Civility and Its Discontents

A satirical lithograph of Englishmen learning to bow in an etiquette course taught by the French, 1817
Alphonse Roehn/British Museum
A satirical lithograph of Englishmen learning to bow in an etiquette course taught by the French, 1817

“Civility,” Keith Thomas notes in this absorbing book, “was (and is) a slippery and unstable word.” “Civil” and “civilian” evoke the social life of a people not under military rule, the world of the civitas—the organized community—the only place, according to Aristotle and Cicero, where the good life is possible. While “courtesy” relates to the values of the court, “civility,” Thomas writes, is “the virtue of citizens”: in his Dictionary (1755), Samuel Johnson defined it as both “politeness” and “the state of being civilized.” Thomas explores the understanding and use of the term in England from 1500 to 1800, when it referred both to manners in daily life and manners as mores: the customs and attitudes of the allegedly civilized nation as a whole.

In its wider sense, the ideal of civility was orderly government, with a populace accepting its laws and prescribed moral standards as well as adhering to the hierarchical structure of society and the strict but subtle dictates of class and decorum (the chief one being “know your place”). In Britain, “civil government” reflected the interests of the moneyed classes: the protection of private property and the value of trustworthiness, essential for a credit-based economy. In time, the idea of civility also came to embrace an interest in the arts and sciences, and—at least in theory—religious toleration, open debate, and the freedom to disagree.

Beyond civility, which entailed living peaceably together in “quietness, concord, agreement, fellowship, and friendship,” as the Elizabethan schoolmaster Richard Mulcaster put it, lay the more nebulous term “civilization.” Its meaning of a total culture had hardly entered the language by the mid-eighteenth century. Instead, throughout the period covered by Thomas’s book, it more often implied a process, like education. As such, the “civilizing” mission, directed against so-called barbarians, could be used to justify oppression and violence, in Britain and abroad.

Since classical times, “barbarism” had been presented as the opposite to “civility.” To the Greeks the barbaroi, non-Greek speakers, not only lacked linguistic skills but also moral qualities—they were cruel and intemperate. The Romans, fearing barbarians at the gates, also considered the tribes outside their empire brutal and uncultured. In medieval Europe, the division shifted to encompass differences of faith: the opposition, in Chaucer’s words, between “christendom and hethennesse.” The religious definition—the barbarian as pagan—lingered on, combined with a more general sense of barbarism as “rude,” “wild,” “uncultured” behavior. But in every case, across the ages, “civility” is where the speaker stands: the barbarians are those who are not “us.”

By exploring these polarities, Thomas paints an extraordinary picture of the values and social relationships of Britain, specifically of England, and moves outward to…

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