Civility and Its Discontents

“Civility,” Keith Thomas notes, “was (and is) a slippery and unstable word.” “Civil” and “civilian” evoke the social life of a people not under military rule, the world of the civitas—the organized community—the only place, according to Aristotle and Cicero, where the good life is possible. While “courtesy” relates to the values of the court, “civility,” Thomas writes, is “the virtue of citizens”: in his Dictionary (1755), Samuel Johnson defined it as both “politeness” and “the state of being civilized.” Thomas explores the understanding and use of the term in England from 1500 to 1800, when it referred both to manners in daily life and manners as mores: the customs and attitudes of the allegedly civilized nation as a whole.

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