Edward Shils
The Intellectuals and the Powers

Civil politics are based on civility, which is the virtue of the citizen, of the man who shares responsibly in his own self-government, either as a governor or as one of the governed. Civility is compatible with other attachments to class, to religion, to profession, but it regulates them out of respect for the common good.

Civil politics do not stir the passions; they do not reveal man at the more easily apprehensible extremes of heroism and saintliness. They involve the prudent exercise of authority, which tries to foresee the consequences of that exercise while appreciating the undeterminable limitations of human powers and the uncertainties of foresight. The civil politician must be aware of the vague line between the exercise of authority and the manipulation of human beings as objects outside his moral realm. He must shun that line and yet on occasion go over it, realizing the moral costs of such crossing over and the difficulties and the necessity of crossing back into the domain of legitimacy. He must maintain a sense of affinity with his society and share with his fellow citizens their membership in a single transpersonal entity, while bearing in mind their unresponsiveness to the ideal and their incapacity to sustain a continuous and intense relationship with the sacred. He must maintain this sense of substantial affinity while being aware of their lesser willingness to be responsible for the common good and while keeping his own feeling of responsibility for it alive and taut. The difficulties of civil political conduct are great in democracies. Their large size and the impossibility of direct contact between politicians and their constituents are strains on the sense of moral affinity which, lacking the support of personal relationships, must be self-sustaining. Civility was rare in aristocratic societies, partly because aristocratic virtue—the virtue of the warrior—and civil virtue—the virtue of the citizen—are so far apart in their inner constitutions, and particularly because aristocratic systems by their nature restrict man's development of the empathic sense of affinity. Liberal democratic regimes place great burdens on the civil sense because they permit open conflict and acknowledge and thus encourage partisanship. The common good is always hard to define, but it is rendered even harder when it must gratify and reconcile opposing interests and simultaneously attempt to guard values for which no strong partisan contends, but which, nonetheless, are essential to a good society. The politician must be partisan himself, while civility requires a partial transcendence of partisanship as well as an empathic appreciation of the other parties within the circle of the civil political order. Partisanship must be carried on with the simultaneous perception of the civil and moral order which embraces both one's opponents and one's allies.

Civil politics—which are by no means identical with democratic politics—are especially difficult in contemporary society. The complex tasks which governments undertake and which nearly everyone thinks they should undertake, make so great the amount of material that a politician who devotes himself to the matter must master, and so many the obligations to which he must attend, that reflection is deprived of the quiet and leisure which it needs to mature. The complexity of the tasks renders easy understanding of them beyond the power of most of the citizenry and encourages a depreciatory attitude toward the capacities of the electorate, thus inhibiting the vitality of the sense of affinity between citizens and leaders that is essential to civil politics. The deep and increasing penetration of populism in all countries results in a greater pressure on the politician for the immediate satisfaction of class and sectional ends. The development of techniques of mass communication and of chemical, surgical, and psychological modes of controlling human behavior presents continuous temptations to the politician to respond to the incessant demands by manipulation. Not that he always by any means yields or that the techniques would be successful if applied, but the mere existence of the putative possibilities creates an atmosphere which impedes the cultivation and practice of civility.

Civil politics entail judging things on their own merits—hard enough in any case where the merits and demerits in any complex issue are so obscure and intertwined—and they also require respect for tradition. Civility requires respect for tradition because the sense of affinity on which it rests is not momentary only but reaches into the past and future. As to the past, civil politics appreciate the factual reality of past achievements as well as the human quality of those who, by virtue of having once been alive, command our respect for their names and the things they valued; as to the future, civil politics see the unity, in essence, of the present generation and those which are to follow, not just in a biological sense, but in the order of value as well. The population of a civil polity is in its fundamental being a continuous procession of those living in the present, preceded by those who have lived, shading off into the obscurity of time past, and to be followed by those who have still to live, shading off into the even more shadowy obscurity of time still unelapsed.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.