|Photo credit: Alan Porritt (AAP)|
The consideration of civic virtues is not new, two of the world's oldest republics, Athens and Rome, gave much time and energy in seeking to define civic virtues. Socrates and Plato were central in the debate concerning Athenian polis. Civic virtue was also a matter of interest in the Renaissance, during the Enlightenment and as part of republican revolutions during the 18th century. This of course has been played out with different priorities, purposes and social agendas. With the rise of Humanism and institutionalised education in the 18th and 19th centuries, some believed that society could be save from itself by the development of virtuous children through education. Biblical Christianity of course would suggest that man's sin and rebellion against God makes this hope of the goodness of humanity rather tenuous. We live together in our imperfection and fallenness.
When people talk of civility today, they might well mean the cultivation of character traits and virtues that are consistent with their own cultural and social practices. These at times simply reflect one's social class rather than well thought out ideas of civil society. The distinction between practices that some see as demonstrating civility and others that are uncivilised, can be based on the most tenuous of justifications.
|Roman Forum, Centre of Public Life|
In countries like Australia, France, Canada, Britain and the USA, political parties seem to be at war with each other rather than setting debating and agreeing on policies that will help to shape nations for the common good. Political parties spend millions of dollars to tear policies and each other apart. Issues are rarely debated with transparency and civility, lies are told, tricks played and voters deceived. What such behaviour can unwittingly encourage is extreme responses by minority groups in any society that is fuelled by the behaviour of our leaders as they provide simplistic messages designed to raise fear and incite anger, rather than opening up reasoned civil discussion.
In the 'The Case for Civility: And Why Our Future Depends On It', well-known Christian Os Guinness argues that civility needs to be rebuilt in western societies like the USA if they are to survive:
"Civility must truly be restored. It is not to be confused with niceness and mere etiquette or dismissed as squeamishness about differences. It is a tough, robust, substantive concept… and a manner of conduct that will be decisive for the future of the American republic" (p. 3).
Guinness presents an alternative to both these problematic public squares, what he calls a “civil public square”. This is one where everyone is free to be part of and engage in public life with or without a faith, and in accordance with reason and conscience. He sees the Constitution as a starting point in the USA, supported by an agreed covenant or civic vision for the common good.