Saturday, May 21, 2011

George Washington's rules of civility.

Is civility relative? Given that by its nature, civility is about common ground, do we have a sense of what that is? Is our generation--and by "our" I mean mine, GenX--the last generation raised with the duty of civility? Is it possible that civility is something that we truly hold in common?

I ask this because Washington's rules of civility strike me as being just as apt today as they were when he copied them from the Jesuits. (Now that I've been to the George Washington Masonic Memorial, I cannot picture him without a Masonic apron.) I cannot profess an ability to get inside the minds of all classes and creeds, nor do I pretend to include the most extreme or isolated groups in this. I mean the middle ground. Is a sense of civility what begins to define the lower edge, so to speak, of that middle ground?

I think a lot about social markers and markers of privilege. Washington, DC, is a battleground of those markers; we are each assessed, day in, day out, by those in each rung. Civility as self-discipline, as an external signification of self-control and self-mastery, is the least of the lessons that we carry forward from Roman stoicism. Yet these limits imposed on the self seem to be slipping away from us. Perhaps it's not that we've lose a sense of civility so much as we're losing belief in ourselves. After all, self-discipline requires one believe that such discipline is possible and fruitful.

Bread and circuses did not help Imperial Rome outlast external aggression. For all our democratizing of education and social access, we still cast bread about and set up circuses to entertain. What will it take for us to believe in ourselves enough to master ourselves?

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