Today, politicians and intellectuals warn that we face a crisis of civility and a veritable war of words polluting our public sphere. In liberal democracies committed to tolerating diversity as well as active, often heated disagreement, the loss of this conversational virtue appears critical. But is civility really a virtue? Or is it, as critics claim, a covert demand for conformity that silences dissent?
Mere Civility sheds light on our predicament and the impasse between “civilitarians” and their opponents by examining early modern debates about religious toleration. As concerns about uncivil disagreement achieved new prominence after the Reformation, seventeenth-century figures as different as Roger Williams, Thomas Hobbes, and John Locke could agree that some restraint on the war of words would be necessary. But they recognized that the prosecution of incivility was often difficult to distinguish from persecution. In their efforts to reconcile diversity with disagreement, they developed competing conceptions of civility as the social bond of tolerant societies that still resonate.
Most modern appeals to civility follow either Hobbes or Locke by proposing to suppress disagreement or exclude persons and positions deemed “uncivil” for the sake of social concord. Compared with his contemporaries’ more robust ideals, Williams’s unabashedly mere civility—a minimal, occasionally contemptuous adherence to culturally contingent rules of respectful behavior—is easily overlooked. Yet Teresa Bejan argues that Williams offers a promising path forward in confronting our own crisis of civility, one that fundamentally challenges our assumptions about what a tolerant—and civil—society should look like.
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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