Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

At present there is a great deal of handwringing about civility. On campus, students in screaming packs set upon speakers or professors who have said things that the earnest young have been taught to find offensive. Other students are encouraged by university administrators to act as spies, handing in anonymous denunciations of teachers whose words are felt to harm their self-esteem. In the public sphere, certain politicians can be counted on to set off Pavlovian reactions among the online arrabbiati. The enraged believe that Hitler has returned to cumber the earth once more, this time as a blond, and that the best response is to rush into the streets, block traffic, march about dressed in simulacra of female body parts, and denounce public servants during the soup course. Partisan mobs send up chants calling for leaders in the opposite party to be jailed. The expression “objective journalism” has begun to sound quaint or naive in our ears. The republic is in danger; the social fabric is fraying; the dark night of fascism is about to descend.

Cynics, who still predominate in the media, see things differently. Outrage is good for business. The merchants of wrath on social media, only some of whom are Russian, generate clicks and raise funds. Apparently there really are people so little in control of their impulses that they can be induced by the injudicious tweeting of buffoons to give out their credit card details to buffoons of the opposite tendency. Supreme Court nominations are gamed on the basis of which nominee is likeliest to generate the most intemperate outbursts, raising funds for one side and losing votes for the other. It is the new technology that has made us more uncivil.

Others go deeper and explain the loss of civility as the result of underlying social and cultural changes. The most compelling empirical analysis of these changes was offered by the sociologist Charles Murray in his 2012 book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010. On the left Murray enjoys a reputation just below that of winged Beelzebub, prince of demons, but those willing to peek into prohibited books will find much illumination in Murray’s. Things have only gotten worse since country singer Merle Haggard hymned the “Okie from Muskogee” in 1969. The college dean is no longer respected. America is now divided into two sociocultural camps, or rather suburbs: Fishtown and Belmont. In Fishtown, people eat deep-fried cheesecake and drink beer, join the army, believe intermittently in God, and are addicted to opioids. In general they are depressed and broke. In Belmont, people eat yakitori and drink Montrachet (the t is silent), consume expensive forms of education and real estate, worship Angela Merkel, and believe in diversity and implicit racism. In general they are anxious and in debt. Fishtown and Belmont are sealed off from each other socially and hate each other. Each town tries to use politics to force its own preferences on the other. Hence the loss of civility.

Are we really less civil than we used to be, then? People of riper years tend to be laudatores temporis acti, in Horace’s phrase, “praisers of time past,” and like to claim that things were better when they were young. Sadly, that option is foreclosed to my generation of oldies, who were young during the 1960s and 70s. In fact, we are rather sniffy about the incivility of the present. “Incivility?” we say, a senile quaver in our collective voice. “Ha. In my day, young woman, bomb-throwers actually threw bombs!”

Historians, too, can always be counted on to dismiss the idea that there is anything new, or worse than before, under the sun. That’s what we ­historians do, and we are right. Yes, incivility is distressing and makes constitutional government more difficult. No, it is not worse now, not from a wider historical perspective. For most of European history, a call for greater civility would have been slightly beside the point, since Europeans were intent on killing one another in large numbers in wars or murdering one another in the streets. The latter was an activity particularly popular during the period I study, the Italian Renaissance. Shakespeare was not making it up about the Montagues and Capulets.

We historians also make short work of the technological and sociological explanations for the present increase of incivility. Few of us would accept that social media and the twenty-four-hour news cycle have made incivility significantly more intense than in earlier societies. Before modern times, most political life took place in very small cities (by modern standards), which were face-to-face societies. The level of paranoia was generally much higher. The man you hated was your neighbor, who had bad breath, and his ­client the grocer had knowingly sold your wife moldy tomatoes while his cousin had done your cousin out of a job. The personal may not have been the political, but the political was definitely personal.

Nor is the sociological explanation adequate. In most premodern societies, the cultural gap between elites and non-elites was huge. It began from the rather salient differences that the elites had enough to eat, had more than one suit of clothing, and could read. In the grand sweep of history, what was truly exceptional was the relative homogeneity of social mores in the America of Tocqueville. The view that modern Americans are more socially polarized than the vast majority of our ancestors is just another case of historical shortsightedness.

