Bachelors are not particularly well known for their table manners. Perhaps that is why they’re bachelors. They’re too uncouth for a woman to be interested in them. What woman wants to be with a man who ingests his food without benefit of chewing, licks his fingertips, and then belches his final approval (or disapproval) of the meal? None that I know of.
Table manners – etiquette, more generally – communicate your respect for others and their opinion of you. Of course, the rules of table etiquette can be complex. (Did you know, for example, that it’s proper to eat asparagus spears with your fingers rather than with a fork? Neither did I until I married Tiffany.) And table manners require self-control. (Have you ever wanted to tuck into your Thanksgiving turkey dinner before everyone had been served? I hope you controlled yourself.)
Morality is similar in its complexity and requirement of self-control. While I wouldn’t want to say that all manners are morals – eating asparagus spears with a fork is not immoral, after all – I would say that manners are precursors to morals. They require the kind of discipline that is also required to live a moral life.
On two occasions, the Book of Proverbs explicitly addresses how you should eat when you are at the tables of a “ruler” and of a “stingy man.” What those passage say about table manners makes for enlightening moral reading.
First, consider Proverbs 23:1-3:
When you sit to dine with a ruler,
note well what is before you,
and put a knife to your throat
if you are given to gluttony.
Do not crave his delicacies,
for that food is deceptive.
In any society, the ruling class usually comprises the best-fed and cared for members of society. When John Q. Public sits down to dine with the ruling class, issues of both manners and morals arise. Proverbs warns John Q. against stuffing himself. The manners part of the admonition has to do with proper respect for the king. The moral part has to do with not developing a taste for what you can’t afford.
Proverbs 23:6-8 travels to the opposite end of the social spectrum: the dinner table on which there’s more table than dinner.
Do not eat the food of a stingy man,
do not crave his delicacies;
for he is the kind of man
who is always thinking about the cost.
“Eat and drink,” he says to you,
but his heart is not with you.
You will vomit up the little you have eaten
and will have wasted your compliments.
If we’re supposed to avoid gluttony in the presence of rulers, then we’re supposed to avoid the ingratitude of the stingy. A stingy man never enjoys anything but penny pinching. There’s a time to save money, and there’s a time to celebrate. Rulers don’t know about the first; the stingy don’t know about the second. The wise know about and practice both.
Eat with self-controlled modesty and authentic joy. That’s good manners, and good morals!