Kensington, MD. In a memorable English class I took back in my undergraduate days, my professor once suggested that Shakespeare had profound respect for the humanity of individuals but was suspicious of the morality of mobs. If I recall correctly, she offered this sentiment in response to our reading of Julius Caesar. In the third act of that famous play, a Roman horde brutally murdered a hapless bystander called Cinna the Poet. Cinna, who had the misfortune of sharing the same name with one of the reviled assassins of Julius Caesar, was torn limb from limb—even after the mob recognized that this particular Cinna was not one of the conspirators. When Cinna desperately informed the gang that he was a poet uninvolved in the assassination, one among them shouted, “Tear him for his bad verses, tear him for his bad verses.”
Naturally, Shakespeare did not live to see the Internet and the rise of social media. But his warnings about the viciousness of crowds seems all-the-more apt in the context of Twitter/X and Instagram. These days untold numbers of people—even teachers, professors, and religious leaders—expend much of their energy publicly bullying and ridiculing others on social media, chiefly for the sin of holding divergent political views. Like Shakespeare’s plebian mob, they enjoy ganging up on their prey, even when their victims may not be guilty of the imagined thoughtcrimes. Purveyors of torment and misery, these individuals undoubtedly champion themselves as morally upright, stalwart defenders of unassailable ideological views who conceive of their hectoring as the commendable defense of righteousness.
It’s no wonder, then, that incivility appears to be a chronic problem in the contemporary world, an omnipresent blight that renders it more difficult for us to live together and respect our common humanity. But, as Alexandra Hudson demonstrates in her thoughtful and morally serious new book The Soul of Civility: Timeless Principles to Heal Society and Ourselves, incivility is as old as humanity itself and has always endangered our ability to flourish personally and communally. As Hudson starkly—and justly—notes towards the start of her book, new technologies “are not the root cause of our era’s challenge with civility.” On the contrary: “We are.” In an introduction and twelve refreshingly broad chapters, Hudson tackles a variety of crucial topics—integrity, social equality, polarization, hospitality, and others—and provides a passionate plea for civility as the key enabler of comity and happiness.
A major theme in the book is the distinction Hudson draws between civility and politeness. Attuned to some of the recent scholarly literature on the subject (one thinks, for example, of the political theorist Teresa Bejan’s excellent monograph Mere Civility), Hudson notes that civility and politeness are often viewed as synonyms. Nothing could be farther from the truth, she ventures. On the contrary, as Hudson stresses throughout her book, “Civility is a disposition, a way of seeing others as being endowed with dignity and inherently valuable. Politeness, by contrast, is a technique: it is decorum, mores, and etiquette. It can be good or ill depending on a person’s inner motivation.” The ire many contemporary activists display at the purported use of civility rhetoric to muzzle critics should be directed at politeness instead. “Civility never silences or steamrolls,” Hudson writes. “In putting the dignity of the other person front and center, it instead seeks to listen and learn.” Ultimately, The Soul of Civility amounts to an urgent series of reflections on the necessity of civility in our uncivil times and a guidebook on how it can enable human and societal flourishing.
The book is deliciously expansive in its approach to its subject. Not one to confine herself to minute issues, Hudson ranges widely in her references. The Soul of Civility tackles texts and authors as disparate as The Epic of Gilgamesh, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, the Mahabharata, and Erasmus’s A Handbook on Good Manners for Children. Even a variety of movies and television shows are grist for Hudson’s mill; the book dilates on such works as the Netflix series Inventing Anna and the Oscar-winning film Babbette’s Feast. She also leavens her narrative with anecdotes from her life. The book’s origin, for example, stemmed from her challenging experiences as a politico in Washington, DC, where she recognized that many of her colleagues employed a superficial politeness as a means to control others and advance their own interests.
Fundamentally a work of journalism, The Soul of Civility may raise some hackles among academics who encounter it. Humanities professors in particular may scoff at the book’s potted summaries of various thinkers in world history, its generous smattering of pull quotes and inspirational sayings, and its chapter-ending action items for readers who aim to use the book’s lessons to enrich their own lives. How, the academic specialist may wonder, can we take seriously a text that covers so much ground and in such readable prose?
But this would be a flippant response to a consequential book. Although not advertised as a contribution to academic scholarship, The Soul of Civility tackles fundamental concerns about the human condition with a forthrightness and seriousness of purpose so often lacking in the writings of contemporary professors. Through her capacious references to novels, poems, histories, philosophical texts, and religious tomes, Hudson implicitly demonstrates the value of great humanistic works to help us grapple with the frailties and imperfections inherent in the human condition. Although she wears her learning lightly, Hudson takes us on a truncated tour of manifold thinkers—some canonical, others not—and demonstrates the ways in which such authors can help us navigate the pitfalls of incivility and its malignant effects on human beings. The Soul of Civility thus provides its readers with a laundry list of works for those who aim to explore the topic of civility beyond the confines of Hudson’s monograph.
In her introduction, Hudson calls The Soul of Civility “a humanistic manifesto.” And she’s right: the book is steeped in humanism, in more ways than one. First, Hudson underscores the profound potential of humanistic texts, from a variety of human civilizations, to pinpoint the thorniest problems of human existence and to help readers contemplate how best to address them. Unlike so many mountains of academic scholarship, which focus on arcana and remain inaccessible to all but a narrow segment of self-vaunted specialists, Hudson ably underscores the humane significance of boatloads of literary, historical, religious, and philosophical works. The Soul of Civility is thus a clarion call for a genuinely humanistic form of education—a call especially vital in our age of short-sighted careerism.
What’s more, Hudson is a humanist by temperament and conviction. Throughout her book, she stresses the duality of human nature. All human beings, Hudson argues, are cleft between selfishness (Augustine’s libido dominandi) and a concern for others. From time immemorial, seminal thinkers in disparate cultures have recognized that civilization is delicate and depends upon our ability to restrain our lower natures. Like many great humanists before her, Hudson underscores the constancy of human nature, the fragility of civil society, and the cardinal importance of self-restraint for the maintenance of an irenic and humane polity. Although by no means discounting the social and economic factors that can cause misery, she believes that much suffering and injustice has its roots in the human heart. If we fail to live up to our higher natures, we’ll be unable to live together in peace and happiness.
As should not prove surprising in a book of such breadth, one does occasionally hope for a fuller treatment of issues that The Soul of Civility deals with only in passing. Channeling Plato’s Socrates, for example, Hudson maintains that people guilty of incivility do greater harm to themselves than to their victims. “Those who dehumanize or debase others, and do whatever it takes to succeed,” she opines, “are hurting themselves the most.” Perhaps due to a misplaced desire for cosmic justice, I desperately want that sentiment to be true, but I worry that it’s a manifestation of excessive optimism on Hudson’s part. An argument backing up that claim would have been especially welcome. In her chapter on education, furthermore, Hudson fails to distinguish adequately between the Greek conceptions of paideia and philanthropia and the Roman idea of humanitas. Her discussion of the contemporary classical education movement also seems rushed, without much focus on essential matters such as the sort of curriculum requisite to instill a sense of civility in the young.
But these are quibbles. A book as rich and plentiful as The Soul of Civility can’t expatiate on everything. Hudson’s work is a humanist manifesto for our times—one that could have a beneficial influence on our lives today, if only people will take its urgent message to heart.
Image credit: “The Porteous Mob” by James Drummond via Wikimedia Commons