The Demise of Civility

The Demise of Civility (and the error of culture)

            Etiquette manuals have been around for some time. Their heyday coincided with the rise of the Bourgeois class, from c. 1820-1930, prompted by the end of the Napoleonic Wars, which in turn allowed nascent industry to develop, cities to grow, and those who used to be guildsmen, mercantilists and burghers to become a true class. Indeed, a class for itself, unlike the workers of the nineteenth century. And this was a novel class, one that had never existed as a demographic force before capital. Though their ideals descended from the aristocracy and their tacit essence, the conception of ‘blood’, drove their desire to become as were the nobles, their interaction with one another could not be relied upon to immediately ape their betters. Hence civility began to replace gentility. The major structural error of the Bourgeois was that they imagined what in fact was a caste could be, or in fact had been, through historical force, transmuted into a mere class. In fact, the nobility did not become the aristocracy in this manner, even though casually we might imagine these to be two terms for the same group of people. A caste presumes upon what Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron (1970) have referred to as the ‘naturalization of the cultural arbitrary’. Ultimately it was this ‘ability’ which has escaped the Bourgeois class, and thus by our time they have foundered upon their own ideals.

            Not a great loss, one might think to say, but the lesson here is that a mode of production shift must be respected as the sea-change it truly is. No mere Bourgeois, however civil and high-minded both, would imagine that vengeance is theirs, for instance. No, this kind of radical act became the province of the State under a new rubric, indeed, the Bourgeois State, to stay strictly Marxian. Bourgeois ‘blood’ was not up to the noble task of dispensing of one’s inferiors; at most it could only aid in the dispensation of ‘justice’, also a novel concept, and also within the purview of the new State. That this justice is sensitive to context, taking biography and even personal suffering into account marks it as utterly different, and even completely at odds with, the noble sense of vengeance. This particular trail begins with the God who declared that vengeance was His and His alone, but no person of truly noble stature would have paid the least attention to such bravado. No, the superior human being was so in part because she had no truck with any divinity other than her own. The entire narrative of the God on earth would have been, at the very least, old hat to such a being, and certainly seen as well as ludicrous. No real God would stoop to owning a human interest, let alone actually dwell upon the human stage alongside ourselves.

            Between Christianity and its parables of communalism, its equality of being before creation and its sense that one should love one’s enemies, and the new order of means of production afforded by industrialization, the ancient noble caste was swept away. It was mere pretense that the new Bourgeois class should seek to ape this older form of being, but it was laughable that they should, in attempting to do so, mistake the premodern landed aristocracy for the ancient nobility. In this, all were already Christian, which I think is one point Wagner is making with the contrast between The Ring Cycle and Parsifal that apparently so annoyed Nietzsche. Upon closer look, the ‘twilight’ cuts both ways. First the Gods then the Idols, surely. Today, we can see little difference between the two once distinct categories. There is nothing contemporary about noble action; chivalry, honor, self-sacrifice, adventure, vengeance, dispassion. No, today we have but civility, policy, self-interest, venture, justice, and compassion, an odd mix in itself, certainly, and one that bears no resemblance to the noble caste ideals of antiquity. It is a great historical irony that within that antiquity there arose a counterpoint to these distinguished and rare traits of character, not unlike the advent of the rodents who rose to prominence as mammals when the reptilians were wiped out by a cosmic accident.

            Was it merely an historical accident that erased nobility from our world, or was it an inevitability? Either way, we must work with what we have left. Eschewing the Bourgeois obsession for aping the aristocracy – only through material consumption could they attain some semblance even of this already lower form of life – as well as the worker’s clamor for ‘equality’ – outside of the law and of material resource, this has no meaning at all – we might perceive instead that civility could indeed pass for chivalry, compassion for honor, and justice for vengeance, if we ourselves internalized the noble value of affrontedness. That is, if we took offense at those who are actually offensive in our society, we would begin to experience something of the noble caste of mind. Instead of kow-towing to the loudest and most obnoxious voice – by definition such a display carries with it the basest, most ignoble lot – we sequester it, ignore it, sanction it, even destroy it. Given that a large part of our modern notions of what might have been nobility is likely based on a romantic fiction, we might use this play to improvise our own new and newly discovered superiority. It must be kept in mind that this divined superior quality of being can only be based on a superior culture, one that does not align itself with any other variable. This was the Reich’s great error of self-conception. In turn, this error led to yet greater flaws in action, including genocide. A truly noble caste of culture takes the understanding that anyone anywhere may well contribute to it. We have the kernel of that sensibility even today when we hear someone speak of ‘not knowing where the next Einstein will come from, or who they will be’. The question is not, is such cultural genius available to human beings, but rather, will we be able, as a culture, to recognize it at all?