Machiavelli—who was a wicked counselor of princes and a second-rate historian, but a shrewd observer of humanity—had an explanation for why people think things used to be better. History is written for the victors, and writers who seek reward will celebrate the winners’ deeds and conceal their infamy. Our passions are involved when we observe the actions of our contemporaries because they affect us; not so with actions in the past. The news makes us angry and fearful by turns, while we view the past through a golden mist of memory. The great men of the past are safely dead and do not threaten us. In fact, says Machiavelli, human behavior is a constant, and there has always been about the same amount of goodness and wickedness in the world. It may well be that things are better now than in the past, but we can’t tell that. In retrospect we can see that first the Assyrians had virtù, then the Medes, then the Persians, then Rome. If we lived in one of those empires on the rise and believed the past was better, we would be wrong; if we lived in a time of decline and held the same opinion, we would be right. But in the present, we can’t tell where we are in the cycle. Machiavelli confesses that even he himself might be wrong in his belief that he lived in a time of decline. Since he in fact lived in a period when Europe was on the brink of dominating the rest of the world, one has to concede his point.

Machiavelli makes the further point, however, that a healthy skepticism about the present doesn’t mean we can’t learn from the past. Some people might think that to claim all times are equally happy or unhappy means there is nothing to be learned from the past. Machiavelli disagrees. Even though roughly equal quanta of goodness and wickedness have always been in the world, they have always been unevenly distributed. Some peoples are better at some things than others, and for longer periods of time. The Romans were good at domination, for example, and they dominated for a long time. It’s worth studying the causes of human excellence so we can try to replicate them and perhaps improve our own lives and politics.

Of course, in Machiavelli’s day, the default setting was to believe the ancients were better. That was what the Renaissance was all about, after all. Nowadays, however, as Rémi Brague has put it, the dominant cult of modernism has taught most intellectuals to be Marcionists. They don’t believe there is anything to learn from the Old Testament; our ancestors before the Enlightenment were deluded servants of an evil demiurge. Modern intellectuals are supersessionists; they believe, in defiance of all historical experience, that the future must always be better than the past, which can be safely discarded. Intellectuals are needed, they think, to stamp out the evils of the past, ban or burn books as necessary, and erect Great Firewalls to keep out unscientific beliefs, so that we may all be piloted safely into Utopia. They want to sail toward the Right Side of History, which nevertheless seems always to lie somewhere to port. But one of the sad drawbacks of being a utopian is that the future has no moral standards and can offer us no moral models. It has prophets but no philosophers. For those we must go to the past.

As it turns out, people in the past thought quite a lot about the problem of civility. They reflected upon their own ­experiences of social strife and experimented with ways to neutralize it in the common interest. The Greek city-states were particularly fractious in the classical period, leading ­Aristotle, the Greeks’ greatest theorist of political life, to devise countermeasures. For him, the only way, apart from autocracy, to achieve civil peace was to balance the desires of rich and poor. Each social group should be allowed to control different organs of the polis. The popular element, for instance, might control the assembly, but a wise legislator could balance that with elections for magistracies, a practice which favored the rich. To achieve common goals, the different social groups would be forced to deal with each other in something resembling good faith. The middle classes should predominate in government since they could negotiate most effectively between clashing interests. They are naturally civil, being neither arrogant nor servile. Civility would further be preserved by friendships among the political class, crossing party lines. Aristotle would have understood at least the sentiment behind Sir William Harcourt’s dictum that the survival of a functioning parliamentary system depends on “constant dining with the opposition.”

