Book Review: The Soul of Civility
Alexandra Hudson's new book tells us how civility could be the key to saving liberal democracy
There are, philosophically speaking, two ways to organize society.
One is to treat people as means to an end. This is the path of dehumanization, of reducing human beings to their ability to serve and produce. This is the path of the Divine Right of Kings and absolute monarchies. It is the path of totalitarianism, slavery, caste systems, and all forms of oppression.
The other path is to treat people as ends in themselves. This is the path of individual liberty and human rights, in which the state exists to protect each citizen’s freedom to pursue happiness as they see it. This path is an outlier in human history, only recently discovered by European philosophers during the Enlightenment. It is the philosophy at the heart of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, as well as the Civil Rights movement. This philosophy has many names, but I will refer to it here as liberal universalism.
Today, liberal universalism is on the decline. Tribalism and prejudice, juiced by the internet and social media echo chambers, are on the rise. Extremists on both sides of the political spectrum are rapidly gaining influence over our discourse, as are their illiberal proposals to oppress those whom they deem beyond the pale.
If we are to preserve all of the things we care about in our society, we need to discover a way to reverse the decline of liberal universalism. Thankfully, a new book provides some excellent tips for us to push back against these degenerative forces. In The Soul of Civility: Timeless Principles to Heal Society and Ourselves, Alexandra Hudson makes a powerful plea for us to return to a culture where people treat each other as ends in themselves. To accomplish this, Hudson argues, we must recommit ourselves to the practice of “civility.”
Hudson’s use of “civility” is deeper than mere politeness. "Civility," she writes, "encourages truly respecting the personhood and autonomy of others, seeing our unified common humanity first and foremost." This conception of the term leads people to connect with others across differences, rather than merely tolerate or coexist with them.
On the other hand, incivility lies at the heart of our national divide. Hudson notes that "incivility deforms the soul of both the abuser and the abused." It prevents us from truly seeing other people and even ourselves. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wisely put it, the line between good and evil passes through every human heart; a culture without civility encourages us to pretend that we are all saints and that members of the out-group are all sinners.
Hudson notes that civility is essential to cultivating friendship. Our society is experiencing a “loneliness epidemic,” according to Surgeon General Dr. Vivek H. Murthy. An Advisory by the Surgeon General found that "In recent years, about one-in-two adults in America reported experiencing loneliness."
And no wonder: when we treat people as means to an end, we lose out on the richness of real relationships. Mutual alliance isn't friendship, and true friendship–the kind that C.S. Lewis said "give[s] value to survival"–can only flourish between people who value each other for who they are, not what they can provide.
Hudson notes how each of us is perpetually torn between self-love and love for others; between our lust to dominate others (libido dominandi) and our desire to live in community with them. When we feed our self-love, we turn into tyrants and slavers. We become bitter and mistrustful, and we lose out on the richness of human connection. Even when we come together, we often do so with armor on and swords out, determined to use others while preventing them from using us. But when we tame our libido dominandi and practice love for others, we can build a thriving civilization in which everyone is cared for. We can come together in the spirit of community, safe in the knowledge that our brothers and sisters are not merely trying to get one over on us. This spirit of community lets us build churches, establish nonprofits, and develop the “civic religion” that Alexis de Tocqueville famously observed was unique to the people of the United States.
Civility is perhaps most essential to the health of our democracy. Hudson warns that "Our selfishness poses a problem for our freedom…If we cannot individually control ourselves…others, including our political leaders, will impose controls upon us." Democracy carries within it the potential for its own downfall, because we can become so unruly and violent, so dominated by our self-love and our libido dominandi, that our fellow citizen feels the need to wield the powers of the state to protect themselves from us. Taken to the extreme, a people will eagerly vote themselves into tyranny out of a desire to protect themselves from their neighbors.
Cancel culture (across the political spectrum) is replacing coming together in a spirit of mutual connection and truth-seeking with walking on eggshells for fear of betraying our tribe. And we are often terrified of betraying our tribe at least in part because we are so scared of what will happen if the other side wins. According to a 2020 Pew survey, an astounding 90 percent of voters across the political spectrum feared that a victory by the other side would lead to "lasting harm" for the United States.
Yet all of us recognize on some level that our culture of incivility isn't working. Even if our tribe “wins” this culture war, many of us understand that it will be a pyrrhic victory, for we will lose the best parts of our culture in the process. We will be sacrificing love for vengeance and beauty for destruction.
The Soul of Civility is striking a chord because it offers us a way out. It offers us a vision of society as it could be and as it should be. Perhaps even more importantly, it offers us the tools to get there. It shows us how to fight for the society that most of us yearn for–not with a raised fist, but with the symbol on the book's cover: an olive branch.
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