Etiquette: a code of behavior that delineates expectations for social behavior according to contemporary conventional norms within a society, social class, or group.

The idea of teaching etiquette or a code of behavior is not new, nor is the idea that mankind needs a finishing touch – extra schooling to better navigate society and live a good life. In this article, we will introduce a few key texts and authors from around the world, who helped shape man’s mind and refine their behavior throughout history.


In the Fifth Dynasty of Egypt, (late 25th century BC to early 24th century BC), Vizier Ptahhotep wrote The Maxims of Ptahhotep – an early piece of Egyptian “wisdom literature” meant to instruct young men in appropriate behavior.

The text was discovered in Thebes in 1847 by Egyptologist M. Prisse d’Avennes. According to William Kelly Simpson, some scholars debate that the Instructions of Ptahhotep were written during the twelfth dynasty, Middle Kingdom. There are authors who date the Maxims of Ptahhotep much earlier than the 25th century BC., as early as 2880 BC.

The Maxims of Ptahhotep should be read by everyone, even today. Not only does it demonstrate the wisdom of that civilization, it also offers tips for living a good life and addresses various virtues that are still relevant today – like truthfulness, self-control and kindness towards one’s fellow beings.

Learning by listening to everybody and knowing that human knowledge is never perfect are a leitmotif. Other advice include… Avoid open conflict wherever possible. Pursue justice. Lead with openness and kindness. Be grateful. Avoid greed. Be generous with family, friends, and those favored. Form friendships with those who are trustworthy.

Here are a few excerpts from the book…

“7. If you should be one of those sitting (as guests) at the table of someone who is greater than you, accept what he serves when it is placed in front of you. And do not stare at him constantly, for to force yourself upon him is an irritation to his spirit.”

“8. If you are a man entrusted with responsibility, one whom one nobleman sends to another, be meticulous in your duty when he sends you, and deliver his message exactly as he dictates it. Resist doing anything offensive by making a comment which could cause one nobleman to be annoyed with the other. Observe the truth, do not surpass it, although one should not repeat an angry speech. Do not speak against any person, be he great or small, for this serves only to arouse the temper.”

19. “If you desire that your way of life be blameless, keep yourself far from every evil. Guard yourself against the blemish of greediness, for it is a grave affliction of an incurable disease, and those who fall into it cannot recover. It creates dissension among fathers, mothers, and maternal brothers. It embitters beloved friends. It alienates a trustworthy man from his lord. It isolates a wife from her husband.”

551 TO 479 BC

Later in history, 551 BC, comes the great philosopher Confucius who was concerned with human society and the social responsibilities of its members. Confucius (551–479 BC) was a Chinese teacher, editor, politician, and philosopher of the Spring and Autumn period in Chinese history. His philosophy emphasized personal and governmental morality, correctness of social relationships, justice and sincerity.

“To put the world in order, we must first put the nation in order; to put the nation in order, we must first put the family in order; to put the family in order; we must first cultivate our personal life; we must first set our hearts right.” – Confucius

“If there is righteousness in the heart, there will be beauty in the character.
If there is beauty in the character, there will be harmony in the home.
If there is harmony in the home, there will be order in the nations.
When there is order in the nations, there will peace in the world.” – Confucius

“The gentleman does not promote people merely on the basis of their words, nor does he reject words merely because of the person who uttered them.” – Confucius

1528 AD

In 1528, in Venice, Italy, The Book of the Courtier was published. The book was written by Baldassare Castiglione (1478 – 1529), Count of Casatico. Castiglione was an Italian courtier, diplomat, soldier and a prominent Renaissance author, who is probably most famous for his authorship of The Book of the Courtier.

The book, in dialog form, is an elegiac portrait of the exemplary court of Guidobaldo da Montefeltro of Urbino during Castiglione’s youthful stay there, at the beginning of the sixteenth century. It depicts an elegant philosophical conversation, taking place over a span of four days. It addresses the topic: what constitutes an ideal Renaissance gentleman.

In the Middle Ages, the perfect gentleman had been a chivalrous knight who distinguished himself by his prowess on the battlefield. Castiglione’s book changed that. Now the perfect gentleman had to have a cool mind, a good voice (with beautiful, elegant and brave words) along with proper bearing and gestures. At the same time, the courtier is expected to have a warrior spirit, to be athletic, and have good knowledge of the humanities, the Classics, and fine arts. Over the course of four evenings, members of the court try to describe the perfect gentleman of the court.

Here are a couple of excerpts from the book…

“So let it be enough to say that it is fitting for our courtier to have knowledge of painting … And if he should never derive from it other use or pleasure than the help it affords in judging the merit of statues ancient and modern, of vases, buildings, medals, cameos, intaglios, and the like, – it also enables him to appreciate the beauty of living bodies, not only as to delicacy of face but as to symmetry of all the other parts, both in men and in every other creature. Thus you see how a knowledge of painting is a source of very great pleasure.”

