Teresa Bejan’s Mere Civility exemplifies its own thesis: it is a model of amiable provocation. Applying early modern discussions of civility to the modern literature on the question exposes the latter as a collection of often insipid liberal bromides. If it achieves the wide readership it deserves, Mere Civility should sharpen our contemporary discussion of civility, a discussion which has assumed a slightly frantic tone after the election of Donald Trump.
In Bejan’s scheme, Thomas Hobbes offers us civility as “difference without disagreement.” Conscience is tolerated, but not dissent, polemic, or evangelizing. “Discretion and complaisance” are prioritized, necessitating a disjunction between inner belief and outer compliance. John Locke’s civility is presented as a positive principle, a refurbished conception of concordia and comprehension. Civil, reasoned debate becomes a social expectation, and a shared ethic that must be sincere and internalized. Bejan’s hero, Roger Williams, instead defended the freedom to judge, evangelize, and condemn. He understood civility as a second order principle—bare rules required for coexistence. Rather like early modern tolerantia, it was a counsel of prudence.
Bejan prefers the Williams model to either Hobbesian conformism or neo-Lockean utopianism “equating civility with mutual respect.” Williams “calls upon individuals to display the mental toughness necessary to manage and mind the gap between what we would have others think—of us, and in general—and what they actually do.”
As an American teaching university in Canada, where the illiberal regulation of disfavored speech is increasingly common, I am tempted to simply applaud Bejan’s book. (Or perhaps place a bulk order for distribution at a future faculty meeting.) The politics of personal outrage has reached an exhaustion point. University campuses are bedeviled by a paradoxically aggressive discourse of vulnerability, victimhood, and “triggers”. Vaguely Orwellian “human rights tribunals” police speech with increasingly minute attention. Bejan astutely suggests that the war on “hatred” (and for civility) is often disingenuously waged to silence dissent or enforce moral consensus. Trump may well represent a Molotov cocktail thrown by those resentful of these constraints. (Though his own appalling weaponization of insult and ridicule indicates the limitations of a politics of pure verbal transparency.)
Methodologically, Mere Civility is an effort at engaged intellectual history. It is considerably more historiographically versed than standard efforts of this kind emitting from political theorists. Bejan’s history does more than merely add “color” to theory. I will, however, offer one historical criticism that might also suggest a normative shortcoming.
A weakness of Bejan’s readings of Hobbes and Locke is a certain inattention to the question of agency. Mere Civility largely operates with a presumed methodological individualism. Bejan takes as a given what was in fact, for early moderns, a reality only painfully emerging: namely, the sovereign state as a comprehensive representative person, an agglomeration of atomized, individual wills. The new jus naturalists such as Hobbes and Locke helped bring this world into being, but they still had one foot in a world now lost, where politics—and even persons—were often defined by corporate power only half subordinated to sovereignty. Leviathan rallied an army of natural persons against an ancient society of orders. This context shaped every dimension of early modern politics, including discussion of toleration and civility.
In subtle ways, though certainly not fatal ones, inattention to this point flattens Bejan’s readings of her source texts. For instance, she presents Hobbes as a fairly uncompromising advocate of enforced “civil silence,” a servile obedience to the dictates of public doctrine. Hobbes sometimes did write in sweeping terms about the need to eradicate disagreeableness and open difference. But more often, particularly after Leviathan, he directed such strictures not at all individuals, but at individuals who spoke in an authorized or official capacity, representing a source of dangerous corporate power. His favorite whipping boys were clergy and university instructors, as they represented the most dangerous corporate institution of them all: the hierarchical church. Hobbes was more liberal in tolerating the consciences, but also the expressed opinions, of private individuals. This emerges most clearly in later Hobbesian texts that Bejan does not consider: his Restoration heresy writings. These date from the 1660s and counselled Charles II to avoid heresy prosecutions. But they also promoted a robust, if at times coded, assault on the coherence of Trinitarian orthodoxy. These writings did not exemplify or suggest “civil silence” as to Hobbes’s own dissenting religious opinions. They were efforts at persuasive “evangelism” of the sort that Bejan considers anathema to Hobbesian conformism. Bejan is right to sense an intolerance lurking in Hobbes’s “theological minimalism.” To the extent that complex doctrine empowered the clerical estate, both required suppression. But he did advance a freer understanding of private lay opinion.
