Civility on Trial


        There has been great concern expressed of late from the halls of Congress to the sidewalks of my village about the breakdown of civility in our daily lives. Civility is a natural virtue that transcends a specific culture, ethnicity, or denomination. It is the cement that helps bind together a society as diverse as ours.

        We have all experienced it in our lives in myriad ways as simple as the smile and courtesy of a stranger. We also have been stung by the painful lack of it at times.  Sadly we even note a lack of civility too often among those to whom we should look up. It is often lacking in the anonymity of our highways and village streets.

        A recent perusal of the life and writings of the great humanist, Erasmus of Rotterdam (1469?-1536),  may shed some light on this issue.  Erasmus of Rotterdam's wisdom helps provide a basis for civility in a complex society such as ours. That he was able to survive the vicissitudes and extremes of the Reformation era as a reformer says much for his character and role as a peacemaker. He was a severe critic of the excesses of both sides and managed to "keep his head" - no mean accomplishment in his day.  When it came to his principles of behavior, however, his motto was clear:  "Concedo nulli" ("I yield to no one.")

        Civil behavior for Erasmus resulted from the cultivation in ourselves and our children of two virtues: humanitas and pietas. "Humanity" (from the Greek word, "philanthropy") meant a basic love for people and a respect for their dignity. "Piety" meant reverence for others, patience and long-suffering, and devotion to the common good. In practical terms, to bring about change or reform in the community, for instance, we should develop eloquence, that is the art of persuasion rather than compulsion. Reason and civility will carry the day rather than discord and violence. An ancient Roman saying Erasmus admired was "Festina lente", that is, "Make haste slowly." The image on the Roman coin of Emperor Titus depicted a dolphin wrapped around an anchor. Erasmus said the dolphin speeds but the anchor retards. This is how citizens should proceed as they work for change in a civil society.

        So this friend of Thomas More was horrified by such concepts as a "just war," a pagan concept borrowed from Cicero and embraced by churchmen in his day. "Dulce bellum inexpertis," Erasmus wrote.  ("War is sweet to those who have never tasted it").  Let disputes be settled rather by arbitration than by bloodshed. What good is it, as St. Jerome had already noted, to "make up for a lifetime of war, murder and crime by building a sacred edifice"  at the end of your life-  as some princes were wont to do. Wouldn't it be better to adorn "living temples, that is, Christ's poor."  So this very civil man was scandalized in Rome by the cruelty of the bull fights or the sight of Pope Julius II ("the Terrible") in Bologna leading his  armies in triumph after crushing a Christian city.  Was this the successor of Jesus Christ or Julius Caesar, he wondered?

         How we cultivate civil behavior in ourselves and our children remains a great challenge. For Erasmus the answer is "to seek the mind of Christ."  What would Christ do?  Can we ever go wrong with such a standard of behavior?  Showing civility may be as simple a thing as holding the door for another at the post office or bank, giving a pedestrian a break as he or she tries to cross our busy streets, or allowing an on-coming driver a chance to make a left turn so as not to block the flow of traffic in town. Very little things indeed.

        What about treating the salesperson, waiter, or village employee or volunteer with courtesy? On the other hand, what about treating a customer as a person rather than an object that interferes with my personal agenda, or continuing to converse with fellow employee in another language while waiting on a customer? What about littering our streets and lovely parks with trash and garbage? The reader can fill in the blanks...... Big or little things in life - the thoughts of Erasmus can give us pause for reflection.

Copyright 1998, Richard E. Cross

 The main source for this essay and an excellent read on Erasmus is Erasmus of Christendomby Roland Bainton. Scribners, 1969.