‘In Pursuit of Civility: Manners and Civilization in Early Modern England’ by Keith Thomas – review

In Pursuit of Civility: Manners and Civilization in Early Modern EnglandIn Pursuit of Civility: Manners and Civilization in Early Modern England by Keith Thomas

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


We live in an age of casual manners that would alarm the folks who still remember when letters and rotary telephones were the prime means of communication, not to speak of those in days of yore. But the leniency of manners is not a thing of our age, but it has been constant of every age as a note faintly scribbled on a tablet discovered in an ancient Roman archaeological site reveals, “Today’s kids are rude imps.” Which also brings us to the ensuing questions of what defines civility. Does civility equate submissiveness with anachronistic fogyism and therefore must be overruled with unrelenting individualism? Keith Thomas’s In pursuit of civility delves into the history of civility in England in an attempt to reach the subjectivity of civility as a universal social cohesion to live harmoniously as citizens of the world.

Civility is a tacitly agreed social duty, a state of refinement equivalent to one’s moral character that subsumes civilization in its widest sense, opposite barbarism, a primordial state of beastliness dispossessed of all things antonymous with humanity. Originally derived from the Greek word, “barbarous,” meaning a person whose speech was incomprehensible, a dichotomy between the civilized and the barbarian has retained its rhetorical utility throughout the centuries: Civility is of good manner and good citizenship, whereas barbarianism denotes vulgarity, ignorance, and violence. Thomas discourses that civility as the crucial index of a country’s social harmony and political stability has set a template for a leviathan module of defining civilization, the end product of cultural, moral, and material condition of the civilizing process. That is, where civility reigns, there is civilization and therefore humanity. For civility sprang from a necessity of communal life rather than from an abstract ideology to subjugate the unseemly at the low rungs of the social ladder. Surely, the aristocrats refined a distinctive code of manners as the merit of the elites to distinguish themselves from the melee, but in a wider picture of a society, civility was a must to make all lives easier to live as they, especially the middle class and the working class, strove to progress by being interdependent of each other for economic gains. Thomas points out that intensive labor raised people above rude and sordid barbarism and begets arts by which human life is civilized because productive, labor-driven industry is the bedrock of civility from which economic, artistic, and intellectual benefits ensue.

Thomas unpicks that nowadays politeness is synonymous with effeminacy, acquiescence, servility, foppishness, kowtowing, even, as opposed to the fierce slogan of “equality to all.” Politeness is politically and socially and liberally misconstrued as a weakness of character or diffidence of self-esteem or an exotic cultural custom. People misidentify politeness, a set of good behaviors as servility because they are foolishly led to a belief that politeness is an anachronistically incoherent legacy of the racist conservative history of the past that they must thwart with full force and effect. However, Thomas benevolently keeps us in a positive light in this vacuum of civility by saying that what we have these days is “a new and more equal form of civility,” which indicates that we as a collective human enterprise is not retrogressing but progressing toward the better future if we understand that civility is as important in an egalitarian society as in a hierarchical one by learning to disagree without being disagreeable. All in all, this is a highly informative read accessible to the general reader who regards politeness as sweetness of the mind and who extends it to all humankind as a citizen of the world.

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