On more than one occasion, when visiting friends – or even some people I don’t know all that well – I have been offered the “comforts” of the floor rather than those of a couch or even a simple straight-backed chair.
With somewhat exaggerated smiles, my hosts gesture to the floor while setting the example by squatting down on a rug or carpet that moments before had been the exclusive domain of Fido or Fluffy. Doing my best to hide my culture shock, I am obliged to join my hosts on the floor, not really understanding why I have been banished from the inviting arms of the sofa. My discomfort – physical and psychological – is intensified by my allergy to dogs and cats, which is aggravated by my being reduced to their level.
Let us face it, the floor of a civilized home – unlike that of a jungle hut – was not intended for sitting, especially by adults. Once I broke a child’s toy by sitting on it with the full force of my 185 pounds. On another occasion, I leaned back on a coffee table to lessen my discomfort, only to send the tea service flying.
Of course, when one sits on the floor, everything needed at his disposal must follow: the coffee and cake, newspapers or magazines, even paper and pen-the table having been deprived of its long and worthy function.
Having experienced this back-to-the-floor movement firsthand, I resolved to understand it. How did it develop? What contributed to its becoming imposed ever more frequently even on those who – quite understandably – despise it?
I began by analyzing the effects of conversing with friends and acquaintances while seated on the floor. Were such conversations more sincere? More spontaneous? After all, one might argue that assuming the ground-level posture of our primitive ancestors is an act of liberation from the artificial constraints of civilization and more in accord with our free will – or, at any rate, our fallen human nature.
I experienced no growth in either sincerity or spontaneity in floor-level dialog, however. On the contrary, my natural discomfort with this novel barbarism rendered social exchange more artificial and forced.
Who, then, or what, had imposed this new behavior upon us?
After some reflection, it became clear that this custom became common practice generally due to the example set in television programs and movies. In these shows, actors and actresses forsaking the use of chairs gave the impression of being comfortable while crouching on their heels, sitting with one leg tucked under their bodies, or kneeling on the floor.
But the same comfort was not experienced within the circles of friends and acquaintances that I frequented. Nevertheless, the custom of sitting on the floor is forced upon us, against our tastes, disguised with the prestige of the movies or television programs. We would try to imitate what we saw in the movies and on television but our real-life experience did not have the “benefits” of the make-believe world on the screen.
Our conversations, influenced by the position of our bodies, tended to be less serious. The sensation that we were like children at play became ever stronger. Some people were so uncomfortable sitting on the floor that they would remove their shoes, a practice I succeeded in avoiding. Others would recline somewhat upon the floor, supporting themselves on their elbows, giving the appearance of someone in quest of a bed on which to lie down.
Now, the position assumed by the human body both reflects and influences psychological attitudes. Therefore, it also influences thoughts.
Making oneself “comfortable” on the floor perhaps seems favorable at least for dealing with more “relaxed” subjects; but not all subjects are relaxed. It is one thing to talk about the latest baseball game, quite another to deal with the serious problems that often invade our family circles – divorce, abortion, drug use, and so forth. I perceived that the seriousness necessary for dealing with such matters – moral matters – was compromised by the fact that we were sitting on the floor and not on chairs or sofas. Despite the gravity of the conversation, our posture was conducive to greater optimism, so the seriousness proportional to such subjects was soon sacrificed in favor of the idea that all is well.
This habit, together with similar ones introduced in our society, seemed to me a coercive effort on the part of trend-setters to change our way of being. This alteration was conducive to unreasonable optimism and consequent inertia among those who should stand against the forces of social disintegration.
Sociability is the desire that all men have to be together and thus form a society for their mutual benefit. It is one of the strongest human instincts. By creating Eve from Adam’s rib, giving her a lineage. God thus binds all men closely to one another through matrimony, paternity, maternity, and brotherhood. Adam’s progeny, his descendents, formed society.
