Discover more from Civic Renaissance with Alexandra Hudson
Civility and civilization
A new book review of The Soul of Civility, Canadian Parliament book talk, and read to the end for a giveaway!
We live in barbaric, dehumanizing times. I wrote my book as the humanistic manifesto we need to navigate—and even flourish—amid our deeply divided moment.
With that in mind, I so enjoyed reading Dr. Michael Bonner’s recent review of my book. Bonner is the author of the acclaimed book, In Defense of Civilization: How Our Past Can Renew Our Present.
His review of The Soul of Civility came out in the print edition of The Dorchester Review, and I encourage you to read it here. (Not paywalled, but you must create a free account!)
He had wonderful things to say about my book, but took issue with my connection between civility and civilization.
We hear the word “civilization” tossed around a lot today, but what is civilization anyways?
The architecture of civilization: true vs. faux civilization
As I describe in my book, across history, the words “civility,” “civil society,” and “civilization” have been used interchangeably to describe a state of being opposite to that of “barbarism.” These words have often been weaponized to justify a society’s perceived superiority on the grounds of its cultural or infrastructural achievements and complexity.
People have long looked to such superficial things to judge other cultures as lesser, and distinguish themselves as better. But that is merely the “pursuit of luxury and a false civilization,” as Mirabeau wrote. The civilization of a nation is not located in impressive architecture or institutions. It is instead located in character of a people. It is the cumulative effect of individuals’ decisions to take the humanity of their fellow persons seriously.
Consider a modern ruler who tried to define his nation as a civilization through beautiful and extravagant national architecture. Saddam Hussein built over eighty ornate palaces across Iraq during his reign. He built one of his palaces in Babylon, where King Nebuchadnezzar II had built his vast palace of six hundred rooms as well as the famous hanging gardens of Babylon during the 7th century B.C. Saddam razed two thirds of the historic city to make the foundation for his new palace. He enlisted more than a thousand workers and had sixty million bricks made. Each brick was inscribed: “In the era of Saddam Hussein who rebuilt civilization, and who rebuilt Babylon.”
Iraq is the location of ancient Mesopotamia, the region of the world that housed the ancient civilizations of Sumer and Babylon, and which gave us The Epic of Gilgamesh. In building his palace on the site of ancient Babylon, Saddam’s aim was to redefine his empire as the new cradle of civilization. His misunderstood civilization as being composed of extravagant shows of power through beautiful buildings. Saddam showed himself to be a latter-day Gilgamesh: a leader of a community of people in the cradle of civilization, but a barbaric leader nonetheless. He failed to recognize that, in employing violence, murder, torture, and otherwise capricious abuses of power—not to mention his systematic persecution of vulnerable ethnic minorities—his reign would never be civilized nor the seat of true civilization.
Our desire to see ourselves, and people similar to us, as better than those around us—as Saddam sought to do with his architectural feats—is a perennial expression of human selfishness. The word “barbarism”—a term often weaponized toward the “other”—derives from the ancient Greek word barbaroi, meaning “all who are non-Greek.” The Greeks had the unfortunate habit of assuming that their language, customs, and culture were the most sophisticated in the world, and dismissing all other people groups not just culturally deficient, but also morally inferior.
The Greeks were far from the last people to “otherize” people who were different from them. We are all inclined to make such judgements about those who are different from us. We are all susceptible to preferring people to whom we are related and people we like, over people who are dissimilar to us, and who do not benefit us. These sentiments point to an important truth about civility: we have obligations to friends and to family, but we also have more general obligations to the rest of mankind, and civility helps us uphold our duties to the generalized other. True civility, true civil society, and true civilization are about our humaneness to our fellow persons, friends, family and strangers alike.
Civility obligates kindness in its literal sense: treating strangers and visitors with the benevolence with which we would treat our kin. The word “kind” is related to the word “kin,” as kin “kinship,” derived from the Old English word for “family,” “rank,” and “race.” Being kind, therefore, is treating a person with the benevolence one would if they were family, of the same class, or of the same ethnicity. Incivility and “barbarism” all consist of being hostile and cruel to the stranger, those in need, and to those who are powerless and unable to repay acts of kindness.
As Samuel Johnson said, “A decent provision for the poor is the true test of civilization.”
Within Dr. Johnson’s observation is embedded the way in which our everyday kindness—our every day civility—supports a true civilization.
Civilization begins with us.
DC and Canada book launch
Last week, we had a wonderful launch in Washington D.C. of The Soul of Civility at a lovely friend’s private home. Politics and Prose sold books at the event, and my friend, Daniel Lippman of Politico, interviewed me about the book.
Today is the official launch of the book in Canada! We’ll start the Canadian tour in Toronto, Canada, graciously hosted by the historic Albany Club. Anyone in the Toronto area who would like to celebrate, write me a note to get on the list!
Wednesday, I’m being hosted by Canadian Parliament in Ottawa, at the invitation of Member of Parliament Damien Kurek, to discuss The Soul of Civility, and the most important question of our day: how might we flourish across deep difference, even in these deeply divided times?
I’m excited to talk with Canada’s democratic representatives about how they can be part of the solution—and not part of the problem—when it comes to the hyper-partisanship that threatens so many modern democracies today.
And then, the evening of the 22nd, I’m being interviewed about the book as part of a public conversation at the Laurentian Leadership Center in Ottawa—where I lived while I was an intern in the Canadian Prime Minister’s office in 2013.
Here is the projected book tour schedule for 2024.
If you don’t see your city on the list, but would like to, write to me and let me know! email@example.com
Giveaway: Adam Grant’s Hidden Potential!
I’m giving away TEN copies of my new friend Adam Grant’s just released and bestselling book, Hidden Potential: The Science of Achieving Greater Things.
Adam’s book is aligned with my life’s work of cultivating our humanity and humaneness, and fostering a new civic and social and intellectual renaissance in our world today.
If you’d like to win a copy, write to me with the subject line Hidden Potential at firstname.lastname@example.org
Thank you for being part of the Civic Renaissance community!