            At the start, civility – which even so is to nobility as civil religion is to religion proper, it must be admitted – must be somehow made mandatory. No Singapore sling, civility is rather a basic manner of social interaction that all must heed. Yes, the gentle tone can mask a darker violence, the ‘quiet one’ is ‘always’ the menace, so we have been told, since she sits observing all of the others and thence schemes her insinuative ingenue, but at the same time, it compels us to be attentive and not get carried off by the mob. The Pauline tone is at base, manipulative. Like the visionary, the missionary must realize that his mission is about the self, and that ‘truth is a pathless land’ after all. Civility has within it the roots of society itself, for though a house divided cannot stand, moreover, it cannot stand itself. Civility is the civitas of civic life, the singular connection between public and private, between personal and communal, between intimacy and sociality. And while chivalry was quite ad hoc, civility has this advantage; anyone can learn it and practice it in any context. We need no damsels in distress, no bloody jousts, no holy grail, no fallen Jerusalem to impel us to action. In the civil, we are not concerned with acts; we do not have that kind of vanity about us. In its stead, we have rather the sense that in a diverse and massive social organization within which everyone is accountable to, and reliant upon, everyone else, that there absolutely must be a universal solvent that acts upon all those who would ‘act out’ in that very vanity we have just indicted.

            Our version of the noble can only now be compassion, justice and civility. In these we shall find our nominal superiority, but only in these. Though a pale shade of the original, perhaps we can understand these new nobilities as leverage for a newly refined culture, which takes into itself, and for the first time, all possibilities that enrich the cultural self-understanding. The categories of self-knowledge, the chasms between discourses both within the West and across the world, cannot by themselves generate a noble culture. Anthropology has been not so much the handmaiden of imperialism but rather the bridesmaid of a decoy democracy which in turn states blithely that anything ‘cultural’ has cultural merit, and by definition. This is manifestly not the case, and indeed was the argument, in part, that the same Reich used against its cultured critics. It used to not be a puzzle to import the best and brightest, but what was ignored were all those who could have been, or already were also the best and brightest, since these categories were themselves hung up on Bourgeois conceptions of what would be most favorable to the desire for aristocracy alone, not nobility. Abandoning this sensibility will go some way in rejuvenating authentic culture and thus as well genuine cultural suasion. In 1927, Edward Sapir, the apical anthropologist Boas’ best and brightest, wrote about the difference between ‘genuine and spurious culture’, naming Nietzsche as one of his avatars. Culture, he states, does not ‘happen’ to one, whilst we sit easy in our chairs. It is not after all a ready-made, but rather such customs get in the way of creative, authentic culture. They are the smaller stuff of ethnography, for instance, and as such their limits must be assuredly understood. A culture gets in its own way, as Nietzsche suggested before him, and has an uncanny way of doing only that; ‘A culture is something that is a way to produce one or two great persons, yes, and then is a way round them’.

            In order that we do not let our mere culture get in the way of Culture proper, we must invite the otherness of others – though not necessarily these others themselves, mind you – into it. We must not imagine that we ‘possess’ enough culture to ‘get by’. There is, in fact, no getting by any longer in this our shared, and vulnerable, world. Civility is the first step towards genuine culture. It is also the easiest, shame on us. Then justice, then compassion following hard along. In rational organizations, the highest form of being is rendered last, for better or worse. Compassion, when enacted without pity or grace by the nobility, now becomes our desire to be superior; compassion is the higher being, the ‘bridge to the Overman’, perhaps, but at the very least, the pathless landscape of fenceless neighbors. Truth and the Good did not apply to nobility, and beauty was known in the flesh, and not as an ideal. Nobility had a savage honor about it that we cannot afford to revisit, given our technological proclivities, but it also had a superior sense; that it, because of its humanity, would not, even could not, be brooked in its aspirations. It is this ‘self-confidence’ that we are so sadly lacking today, for we rather imagine that we cannot attain this or that state, and that the world is itself failing. No, it is we who are failing the world, and through this anti-virtue, we commit our most uncivil selves to a premature demise.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of 56 books in ethics, education, aesthetics, social theory and health, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.