Staying at the Top of the Food Chain

Why is it that there is a custom in place, in society, where one may use three different forks and two different spoons to eat a certain type of meal at certain type of place, when we all know that if the same food was prepared in our 300 square foot studio apartments, one fork might not even get used if it could be avoided? That custom was instituted into society a long time ago, but even before that, was the institution of just using silverware at all, never mind deciphering between the salad fork and the shrimp fork. Yet in actuality, one does not actually necessitate the use of silverware, and while it does serve certain sanitary and expediency purposes, they can be done without. However, the use of eating utensils has become quite commonplace despite their dispensability. Conversely, there are several other customs in modern day society that are just as dispensable without the recognition of use, such as; requiring tuxedos for prestigious events, high-tea, corsages at prom, and not wearing hats inside. Baldesar Castilgione and ‘The Book of Courtier,’ shed a light on practices and requirements of the nobility as society would require of 16th century . And Rajasekhara Yayavara, in ‘Kavyamiimamsa,’ discusses the proper customs and behavior for a very high regarded position during his time (9th century). And while both authors make good points about how certain customs distinguish themselves from the rest of society, it is this exclusion by elevation and the doing of ‘noble deeds’ that purposefully separates the practitioners of the these customs from the rest of society.

Why do people use silverware habitually today? It is quite simple; it is because the generation before the present one used it. And the generation before that used silverware before them. So, the question is, why did the use of silverware become an institution? It is hard to say why people continued using silverware for centuries after its original insertion into society, but the origin of its first use was at the request of nobles and royalty during the medieval times. The upper-class was not only accustomed to using socioeconomic means to create more inequality and distance themselves from the lower class, but they also instituted practices that many lower class people would be incapable of doing. This type of separation is apparent throughout history, from ancient Kings showing off their ostentatious clothing, to 21st century men boasting their Armani ensembles. By establishing that silverware would be eaten by kings and nobles, and those who they saw fit to join them at dinner, it became extremely regal to use silverware because even though lower-class individuals may have wanted to use it, they could not afford to, thereby making silverware a determining factor of one’s status in society. Thus the use of silverware was separating the classes, and was another measure in which the elite could protect themselves from the possibility of a rising lower-class.

Castiglione’s piece clearly exemplifies the practice of elites and higher-class characters using superfluous practices and ideals. Through dialogued discussions, Courtier’s characters discuss what it is to be dignified and well respected by one’s peers. Castiglione’s discussion basically becomes an inventory of what is required for one to be considered noble and great. The list includes such things as grace, athleticism, and showmanship. And grace for example, is something that the noble characters of Castiglione’s discussion deem as not even being attainable; that it is a trait that one can only be born with and never acquire. Along with the fact that one character says that grace can only be exemplified through the virtuous accomplishments of someone who comes from a high-birth.1 Such a necessity for having grace eliminates the possibility for someone of low-birth to be born with grace, and thus destroys the social mobility aspect of this trait and helps in maintaining the sanctity of elites’ status. It is even mentioned that showing, and thereby having, grace is just reason to believe someone is fashioned by a higher being and that that person is thereby adorned with great judgment and character.1 And when such a belief becomes commonplace in society, you have an example of a trait or practice lifting an individual to higher status. And this portrayal of higher status is why the trait is believed and customized to be of a nobleman, because it does lift an individual’s status above those with out it. 2

Castiglione also addresses the practice of athleticism and how landed gentry can use this trait to call themselves noble. The means through which nobles use athleticism to separate themselves from the lower classes is by showing their prowess and dominance of athletic events. The presentation of prowess in such events as swimming and running has the ability to draw members of society to ones dominance of another, according to Castiglione. The drawing of predilection from others, once again, makes the individual who possesses the trait revered, and then separates himself from the other members of society. And even though athleticism is not a necessity of life, it is now being used as a means to distinguish the revered and the un-revered, the upper class from the low.

The ability to be fluent in the use of arms is another practice that Castiglione’s characters deem as being well-suited for a man of high birth. The separation, according to Signor Pallanvincino (one of Castiglione’s characters), the use of arms betters a man’s chances of defending himself. The defense of oneself is deemed to be one of the more esteemed and appreciated features of a gentleman and will bring a man of that capability great loyalty from those around him. Once again it can be seen that the idea of being praised by those around oneself is very important to the validity of a trait that will deem one noble, and yet the ability to defend oneself, while very useful and even life saving, is not of value except when being exercised. So while the usefulness of such a practice out of context is in question, when it the elite deem the practice noble, it becomes a sign of eliteness.

It is interesting to note that Castiglione also brings up the quality of beauty, saying that, “this Courtier [the ideal noble one] of ours should be endowed with beauty that would make him lovable.”1 One of the characters goes on to discuss how the ladies are drawn to beauty, and how one cannot aim to be too beautiful. What he says next can clearly be explained as guidelines for the trait of beauty. He goes on to say that men should not wear their hair a certain way, should not carry their arms with femininity, and that one should refrain from certain beautifying techniques. These guidelines become measurements of a man’s beauty and his manliness. To have too much of one or the other is not ideal, but to exemplify both beauty and your manhood in the perfect proportions is to be noble for Castiglione. These guidelines, like many of its kind, are being set by the upper-class and are therefore more available to them, and this makes the upper-class more likely to be aware of and follow these guidelines. Many other institutions of the modern day fit this mold, such as being successfully competitive but modest, and being a gracious speaker but not speaking too much. People who have mastered a balance between such qualities make millions of dollars for that balance these days, which is reason to believe that guidelines of this matter serve as further distinguishers between the elite and the deprived.

