06 November 2016

A Rumination on the Foundation of Civil Society

Perhaps, in life, people shouldn't be divided between the useful, who will help you achieve your desired pleasure or ambition, and the rest, who need to be tossed aside or derided for their inadequacy.  Perhaps the division shouldn't be between the knowing in-group and the rest of the world, the promising and the unpromising, the interesting and the passé.  Maybe there are just people, muddled and misguided, frequently wicked, yearning for something good, worthy of politeness and respect, even when their wits are cluttered, or they are stuck in a rut, or whatever.

What is the sine qua non of civil interaction, of affability?  Benevolence and civility.  What are the vices that offend against these necessities?  Irony, malice, rudeness, narcissism.  What does one get from immersing oneself in a culture without civility or benevolence?  One becomes uncivil; one loses the ability to distinguish between acts of malice, indifference, and friendship.  If one can maintain an affable demeanor in such a milieu, that is heroic virtue.  But for the rest of us, we should remember the words of the psalmist:

Blessed is the man 
who does not walk in the counsel of the impious,
or stand in the path of sinners,
or sit in the seat of scoffers;
but his will is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law he meditates by day and by night.

The distinction among men that should be drawn is the distinction between those whose company we can keep without traveling in consilio impiorum, and everyone else.  Whatever other wickednesses there may be, whatever other virtues we may desire, civility and benevolence are at the foundation—if these are absent, whatever other goods we pursue will fail.