“Be civil to all; sociable to many; familiar with few; friend to one; enemy to none” (Benjamin Franklin).
IN OUR DEALINGS WITH OTHER PEOPLE, THERE MAY BE MANY THINGS WE FIND IT IMPOSSIBLE TO DO, BUT WE CAN AT LEAST BE “CIVIL” TO ONE ANOTHER. To be “civil” is to act like a “civilized” person. The word comes from the Latin civis (“citizen”), and it refers to the behavior of those who live under a government in an organized society or “city.” Historically, when people have lived in close proximity, they have found it helpful to treat one another in a “civil” way. So basically, “civility” is courtesy. It’s the way people act who realize that a group’s quality of life is greatly affected by the way its members treat one another, as opposed to people for whom “might makes right.”
Civility does not seem to come naturally to us. Rising above the behavior of animals involves the use of our freedom of will. It takes deliberate choice and conscious effort. So we must (1) value the benefits of civility, and (2) aim to make our communities places where that is the norm. It won’t happen if we don’t make it happen.
But in the quotation above, Benjamin Franklin advised being “civil to all,” and therein lies the real challenge. Almost anyone can be civil to those who are civil in return, but it takes people of uncommon character to practice civility to all, even to those who are uncivil.
Some would say that being courteous and mannerly to those who dislike us is timid and cowardly, but John F. Kennedy was right when he said in his inaugural address, “Civility is not a sign of weakness.” Indeed, it takes far more strength to be civil than to fail to do so.
One of life’s great pleasures is to please others. If we had to compromise our principles to be pleasing, that would not be commendable, of course. But within the boundaries of moral integrity, there is ample room to bring pleasure by being civil and mannerly to those around us. Graciousness and generosity are habits well worth learning. When we act as civilized people, rather than as brute beasts, we give a gift that’s as agreeable to the giver as it is to the recipient.
“The ultimate aim of civility and good manners is to please: to please one’s guest or to please one’s host. To this end one uses the rules laid down by tradition: of welcome, generosity, affability, cheerfulness, and consideration of others” (Claudia Roden).