Judging by the number of articles they have written and the tweets they have sent, certain conservative writers view Sohrab Ahmari as a major threat to public decency. Nothing outraged these writers more than Ahmari’s observation that “civility and decency are secondary values.” This observation should strike us as obviously true. That it caused so much controversy is a sign of how much it needed saying.
Civility and decency are admirable things. But like beauty, charm, wealth, and learning, they may be turned to good ends or bad. Simple possession of them is no guarantee that a man’s intentions are pure or his cause just.
This is especially true when society is structured around a great lie. In the Jim Crow south, for example, sitting down at the wrong lunch counter was definitely impolite. “Civility” meant complicity with evil. By contrast, acting rightly against the established order will often look like rudeness. As Richard Hurrell Froude said at the start of the Oxford Movement, “Now that one is a Radical, there is no use in being nice.”
This is of course hyperbolic. There is a use in being nice, provided niceness is directed toward substantive goods. Civility is a value, though a secondary one. It must be ordered to a higher good, or it is no good at all. As John Henry Newman put it, the virtues of the civil and decent man “are seen within the pale of the Church and without it, in holy men, and in profligate; they form the beau-ideal of the world; they partly assist and partly distort the development of the Catholic.”
Newman was himself a man of great cultivation and politeness. But to his opponents he often seemed overly fierce. He recalled incidents of his seeming rudeness in the Apologia. One scandal concerned a poem he had written, titled “Zeal and Love”:
Would’st thou reach, rash scholar mine,
Love’s high unruffled state?
Awake! thy easy dreams resign,
First learn thee how to hate:—
Newman wanted us to hate sin and error, not other men. But he commended hate in sharp terms because he feared that respectability—the great virtue and vice of the Victorians—left men unfit for any trial.
American society is torn by deep disagreements about what is good. These substantive disagreements result in clashes over civility. One recent clash occurred when Josh Hawley challenged a judicial nominee, Michael Bogren, over the false equivalencies he had drawn between Catholics and the KKK. Bogren wrote in a legal brief that a Catholic farmer’s refusal to host gay weddings on his farm was “no different than the ‘White Applicants Only’ sign.” Hawley suggested that this was an outrageous, uncivil, and fundamentally disqualifying statement.
Hawley’s critics, meanwhile, claimed that he was being uncivil, that he was violating the norms governing the questioning of nominees. Standing behind this dispute about manners was a disagreement over what Ahmari calls “the highest good.”
Civility—indeed, our whole civic life—will always be directed toward some good, whether higher or lower. Aristotle begins his Politics by saying, “Every community is established with a view to some good; for mankind always act in order to obtain that which they think good. But, if all communities aim at some good, the state or political community, which is the highest of all ... aims at good in a greater degree than any other, and at the highest good.” Augustine agreed: “A ‘people’ is an assembled multitude of rational creatures bound together by a common agreement as to the objects of their love … the better the objects of this agreement, the better the people; and the worse the objects, the worse the people.”
Some insist that Americans have nothing in common except our liberal political forms. But as Aristotle and Augustine would have recognized, this is an impossibility. Denying that Americans share a common good ultimately means abolishing the nation and dissolving the American people. It is no accident that Stephen A. Douglas was a liberal proceduralist who invoked “popular sovereignty” while Lincoln insisted on moral reality.
When Franklin Roosevelt addressed the nation on D-Day, he declared that we Americans were fighting for “our Republic, our religion, and our civilization, and to set free a suffering humanity.” He did not say we were fighting for procedural norms. He did not say we were fighting to preserve checks and balances. He did not say we were fighting to keep markets free.
Of course, we were fighting for all those things. But Roosevelt knew that they had to be oriented toward something higher. America’s liberal political forms once supported and were supported by an informal religious establishment, Protestantism. This later expanded into an equally informal “Judeo-Christianity.” Neither one of these informal establishments strikes me as perfect, but each directed America toward a higher good than secular progressivism has managed to do.
Conservatives cannot sustain America’s admirable political tradition and legal forms without directing them toward something higher. That is why Ahmari will prove a better defender of what people rightly value in our liberal tradition than those who criticize him in its name.
Matthew Schmitz is senior editor of First Things.