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On Civility

The well-being of society would be greatly promoted, if the nature and use of this Christian virtue were more generally known. We take this to be, in personal intercourse, the observance of the command, Do to others as you would that others should do to you. The most rapid glance at any community, shows this: That some of its members are brought into contact in matters of business, necessarily; others meet, incidentally, who have no particular connexion; others meet for social purposes, in various forms; and that there is a large proportion who know, of each other, very little beyond the fact, that they are of the same country; and perhaps, not even that. There must be a best rule of deportment for all these classes; and no one will deny, that if this rule were defined, and faithfully applied, there would be much more of every day comfort, and complacency in the world, than there is well known to be. If we rightly understand the meaning of civility, it is the manifestation of kind feelings, and of a desire to do all things which are to be done, under the influence of such feelings, in a becoming and agreeable manner.

If every person understood the true foundation of society, the common origin of all its members, their natural and necessary sympathies, their community of interests, their necessary action upon, and with each other, it might be supposed, that all who are reasonable, would be civil. They would be so, because they would promote their own good, because they would be doing what it is proper to do, to promote the good of others; and because they would know, that in so doing, they would conform to the design of their creation. We do not include under the term civility, the great duties of justice, acts of munificence, important personal services. These arise out of some special relation, which an individual bears to one or more other individuals. It seems to be limited to the manner in which the common, or accidental intercourse of the members of society, in general, should be carried on.

This matter may be better understood by some examples. Thus, if one comes into the presence of another, as a beggar, servant, laborer, mechanic, trader, merchant, farmer, lawyer, physician, clergyman, or public officer; or if it be a female, or child of either sex; there may be very various modes of receiving these different persons. Yet, certainly, by every one of the laws, which we are endeavoring to illustrate, these several persons are entitled to civility. Even the beggar, perhaps one should rather say the beggar in particular, if not deformed by voluntary transgression, should be received with civility. That is, gentleness, kindness, decorum are to be observed relatively to each one. Why? because no man can afford to be deemed insensible to the calls of reasonable humanity; nor a stranger to the decencies of life; nor ignorant of what is due from him, nor to him, in any of his proper relations. Politeness may be quite another thing, in some of the supposed cases. One interchanges politeness with those who happen to know what politeness is; civility, with every body. A king would be polite to the ladies of his court, to his prime minister, to the members of his council, to foreign ministers, &c., and civil to his coachman, and to the humblest of his subjects.

We may find many illustrations, and fill ever so many pages with them. Let us take one which will concern the greatest number. In this country a stage-coach, and a steamboat, bring many persons into a small space, who may be utterly ignorant of each other’s existence, until they meet. They have a common object, that is, to be transported in the same vehicle, from the point of departure, to that of destination. Circumstances compel them to be very close to each other, and each one has the power of being very disagreeable to each one of the others, in a variety of well known modes. Let us suppose that each one consults merely his own interest, including in that, his own self-respect, the reasonable good will, which each man desires from all others, and the ever present principle of doing as he would be done by. He shows that he is sensible of the presence of his fellow-men; that he thinks them of sufficient consequence to wish to have their good opinion; that he is attentive to their comfort, or convenience; that he is disposed to learn something; from them, or communicate something; or to join with them in disposing of the time in which one has nothing to do, but to be carried. Take the other side of the picture; — he puts himself in the best place; takes out his cigar, lights it from a pocket apparatus, and goes to smoking; he sees no one, speaks to no one, and endeavors to hear no one; if spoken to, he answers in a coarse monosyllable, and in a tone which prevents all further attempt at intercourse with him. If he make his presence known at all, beyond his sullen sitting there, it is by some selfish exclamation; or contemptuous ejaculation, on what is passing within his notice. Which of these two persons is civil; which of them is making the most of human life; which of them is attracting good will; which of them ought to like himself the best; which of them will have the most to look back upon, with pleasure? Which of them is a rational, sensible, well disposed human being, and which of them is a selfish brute.