Adolph Freiherr Knigge, On Human Relations
Manesse Bibliothek der Weltliteratur, 1999
Most people have probably heard and used the term "according to Knigge" several times. For example: According to Knigge, you should either be right on time or up to five minutes late for an invitation, but you should never be early. But only few people will know that the typical rules or 'etiquette' for using several forks or shaking hands with the right people at the right moment, actually have nothing to do with the original Knigge. The term 'original Knigge' refers to his book "Practical Philosophy of Social Life: Or the Art of Conversing with Men" by Adolph Freiherr Knigge, published in 1788.
But if you actually read the book yourself, you will be surprised, how little it relates to specific occasions and how strongly it focuses on people instead. Knigge describes how one should behave towards one's fellow men and how one should show interest in other people. The book is divided into 26 chapters; each of them is dedicated to a specific social group. Knigge for instance writes about interacting with friends, dames, neighbours, parents, clergymen, but he also addresses the relationship between a host and a guest or between married people. At the end, he even talks about how to deal with animals and the earth.
It is essential to understand that Adolph Freiherr Knigge (1752-1796) did not want to create a catalogue that would constrain people to a series of manners. Instead he is interested in human cooperation and togetherness. He is in favour of decency, not as a matter of principle but because it is moral. Knigge's books should educate his readers "to accommodate themselves to the various tempers, opinions and passions of men without being deceitful; to be able to fall in unaffectedly with the tone of every company, without losing the originality of their character or demeaning themselves to low flattery."
Incidentally, the author had gained all his experience in social interaction with different people, himself. The young Knigge was born into an old aristocratic family and after his law study, he started working at various courts in Germany. According to his introduction in the book, he had encountered people from all social ranks over the years and had thus become something we might call a social psychologist nowadays.
But even though Knigge is a historically interesting figure and his book was indeed a noble attempt to compassion, the true question is still: Is reading the original Knigge worthwhile? And the answer is yes. After all, the book affects the readers in two ways: Firstly it takes us back to the most important of all principles - humane, respectful interaction with our fellow humans. Secondly, it makes us painfully aware of our own bad manners.
Because if we take a look at current politics or - even worse - modern online communication, it often seems as though we have abandoned all social graces. Just take a look at a random comment section underneath a newspaper article and you will witness how complete strangers swear at each other. Somehow, when it comes to written communication, we seem to have lost the idea that you should treat your opponent respectfully. "Practical Philosophy of Social Life: Or the Art of Conversing with Men" demonstrates just that. And maybe we actually need to realise that people were more civilised in 1788, in order to regain our own decency.