Why the world's first story is about civility
Lessons on civility from The Epic of Gilgamesh, and an excerpt from my book, The Soul of Civility, being published in just THREE weeks
Exciting news: I received final hardcover copies of my book, The Soul of Civility: Timeless Principles to Heal Society and Ourselves, last week!
They are magnificent. I can’t wait for you to hold them in your hand.
There are so many details I can’t wait for you to see firsthand.
The subtle paint speckle, suggesting the unfinished nature of the joint project of friendship and human community of which we are each a part
The way that the olive branch—symbolizing peace, reconciliation, renewal—wraps around the binding onto the back of the book as well.
Even the color palette itself, which these photos do not do justice to, that suggest freshness and timelessness.
I just love it, and think you will, too.
It’s being published in just THREE weeks, on Oct 10th, 2023.
And don’t forget, as a thank you for ordering the book, I’m giving away $700 worth of FREE GIFTS for you to enjoy.
You can order the book and claim your gifts here, and they include:
A course: Four Civility Books that Will Change Your Life (a $350 value)
A toolkit: How to Talk to Anyone about Anything (a $47 value)
An ebook: Cultivating Curiosity (a $12 value)
Monthly calls with Alexandra Hudson and some of the most interesting and curious people of our day (a $250 value)
A free year of Civic Renaissance (a $70 value)
And with a purchase of 20+ copies, enjoy a private virtual workshop, a $5000 value
Order the book and claim these gifts here!
Why the world's first story is about civility: An excerpt from Chapter One of The Soul of Civility
Countless times each day, our lives are made more difficult by the incivility of others. We’re cut off in traffic. We’re demeaned or undermined by a colleague at work. Or, as television’s favorite curmudgeon Larry David might lament, someone thoughtlessly abuses their sampling privileges at the ice cream shop and holds up the line. Living in society requires that we consider others alongside ourselves. Despite this, we often don’t. We miss that our seemingly trivial decisions have big consequences for the survival and fate of our species.
Incivility is a serious problem because it threatens the stability and tranquility of social life. But it’s not a new one. It’s a timeless human problem that manifests in ways large and small, and is an ever-present danger to harmonious human community.
Understanding present challenges to civility requires us to step back in time to the cradle of civilization. The oldest story in the world, The Epic of Gilgamesh, offers clarity into what incivility is, and why it is such an obstinate part of human social life. It’s no coincidence that the world’s most ancient narrative offers insights into the fragility and promise of social relation- ships. Peaceful coexistence is central to the survival and happiness of our species, and is important to human communities in all times and places. Despite this, as important as civility is to the survival of the human race, we’ll learn in this chapter that the challenges to civility are surprisingly timeless. As we’ll discover in our next chapter, however, the solutions are equally as timeless.
Gilgamesh was part man, part god, king of the ancient Sumerian city of Uruk, and not exactly renowned for being the most civil of figures. He wreaked havoc on his city, and took grotesque delight in harming his citizens. The people of Uruk feared the caprice and whims of their ruler. Gilgamesh lived without regard for anyone else. He forced his citizens to build magnificent public buildings. He took what he wanted from whomever he wanted whenever he wanted—and was especially infamous for stealing “first night’s rights,” forcing himself on young women on their wedding night.
“Gilgamesh does not leave a girl to her mother, the daughter of the warrior, the bride of the young man,” as the Epic of Gilgamesh recounts the people of Uruk crying.
Citizens of Uruk pled with their gods for help. The gods heard their cries, and created Enkidu—a primal, hirsute, wild man whom they fashioned out of clay to defeat Gilgamesh and free the people of Uruk from his tyrannical, impulsive rule.
Enkidu arrived in Uruk and challenged Gilgamesh. The battle began, taking them up and down the streets of the city for days on end. The people of Uruk looked on in wonder and anxious anticipation: Who would win?
After a long, arduous fight, Enkidu surrendered, declaring Gilgamesh a warrior who could never be beaten. And then, the unthinkable happened. Enkidu offered kindness to the tyrant, an act which in turn transformed Gilgamesh from foe to friend. Anticipating Socrates, Enkidu vanquished his enemy by converting him to the good. Enkidu’s offer of friendship gave Gilgamesh the motivation to become a better person and king—and even an ideal hero. Enkidu’s friendship permanently changed Gilgamesh, who never again preyed on the weak and vulnerable of Uruk.
This story at the beginning of The Epic of Gilgamesh illuminates several important truths about the human condition. The narrative shows us why incivility always has been, and always will be, a problem for human communities in all times and places.
First, the human condition is defined by two competing forces: our love of others, and our love of self. We are an insatiably sociable species. We yearn to be in community together, yet our self-love—and our libido dominandi, or lust to dominate our fellow human beings—will always threaten the human social enterprise. Gilgamesh was ruler of the greatest city of his day—and yet he was ruled by his self-love and lust to dominate, resulting in his abuse of the most vulnerable among his citizens. Sometimes, when we allow our self-love to harm others, we reveal that a little bit of Gilgamesh resides within each of us. When we allow the Gilgamesh within to rear his ugly head, we undermine the social project.
Every day, we have a choice to make. Will we ennoble those around us with our tenderness and goodwill, or debase them with our callousness and cruelty? Only one of these options supports the joint project of human society. Only one option affirms and enhances our humanity, and that of those around us. In being a salve to his self-love and in harming others on a whim for his own delight, Gilgamesh also harmed himself. In disrespecting the dignity, autonomy, and personhood of those he abused, he made himself more monstrous and less human. His cruelty debased himself and corroded his own humanity. The same happens to us—our humaneness withers—in our cruelty and ungraciousness toward others.
Yet all hope was not lost. Grotesque though his actions were, Gilgamesh was not irredeemable. Enkidu’s offer of friendship converted Gilgamesh from his life of selfishness and domination to a life of self-sacrifice and heroism. Though Enkidu was defeated by Gilgamesh in battle, in the end Enkidu took his savage victor captive through harnessing the transformative power of relationship. We, too, can harness this power and bring about greater civility in our world.
Man is born in society . . . and there he remains.
—Montesquieu, eighteenth- century French philosopher, as quoted by eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher Adam Ferguson
From the beginning of our lives, we yearn for relationship with others. Our relationships give our lives richness and meaning. Our need for community motivates us to subjugate our self- ishness and will to dominate others so that we may enjoy the fruits of life with them. Friendship and community are also transformative. As Enkidu’s friendship motivated Gilgamesh to overcome his base nature, we can also harness and deploy the transformative power of kindness. Our conduct can be a force that motivates people to rise above their self-interest and thrive—become fully human—in relationship. There is a little bit of Gilgamesh within each of us that can undermine the social project if we let it. But there is also a bit of Enkidu within us all that can heal it.
[NOTE: if you enjoyed this excerpt from Chapter One of The Soul of Civility, please consider buying a copy now.
Claim your spot at the Civility Summit!
You are each invited to the Civility Summit that I’m planning, timed with my book’s launch.
You’re invited to join me in dialogue with some of the leading thinkers and practitioners of our day.
Cornel West, Chloé Simone Valdary, Russell Moore, Jonathan Haidt, David French, Kim Scott and many others.
Join me and these amazing people and reserve your spot at this FREE event.