All that is in Aristotle’s Politics. But the Politics does not explain why mere friendships between individuals of opposing parties would be enough to contain the huge centrifugal force of conflicting social interests. In Aristotle’s Ethics we learn that friendships must be of the right kind, friendships based on virtue. Virtuous friends don’t let friends get partisan. Dining with the opposition is not enough. The rest of the Ethics—a work meant to be propaedeutic to the ­Politics—describes what is needed for virtue. Good birth, good parents, good friends, sufficient material goods, health, long practice in optimal behavior patterns guided by good examples and good teachers—the list is a long one. In the end, the individuals who finish the course and develop the kind of supreme human excellences Aristotle calls for will necessarily be few. They will have the right dispositions to rule, sure enough, above all the disposition to be law-abiding (general justice) and the disposition not to take more than one’s share and to give everyone what they deserve (particular justice). If the state is lucky, its ­virtuous rulers can encode their wisdom in law and keep virtue going artificially, as it were, for a few more generations before corruption inevitably sets in. But Aristotle does not explain how the virtuous few will be brought to power in a city-state dominated by the rich and the poor.

With all due respect to Aristotle, I think his remedy for civil strife would be asking too much of modern societies. Political friendships aren’t enough. Under modern conditions, the politician who sides with the opposition because of a personal friendship is quickly defenestrated by his party. Aristotle’s idea of virtue is too high, too demanding, for our times. We have trouble enough finding what Michael Ignatieff calls “ordinary virtues”: trust, tolerance, forgiveness, reconciliation, resilience. The type of aristocratic virtue Aristotle favors doesn’t help with the immediate task of civility in our politics: finding common ground that transcends partisan ideologies and a common good that can be shared in a pluralist society with many religions and ways of life.

Scroll down a few centuries and consider the scholastic philosophers. Medieval scholastics had their own solutions to incivility. From their point of view, the weakness of ­Aristotle was his failure to locate an affective basis for a commitment to the common good. Their idea was that Christian society could find in the love of God a knot to bind together warring factions. Their political teaching was elaborated from Augustine’s ordo caritatis, which held that the Christian’s love of God would transform all his other social relationships, convert limitless libido to measured amor, and turn hatred to love.

As a Catholic myself, I regret to say that this teaching, when translated into political action, was as a rule ineffective. Ponder, by way of example, the history of Christian peacemaking in medieval Florence, a famously uncivil, not to say violently unstable, city. Guelfs and Ghibellines hated each other; magnates and popolani hated each other; and the clients of rival dynastic houses regularly slaughtered one another in the streets. The popes thought they could make Florence a better place and intervened in the city’s social quarrels five times between 1273 and 1306. On the first occasion, Gregory X himself came to the city to make peace. The pope, a student of Aquinas who had a reputation for holiness, hauled leaders of opposing factions into church and made them exchange the kiss of peace at the altar. Next they were made to take oaths to keep the peace. Pope Gregory then delivered a speech telling the Florentines that those names, Guelf and Ghibelline, were meaningless and sources of evil. This annoyed the Florentine government, which had been fighting for Holy Church—that is, the Guelf cause—for half a century with much loss of blood and treasure. The pope should be thanking them but instead, inexplicably, he was condemning them for partisanship. The pope’s mission failed because he didn’t appreciate that partisans who had shown themselves wicked and deceitful in the past could not be trusted in the present. He was mistaken in believing that citizens would not value their security above pious hopes for peace. Their motto might have been “Love, but verify.”

Cardinal Latino Malabranca Orsini’s peace of 1279–1280, by contrast, showed more realism and understanding of the local situation. The cardinal was effective in persuading people that they would be more secure with both factions inside the city and designed institutions and legal procedures to protect both parties. He arranged formal reconciliations and marriages between factions, and even destroyed records of earlier partisan activities to wipe out the memory of mutual hatreds. His peace lasted a couple of years, but was ultimately undone by a disaster for the Guelf party that occurred far from Florence, the Sicilian Vespers of 1282. A fragile balance of parties inside the city could not survive a major shift in the balance of power outside it. Similar pressures and paranoia destroyed three later papal attempts at pacification of the quarrels between the Whites (Dante’s party) and the Blacks in 1300, 1303, and 1306. The last two attempts, indeed, came apart owing to suspicions about the popes’ own partisan agendas. In 1306 the papal peacemaker was not even admitted to the city on the grounds that the previous peace­makers had only made things worse.

