February 13, 2019
n his new book, In Pursuit of Civility, Oxford historian Keith Thomas traces how the idea of conduct befitting a civilized people developed, especially in Stuart and Georgian England.
During the Middle Ages, Europeans of every social class were more prone to unrestrained impulses. It was not uncommon to eat with one’s hands, belch at the dinner table, or relieve oneself in public. Renewed interest in ancient Greece and Rome during the Renaissance led to a new concern for how “civilized” people ought to act, according to Thomas. The use of the fork, which became common among the Italian upper classes in the 14th century and eventually reached England by the 18th, exemplifies this transition. The simple utensil demonstrated a heightened concern for how one’s actions affected others, allowing one to eat without making a mess or nauseating others.
As new ideals of self-restraint were adopted by society’s upper echelons, England’s elites believed they had cast off “barbarism,” embraced “civility,” and achieved the most sophisticated of human societies. They could now lord it over their vulgar social inferiors—including the Scots, the Welsh, and especially the Irish—as well as foreigners across the Channel.
Take Lord Chesterfield, a passionate proponent of the view that manners were a badge of class distinction, reinforcing existing social structures. Chesterfield wrote at length to his (illegitimate) son on how to use the appropriate customs in order to curry favor with his superiors and position himself for advancement. For Chesterfield, royal courts were “unquestionably the seats of good-breeding,” laughing too loudly was a sign of low refinement, and using your dining utensils differently than those around you made one an “awkward fellow.” Samuel Johnson dismissed Chesterfield’s advice as promoting “the morals of a whore, and the manners of a dancing-master.”
Of course, an ethnocentric view of civility is nothing new. The ancient Greeks dismissed all non-Greeks as “barbarians”—a word derived from “bar bar,” how their languages apparently sounded to Greek ears. (One early exception was the scientific writer Eratosthenes, who rejected such arbitrary distinctions, noting that there were vulgar Greeks and sophisticated non-Greeks.)
But Thomas’s study of manners focuses gradually on an ecumenical, egalitarian idea of civility—more often practiced by “commoners,” especially in the English colonies—which promoted social harmony by encouraging the courteous treatment of everyone, regardless of rank or background. Proponents of this civility respected individuals’ common humanity. As Benjamin Franklin said of the Native Americans, “Savages we call them because their manners differ from ours, which we think the perfection of civility; they think the same of theirs.”
Roger Williams had thought so a century earlier when the Narragansett Indians welcomed him after he was expelled from Massachusetts for his stubbornly heterodox religious views. In A Key into the Language of America, Williams praised the ways in which he believed the natives were more sophisticated than his fellow English: they had no beggars; fewer fatherless children who went un-provided for; robbery, murder, and adultery were much less common; and they avoided gluttony and drunkenness to which the English were prone. “Nature knowes no difference between Europe and Americans in blood, birth, bodies, &c.,” he concluded, “God having of one blood made all mankind.”
For their part, America’s founders carefully considered the mores they wanted to promote in their new republic, rejecting undue deference to rank and status, and declaring instead that “All men are created equal” and “endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.” President Thomas Jefferson later refused to use any titles of nobility for guests of the White House, saying his custom was the “standard of the nation.” John Adams warned, however, that our regime depends on the character not just of its institutions, but also of its people, each of whom must choose to respect the fundamental rights of all. As James Madison put it, “parchment barriers” are insufficient.
Keith Thomas’s In Pursuit of Civility reminds us that “To ask what early modern English people thought was civil and what was ‘barbarous’ is to probe their fundamental assumptions about how society should be organized and how life should be lived.”