August 30, 2010

Keeping Good Company

     ‘My idea of good company, Mr. Elliot, is the company of clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation; that is what I call good company.’
     ‘You are mistaken,’ said he gently, ‘that is not good company; that is the best…’

(Jane Austen, Persuasion, 1818).
Good company, which Mr. Elliot reduced to the requirements of ‘birth, education, and manners’ is nigh impossible to find. Fortunately, I am blessed by constantly being in the best company, but to understand me correctly requires an explication of Austen’s prose. There is nothing worse, I humbly aver, than people being clever. Intelligence ought to come with modesty, pertinent interventions, and humility. Clever people flaunt their superiority at any opportunity, lacing it with facetiousness and pedantic corrections. Clever people delight in the tripping up of others. Clever people know a variety of stratagems for penetrating the most fortified of hen houses.

So what did ‘clever’ mean? Our old friend Samuel Johnson first defined the word as ‘dextrous, skilful’; his second definition was ‘just, fit, proper, commodious’; and finally, ‘well-shaped, handsome’. Austen’s ‘clever’ company was, therefore, not so much vulpine as perfectly adapted to polite company, in both mental fitness, social appropriateness, and aesthetic appeal. Were such people ‘well-informed’, they would be devastatingly interesting. Their ‘great deal of conversation’ would not be mere artfulness around ladies, but a supreme engagement with the world and the like minds around them. The best company is sympathetic, challenging, and fair.

You may keep your clever people. I will take the best.

4 comments:

  1. Doctor,

    I think the point there - speaking as an admirer of Austen's - is aptly revealed by an Aristotelian phrase: with justice, you still lack friendship, but with friendship you already have justice.

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  2. Are we to take "clever" to include "witty" as well? I quite enjoy my friends' wit, though presuming they employ it in moderation as with all things. "Clever" does have a more pointed connotation but I find wit to be a refreshing change of pace from the bland and thoughtless conversation all too common these days.

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  3. You hit the nail on the head with the word 'moderation', Marvin. There's a dearth of moderation in all things these days. In any case, if you read this blog you will know that I am by no means indisposed to wit.
    VB

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