Liberal Education and the Civil Character: Civility Demands That There Be Something Higher Than Politics or Else Society Will Be Shaped Only by the Will to Power

By Hartle, Ann | Modern Age, Summer 2018 | Go to article overview

Liberal Education and the Civil Character: Civility Demands That There Be Something Higher Than Politics or Else Society Will Be Shaped Only by the Will to Power


Hartle, Ann, Modern Age


Over the past few decades, we have heard repeated calls for greater civility in our public life. At the same time, the demand for greater civility is often exposed as the mask for an attempt to silence one's opponents and to shut down free speech. Both things are true: civility has declined, and in some cases accusing one's opponent of incivility is a way to silence him.

Attempts to reconcile the practice of civility with the right of free speech increasingly lead in fact to restrictions on speech that are supposed to protect everyone--or at least certain groups--from being offended. This is especially so on college campuses. Precisely where one might expect the greatest freedom of speech, "safe spaces" and "trigger warnings" are now the norm.

The conflict between civility and free speech cannot be resolved by any code of conduct or speech. The clash of my right to free speech and your right not to be offended leads to an impasse that is impossible to resolve on the level of rights. The impasse reveals our confusion over what civility is and what it is not. Civility is not a code of conduct but a virtue, a moral character that cannot be reduced to rules.

If we wish to understand what civility is, we need to see it in its origins, its emergence as a new moral character at the beginning of the modern era. This character was first given expression in the Essays of Michel de Montaigne. Civility is actually the overcoming of the will to power, the natural desire to dominate others, not a mask for covering over that natural political attitude. Without civility, there is only the will to power. And in order for civility to exist, there must be something higher, more important, than politics.

Civility does not appear among the moral virtues that Aristotle discusses in the Nicomachean Ethics. Beginning with courage and ending with the comprehensive political virtue of justice, Aristotle sets out the moral character that is desirable for political life. In book 1, he makes it clear that politics is the master science of the human good. The moral virtues, then, must be understood in relation to political life.

Not all forms of human association are "political" in the strict sense. Political relationships are ultimately concerned with the just and the unjust and with ruling and being ruled within the context of justice. Political association exists for the sake of the common good, and the common good is justice.

Aristotle sets forth what we might call a very strong notion of the common good. We tend to use that term rather loosely, but what Aristotle has in mind is a good that can only be pursued in common (not simply a good that we all as individuals happen to want, for example, food and shelter). The common good is justice, and justice is the virtue that in some sense includes the other virtues. The closest that Aristotle comes to the virtue of civility is what he calls "like-mindedness." This, he says, is "political friendship": "To the extent that people share in community, there is friendship, since to this extent there is also what is just."

Cities are like-minded "whenever people are of the same judgment concerning what is advantageous, choose the same things, and do what has been resolved in common." The six regimes discussed in Aristotle's Politics are judged to be good or bad, just or unjust, according to the standard of the common good. And this standard persisted in political life and political philosophy through the Middle Ages.

It is this standard that modern political philosophy, beginning with Machiavelli, rejects. Machiavelli points toward the idea of civility in a term that he invented, "the civil principality." But it is Michel de Montaigne who is the first to present us with a portrait of the civil character in his essays, a genre that he himself invented as the expression of this character.

Like Machiavelli, Montaigne rejects the standard of the common good. …

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