Some of the tension Bejan finds in Hobbes’s tolerationism (of belief and speech alike) resolves itself if one attends to the critical distinction between the conscience liberties of individuals and those of corporate institutions. The same might be said for Locke. Bejan is persuasive that Locke’s normative preference for voluntary rational religion informed a virtual public philosophy. He strongly privileged individual inner conviction and sincerity. This generated a suspicion of outward sacramental religious practice, and of deference to collective intellectual authority. That Locke’s partiality represented a secularized version of Christian concordia, with autonomy and civility replacing religion itself as a shared code, is an ingenious suggestion. But again, Locke was most concerned to control public disputation and distemper when it was generated—as he felt it usually was—by clergy guarding their institutional power. He loathed what he called the “drum ecclesiastic”—political agitators in the pulpit, constantly pronouncing the “church in danger” from prince and people alike. In his polemics with Jonas Proast he cast the real agents of intolerance and incivility as ordained “men of art” representing the institutional power of the divine right church.
In other words, Mere Civility may blur a critical distinction: between the “civil” and tolerant interactions of individuals on the one hand, and, on the other, the civil coexistence of rival corporate religious bodies (or of the corporate Church and the civil state). In early modernity, individuals might find themselves more or less constrained in their speech as private individuals or, alternatively, as individuals who spoke for group power and disciplinary expertise.
For Roger Williams the distinction may be somewhat less apposite, and this may partly explain Bejan’s preference for his model. For Bejan, “mere civility” is a matter of individual self-expression, exemplified by the evangelical Williams—amateur theologian, lay preacher, an orthodoxy unto himself. A civility construed in his image will concern the management of interactions between atomized individuals, each proclaiming “his” or “her” truth. Bejan construes her history, and its current application, as a question of individual ethics, but in this she may impose a liberalized political reality on her historical subjects.
And this bias may be pertinent today, even after hyper-individualism has left our associational life shattered. There is a reason that most modern speech codes and litigation target representative persons of various kinds: politicians, teachers, university instructors, religious leaders. It is not individual freedom that the liberal Leviathan finds difficult to accommodate. Individual rights, indeed, are the primary blandishment that liberal states offer when justifying their own power. Associational rights, however, pose a graver threat to the logic of liberal authority, and are more vulnerable. As with Hobbes and Locke, modern “civilitarians” are often not seeking to regulate individual opinion or speech as such, but to target the speech of individuals acting in an official capacity or speaking for a corporate institution. Speech codes often concern the relative power of various group constituencies within modern polities, each seeking to pull the coercive power of the state on its side. The identity politics that lurk behind most speech codes are fundamentally collective. Taking a sectarian, separatist Protestant such as Williams as a model of civility may not be sufficiently sensitive to the political dynamics of our modern equity wars.
A final, more open ended question. Like many theorists, Bejan finds in early modern religious history a paradigm of our modern rights and freedoms. From debates that were all but entirely religious in the past she extracts a set of dispositions that might structure and manage a very different kind of pluralism in modern times. One might question this pervasive theoretical habit to reduce away the particular nature of religion and religious freedoms. It is not a coincidence that so many of the modern applications of the Williams model of civility still pertain to religious differences, or to closely related “social” controversies. This would hardly have surprised Williams. For him—and indeed for many today—essential issues are, by definition, spiritual. His “mere civility” was premised on the notion that the “civil” (in this sense secular) sphere was of secondary importance, a transitional world of sin that darkened our vision of higher things. For Williams, there was little loss in allowing prudence to dominate our political and social lives. Earthy society, and its material freedoms, can offer us only a testing ground we must traverse as we seek soul freedom.
For nonbelievers, will civility as prudence ever suffice? Early modern incivility pitted rival versions of divine transcendence, but modern incivility is often fueled by those for whom political and social justice are the summum bonum. Without a world beyond, politics itself offers ultimate meaning, and political compromise becomes the gravest of sins. It is perhaps not generic “moral disagreement” that divides us moderns, but a more incommensurable difference over what is at stake as we negotiate the terms of our coexistence. For perfectionists whose heaven is earthly, the modus vivendi may be the road to hell.