The Reading Room
Review: The Soul of Civility
Review of: Alexandra Hudson, The Soul of Civility: Timeless Principles to Heal Society and Ourselves (St. Martin’s Press, 2023)
What does it mean to be civil? We can’t discuss whether civility is a virtue unless we know what we mean by “civility.” In her new book, Alexandra Hudson goes to great lengths to define civility, and argues that it is indeed a virtue, both in the personal and social sense. Individually, virtues are characteristics which people develop which are conducive to their leading a better life, and Hudson thinks civility is one of these. But further, she argues that a civil society – meaning a society in which there is a lot of civility – will be a more functional society, one where people live together with fewer conflicts, greater trust, and increased opportunities for cooperation.
One recurring theme in the book is that we should differentiate civility from politeness. In colloquial usage they are often seen interchangeably, but Hudson makes a compelling case for the two being different in important ways. For one thing, what counts as politeness varies from culture to culture, and from time to time within a given culture. But Hudson argues that civility is universal, and transcends cultural differences. To support this contention, she surveys works from many times and many cultures: ancient Egypt, Sumeria, China, the ancient Middle East, Greece, India, medieval Europe, the Islamic world, Renaissance Europe, native America, and early colonial America. Hudson demonstrates that despite the many cultural differences separating all of these, there are indeed transtemporal and transcultural ideas for ways of relating to others that have been recommended since 2400 BCE.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, Hudson points out that politeness can be a mask. She relates several examples of people being polite or nice merely to manipulate others, to achieve their own ends. She describes a weaponized politeness which is deliberately designed to exclude or marginalize others, curtail genuine disagreement, and exploit people’s weaknesses. She contrasts this with ways of dealing with people that are based on genuine respect for the equal personhood and dignity of others – this, she calls civility. This has obvious implications for a pluralistic society: whereas superficial politeness norms might require us to avoid discussing substantial moral and political issues, civility means that we take the other seriously – meaning that we show respect for the other by taking the disagreement seriously, and in many cases should have the discussion.
Hudson notes, following Augustine, that while humans have a capacity for empathy and love, we are also prone to a lust for domination of others. She argues that this impulse can make other people seem like mere objects to be used for our own purposes. But the right way to regard other people, she says, is recognizing our common humanity and respecting the inherent worth and dignity of others. Civility, then, is operationalizing that respect in our social dealings.
One needn’t be an Augustinian to recognize that the “libido dominandi” is a common foible, and it’s certainly true that much that is bad in the world comes from people seeking to control and use others. That’s perfectly compatible with politeness, as Hudson points out with many examples. Civility, on the other hand, “helps us properly channel our self-love and cultivate our social natures…[and] demands that we treat with respect those who we do not like, those who are not like us, those we do not need favors from…” (p. 39-40). It’s clear that the more people in a society who cultivate civility, the more that society will facilitate cooperative and peaceful interactions, and the more that society will avail itself of real public discourse.
Hudson discusses the ways in which civility helps – and is cultivated through – education, hospitality, tolerance, citizenship, and even civil disobedience. Her sources include Ptahotep, the epic of Gilgamesh, the Bhagavad-Gita, the Bible, Plato and Aristotle and the Stoics, Erasmus, Augustine, Aquinas, Mohammed, Confucius, William Penn, Martin Luther King, Jr., and too many others to enumerate here. (Despite the breadth of scholarship, the book is aimed at the general reader and the writing is clear and engaging.) But the point of this diverse array of sources is to reinforce the contention of the book’s subtitle – that the principles she advocates are timeless, and in any case not parochial. She makes a compelling case that the attitudes she recommends would make us happier and more civil, and that this in turn can make the world a better place.
In the real world, politicians tend to exploit the libido dominandi of others in order to enhance their own power. There’s no obvious institutional way to change that. But Hudson’s point is that what each one of us is capable of doing is changing our own character. Each person can decide to have a different attitude towards others, one of respect as opposed to utility. Each person can cultivate virtues, including that of civility. Again, a virtue is a characteristic a person can develop which is more conducive to that person’s flourishing. So we have every reason to strive for this regardless of whether we’re successful at making the world a better place. But maybe, just maybe, we would thereby make the world a better place.