Properly understood, society is an extension of the family. Consequently, sociability is an extension of the same interior impulse that leads people to constitute families and mutually love one another within the home. This impulse is sacred, simply because it is God-given. Well regulated, it is a factor of sanctification. Disordered, it can cause souls, families, societies, and nations to be lost.
Having laid down all the rules for the conduct of the family – hierarchy, the government of the father, the counsel of the mother, the duties proper to each member of the family, the necessity of monogamy and the prohibition against divorce, and so on – God also established rules for the perfection of society: the authority of the government, social hierarchy, the specific honors accorded the functions of every member of society, and so forth. The application of these rules that normally concern the proper function of society are found first, in due proportion, in the family.
However, neither society nor the family is a mechanism whose finality is the good functioning of the material world. Society is first and foremost an association of souls.
Because of this, throughout the centuries , Christendom refined behavior, ways of life, speech, forms of expression of respect, and so on, to elevate the souls in their quest for perfection, that is, sanctification. Table manners provide a good example of the social betterment of the Christian person. In antiquity, people ate with their hands; the knife and fork did not exist. Likewise, hygiene at the table improved greatly with the adoption of new habits inspired by the Christianization of the nations.
In this article I must limit myself to considering only this new habit of sitting on the floor and its social consequences. What should be thought of it? Has it contributed to harmony among people? In adopting this practice, has society become more perfect or has it regressed to habits and practices that were common prior to civilization?
Even if it was not a Christian invention, it is incontestable that the chairs came into general use in the civilization inspired by the Church.
Mere esthetic taste? Certainly not, although esthetically chairs represent a social advance. In civilizing Western man, the Church sought to dignify all the functions of his life, even the most trivial, regardless of whether they concern work or leisure. The chair makes a person better able to reflect the supreme dignity of God, in Whose image he was created. The chair permits greater elegance, that is, a disposition of the body that expresses a certain perfection.
What to think of the floor? An immediate and generally accepted notion is that everything that falls tumbles to the floor or ground. The floor is the lowest place, common to every fall. Though taken from the physical world, this notion also has obvious consequences in the realm of morals, in virtue of the parallelism between the two worlds.
In the Book of Genesis, for example, God provides us with a notion of how the floor or ground is inferior. God said to the serpent when expelling it from Paradise, “Because thou hast done this thing, thou art cursed among all cattle and beasts of the earth: upon thy breast shalt thou go, and earth shalt thou eat all the days of thy life” (Gen. 3:14). The ground, therefore, is indicated as a place of chastisement, a place of inferior dignity.
Without a doubt, the least clean part of a house is the floor. Upon it are tracked all sorts of things that adhere to our shoes while we are outside the home. Why, then, when receiving friends or relatives, offer them the floor? It was always a norm of social behavior to honor those received into one’s home. Who could possibly believe that the floor honors our guests? Therefore, this habit of sitting on the floor implies that we have scant regard toward those who visit us. As the quality of the welcome we show our guests falls to the floor, so also does friendship automatically decline. And so also does the harmony among men.
Man’s dignity is not only made manifest in the distance between himself and that which is inferior and unclean. It is also expressed by the position of his body. Great social institutions always had bodily expressions proper to themselves that manifested the ideals of the institution. Suffice it to mention the postures proper to the military, under the different circumstances of service rendered to the country, or those of ecclesiastics during prayer. In both, the ideals of discipline and service are clearly expressed by posture.
Even amenities should be dignified and respectful. Otherwise, society is degraded. In a gathering of friends in which everyone is seated on the floor, it is especially difficult to maintain dignity. Bodily posture tends forcefully toward the prosaic, and although the prosaic exists in the life of every man, it should not be manifested in public, under the pain of degrading social relations.
The debate is open. The subject is far from exhausted. Objections may be raised against what was said above. If presented by our subscribers, we may deal with them on the web site in later articles. The usefulness of such discussion is immeasurable for everyone and their families.