Reviewing The Soul of Civility, by Alexandra Hudson
Thanksgiving is an ideal time to read a book on civility—and not just because of the now all-too-familiar worries about political arguments derailing the holiday dinner. Rather, civility itself is fundamentally about gratitude—gratitude for one another and for the community that brings us together. That is a timely and timeless lesson of Alexandra Hudson’s delightful new book, The Soul of Civility.
“[T]here is a fundamental difference between civility and politeness,” she writes. Politeness is about outward conduct, “but civility is more.” It is the internal “motivation behind our conduct that sees other persons as our moral equals and worthy of basic respect . . . a disposition that recognizes and respects the common humanity, the fundamental personhood, and the inherent dignity of other human beings.”
From that starting point, Hudson traces civility back to mankind’s earliest writings, and then forward to classical and modern authors. She finds civility among the themes of The Epic of Gilgamesh, for example, and in the writings of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. She finds it in philosophers’ accounts of how to live with oneself, and with one another.
On the latter point, she connects civility’s value in our relationships to its value in sustaining democracy writ large.
That is sometimes an easy point to overlook today. Under our Constitution’s system of checks and balances, where Madison knew that “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition,” it’s easy to assume that political argument and competition will sort everything out. But Madison also emphasized that our system needs more: it needs certain republican virtues. “Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form of government,” he emphasized.
Hudson sees the same in her study of civility. Our Constitution’s formal institutions protect us from much, but “by themselves [they] are insufficient for a free and flourishing society.” They can prevent the worst abuses of power, but day-to-day democracy needs more:
To avoid government overreach, we need informal cultural norms of self-governance and self-sacrifice—norms that encourage honesty, demonstrate trustworthiness, and promote consideration of the needs and well-being of our fellow citizens. Formal institutions, such as laws and courts, can promote the selflessness needed for social living. But it’s up to us to sustain it.
Hudson explores civility’s role in civil society, in American equality, in tolerance, and even in civil disobedience. And she offers countless examples of civility in practice, to inspire our own rededication to it, with lessons for hospitality (from Homer’s Odyssey and Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, no less), for education, and for forgiveness.
Through all of it, Hudson’s account of philosophy, history, and American life brought me back to the same theme: “republican.” A republican politics—in the “small-r” sense—is one that begins with the understanding that “all men are created equal,” and thus our politics is one in which all of us begin with equal dignity, equal rights, and the equal responsibilities of citizenship. It recognizes that each of us has rights and powers, but also duties; and that all of us are contributing to a communal project of self-government. And like Hudson’s civility, which is not simply about outward conduct but truly about internal thoughts and temperament, republican self-government requires not just rules and procedures, but also fundamental commitments and virtues that must be cultivated and preserved.
A few years ago, Judge Raymond Kethledge co-wrote an excellent book titled Lead Yourself First; as I noted at the time, his lessons for self-improvement were actually lessons for self-government in both senses of the term. Alexandra Hudson’s The Soul of Civility achieves a similar feat: in teaching the virtues of civility, she really points us toward civic virtue. Such reminders are needed now more than ever.
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