AskDefine | Define civility

Dictionary Definition



1 formal or perfunctory politeness [ant: incivility]
2 the act of showing regard for others [syn: politeness]

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. politeness


Extensive Definition

Civic virtue is the cultivation of habits of personal living that are claimed to be important for the success of the community. The identification of the character traits that constitute civic virtue has been a major concern of political philosophy. The term civility refers to behaviour between persons and groups that conforms to a social (ie. "civil") mode, as itself being a foundational principle of society and law.

The idea of civic virtue in the Western world

Civic virtue has historically been taught as a matter of chief concern in nations under republican forms of government, and societies with cities. When final decisions on public matters are made by a monarch, it is the monarch's virtues which influence those decisions. When a broader class of people become the decision makers, it is then their virtues which characterize the types of decisions made. This form of decision making is considered superior in determining what best protects the interests of the majority. Aristocratic oligarchies may also develop traditions of public lists of virtues they believe appropriate in the governing class, but these virtues differ significantly from those generally identified under the category of civic virtue, stressing martial courage over commercial honesty. Constitutions became important in defining the public virtue of republics and constitutional monarchies. The earliest forms of constitutional development can be seen in late medieval Germany (see Communalism before 1800) and in the Dutch and English revolts of the 16th and 17th centuries.

In ancient Greece and Rome

In the classical culture of Western Europe and those places that follow its political tradition, concern for civic virtue starts with the oldest republics of which we have extensive records, Athens and Rome. Attempting to define the virtues needed to successfully govern the Athenian polis was a matter of significant concern for Socrates and Plato; a difference in civic vision ultimately was one of the factors that led to the trial of Socrates and his conflict with the Athenian democracy. The Politics of Aristotle viewed citizenship as consisting, not of political rights, but rather of political duties. Citizens were expected to put their private lives and interests aside and serve the state in accordance with duties defined by law.
Rome, even more than Greece, produced a number of moralistic philosophers such as Cicero, and moralistic historians such as Tacitus, Sallust, Plutarch and Livy. Many of these figures were either personally involved in power struggles that took place in the late Roman Republic, or wrote elegies to liberty which was lost during their transition to the Roman Empire. They tended to blame this loss of liberty on the perceived lack of civic virtue in their contemporaries, contrasting them with idealistic examples of virtue drawn from Roman history, and even non-Roman barbarians.

During the Renaissance

Texts from antiquity became very popular during the renaissance. Scholars gathered as many as they could find in old monasteries, from Constantantinople and throughout the Islamic world. Humanists sought to revive the ideal of civic virtue, as described in the ancient texts, through education, hoping to teach people not to sin, rather than prepare to punish sins they invariably would. City living made civility an important virtue for the elite, because polite communication was necessary to prevent chaos. The growing proletariat rising from peasant stock began to destabilise the peace in cities adjusting to the Industrial Revolution. Cities sometimes tried to keep them from moving into urban areas, and often attempted to civilize them by forcing them to work in poor houses. The burgeoning development of the Industrial Revolution, however, had a devastating impact on these attempts, as rapid growth demanded rapid urban migration. The effects of industrial interference on the development of civic virtue are still felt today, as the pressing needs of industry struggle against the political importance of maintaining a civil society, the Social Contract, and even once-firmly established workers' rights.
Important aspects of civic virtue include polite conversation, civilised behavour, industry and a bona fides approach to one's participation in society. Polite, or civil conversation includes concepts of listening to what others have to say, attempting at all times to reach agreement with fellow citizens, and remaining informed on issues of import in order to offer relevant contributions to conversation. Civilised behaviour, presenting one's self decently in attire, language and temperament, is intended to avoid offending others, and causing disorder. Industry is the application of one's efforts to useful endeavours which contribute to the public good, or at least do no harm. Civilised people were expected to demonstrate a bona fides, or good faith spirit regarding public life.
Formerly, emphasis was placed upon religion, but with the spread of multicultural societies, religion has become a very personal matter, rather than an institutional communion of the people.
People sharing these general beliefs once belonged to a small majority, considering those who disagreed or dismissed such values as belonging to a class characterised by 'barbarity'. It was also taken for granted that civic virtue existed as a set of "unwritten rules," in the tradition of Pericles praised in his funerary speech during the Peloponnesian War.
In modern times, most industrial nations built on the Western model submit to the rule of law, and have most, if not all "civic virtues" defined by their nation's supreme judicial body. This has led to transitional values defined by succeeding judiciaries, leaving the virtue of submission to authority as one of the last unlegistlated virtues. This, along with the proliferate influence of political special interest groups has many advocates of liberty and democracy concerned about eroding freedoms. 1

During the enlightenment

Civic virtue was very popular during the enlightenment but it had changed dramatically. Parental authority began to wane. Freedom became popular. But people can only be free by containing their emotions in order to keep some space for others. Trying to keep proletarians out or putting them in a poor house was not done anymore. The focus was now on educating. Work was an important virtue during the Middle Ages and the renaissance, but the people who worked were treated with contempt by the not working elite. The 18th century brought an end to this. The advancing rich merchants class emphasized the importance of work and contributing to society for all people including the elite. Science was popular. The government and the elites tried to change the world and humanity positively by expanding the bureaucracy. Leading thinkers thought that education and the breach of barriers would liberate everybody from stupidity and oppression. Civic conversations were held in societies and scientific journals.2

