “strange factor” could be accounted for by the fact the Jesuits wrote these over 500 years ago. Lots more public vermin back then, I’m guessing.

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