‘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.

Equality vs Civility

Re: July 21, 2018 issue of The Los Angeles Times on “Paramount TV President fired over comments” by Ryan Faughnder

The article surfaced on the last Saturday’s edition of the paper in tandem with #MeToo movement that had gone viral in the Cyber Sea of Internet. The incident reported in the article illustrates a current phenomena that became all the rage by a willful destruction of a bete noir character whose strong, offbeat views and opinions irked some of the audience in their circles. The gist of the article relates a grave disregard for the principle of civility and a hackneyed understanding/conception of equality – i.e., what constitutes Equality in its pristine essence – by putting the case on the balancing scale of Lady Justice.

Amy Powell was fired following her inappropriate comments made on the upcoming series of “the First Wives Club,” which is expected to feature a predominantly black cast. During a phone call discussing the project, Powell was allegedly said to make stereotypical comments on blacks, especially black women’s being pugnacious. This incident came to light, thanks to a studio assistant’s eavesdropping of the phone conversation and reporting thereof to the department of Human Resources forthwith. Powell denied the out-of-context allegation and said she would be vindicated.

In fact, the ousting of Powell was followed by a series of bloodcutting of the business tycoons along the lines of their allegedly racially motivated faux-pas unearthed from within. Take Netflix’s firing of its chief communications officer for using a racial slur on two occasions. Also, John Schnatter, the America’s number one pizza chain Papa John’s International Inc Chairman, was forced to step down from the company that he founded and grew with sweat and blood after the acerbic and acrid public accusation of him as a racist all because of his comments on the black footballers’ inappropriate behaviors during the national anthem. The aforementioned companies expressed their concerns over such incidents because what they had said were not in line with their values as companies and therefore were detrimental to esprit de corps of the companies. They said in harmony that the salubrious and comfortable work environments should take priority over individual contributions and experiences consummate their capabilities and other personal assets.

Notwithstanding the above statements made by the companies and their measure of justice to enforce a total domain of equality to create salubrious working ambiance, the gravitas of misappropriation of equality and the absence of civility in our society looms large in the imbroglio of incivility and distortion of liberty at its best. With respect to equality of human condition, of course it is among the greatest and most uncertain ventures of modern mankind. However, we have bastardized its pristine nature and the meaning of the sovereign privilege of mankind by applying to just any and all aspects of our contemporary life ad nauseam. The more equal conditions are, the less explanation there is for the differences that actually exist between us. Equality will simply be recognized as a working principle of a political organization in which you are normal if you are like everybody else, and vice versa. It is the perversion of equality from a sacred sovereign value into a mere social concept, politically influenced, conditioned, and shaped by a great social Leviathan vested with all the power to persecute all abnormal you.

Speaking of the importance of civility, the elimination of the aforesaid individuals contextualizes just how the society in general mistakes incivility for racialism. It’s about a lack of courtesies generated by the informalization of civility in the sense of benevolence and respect for others. It’s the manners that take place of the gaps left by the law. For example, there’s no law against cutting a line or importuning of a panhandler to customers in a coffee shop. And this is where a role of civility comes in. Civility in essence is about strangers being able to live a communal life in society. It’s about being able to disagree without being disagreeable, as Obama once said wisely. And just as this presence of incivility takes a heavy toll on keeping the society in an orderly system, our society should endeavor to educate the citizenry on the subject of public civility instead of prompting the public to eavesdrop their coworkers or colleagues and encouraging them to inform their colleagues on the ground of racialism that may not be objectively true because reality is always another way of looking at the world in multifarious ways.