In the republican revolutions of the eighteenth century

Civic virtue also became a matter of public interest and discussion during the eighteenth century, in part because of the American Revolutionary War. An anecdote first published in 1906 has Benjamin Franklin answer a woman who asked him, "Well, Doctor, what have we got — a Republic or a Monarchy?" He responded: "A Republic, if you can keep it." The current use for this quotation is to bolster with Franklin's authority the opinion that republics require the cultivation of specific political beliefs, interests, and habits among their citizens, and that if those habits are not cultivated, they are in danger of falling back into some sort of authoritarian rule, such as a monarchy.
The American historian Gordon S. Wood called it a universal eighteenth century assumption that, while no form of government was more beautiful than a republic, monarchies had various advantages: the pomp and circumstances surrounding them cultivated a sense that the rulers were in fact superior to the ruled and entitled to their obedience, and maintained order by their presence. By contrast, in a republic, the rulers were the servants of the public, and there could therefore be no sustained coercion from them. Laws had to be obeyed for the sake of conscience, rather than fear of the ruler's wrath. In a monarchy, people might be restrained by force to submit their own interests to their government's. In a republic, by contrast, people must be persuaded to submit their own interests to the government, and this voluntary submission constituted the eighteenth century's notion of civic virtue. In the absence of such persuasion, the authority of the government would collapse, and tyranny or anarchy were imminent.
Authority for this ideal was found once more among the classical, and especially the Roman, political authors and historians. But since the Roman writers wrote during a time when the Roman republican ideal was fading away, its forms but not its spirit or substance being preserved in the Roman Empire, the eighteenth century American and French revolutionaries read them with a spirit to determine how the Roman republic failed, and how to avoid repeating that failure. In his Reflections on the Rise and Fall of the Antient Republicks, the English Whig historian Edward Wortley Montagu sought to describe "the principal causes of that degeneracy of manners, which reduc'd those once brave and free people into the most abject slavery." Following this reading of Roman ideals, the American revolutionary Charles Lee envisioned a Spartan, egalitarian society where every man was a soldier and master of his own land, and where people were "instructed from early infancy to deem themselves property of the State. . . . (and) were ever ready to sacrifice their concerns to her interests." The agrarianism of Thomas Jefferson represents a similar belief system; Jefferson believed that the ideal republic was composed of independent, rural agriculturalists rather than urban tradesmen.
These widely held ideals led American revolutionaries to found institutions such as the Society of the Cincinnati, named after the Roman farmer and dictator Cincinnatus, who according to Livy left his farm to lead the army of the Roman republic during a crisis, and voluntarily returned to his plow once the crisis had passed. About Cincinnatus, Livy writes:
Operae pretium est audire qui omnia prae diuitiis humana spernunt neque honori magno locum neque uirtuti putant esse, nisi ubi effuse afluant opes.. . .
(It is worth while for those who disdain all human things for money, and who suppose that there is no room either for great honor or virtue, except where wealth is found, to listen to his story.) - Livy, Ab Urbe Condita, book III.

19th to mid 20th century

Civic virtues were especially important during the 19th and 20th century. Everybody had to act according to class and profession. Every profession had its own uniform. The upper classes had different clothing than the lower classes. However, people became divided about what the best civic virtues were. Several ideologies came into being, each with their own ideas about civic virtues.
Conservatism emphasized family values and obedience to the father and the state (sometimes the monarch, depending on country). Pure conservatism waned during the 19th century. Conservatives cooperated with right-wing liberals and socialists to keep dominant influence in society. Nationalism carried by the masses of people replaced the old class conscience of the conservatives. Patriotism became an important civic virtue. Most conservatives supported religiousness. A focus on agriculture and landed nobility was surplaced by a focus on industry and civil society.
Liberalism combined republicanism with a believe in progress and liberalization based on capitalism. Civic virtues were very important. These were mainly aimed at individual behaviour. The evolution theory had a huge impact on liberals. People would do good if they were allowed to be free. Many liberals turned into socialists or conservatives in the end of the 19th century and early 20th century. Others became social liberals, combining a believe in progress and capitalism with a strong government to protect the poor. Civic virtue was not only aimed at the individual anymore, but also at groups of people.
Socialism tried to make everybody civilized, just like the liberals. Socialists tried to make an end to indifference. An important civic virtue for socialists was people should be conscious of oppression within society and the forces that uphold the status quo. This conscienceness should result into action to change the world for the good, so that everybody can become respectful citizens in a modern society. Many socialists became nationalists. Famous for instance is the vote in favour of war by the Social Democratic Party of Germany in 1914. Another example is the socialism in one country policy by Stalin, although it was probably just a strategy. Benito Mussolini and Joseph Goebbels used to be socialists. Many Labour parties of today combine socialism with nationalism and pro-capitalism.
National Socialism, which claimed to be a nationalist variant on socialism, advocated the creation of a classless society, in which all members of society 'pull together' to improve the society. National Socialism thus claimed to support class cooperation rather than class struggle. However, National Socialism also embraced the idea that certain segments of society (such as Jews, Gypsies, and Communists, as well as most foreigners) were incapable of civic virtue and needed to be systematically oppressed or destroyed. Furthermore, after the Night of Long Knives and the murder of Ernst Röhm a greater emphasis was placed on fostering values of unquestioning obedience to a single authority and protection of many, but not all, pre-existing elites. Even before the purging of socialist elements, critical thinking and political debate were discouraged by the NSDAP. The ideology of National Socialism largely fell out of favor after the defeat of the German National Socialist government in the Second World War, and the subsequent investigations of their crimes.

