The Rules of Civility

What are the Rules of Civility?  They are a set of precepts written by none other than our nation’s first President, George Washington.  This is also the title of Amor Towles’ first book, but it is also a concept and practice wholly needed in today’s world.  

The whole notion captured my mind when I first heard of the rules while attending a continuing legal education (CLE) conference in about 2009.  I never knew before that day that George Washington wrote rules to live by way back before he was ever the first American President.  In fact, he was supposedly only fourteen years old when he wrote all 110 rules, which he aptly titled, “The Rules of Civility.”  You can read them here, but to give a flavor this is the first one:

“Every Action done in Company, ought to be with Some Sign of Respect, to those that are Present.”

What a concept. Thoughtfulness. Respectful behavior.  Civility.

To this point, wouldn’t these concepts be a great addition to all civics classes?  Within civics classes general civility lessons could be interwoven as lessons.  Especially now that mask debates have come to a boiling point in schools, a focus on character, manners, and overall respectful kindness would be beneficial at multiple touchpoints.  Not only would the students receive direct learning experience, but also the parents would receive at home support materials to teach from a parent perspective.   The precepts of the 1st amendment right to free speech would be explored giving the foundational abilities and the constraints on that right.  The ideas presented would provoke thought and discussion of how to create a civil society while recognizing that it takes individual effort at emotional regulation and cognizance of appropriate behavior.  

One example of this type of educational effort is in the legal community, my chosen field of study and profession.  Nationwide, the legal profession has made an effort during my generation to address the need for more civility in the practice of law.  This may seem unexpected or thought to be unneeded if you think of the legal profession as one that is stewarded with upholding the law and a common level of decency.  However, there has been a critical need identified for ongoing education on the matter.  This is addressed on an ongoing basis in Illinois by the Illinois Supreme Court with the establishment of a commission on professionalism and in particular civility:  

Commission members spoke at the CLE I attended back in 2009, and introduced me to George Washington’s Rules of Civility.  I was captured by the concept and impressed by George Washington more so than ever before.  How could he have written such thoughtful concepts at such a young age?  No wonder he was destined to be our first President.  I love the idea of working toward a higher level of decorum in the practice of law, and maybe that can spill over into everyday life little by little.

After having learned about the rules, that is why when Amor Towles’ first book came out back in 2011 with its title, I was intrigued.  I read the book and found it mesmerizing.  I can remember feeling like I was transported to a different time and place: New York in 1938.  I found it interesting that one of the high society characters had taken it upon himself to live his life according to George Washington’s Rules of Civility.  Amor Towles describes how while writing the book with themes of character and appearance, ideals and compromise, he happened to pull a book off his shelf which started with George Washington’s “Rules of Civility.”  He knew that one character would primarily study them.  How fascinating from a writing perspective that he was reading these rules and became inspired to not only include them in his novel, but to use the same title.  

I find it totally refreshing that an author is so open about his writing process and responsive to his readers.  He has presented a Q & A on his website that is helpful to readers.  He even identifies and includes mistakes that have been pointed out by readers.  What he is doing as an author is living by the namesake first rule of the Rules of Civility.  He is cognizant of the reading community and the world at large and as a sign of respect provides answers and admits mistakes, not only on his blog, but also on live appearances like this one with Seth Meyers.   

The Rules of Civility by George Washington and the novel by Amor Towles are fascinating ways to emulate and study civil behavior – both what is right and what is wrong.  More discussion of this topic today benefits so many people.  Whether civility is taught in schools in a didactic way ala George Washington or within the nuanced characters and plot of a novel like Amor Towles has done, the discussion is needed today more than ever.

© Megan Davia Mikhail

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