The Complexity of Civility and Citizenship

The world is a far more complex thing than modern radicalism, with its naïve contrast of “right” and “left,” has ever dreamed.

– Edward Shils, The Virtue of Civility.

Exhorting others to civility in our contemporary political climate has become something of a platitude. These calls are dismissed as being ignorant about the realities of what it takes to rectify wrongs and truly change a society. Even more perspicacious, according to the critic of civility, is the retort that civility is really camouflage of Western or bourgeois values. This view was proposed by Karl Marx and countless other revolutionaries. Civility, to these thinkers, implies a desire from a select, elite group to preserve the status quo, hierarchy of power, and political control. Civility, after all, is a political concept; a derivative of ciuis—citizen—and connected to this status. Herein lies Marx’s problem with the concept of civility. We remain subjects of said political community, run by a government, and are inculcated this notion of what it means to be “civil” to the point where we forget that citizenship is an incomplete concept: to be civil is not a natural condition of man, and true human benevolence and social solidarity require the eventual stripping of this political veil of civility if the revolution is to be fully actualized.

We may think of civility today as another word for politeness or respect, but what it means to be civil carries with it the notion of participation within a political community. Civility is for public life, which can only take place when individuals are members of a political community and required to interact and cooperate with one another outside of familial ties. Citizenship and civility, then, are mutually dependent—a claim that theorists of civility such as Teresa Bejan and Clifford Orwin would likely refute as confounding civility with citizenship, albeit from opposing ends. While Bejan affirms Roger Williams’ concept of “mere” civility as something not to be confused with citizenship, Orwin argues that the decreased emphasis on civic participation and citizenship is the result of civility’s influence. Yet, to note the connection between civility and citizenship does not dictate that civility is itself derivative of citizenship. For Edward Shils, this dichotomy that Marx created between men and citizens is false because what it means to be civil is not merely a mark of a citizen: it is also a feature of man, which is nurtured by society. Shils’ contribution to theories of civility is his dual recognition of civility as resonating with both our civic sense and our moral sense. Through engaging in the public sphere, civility elevates man’s own development as both an individual and member of a political community. In other words, a defense of civility is not solely reflective of our Western political values; it is reflective of our Western philosophical anthropology about who man is and what he has the potential to become.

These two parts of man—who we are and our potential—cannot be divided, nor can they be removed from our understanding of our form of government. In The Virtue of Civility, Shils interprets civility as a central part of individual character and political community. Ripened by the aid of society, tradition, institutions, and the self, civility becomes, in turn, the sustenance of the type of political system that best balances man as an individual and as a member of a pluralistic society; as a human and citizen. The best political system that accommodates this for Shils is liberal democracy, which he describes as the order of human affairs most prominent in permitting “the expression and the pursuit of different and conflicting ends.” The role of virtue enters into this relationship between man and the state as an aid for the task required of the human and citizen to live well and flourish within society.

The “virtue” of civility is perhaps one of the best exemplars of this connection between the individual and the political community because it accounts for the inherent diversity of men and multiplicity of ends while still upholding a value that unites them. As Shils writes, civility “is an attitude in individuals which recommends that consensus about the maintenance of the order of society should exist alongside the conflict of interests and ideals.” Shils defines civility as an affirmation about the possibility of a common good— a virtue that we practice not for ourselves, but on behalf of a greater whole. Virtues like civility are both something each individual is capable of and a requisite for society to flourish. Society, in turn, needs a heritage through which to know and understand the value of civility, meaning that society is also in need of a set of institutions that inculcate but also embody this virtue while maintaining authority.

Thus, Shils tells us that civil society requires a level of trust and acceptance of government and its institutions. Not by coincidence, the form of government and institutions that sustain civil society are those of liberal democracy since its values of limited government, natural rights, and tolerance allow civil society to thrive. Shils adds, moreover, that civil society requires external conditions including representative government, competitive political parties, periodic or regular elections, universal suffrage, free press, the freedoms of association, assembly, petition, and contract, as well as independent institutions of learning. At a personal level, civility also entails a level of dispassion or impartiality in order to engage in reasoned deliberation. Shils describes civility as an active virtue: not only must we practice civility towards others, but we must also restrain our own passions to engage in rational analysis, which is what allows us to pursue the common good as a “practicable ideal” and produce a consensual order for society.


The book is a collection of nine essays covering the themes of liberalism, tradition, and civil society. Within these themes, Shils also discusses topics historically related to civility, such as nationalism, citizenship, universities, the liberal arts, ideology, and sociology. The scope, breadth, and level of insight in all of these essays warrant reading the book as a whole.

There are three subjects that Shils addresses, however, which merit brief presentation for their relevance to contemporary rejections of civility within liberal societies. These are markets, ideology, and tradition. Beginning with markets, a problem arises for the critic of civility when we wed civil society or liberal democracy to the market economy since, instead of viewing them as symbiotically benefiting one another, critics suspect that the former abets the latter: Montesquieu’s version of doux commerce, Ferguson’s refinement of manners, and Smith’s moral sentiments are all iterations of a type of “civilizing” process that masks capitalism’s coercive intentions (Albert Hirschman’s The Passions and the Interests is a great presentation of this argument).

