Book Review: The Virtue of Civility

The age-old struggle between the individual and society is not merely a question for political philosophy. This struggle results in a personal virtue, civility, the mean between regarding oneself too much and regarding others too much. This virtue is the subject of Alexandra Hudson’s new book from St. Martin’s Press, The Soul of Civility: Timeless Principles to Heal Society and Ourselves.

Civility is the disposition to serve both oneself and society rightly—in the right ways, to the right extent, and for the right reasons—in each social situation. In this regard, civility is a practical civic virtue. Taken broadly, it encompasses all social and civic situations, including situations that might seem to call for virtues with different names, such as courage.

But commonly, we refer to civility in terms of mid-level social situations. In other words, family life and deep friendship require stronger, thicker dispositions and actions (such as love), while everyday economic interactions require no more than instrumental politeness. Civility flourishes in that middle ground where people should be able to genuinely enjoy one another’s company.

It’s nice to be nice, but Hudson insists that mere politeness—especially when it means following rules of social conduct rather than actively respecting another person—is not a virtue. Too often, such rules serve to divide the people who follow them from those who don’t, rather than reflecting any longstanding tradition about genuine respect.

To get to the core of this virtue, Hudson finds writers everywhere and in every time—from ancient Egypt to Chinese and Indian civilizations to Benjamin Franklin to contemporary Americans—observing the same fact about human nature. That fact is that in the tension between self-regard and regard for others, people overwhelmingly err on the side of self-aggrandizement. As a result, writers ubiquitously counsel readers to sacrifice some bit of ourselves so that we give others their due. Humility, curiosity about others, education, and experience of beauty and the sublime, she notes, all draw us outward.

Aristotle is where the West goes for the first major systematic treatment of ethics, and we find similar counsel there. In trying to reach the mean, we read in Book II of the Nicomachean Ethics, we should note the side on which we tend to err in order to pull ourselves to the mean.

Therefore, what’s missing most from Hudson’s book is what’s missing from the vast majority of authors on civility: the opposite vice, namely, failing to stand up for ourselves. Selfishness rightly understood—civility rightly understood—means promoting one’s own values not just when others disagree but even when it means putting oneself first.

Hudson sees around this corner in the area of nonviolent civil disobedience in the tradition of Gandhi and King. Civility means, for instance, standing firm for universal human rights even when it means breaking the law. Mere politeness, smoothing over our differences, is inconsistent with necessary social change.

This is all to the good. Yet, it is not enough. Sometimes a person should pull himself back from overemphasizing the common good at the expense of individual fulfillment. To put oneself first when circumstances require it, or to properly balance one’s own needs and wants against those of others, one normally must go to self-help books—not books on etiquette or civility, nor Hudson’s book. To get help with the self-confidence needed to pursue one’s own goals, which is the other side of true civility, we need more of an Ayn Rand building on Aristotle’s virtue of self-love rightly understood in Book IX of the Ethics.

In other words, the mean involves seeing oneself as an end in oneself while also seeing each other person as an end in himself. Due respect for oneself and due respect for others is the way.

I like the formulation I once read in a travel guide about Japan: Once met, best met. That is, put forward your best version of yourself when you meet with someone, even if that’s the only time you’ll meet.

Where Hudson, perhaps, improves upon Aristotle is by summing up the various social virtues as a single disposition called civility. Here’s Aristotle, back in Book II, discussing a couple of civic virtues:

In respect of pleasantness and social amusement, the middle character is witty and the middle disposition Wittiness; the excess is Buffoonery and its possessor a buffoon; the deficient man may be called boorish, and his disposition Boorishness. In respect of general pleasantness in life, the man who is pleasant in the proper manner is friendly, and the observance of the mean is Friendliness; he that exceeds, if from no interested motive, is obsequious, if for his own advantage, a flatterer; he that is deficient, and unpleasant in all the affairs of life, may be called quarrelsome and surly.

But I think Hudson’s perspective makes more sense. These are social virtues. The buffoon and the boor, the flatterer and the irascible, have in common that quirk of indulgence at the expense of others. From this perspective, they all are too self-regarding, while that vice is expressed in different ways. The virtue is to enjoy oneself in such conversations while working to ensure that everyone else enjoys themselves too.

Again, by focusing so much on the vice of self-aggrandizement, Aristotle (and Hudson) may be leaving out the opposite vice. In the area of wittiness, the person deficient in self-regard is afraid to talk or risk a joke and remains silent. In the area of friendliness, the person deficient in self-regard may frequently tell herself that she doesn’t measure up to deserve an equal place in the conversation.

Aristotle’s treatment of courage does not quite reach the social courage that is missing in these situations. Hudson gets close to filling this gap when she turns to practical advice. Her treatment of Braver Angels, a program that helps people practice conversations about contentious issues, shows that standing up for oneself is within her definition.

Hudson is also a Christian, so another way she describes civility is as an expression of love for one’s neighbor. As a Christian myself, that works for me, though again this love is not the same as the additional, legitimate love of one’s own expressed for family and deeper friends. Ultimately, for civility it is probably enough to have a Kantian philosophical respect for each person as an end in himself.

A reader might be tempted to say that this book is like civility itself: wide, but not deep. After all, Hudson acknowledges, all of these writers throughout time and across the world are pretty much saying the same thing: get over yourself to get along genuinely with others. Any 50 pages of the book will pretty much get the same point across. But criticizing the book for presenting this impressive parade of agreeing writers would be a mistake. Loving one’s neighbor, living out a norm of equality and respect for all people, and working every day against human nature are deep enough goals for a lifetime. The fact that so many writers say so does not make it superficial to say the same.

Furthermore, it is no small feat to digest and restate the work of ancients and moderns across several civilizations in such a readable, clear presentation. If you like Mortimer Adler’s style, you’ll appreciate Hudson’s balance of erudition with straightforward prose.

Finally, it is refreshing to read a book that recognizes the incivility of our age without seeing our generation as all that much different from other moments in human history. Hudson recognizes that new technologies have given us new ways to practice the virtue or its related vices, but the chronicler of Gilgamesh would not be surprised about how we treat one another through our new tools.

The making of many books on civility will never end. That’s probably because incivility is so annoying, and human nature doesn’t naturally get the balance right. Each of us needs help getting there. The Soul of Civility provides much of that help.

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4 thoughts on “Book Review: The Virtue of Civility

  1. We are a society of individuals that mark changes in our society with dialogue and discussion, often times somewhat less than polite. A collectivist country cares more for harmony and minimizing conflict.

    I’ve always felt that through conflict comes resolution… no matter whose feelings are hurt.

    1. There is a place for “good trouble” — agree that the virtue often requires it (while other times calling for peace). Lucky for me that I cause a lot of good trouble.

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