“Nor would I have him speak always of grave matters, but of amusing things, of games, jests and waggery, according to the occasion; but sensibly of everything, and with readiness and lucid fullness; and in no place let him show vanity or childish folly. And when he is speaking on an obscure or difficult subject, I would have him carefully explain his meaning with precision of both word and thought, and make every ambiguity clear and plain with a certain touch of unpedantic care. Likewise, where there is occasion, let him know how to speak with dignity and force, to arouse those emotions that are part of our nature, and to kindle them or to move them according to the need.”

1682 AD

Louis XIV (1638 – 1715), known as Louis the Great (Louis le Grand) or the Sun King (Roi Soleil), was a monarch of the House of Bourbon who reigned as King of France from 1643 until his death in 1715.

Over the course of four building campaigns, Louis converted a hunting lodge built by Louis XIII into the spectacular Palace of Versailles – a dazzling, awe-inspiring setting for state affairs and the reception of foreign dignitaries. At Versailles, the king staged the finest comedies, operas and tragedies and organized extravagant parties. And he applied a strict set of rules and protocols by which his noble courtiers were obliged to abide.

In Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics, and at Home, Emily Post writes: “In the reign of Louis XIV, when the gardens of Versailles were being laid out, the master gardener, an old Scotsman, was sorely tried because his newly seeded lawns were being continually trampled upon.

To keep trespassers off, he put up warning signs or tickets – etiquettes – on which was indicated the path along which to pass. But the courtiers paid no attention to these directions and so the determined Scot complained to the King in such convincing manner that His Majesty issued an edict commanding everyone at Court to “keep within the etiquettes.” (Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1922)

1700 TO 1800 AD

During the Enlightenment era, a self-conscious process of the imposition of polite norms and behaviors became a symbol of being a genteel member of the upper class.

Upwardly mobile middle class bourgeoisie increasingly tried to identify themselves with the elite through their adopted artistic preferences and their standards of behavior. They became preoccupied with precise rules of etiquette, such as when to show emotion, the art of elegant dress and graceful conversation and how to act courteously, especially with women.

Influential in this new discourse was a series of essays on the nature of politeness in a commercial society, penned by the philosopher Lord Shaftesbury in the early 18th century. Shaftesbury defined politeness as the art of being pleasing in company:

“Politeness’ may be defined a dext’rous management of our words and actions, whereby we make other people have better opinion of us and themselves.

Periodicals, such as The Spectator, founded as a daily publication by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele in 1711, gave regular advice to its readers on how to conform to the etiquette required of a polite gentleman. Its stated goal was “to enliven morality with wit, and to temper wit with morality… to bring philosophy out of the closets and libraries, schools and colleges, to dwell in clubs and assemblies, at tea-tables and coffeehouses.” It provided its readers with educated, topical talking points, and advice in how to carry on conversations and social interactions in a polite manner.

The allied notion of ‘civility’ – referring to a desired social interaction which valued sober and reasoned debate on matters of interest – also became an important quality for the ‘polite classes’.

Established rules and procedures for proper behavior as well as etiquette conventions, were outlined by gentlemen’s clubs, such as Harrington’s Rota Club. Periodicals, including The Tatler and The Spectator, infused politeness into English coffeehouse conversation, as their explicit purpose lay in the reformation of English manners and morals. Etiquette is the virtue of morality and code of behavior.


It was Philip Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield who first used the word ‘etiquette’ in its modern meaning, in his Letters to His Son on the Art of Becoming a Man of the World and a Gentleman. This work comprised over 400 letters written from 1737 or 1738 and continuing until his son’s death in 1768, and were mostly instructive letters on various subjects.

Chesterfield endeavored to decouple the issue of manners from conventional morality, arguing that mastery of etiquette was an important weapon for social advancement. The Letters were full of elegant wisdom and perceptive observation and deduction.

Here are a few excerpts from the work…

“Tell me what Greek and Latin books you can now read with ease. Can you open Demosthenes at a venture, and understand him? Can you get through an Oration of Cicero or a Satire of Horace, without difficulty? What German books do you read, to make yourself master of that language? And what French books do you read for your amusement?”

“I hope you take great care to keep your whole person, particularly your mouth, very clean; common decency requires it, besides that great cleanliness is very conducive to health. But if you do not keep your mouth excessively clean, by washing it carefully every morning, and after every meal, it will not only be apt to smell, which is very disgusting and indecent, but your teeth will decay and ache, which is both a great loss and a great pain. A spruceness of dress is also very proper and becoming at your age; as the negligence of it implies an indifference about pleasing, which does not become a young fellow.”

“But those things which every gentleman, independently of profession, should know, he ought to know well, and dive into all the depth of them. Such are languages, history, and geography ancient and modern, philosophy, rational logic, rhetoric; and, for you particularly, the constitutions and the civil and military state of every country in Europe. This, I confess, is a pretty large circle of knowledge, attended with some difficulties, and requiring some trouble; which, how ever, an active and industrious mind will overcome, and be amply repaid.”

By the Victorian era, etiquette had developed into an exceptionally complicated system of rules, governing everything from the proper method for writing letters and using cutlery to the minutely regulated interactions between different classes and gender.

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