Yayavara does not steer to far away from Castiglione’s point of view. He too seems to be advocating the use of certain traits and/or guidelines to distinguish people from one another. In Yayavara’s case, he is describing the way in which a poet of high regard is to behave and to live his life. The guidelines he sets forth clear and specific, and have actually have very little to do with poetry itself. In fact, just about none of what he describes is necessary of a poet other then the use of language, which he does not just ask merely that one master their own language but several others. One may ask why Yayavara chooses to separate the distinguished poet from so many other realms of society. Well, the obvious is that Yayavara himself was a poet as well, and thus maybe the urge to feel special, respected, and admired made him want to create these guidelines so that he would not only acquire this high regard but also be able to maintain it once he got there.

One of the things Yayavara deems necessary of a distinguished poet is quite the ostentatious display. Yayavara says that poets are to have and to maintain well-ordered, extravagant, and clean houses. This has very little to do with actual poetry writing itself yet in his writing, there is no argument for as to why this is necessary for one to write. The only reason available to justify such a guideline is that it has been created to distinguish the nobles from those who aren’t. It is a trait that can used to easily separate the rich from the poor. How one keeps their house, whether or not they have 1, 2 or 3 house servants, and how they make use of those servants are all of interest to Yayavara. But this fixation with an elaborate house does not tend to make one completely separate from the poor on its own. However, it is a combination of other guidelines that one must follow in order to be truly considered a great poet by Yayavara.

Yayavara also mentions that a great poet must possess certain personality traits. One would often think that it is the different personality traits that drive the art of poetry; that the sheer variety of people who can and do decide to write poems are the reason people like to read poetry in the first place. But according to Yayavara, a well revered poet must possess devotion, have a lack of discouragement and a strength of memory.3 And while all three of those entities can be used to as motivation or s kill for writing a poem. Writing a poem that shows a persons disregard, despondency, and weakness of character could present as ever a powerful a poem as one void of those traits. The only purpose Yayavara’s personality traits seem to serve are manners of dignity, civility and pride; traits that determines one nobleness. This is another example of using guidelines to establish a norm in society. With such high-regards to the welfare and conduct of poets, those who are looking to enter the field would aim to do the same things Yayavara calls for if it became the societal norm.

Yayavara’s grand description of a poet’s requirements and behavior clearly denotes the high regard he holds for them, especially being one himself. By describing him in such a matter, one certainly can ascertain that the poet is considered to be a part of the aristocratic society and to be a noble gentleman during Yayavara’s time. Yayavara, in his piece, addresses the issue of poets dining with the King and partaking in a world wind discussion of modern day events and sharing the great works of poetry. Yayavara seems to hold the poet with such high esteem that the Kings that the poet ends up dining with have their own set of guidelines of which to follow in the presence of poets. Such descriptions of ostentatious qualities and regal poetry discussions simply are the guidelines for another set of noble people to follow, and allows these same people to separate themselves from the non-elite.

Customs, guidelines, rules, expectations, they all are in place for reasons. Some for safety, some out of necessity, and some just purely because of tradition. Often their reason for existence is neglected to be inquisitioned, but in the case of many of them, they are either outdated or of no practical use. Many customs just seem to incorporate civilization’s own way of natural selection. The strongest, or the elite, end up setting the rules and dictating what goes on in the lives of those around them and for themselves, and those who can last and reach the pinnacle of success and existence become elite. Those who cannot follow the rules, relate to the customs, and live the practices of what are considered to be of the highest regard and of the most deserving respect, they go through life and existence with much less esteem and a lot less benefits.

But why is that those who are the elite, who are on top of the world and are apart of the aristocratic society the ones who determine what it is to be of high regard? The fact remains, that what they do is what the lower-class individuals will always want to imitate. With the institution of silverware, many people, I’m sure, did not find why using silverware would be at all necessary, but those who were not of the highest ranking socioeconomically, but were able to save some money here and there, and they eventually made or bought silverware so that they too could live like the elite. The more people that bought into the idea, the more the idea became common place. It just seems natural that those who have less will want to imitate those who have more in hopes that they can someday mimic the actions and conduct of those in higher classes to a point where they actually become a part of those classes. That hope of social mobility is what drives people to not want to sit around all day and merely work purely for the necessity of it, but to work for a better life.

Practices and customs, as talked about throughout the entirety of this piece, are what drive the classes of society. They regulate who and what people belong too. Just as with Yayavara’s ideal poet during his time, someone can right poetry and feel regulated by the rules set forth by society, but if he or she is not able to live up to the standards, ostentatious characteristics, and regulations of what Yayavara says a poet must be, then he or she will not feel apart of those noble and great poets, and nor would they be accepted by them either. Thus, a poet of this sort would not be bound to the noble poets because they are not being integrated or recognized by the group. This is how the elite stay separate from those in classes below them. They maintain a status and level of life that can only be achieved through certain measures associated with their lifestyles and ways of conduct. With these practices and customs often not taught to those of lesser classes, or not economically available to them, it makes it quite hard for low-class individuals to overcome that gap between them and the noble.


1 Castiglione, Baldesar; ‘The Book of the Courtier’: Book 1: pp. 11-86.

2 Dronkers, Japp & Schijf, Huibert; ‘Marriages between Nobility and High Bourgeoisie as A Way to Maintain Their Elite Positions in Modern Dutch Society;’ ESA Network Publishing

3 Yayavara, Rajasekhara;’Kavyamimamsa’ (An Enquiry into Poetry): Chapter 10 (On the Conduct of Poets and Kings): pp. 1-11.

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