There doesn’t appear to be much in the medieval experience of peacemaking relevant to problems of incivility today. If the ordo caritatis could not be made to work in Christian societies (some ­historians would say “nominally Christian societies”), they certainly would not work anywhere in the modern world, with the possible exception of Poland. Love, even Christian love, is not enough. In the sixties we tried to make love, not war, too, in a different way, but with no better results for public tranquility. The mood passed, as moods do, leaving a legacy of #MeToo and erectile dysfunction.

A more useful approach to the problem of incivility can be found, I think, among the Christian humanists of the Renaissance, men like Francesco Petrarca (or Petrarch), the great poet; Erasmus, the great scholar; and Francesco Patrizi of Siena, the great writer on politics. (Patrizi, a protégé of Pius II, the humanist pope, was the bishop of Gaeta; he is ­unknown and untranslated today, but he wrote the most popular political treatises of the Renaissance after Machiavelli’s.) The humanists’ idea was that civility, which they called humanitas, was itself a virtue and needed to be cultivated, though not in the Aristotelian way. They sought to school humanitas into the character of the ruling class by study of the classics, make it part of an educated person’s self-­concept, and support that self-concept through informal social pressure: through praise and blame in public oratory, literature, and history; through the power of example and virtuous leadership; by celebrating the virtues in theater, the plastic arts, and music. Good manners, too, facilitate the kindness inseparable from humanitas, as was recognized by Erasmus, who wrote the first handbook of good manners for children, De ­civilitate morum puerilium (1530). Elite status would no longer depend on ancestry or wealth but on virtue, manners, and accomplishments. You would not deserve to be a member of the elite if your behavior was uncivil, boorish, or cruel. Humanitas could even prevent war, said Erasmus, hopefully, in The Complaint of Peace. The faith in humanitas in the period could be touchingly naive. The printer of one edition of Cicero’s On Duties in 1516 wrote in his preface that if only the Gauls (meaning the French army) had read that work in 1512, before invading Italy, they would have learned humanity and not sacked Brescia and raped all the women.

The humanist theory of civility and humanitas linked civil conduct tightly with character. The theory was most fully elaborated by the aforementioned Francesco Patrizi in his once-famous treatises on political education. Patrizi finds the affective basis of civil rule in the natural sympathy between human beings. We possess an affectio generalis which inclines the mind to love and benevolence toward mankind in general, even people we don’t know. By nature we rejoice with others in their successes and feel for them in their sufferings. Hence we offer help to the indigent, water to the thirsty, directions to travelers, all out of a sense of right action toward our kind instilled in us by natural affection. It is the part of a free or noble man (ingenuus) to love his fellow human beings, while narrow and perverse wits hate their own kind. Such men the Greeks called misanthropes, identified by their lack of humor. Schadenfreude is an ignoble emotion. Nobility here is to be understood in the humanist sense as the qualities of virtue that entitle one to membership in the political elite.

When strengthened by habit and reflection, the noble disposition to benevolence becomes the virtue of humanitas. This is a virtue we must acquire if we are to be fully human. The man who obeys nature can never harm another man, and indeed nature instructs us that human beings must go further than merely avoiding harms; we must always do good to one another. When we refrain from harming others, we thereby excel those below us in the order of nature, the animals, and when we benefit each other, we imitate God, the giver of all gifts. The essence of being human is to be humane. Thus the noble or free man will help others freely; if he demands repayment, he is a mere usurer. The dispositions opposed to humanitas are cruelty, selfishness, fanaticism, and barbarism—whatever cuts us off from the ways of civilized societies, from what humanity has in common. That was why the Roman Empire could be seen as an instrument of humanitas, wrote Pliny the Elder (Natural History)—one of Patrizi’s sources—because it had given the world a common speech, Latin, softened rough customs, and “given humanitas to humanity” (humanitatem homini daret). Here “humanitas” comes close to meaning “civilization.”

