The Virtue of Civility: Selected Essays on Liberalism, Tradition, and Civil Society

By Sirico, Robert A. | Freeman, August 1998 | Go to article overview

The Virtue of Civility: Selected Essays on Liberalism, Tradition, and Civil Society


Sirico, Robert A., Freeman


After decades of interest groups aggressively asserting their "rights," often gained only at the expense of others, our political culture is starting to take notice of the notion of "civility." The left identifies the word with a plea that greater respect be given politicians and their programs, while the right demands more civility as a means of reining in individuality and freedom of expression in new modes of technology, like the Internet. Both perspectives overlook an older and more robust notion of civility that does not force a choice between individuality and the community. It is the classically liberal idea of civility as a concern for the interests of "private" authority and order, such as the family, religious institutions, clubs and community organizations, and the market economy itself. It is this notion of civility-its meaning, history, and application to our current political and cultural setting-that is so brilliantly explored in this collection of essays by sociologist Edward Shils.

The process of recapturing the classically liberal idea of civility and the common good began in 1989 with Michael Novak's monumental treatise, Free Persons and the Common Good. While Novak presented the intellectual backdrop to an idea of the common good (a civic concern) that accords with liberty, Shils picks up the task of reconstructing the intellectual history of the decline of liberalism from the early part of this century and applying the older notion of civility to the contemporary political setting. From his survey, we learn that liberalism contains within itself what Shils calls antinomies, parallel truths that can never be fully reconciled.

Defense of the rights of individuals is central to the idea of liberty, but so is support for community attachment. Suspicion of power is crucial to maintaining liberty, but respect for law is a cornerstone of society. Love of certain traditions must be maintained in a liberal society, but detachment from them is a means of social progress. Shils argues that these antinomies within liberalism, among others, help explain how American liberals went from heralding market relationships and entrepreneurial opportunities to restricting them by means of state power.

Shils distinguishes two types of liberalism ascendant in this century, neither of which satisfy his plea for civil liberalism. The first is "autonomist" liberalism. The supporters of this view once appreciated the importance of a market economy, but when the notion of scientific social planning was introduced in the Progressive Era, they came to believe that science and reason could be used as a means of bringing about the social progress that was originally behind their support for the market economy. …

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