In later times

A number of institutions and organizations promote the idea of civic virtue in the older democracies. Among such organizations are the Boy Scouts of America, and Civil Air Patrol whose US oath, Cadet Oath and Cadet Honor Code reflect a goal to foster habits aimed at serving a larger community:
Boy Scouts of America Scout Oath: On my honor I will do my bestTo do my duty to God and my countryand to obey the Scout Law;To help other people at all times;To keep myself physically strong,mentally awake, and morally straight.
Cadet Oath: ''I pledge that I will serve faithfully in the Civil Air Patrol Cadet Program, and that I will attend meetings regularly, participate actively in unit activities, obey my officers, wear my uniform properly, and advance my education and training rapidly to prepare myself to be of service to my community, state and nation.
Air Force Academy Cadet Honor Code: We will not lie, steal, or cheat, nor tolerate among us anyone who does. Furthermore, I resolve to do my duty and live honorably (so help me God).
Institutions that might be said to encourage civic virtue include the school, particularly with social studies courses, and the prison, namely in its rehabilitative function.
Other, later phenomena associated with the concept of civic virtue include McGuffey's Eclectic Readers, a series of primary school textbooks whose compiler, William Holmes McGuffey, deliberately sought out patriotic and religious sentiments to instil these values in the children who read them. William Bennett, a Reagan administration cabinet member turned conservative commentator, produced The Book of Virtues: A Treasury of Great Moral Stories in 1993, another anthology of literary materials that might be considered an attempt to update McGuffey's concept.

Comparable ideas in non-Western societies

While China has been a democratic republic for only a year in the 1912/1913, the public ethics of Confucianism, which specify cultural virtues and traditions which governors and bureaucrats are expected to uphold, can be compared to the Western idea of civic virtue.

Lack of civility

Incivility is a general term for social behaviour lacking in civic virtue or good manners, on a scale from rudeness or lack of respect for elders, to vandalism and hooliganism, through public drunkenness and threatening behaviour. The word "incivility" is derived from the Latin incivilis, meaning "not of a citizen".
The distinction between plain rudeness, and perceived incivility as threat, will depend on some notion of 'civility' as structural to society; incivility as anything more ominous than bad manners is therefore dependent on appeal to notions like its antagonism to the complex concepts of civic virtue or civil society. It has become a contemporary political issue in a number of countries .



  • Digby Anderson, editor (1996) Gentility Recalled: Mere Manners and the Making of Social Order
  • Stephen L. Carter (1998) Civility: Manners, Morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy
  • John Hale, The Civilization of Europe in the Renaissance (London 1993)
  • Daniel Roche, La France des Lumières (Paris 1993)
  • Parker, Harold T. The Cult of Antiquity and the French Revolutionaries (Univ. Chicago, 1937)
  • Wood, Gordon S. The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 (Univ. North Carolina Press 1969, repr. Horton 1975) ISBN 0-393-00644-1
civility in Bulgarian: Гражданска добродетел

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

acculturation, act of courtesy, affability, agreeableness, amenities, amenity, amiability, appropriateness, attention, becomingness, bienseance, ceremonies, civilities, civilization, clubbability, clubbishness, clubbism, comity, communicativeness, companionability, compatibility, complaisance, conformity, congeniality, considerateness, consideration, convenance, convention, conventional usage, conventionalism, conventionality, cordiality, correctness, courteousness, courtesy, courtliness, cultivation, culture, custom, decencies, decency, decorousness, decorum, deference, dignities, diplomacy, diplomatic code, education, elegance, elegancies, enculturation, enlightenment, etiquette, exquisite manners, familiarity, favor, felicity, fitness, fittingness, fondness for society, form, formalities, formality, friendliness, geniality, genteelness, gentilities, gentility, good form, good manners, graceful gesture, gracefulness, graces, graciousness, gregariousness, happiness, hospitality, intimacy, manners, meetness, mores, natural politeness, point of etiquette, polish, polite act, politeness, politesse, properness, proprieties, propriety, protocol, punctilio, quiet good manners, refinement, respect, respectfulness, rightness, rites, rituals, rules of conduct, seemliness, sociability, sociableness, social code, social conduct, social convention, social grace, social graces, social procedures, social usage, sociality, socialization, solicitousness, solicitude, suitability, tact, tactfulness, thoughtfulness, urbanity
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