But how is humanitas acquired, this virtue so basic to a good polity? Being a humanist, Patrizi naturally finds his answer in another classical source, the Attic Nights of Aulus Gellius. Humanity (or philanthropia, “an elegant word used by the Greeks”) is greatly aided by education (“or paideia”). You have to learn how to be human. That is why the ancients used humanitas to mean instruction and training in the “good arts,” and called the liberal disciplines humaniores literae, the literature that makes one more fully human. This was appropriate, because this kind of education belongs only to the human species, with its higher rationality and moral sense. That most pleasant form of companionship, the companionship of the Muses, though appropriate to all mortals, is so in the highest degree to political leaders, who are the supreme givers of benefits to their citizens, the most godlike of human beings. The awesome power of elites for good or ill must be corroborated by the virtue of humanitas if the polity is to survive and flourish. For Patrizi, educating political elites in the humanities is thus a fundamental condition of good government.

Patrizi explains how study of the humanities leads to virtue and good leadership. The future statesman should begin with the study of (Latin) grammar, “the artisan of speech, the interpreter of poets and historians, the commander and chariot of all other disciplines.” Next he should read epic poetry. “This heroic reading (heroica lectio) is of great use to leaders and kings, whose minds will be lifted up by the sublimity of heroic song.” He should then go on to the lyric poets, preferring those with a strong moral message. After the poets he should read history, especially Livy and Thucydides, the statesman’s school of prudence, which Cicero called “the witness of time, the light of truth, the life of memory, the mistress of life, the messenger of antiquity.” Biography, too, especially ­Plutarch, who provided the most impressive models of moral action. Then come the orators, who excelled not just in eloquence but in morali sapientia. And as Cicero himself taught us, eloquence is vain without the study of moral philosophy.

These, the core disciplines of the humanities as understood during the Renaissance, would impart humanitas. Young men and women who read good literature (bonae litterae) would see what nobility and virtue look like in action, absorb the values of the best of the ancients, and be motivated to imitate the finest behavior when they saw it forever celebrated in tradition and in memory. The study of history would enlarge their moral vocabularies by showing them the variety of customs in the world, it would give them sympathy and imaginative understanding of other times and places, and it would school them in prudence by vastly extending their natural memories. They would be less inclined to fanaticism because they would better understand the inevitable fate of all human projects. Moral philosophy would challenge them to acquire virtue, and the self-awareness that comes from a serious effort to be good would make them less, not more, censorious of others. The study of moral philosophy in the vein of Plato, ­Aristotle, Cicero, and Seneca cultivated an awareness that one, oneself, might not be a perfect specimen of moral goodness, and this awareness might give one a certain reserve in criticizing others. The morally self-aware would understand uncomfortably well the point of Shakespeare’s line: “Use every man after his desert, and who should ’scape whipping?” The enlargement of self, the humanitas taught by the humanities, would extend to religion and piety as well, for the well-lettered person, even an outright atheist, cannot fail to be aware of the part played by religion in the lives of the vast majority of mankind, the persons for whom he has a duty of care.

I now hear laughter rising up from two parts of the theater. The most raucous comes from the historians’ gallery, where the historians are seated, sadly, with the social scientists. “Are you forgetting, dear fellow, that the Renaissance was followed by the Reformation? That all your little humanist schoolmasters training up generations of Latin scholars were utterly ineffective in stopping 150 years of religious war, the most appalling Christian-on-Christian violence in history?” I reply with the response given by Evelyn Waugh when asked how he could behave so cruelly toward others and still call himself a Christian. He answered, “You have no idea how much nastier I’d be if I was not a Catholic. Without supernatural aid I would hardly be a human being.” Just so with humanitas during the Wars of Religion. We don’t know how much worse they might have been without it. We do know that some humanely educated people tried to stop the violence. We do know that a peaceful, democratic Republic of Letters based on mutual respect for learning took shape in the seventeenth century and provided an empyrean sphere above the wreck of bloody suffering, offering itself as a model for a more liberal and humane politics.

