A New Statesman Best Book of the Year
A Church Times Book of the Year
We are facing a crisis of civility, a war of words polluting our public sphere. In liberal democracies committed to tolerating active, often heated disagreement, the loss of this virtue appears critical.
Most modern appeals to civility follow arguments by Hobbes or Locke by proposing to suppress disagreement or exclude views we deem “uncivil” for the sake of social harmony. By comparison, mere civility—a grudging conformity to norms of respectful behavior—as defended by Rhode Island’s founder, Roger Williams, might seem minimal and unappealing. Yet Teresa Bejan argues that Williams’s outlook offers a promising path forward in confronting our own crisis, one that challenges our fundamental assumptions about what a tolerant—and civil—society should look like.
“Penetrating and sophisticated.”
—James Ryerson, New York Times Book Review
“Would that more of us might learn to look into the past with such gravity and humility. We might end up with a more (or mere) civil society, yet.”
—Los Angeles Review of Books
“A deeply admirable book: original, persuasive, witty, and eloquent.”
—Jacob T. Levy, Review of Politics
“A terrific book—learned, vigorous, and challenging.”
—Alison McQueen, Stanford University
Penetrating and sophisticated.
Mere Civility is centered in the years after the Reformation, when the emergence of myriad Protestant sects splintered communities across Western Europe. That splintering was magnified, just as in our own time, by the explosion of a new means of communication—the printing press—which allowed people who had never before had a public voice to spread their ideas far and wide. Invectives and broadsides were the order of the day, as members of different religious denominations fought for each other’s souls, and incivility became a central concern of political thought. I doubt that for most readers of Mere Civility, this account of social disarray in the Reformation years is a huge surprise. But by keeping a tight focus on the concept of civility, Bejan manages to make that old story feel new—or at least to draw new lessons from it, lessons that are particularly interesting within the context of contemporary political theory… [Mere Civility] does not purport to solve the problems of incivility, but it unknots them, making the nature of the problems—both in general and in this time of numbing nostalgia—more evident. Would that more of us might learn to look into the past with such gravity and humility. We might end up with a more (or mere) civil society, yet.
A deeply admirable book: original, persuasive, witty, and eloquent. It is also admirably, bracingly, skeptical, in the best sense: the kind of liberal skepticism that we associate in political theory with Judith Shklar, Bernard Williams, and George Kateb.
Bejan’s important book is beautifully written, cogently argued, and provocative. It foregrounds the matter of ‘civility’ with astute historical analysis of touchstone texts in political thought.
Mere Civility is a terrific book—learned, vigorous, and challenging. Bejan makes Roger Williams the hero of this story and the thinker who provides a principled justification for America’s exceptional permissiveness toward ‘uncivil’ speech. Justifying the American status quo isn’t easy. Doing it with arguments that are often surprising is even harder.
This carefully argued and documented volume documents three early modern understandings of civility, offering that of Rhode Island’s founder, Roger Williams, as a fitting response to our perceived crisis of civility.
- 288 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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