When Abba Theodore was supping with the brothers, they received the cups with silent reverence, and did not follow the usual custom of receiving the cup with a “Pardon me.” And Abba Theodore said: “The monks have lost their manners and do not say ‘Pardon me.'”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 15.20

Adam Smith, the founder of modern economics, was actually a moral philosopher. While his Wealth of Nations is better known today, he actually published another book seventeen years earlier: The Theory of Moral Sentiments.

This book is fascinating and bizarre. It is like no other book on ethics or morality that I’ve read. Indeed, one might even think of it more as a work of moral psychology, or maybe, in a uniquely anthropological and natural-philosophical way, a book of meta-ethics.

He does not begin by delineating a fundamental, normative principle or principles for moral action. Instead, he tries to answer the question: How do we become moral? He wants to be descriptive before being prescriptive.

In seeking to answer this question, Smith begins in an unusual place: propriety. That is, he first asks how we get a sense of what is proper or polite. He observes that, out of mutual sympathy (or empathy, we would say now), people tend to act in such a way as they imagine would be approved by others, not simply in terms of admiration or fame (about which he agrees with classical writers that such things are fleeting), but rather in terms of being fitting for that particular social situation.

When people fail to be proper, others disapprove, and if they aren’t so closed within themselves as to take no notice, they tend to adjust their behavior in the future to avoid such disapproval.

Now, this doesn’t quite result in moral action at all. Sometimes wisdom of the crowd is no wisdom at all. Smith was aware of this, too, however. He admits that sometimes the virtuous thing to do defies the standards of propriety. Furthermore, in order for virtue to be excellence (as the Greek arete implies), it must often be more-than-proper. It is not the usual, polite behavior of decent people. It is the outstanding acts of heroes, martyrs, and saints.

If one can get past what can feel such a bizarre place to begin, there is a lot to be learned from Smith’s first book. I don’t agree with all of it, but I’m better for what I’ve read of it, at least.

All this relates to the story in the epigraph because Smith takes the time to distinguish between virtue and propriety. This saying does the same thing.

It is found, in my collection, among sayings and stories about humility. In this case, as is often the case in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, it is an example of what not to do. Abba Theodore visits some fellow monks who are so caught up in being pious that they neglect propriety. The result is not virtue, but false humility. They eat in reverent silence and don’t bother with petty niceties like “please,” “thank you,” or “pardon me.”” They’re too holy for all that, or so they think.

But Abba Theodore knows what Smith observed: true virtue more often goes beyond what is proper, rather than defying it. There are times when propriety must be broken for virtue. It is not proper to shout at strangers in public, for example, but if a kid runs into the street, courage and mercy demand that one must shout at anyone nearby who might hear and pull child from the busy road, perhaps while running like a madman to do so oneself if no one else does.

That is the sort of situation in which propriety must be sacrificed for virtue.

Another less heroic example from the Christian spiritual tradition is what we Orthodox call “fools for Christ” or “holy fools.” Holy fools accept as their ascetic discipline the deliberate breaking of propriety in order to gain disapproval. By suffering the constant disapproval of others, they keep themselves humble. On some occasions, they also help to refine what is considered a matter of propriety. There have been more than a few polite cruelties throughout history, and it takes great courage to point them out. At that point, however, we are back to a sort of heroic, even prophetic, sacrifice.

But that is not what these monks were doing.

These monks were putting their piety on display. In so doing, they didn’t think that they needed to be polite. Another word for that is “nice.” Too often today, we try to reduce morality to being nice, confusing propriety with virtue. But the solution is not to dispense with propriety altogether. Smith believed — rightly, in my assessment — that propriety represents a sort of minimal baseline of decent behavior, without which no society, no matter how just its laws or outwardly pious its citizens, can hold together.

The bottom line: By all means, pursue piety and humility. Be willing to do the unpopular thing if it is also the right thing. But don’t forget to be nice. Indifference and cruelty are vices, not virtues, and it is far from pious to reverence them as such.

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