In a successful civilization every activity becomes a genuine education. All pursuits approach the dream of “motherhood”: citizens are gently and lovingly raised to be more noble, empathetic, playful, forgiving, mindful.
Nowhere more than over Christmas dinner is this idea likely to inspire ridicule. Christmas is a time we reserve for families to gather, and in a carnival of enraging personality traits, suppressed childhood psychoses and newly discovered jealousies, liberate each other from the norms of decent behaviour. Across the West this year, from Glasgow to Hobart, civilization will fall, as one by one, dinner parties collapse into war by other means.
Dinner was just as fallen in past societies. History’s most famous dinner party, the Last Supper, gets off to a heroically unpromising start with the suggestion that one guest will viciously betray the host, who happens to be the most blameless person in the universe.
Socrates spends his time irritating people over supper. And the Symposium ends with everyone getting too drunk and tired to listen.
Resisting my mother
Yet, there’s a curious connection between civilization and dinner. To say “civilization” today invokes a shared cultural nightmare: frighteningly elaborate European meals. This is the world we most resist. We picture the proliferation of bizarre forks and social codes; we imagine mean-spirited people critiquing everyone outside their tower.
Our culture’s love of resistance (and resistance to love) trickled down to me as a teenager. I remember meeting my mother’s entirely benign dinner table suggestions with rage at the seeming irrationality of manners. My Jacobin-like triumph, rehearsed in the shower beforehand, was to crown an argument one night with the cry, “This house is a monarchy!”
I was throwing off a thousand years of progress in manners. Tannhäuser’s Courtly Manners, from the high middle ages, first lays down the law of not wiping the nose with the hand. Erasmus, writing in 1530, recommends never being the first to touch a new dish: an impulse of the vice of greed.
Doubts about the superiority of our modern approach to greed should be put on hold as we rejoice in lessons that do still hit home – “to snort like a seal, gobble like a badger, and complain while eating – these three things are quite improper.”
Manners shape the brain
The real potential of a dinner party may have been lost behind historical prejudices. It’s this: that dinner, anywhere, in any culture, can become an arena to practice extremely important human capacities.
If we will it, we can practice generosity of mind, for example, in trying to enter into another person’s real concerns (a test case: maddening relatives on Christmas eve). We learn self-control in pacing our eating. Playfulness in not letting the conversation drag. Forgiveness for mean-spirited comments. The habit of small self-sacrifice, in holding back to give someone the floor with a question (perhaps a shy cousin). We can fight greedy impulses, and treat the glasses and cutlery with some grace, to learn the habits of gentleness.
The big idea here is unfamiliar: manners shape the functioning of our brains. Self-control is a habit of the brain, learnt in the smallest of everyday acts. In very rough terms, it involves the capacity of the executive frontal lobes to inhibit distracting impulses. If we constantly keep our posture and speak with control, then restraint eventually becomes part of normal action.
What’s more, such capacities are transferable. If we learn imaginative generosity over dinner, that virtue becomes available to us in other areas of life. Educating for these capacities across a society is a crucial project. The means of doing so are by the manner in which we undertake everyday activities, such as having dinner.
How to civilize your Christmas dinner
But what on earth could it mean to civilize the way we eat? The key transformation is what happens when an activity becomes an art.
Dinner as a crude instrumental activity is about getting food in your stomach. The basics are the same anywhere in the world, at any point in history: some sort of food goes in the mouth and down.
But we can be a lot more ambitious. We can have a conversation at the same time, to learn empathy and social courage. We can decorate our knives and forks with whimsical designs, to remind us that playfulness should not be forgotten. And we can link the whole event to some of our grandest epic concerns, as did the original scope of Christmas.
Thus the activity becomes richer; it becomes instrumental to higher goods and long-term goals; it helps train us in a range of virtues. It becomes an art.
This is when we can say an activity has become civilized. And a civilization forms when arts across a society begin to integrate and develop a describable common character.
With reflection and mass local effort, this can spread across a society – from our grandest institutions to our smallest everyday rituals. Even the activity of walking can be integrated with long-term projects and higher things. Henry David Thoreau developed and promoted an art of walking as a way to reconnect society with nature.
Master conversationalist defeats master chef
The civilizing process is infamous, and snortingly mocked, for going far beyond the original activity. The Japanese tea ceremony is no longer efficient at getting tea into the stomach. It is efficient, however, in cultivating patience, gentleness, and tact.
The tie no longer holds together a shirt, but it is the one non-utilitarian whimsy we allow to men. And for a civilized dinner, the first lesson is – conversation trumps food.
Food is, of course, important, but talk is unique to our species, and our triumph. Talk has the potential to reveal and delight, often wasted. What would it mean to prepare for a spontaneous, open-ended, deep, tender, hilarious, sympathetic conversation? Perhaps we need a new show like MasterChef to raise the competition. (Someone please steal this idea.)
Of course, one dinner doesn’t make a citizen. But the habits we need to become excellent participants in our civilization, to be good friends, mothers and fathers – gentleness, forgiveness, self-control, generosity, courage – are learnt nowhere but in the routines of everyday life. Christmas dinner, with all its temptations to indulgence and impatience with infuriating relatives, is a good place to start getting civilized.