Our world is suffering a deep unrest. The term “civil war” has been thrown around more than once in reference to the deep divide that seems too broad to risk crossing. And it’s not just the protests that devolve into riots or the January 6storming of the U.S. Capitol—it’s the very way we look at each other, address each other. Political differences have become cruel hills to die on. Medical decisions break families apart. And we see our neighbors with underlying suspicion at best; at worst, they’re not our neighbors at all, but the other.
This is the picture that Alexandra Hudson frames in her book The Soul of Civility: Timeless Principles to Heal Society and Ourselves. She raises questions many of us are probably asking right now: What does it mean to be a civilized nation? And if we’re not as civilized as we thought, is there a way to reform the barbarous nature that defines so many modern relationships?
After time in the political sphere of Washington, D.C., Hudson became disillusioned by the utilitarianism and underlying lack of civility that marked so much of her experience. Escaping to the Midwest, she became determined to craft the wisdom imparted by the greatest thinkers of history—from Aristotle and Socrates, to Confucius and Thomas Aquinas, to Gandhi and George Orwell—into practical steps to rebuild a strong civilization. The result is this book.
The Soul of Civility clocks in at nearly 400 pages and spans many eras and cultures, but is nevertheless an accessible text that anyone could read—and many should. Hudson’s impressive research is a testament to the truth that “it wasn’t just government that struggled with instrumentalizing others. Doing so was part of the human condition, and could happen within any vocation, in any environ, in any period of time.” From ancient Egypt and the first book in existence to the steps of the White House, she proves that not only is the problem of incivility as old as mankind, so too is the solution.
Hudson takes a strong “back to basics” approach, beginning with language. Her dive into the etymology of common words in English, Sanskrit, Hebrew, and other tongues makes a compelling case for civility and civilization having more to do with community, friendship, trust, and denial of self than with cleanliness or technological advancement. While Hudson doesn’t give a precise definition of civility herself, she nevertheless points to the conclusion that to be civil is to deny the self-centered aspect of our human nature, and to give all around us—including our enemies—the dignity they are inherently owed by us.
Some may take issue with the premise that Hudson takes for granted: that every human life has intrinsic dignity. But it’s near impossible to deny that to be truly civil “requires us to see and respect the humanity and dignity of others—including people unlike us, those who can do nothing for us, and those we disagree with.” If we cannot do this as individuals, we cannot accomplish it as a society, and not only will we fail to thrive—we’ll collapse into chaos.
Hudson’s call to civility is a challenge many might nod their heads at but may find difficult to implement. She posits that we’ve become used to responding to others with either a veil of politeness or flat out aggression rather than with integrity. Social media, global media, and political association replacing religion in the lives of individuals have conditioned us to dehumanize those around us. In a particularly powerful illustration, she likens the faceless interactions of social media and texting to the Ring of Gyges. Uncivil behavior normally elicits negative consequences in personal encounters, but when others are invisible to us, just as we are to them, our ability to see them as priceless creations is diminished if not eradicated.
Hudson demands that we ask the hard questions: Do I really owe respect to someone who disagrees with my fundamental morality so deeply that they are harming the world and those in it? Is it not possible for someone to forfeit their inherent dignity? Can we defend those who are suffering at another’s hands without resorting to violence ourselves?
Even those who agree that human life has inherent value may struggle with the demand to owe dignity to everyone. But Hudson’s—and history’s—reply is clear: we must. The alternatives to a barbarous and false way of life range from simple hospitality (the topic of one of my favorite chapters in the book) to charitable confrontation with those with whom we disagree. Each option is grounded in the timeless truth that change begins within and that social reform will only happen from the ground up, not the top down.
Hudson reminds how incivility harms the perpetrator as much as the victim and breaks down the moral dilemma of civil disobedience—does it undermine civilization to break a law? If not, how can we do it and remain civil? The book also reinforces the ideas that family and community are the bedrock that society is built on, that education in the humanities is essential for a revitalized world, and that a civilized society is “generative.” She likens each person to a garden, and as we cultivate our souls and bear fruit, so too does the community we live in.
For readers used to reading social commentary in terms of political morality and duality (us vs. them), they might be surprised that Hudson does her best to communicate with and appeal to all sides. Sometimes this can be a detriment: while the values and truths she sets forth about human nature and the moral life fundamentally point to a Christian worldview, she seems hesitant to alienate anyone of an atheistic or agnostic mindset, and so never names that worldview for what it is. The supernatural barely enters the conversation beyond the vague concept of a soul, everything starts and ends with mankind, and Jesus is portrayed as just another historical thinker, despite how the theology of His Church informs every truth about humanity, nature, grace, and redemption Hudson describes.
In her bid to appeal to everyone, Hudson sometimes stops just short of stating the clear truth and shies away from contemporary examples of immorality. It’s easier to point to evils of the past, such as the Holocaust and slavery, than to tackle the polarizing issues of our day, like abortion and the gender wars. Perhaps this is wise on her part, to open up the conversation rather than to point a finger, but it also can leave the reader floundering for examples of how to be civil toward those who fight against our moral convictions now, not just as a way to reinterpret historical disagreements. Hudson’s insistence that important human relationships cannot be abandoned due to differences of ideology may be true, but while each chapter gives tips on how to act within that chapter’s rubrics, I, at least, had to connect some dots myself from the book as a whole rather than have it neatly streamlined for practical application in a broader sense.
And, though it may be an attempt to hammer home her takeaways, Hudson also has a tendency to be redundant; the book would have been just as informative—and read more smoothly—if a quarter to a third had been cut. Another round of editing would have served the reader experience better.
Nevertheless, The Soul of Civility is enjoyable and informative and, while the whole is greater than any of the parts, those parts can still be appreciated, and her conclusions may prove imperative to salvaging our civilization. Until we can imitate Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., until we can stand up for our convictions while respecting the dignity of those who see our ideals—or us—as the problem, we are not civilized. Peaceful protest, debate, and shared meals with opponents, says Hudson, are marks of a civilized society. Riots, name-calling, and violence can never be a cure for a poisoned world. In short, we must forgive even though unforgiven ourselves—or we are lost.
Yet there is hope. As Hudson’s theme insists, history is “both cautionary and comforting.” We’ve lived through contentious and violent times before, and we will again. How the conflict is resolved now is up to us.