In another part of the gallery sit my fellow humanists, a thinning population. Some are tittering uneasily, but most are scowling in disbelief and disapproval. “Are you really so unaware of how we teach the humanities today? Do you really think that is going to change anytime soon?” Yes, I am well aware that the goal of modern humanities education is to unmask the old authors and expose their writings as the poisoned fruit of a corrupt socioeconomic system, or of racism, sexism, and other approved targets of moral opprobrium. Yes, I know many of you think that, when we read “texts” for truth or wisdom, we are being at best utterly naive, at worst making ourselves complicit in spreading a hegemonic ideology, perpetuating the interests of the dominant class. Yes, I know professors should know how to write long, jargon-laden sentences. Yes, I know that professors are not supposed to use words like decency, nobility, and virtue without irony or scare quotes.

I recognize, in other words, that the reform of the humanities in universities will proceed one funeral at a time. In any case, I would not claim that the humanities can be revived in anything like the form they had in the Renaissance. Even if they could, I doubt the modern university would be the place to revive them. As Erasmus recognized, teaching civility to young people has to start much earlier, in the early teen years when a child’s character begins to take shape.

In modern discussions of the causes of the new incivility, the question of early education and character has received too little consideration. One reason that fewer people are civil today is that fewer people know how to be civil; fewer people even know what civility is, so fewer people value it. These are surely among the reasons why so many people are not ashamed to present themselves to the world as violent, intemperate partisans. Many derive their standards of personal conduct (unknowingly for the most part) from the Bolsheviks. They think it reflects credit on them to scream in the faces of people they don’t like or punch vulgar abuse into their Twitter feed. They’ve never heard the advice of Seneca: Look in the mirror when you get angry. In whatever bars student radicals gather after committing their latest outrage (probably juice bars), one imagines the young folk praising one another with remarks like “You really got in their face.” No doubt a member of the English department will be at hand to explain that their unhinged behavior, according to Michel Sans-Culottes du Jour, the French Marxist intellectual, is really the finest form of civility, further enriching their self-satisfaction.

Nowadays, indeed, to be a member of the elite, you are almost required to be uncivil. You display your rank by rejecting the mores and manners of your inferiors. You must accept the ways of all minorities and foreigners—not to do so would violate the ukases of “diversity”—but you must on no account tolerate those of your social inferiors or political opponents. The civility of modern elites is global but not universal. Selective civility leads to a certain trivialization of class markers. For Renaissance humanists, you declassed yourself by acts of cruelty; in the modern American elite, the way to declass yourself is to be caught voting Republican or eating processed cheese. Acceptable behavior is judged by its conformity to an increasingly complex and constantly changing set of rules concerning the treatment of persons relative to their preferred identities. Identity is for groups, not individuals. A praiseworthy act is not expressive of one’s own moral personality but merely signals membership in a group. It does not come from settled convictions, from integrity (which means acting always in the same way with everyone), or from considered habits of thought and action that reveal one’s character.

Such attitudes are surely a major source of incivility, but by the time a young person enters college, it is too late to change them. Civil attitudes have to be inculcated much earlier. Fortunately, we are currently witnessing in the United States, and not only in the United States, a rebirth of character education and the serious study of classical literature. It is taking place, as it must, in elementary, middle, and high schools. The classics are now being taught again, sometimes in the original languages, in thousands of secondary schools, religious and secular, public and private. Formation of character is once again being linked with the study of literature and philosophy. The phenomenon is now too well established to require elaborate illustration. The days of schooling the young in permissiveness, non-judgmentalism, and the celebration of “me” seem to be over, or at least in retreat.

Will this pedagogic movement (it is not yet, I think, a revolution) make a difference to the civility of our political life? Can it be a success and bring real change? It’s probably too early to say, as Zhou Enlai almost said of the French Revolution. The world of educational theory is prone to fads, and there is always the danger that character education will turn out to be simply another one. Not all educators involved with character education fully appreciate the link between civility and humanitas. Too many have difficulty distinguishing virtue from political partisanship, or think that the chief purpose of character education is to stop bullying or encourage recycling. But one may be permitted to hope that some parts of the wider world of education are at last on the right track, and have come to understand that the most vital task of education, for both individuals and communities, is to impart humanitas, in every sense of that rich word. 

James Hankins is professor of history at Harvard University.