Virtue, Family, and the Death of Civility

I had two recent experiences that brought home to me a disturbing trend in our country.

First, I walked into a PNC Bank, where a woman was sitting with her adolescent son. The tellers were occupied, or perhaps were ignoring her. That’s because she seemed to be a bit unstable. She started yelling and at one point kicked a cup near the coffee machine, demanding that someone get her water. I could only feel sorry for her son.

Later that day, I was in ShopRite. Walking up the paper towel aisle, I saw two young boys climb up unattended onto a shelf and hide behind the paper towels. When I looked at them, my expression must have been one of mild annoyance. “We’re playing hide-and-go-seek,” one explained. “We’re playing hide-and-go-[expletive]-seek.”

Civility. Etymologically, it is related to civis, the city [polis in Greek]. A citizen is one who participates in the public affairs of the city. Together, this interplay of networks forms the civitas, a unified social unit. Public activity, however, has always been dependent upon private virtue. In order for the city to operate in a peaceful and fair way, persons have to be able to relate to each other fairly. And this kind of training had to take place at home, before one ventured out into the wide world. Plato knew it. Cicero knew it. James Madison knew it. So why have we forgotten it?

Here’s one cause, from the Pew Institute:

“Researchers at the National Center for Health Statistics estimate that 78% of college-educated women who married for the first time between 2006 and 2010 could expect their marriages to last at least 20 years. But among women who have a high school education or less, the share is only 40%.”

In short, one’s income class and level of educational attainment are strong driving factors in one’s likelihood of having what used to be called the “American dream”: a stable family (in all senses of that word). Many others are left with families which are either frayed by divorce or overburdened by lack of adequate employment, housing, and education.

At the same time, I recently learned that at a very prestigious private Catholic school in the Philadelphia area, there is a worryingly high degree of bullying going on as early as second and third grade. Parents are debating whether to keep their students in this very toxic (and very expensive!) environment or move them to a parish school. Thus, pace Charles Murray’s helpful analysis in Coming Apart, the upper classes cannot claim immunity from such failures to inculcate their children in the virtues. It just manifests itself in different ways.

Without private virtue, the populace quickly becomes a narcissistic and bilious one (see Charlottesville for proof of this). So what can Christians do about this? The bottom line is that we are all responsible for each other. Yes, there is nothing wrong with wanting the best for one’s own children. But if the children of other people grow up in unstable situations without proper formation in the virtues, then sooner or later the entire polis will suffer. We have seen in recent days the violence and unrest caused when regular people choose their own prejudices instead of fairness, calm, and respect for the other. Where does this begin but at home? And how will it begin at home if families are either absorbed in their endless frenetic activity or struggling just to put food on the table?

It takes a village. That’s the name of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s book about parenting. Is it possible that a return to the “clan structure” of extended families will alleviate some of the pressures on our “nuclear families?” If we expanded our networks in this simple way, could we perhaps help each other in giving that critical education in the virtues necessary for a functioning society? Wouldn’t this perhaps address some of the isolation which leads to the ubiquitous “deaths of despair” (suicide, drugs, and alcohol) in our culture? In this kind of scenario, practiced with great success in our immigrant communities of yesterday and today, a family member who does well has the responsibility to take care of those who are struggling. It means that the institutions which bring us together as a community – especially the Church! – take precedence over our individual hobbies and preferences.

            Christians have a necessary part to play in this recovery of civility. Henri de Lubac talks about the image of a man walking through a field of battle holding a rose. This, for him, is the allure of the saved individual. Yet it is unacceptable for a Christian, because as Gaudium et spes says, “the joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the men of our time, especially those who are poor or afflicted in any way are the joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ as well.” The Church should see it as part of her mission in this time to re-educate the culture in the virtues of justice, modesty, and respect for authority. These are not just virtues which benefit the polity, but are essential for a Christian as well. It is Jesus who is the true paragon of virtue, the Lord of history and cosmos. While there are some in every age who claim that removing him from public life makes everyone freer and happier, the evidence all around us is proof of precisely the opposite.