My main goals in this book are to make a persuasive case for making civility a central concern in our lives, and to present and discuss the twenty-five basic rules of civility for our times. I included here all that I think is essential to know about civility not as a philosophical abstraction but as a code of decency to be applied in everyday life. This is a handbook for the practical use of civility.
What is civility? What does it mean to be civil today, at the beginning of the twenty-first century? Is civility in decline? How do we make it part of who we are? What are civility's basic rules? How does civility improve the quality of our lives? How do we practice it among friends, in the workplace, and among strangers? Does it have drawbacks? Are we supposed to be always civil? How do we deal with the uncivil? Answering these questions is what this book is about.
That civility is fundamental to the making of a good, successful, and serene life has been for me the most exciting discovery of the last several years. Talking about that discovery is both a privilege and a serious responsibility. It is also a bold move. I wouldn't want to be considered uncivil for presuming to teach civility. The message here is not that I am a flawlessly civil person but that civility is a wonderfully effective tool to enhance the quality of our lives. Cicero voiced the concern that his readers might see a conflict between his lofty teachings and his less-than-perfect conduct. His reply was that he was writing about virtue, not about himself, and that when he condemned vices he first of all condemned his own. Although I try to practice what I preach, my conduct–like Cicero's–is far from perfect. I remain a flawed messenger bearing a good message. As I was writing, my attitude was not one of superiority. I simply wanted to share what seemed to me an exciting insight.
I know that for many of you, reading this book will be at least in part an exercise in covering familiar territory. Such exercises confirm our commitment to the values we hold dear and encourage us to spread the word. In this sense, pondering what we know is as important as gazing upon new vistas. I trust, however, that these pages will give you the thrill of discovery as well. I learned a lot while writing them, and I know that I am not the same person now that I was when I started. For that and for your commitment to listen I am thankful.
Sometimes we read to think, and sometimes to avoid thinking. The second kind of reading entertains us but usually takes us back to the point from which we started–like a midway ride. It leaves us unchallenged and unchanged. The first kind, instead, entails work and fosters growth. For my book, I envision a reader willing to do the work and open to change. When we walk through a house we are tempted to buy, we want to know it in all its details and take the time to absorb its spirit. We run our fingers along the moldings. We touch the walls and the banisters. And we eventually return to and linger in a favorite room. I hope my readers will walk through this book as they would through a house that holds promise.
I urge you to read slowly. Bring the page to life, not only imagining but also internalizing the experience of life that it brings you. To me, the ideal reader is the reader portrayed by the painters of the Renaissance, with a finger in the closed book to mark the page that made him or her stop, meditate, and sometimes look at life in a new, lifechanging fashion. As I take leave of these pages, I imagine them in the hands of that reader, hoping that they are worthy of such privilege.