Shils has his own take on the doux commerce question in the essay “Civility and Civil Society.” The rise of the market economy signaled to him an “urgent necessity of civility” once “primordial ties” such as kinship, lineage, and locality were set aside from the public sphere. Civility and the market, which Shils calls the two greatest social inventions in the history of humanity, “made it possible for human beings to live relatively peacefully and safely in large societies.” They are “mutually dependent,” furthermore, since the private ownership of property and freedom of contract are “necessary conditions” for civility in society.

The virtue of civility, then, lies in its recognition of the limits and irreconcilability of our ideals and in its ability to bring us together, as humans and citizens, nonetheless.

That’s not to say that the market is the be-all and end-all of liberal democracies. Shils calls for a renewal of an “autonomistic” liberalism that “must see there is more to its tradition than the market.” Autonomistic liberalism is the alternative to collectivistic liberalism, which he calls an “abatement of Marxist ideology,” that takes the forms of emancipationism, anti-patriotism, egalitarianism, populism, scientism, and ecclesiastical abdication. Many of these views entail a level of egoism, scientism, and ethical relativism that Shils deems dangerous for their denial of the legitimacy of moral rules, public authority, and a “commensurate relationship between achievement and reward.”

Shils provides an admonition equally applicable to the progressive critic of civility who is distrusting of markets as to the libertarian critic of civility who is distrusting of government and society. Shils believes, contra Hegel’s understanding of civil society in his Philosophy of Right, that civil society is more than being a citizen in the state and more than being an economic agent in the market. For Shils, civil society centers more around our social self-understanding. Understanding the purpose and meaning of civil society requires understanding the reality of human nature, he argues. Shils therefore transitions to two deeper and anthropological topics: ideology and tradition.

Ideology and Tradition

A pleasant surprise in reading The Virtue of Civility is that it is as much about ideology and tradition as it is about civility, demonstrating Shils’ holistic approach to the subject. With regards to ideology, Shils affirms that it is fundamentally opposed to civility. He does not simply dismiss ideology as evil, however. His essay, “Ideology and Civility” contends that “ideological politics are rooted in an ideological tradition,” which is embedded in the “depths of our Western past.” He adds, ideologies “are sustained by our Judaic-Christian culture, by passions which are part of our souls, and by the nature of human society.” As a result, Shils transmits the idea that ideology is not an external opponent; neither a person, nor a party, to accuse and blame. Ideology is a part of every individual, and it is the task of civility—hence its being a virtueto overcome this tendency. “Civil society,” after all, “requires compromise and reasonableness, prudent self-restraint, and responsibility . . .” These are all personal character traits, nonetheless. The way that they become institutionalized in a political society, cultivated into a culture, is through tradition.

The essay “Tradition and Liberty” demonstrates how the relationship between civility and authority cannot be dismissed, nor does it have to be antagonistic to liberty. The essay tackles the timeless question of whether tradition and liberty are at odds; yet, it is the wrong question to ask. Tradition, much like ideology, is fixed in our societies. Shils argues that traditions possess authority “by virtue of the equality which they acquire in the minds of the persons of one generation.” With this theoretical claim in mind, Shils argues that tradition can actually help civility. Civility on a mass scale cannot stand on the “process of interaction” alone; only “the aid and encouragement of tradition” can grow this civil sense. He likens tradition to a gardener whose task is to “nourish” and “elicit” these tendencies in judgment. But tradition is itself in need of revision if it is to work with liberty. Shils advocates for a “shift in the locus of the sacred” where, rather than institutions, the sacred is to be found in the soul of each individual.

These are only a few of many arguments in the book. The Virtue of Civility presents views that are provocative and insightful enough that one can only debate them with an equal rigor of thought. As with all compilations of essays that the author himself did not arrange, however, one must be cautious when deciphering as to how, precisely, these arguments fit together into an overarching theory of civility. Hence, the book is stronger when taken as a series of arguments due to the absence of a general narrative with which to wrestle. Still, the book is helpful with this arrangement, for we also get Shils’ views on tangential, though still related, topics such as his learned remarks on prominent sociologists and thinkers of his time, such as Max Weber, Walter Lippmann, and Raymond Aron, as well as historical analyses of Europe, North America, and Asia. To be sure, Shils’ repertoire is vast, and this collection of essays whets the appetite for extended reading.

What is clear by the end of the book is that his answer to the question “why civility?” is uncommon yet persuasive. Shils does not tell us that civility is necessary because it is the right thing to do or because it is preferred to the alternative of ideological warring factions (though he’d certainly believe both to be the case). Instead, Shils convincingly argues that civility is the complement of complexity. This is not to say that civility is easy or intuitive—indeed, Shils tells us otherwise—but rather that civility is the virtuous response to the irremovable fact of human complexity which ideology seeks to homogenize. Complexity, truly accepted, means that we are faced with a perpetual challenge whose answer cannot be mass consensus: “Civil politics require an understanding of the complexity of virtue, that no virtue stands alone, that every virtuous act costs something in terms of other virtuous acts, that virtues are intertwined with evils, and that no theoretical system of a hierarchy of virtues is ever realizable in practice.” The virtue of civility, then, lies in its recognition of the limits and irreconcilability of our ideals and in its ability to bring us together, as humans and citizens, nonetheless.