in: Character, Etiquette, Podcast

• Last updated: October 26, 2023

Podcast #934: Beyond Mere Politeness — The Art of True Civility

It often seems like we live in a very inconsiderate, indifferent, and ill-mannered time and that the cure for what ails our abrasive and disjointed relations is a lot more politeness. But my guest would say that what we really need is a revival of civility.

Today on the show, Alexandra Hudson — author of The Soul of Civility: Timeless Principles to Heal Society and Ourselves — explains the difference between politeness and civility, and how being civil can actually require being impolite. We discuss how civility ensures the health of democracy, and good government relies on citizens’ ability to govern themselves and check each other, which may require acting a little like . . . Larry David. We talk about what Homer’s Odyssey can teach us about the art of hospitality, the relationship between civility and integrity, and more.

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness Podcast. It often seems like we live in a very inconsiderate, indifferent and ill-mannered time and that the cure for what ails our abrasive in disjointed relations is a lot more politeness. But my guest would say that what we really need is a revival of civility. Today on the show, Alexandra Hudson, author of “The Soul of Civility: Timeless Principles to Heal Society & Ourselves” explains the difference between politeness and civility and how being civil can actually require being impolite. We discuss how civility ensures the health of democracy and good government requires citizens’ ability to govern themselves and check each other, which may require acting a little like Larry David. We talk about what Homer’s Odyssey can teach us about the art of hospitality, the relationship between civility and integrity and more. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at

All right. Alexandra Hudson, welcome to the show.

Alexandra Hudson: Thanks so much, Brett.

Brett McKay: You got a new book out called “The Soul of Civility” where you explore what it means to be civil. That’s a topic that a lot of people talk about when they see things get acrimonious online, and you started the book off with a story talking about your experience in Washington that led you to take this deep dive into civility. So walk us through that experience. What happened in Washington.

Alexandra Hudson: Thanks, Brett. So my book is about what I think is the most important question of our day, which is how do we flourish across deep difference? I think you’re right people see the rancor and divisiveness all around us and intuit that this is a serious problem. I have a unique background and familiarity with this topic. I was raised by Judi The Manners Lady. My mother is this internationally renowned expert in etiquette and manners and actually while writing this book, I discovered that my mother is only one of four women named Judi who are internationally renowned experts in manners and etiquettes. So my mother is a… Yeah, there’s Judith Martin of the Washington Post, who’s maybe the most famous. My mother is also one of these figures. So I was raised in this home that was attentive to social norms and expectations and in addition to teaching manners, my mother really embodied the spirit of grace and hospitality and other orientedness that is the hallmark of true civility as I define it, sacrifice of the self so that the social can flourish in ourselves in society.

And one thing my mother always said to me growing up was that manners mattered because they were an outward extension of our inward character. And I have this constitutional allergy to authority. I don’t like being told what to do for no reason and so I always kind of questioned these social norms, why do we use forks and not chopsticks? Why do we do things the way that we do them? But I always followed them. My mother promised that they would lead to success in work and school and life and she was generally right until I found myself at the United States Department of Education. So I took this role in government ’cause I love learning and I was raised in this intellectually omnivorous home and I was confronted with these two extremes in government.

On one hand, there were these people who had sharp elbows and who were hostile and willing to step on anyone to get ahead. And on the other hand, there were these people who at first I thought were my people. They were the ones with polish and they were poised and they were suave and they knew the rules of etiquette and propriety, but I quickly came to realize that these were the people who would smile and flatter me one moment and then stab me in the back the next. That their polish, their politeness was this tool to disarm me and others in order to get ahead. And at first I thought these were polar opposites but I realized that these two modes, the extreme hostility and the extreme politesse, were actually two sides of the same coin because both modes instrumentalized others. They saw others as a means to their selfish ends, to their goals, whatever they wanted.

And I saw them as tools to either manipulate or discard. So I left government very disillusioned for many reasons and one of which was… The main reason was this extreme hostility and rancor and divisiveness. And so I left government and reflected deeply on this question, what does it mean to be a human being and what is the bare minimum of respect that we are owed and owed others by virtue of being members of the human community and having equal moral worth as human beings? And why does that matter in practice? What does that mean for our deeply divided moment? And one thing that experience helped me realize was that there is this essential distinction between civility and politeness. That politeness is manners, it’s etiquette, it’s a technique, it’s behavioral, it’s external, superficial whereas civility is internal, it’s a disposition of the heart that sees others as our moral equals and sees them as worth respecting in light of that. And sometimes actually respecting someone, actually being civil requires being impolite.

It requires breaking the rules of etiquette and propriety and telling hard truths, engaging in robust debate. Brett, you had a great guest on a few weeks ago about the art of saying no to people. We’re deeply uncomfortable with saying no to people but actually saying no as a way that we can respect ourselves and our own humanity, our own dignity. And so there is this relationship between respecting others and respecting ourselves and that sometimes requires being impolite. It feels impolite to say no to people, it feels impolite to tell them hard truth but that’s a way of actually respecting ourselves and others.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I think that’s the big theme in your book, is the difference between civility and politeness. And your mom wasn’t wrong when she said that manners, these outward things are important.

Alexandra Hudson: Right.

Brett McKay: They work if the inner part, the civility part, lines up.

Alexandra Hudson: Right.

Brett McKay: And as you said, sometimes in order to be civil, you have to break the rules of etiquette. And I’ve often thought of being civil or even just etiquette, what it means to have etiquette, it’s all about making other people feel comfortable in whatever situation you find yourself in. And so for the most part, we have these etiquette rules that say you shake hands this way, you introduce people this way because it kind of helps smooth out our interaction with human beings. But sometimes, in order to make that person feel comfortable, you might have to break the rules of etiquette, right?

Alexandra Hudson: Right. Absolutely, absolutely. You’re right. There is this disconnect between inner and outer and that sometimes actually respecting people, actually supporting, facilitating friendship, requires breaking the rules. And the story I love that illustrates this is the story of Queen Victoria when she was hosting this grand state dinner at Buckingham Palace for the Queen of Sheba as her guest of honor. And the Queen of Sheba at this elegant state dinner did the unthinkable. She took the bowl in front of her and tipped it to her lips and sipped it. And of course, this was a finger bowl meant to wash your hands, so you don’t drink the finger bowl. But what did the Queen… So the room gasped and watched what the Queen did, and no one could believe what she did. Queen Victoria took the bowl and did the exact same thing and tipped the finger bowl to her lips. Why? She flouted these rules of propriety in her Victorian England that was very attentive and mindful of social norms and expectations, but she broke them because she wanted to make her guests feel at ease and comfortable, and she wanted to facilitate the friendship and facilitate the trust. That is the stuff of the good life, the life well lived.

And so you’re absolutely right that I think at their best manners can perfect and politeness can perfect the disposition of civility and facilitate social interactions, but on their own, they’re not enough. Politeness alone, just doing the act, going through the actions and following blindly the rules of etiquette and propriety, alone that’s not enough to heal our deep divisions and help us flourish. We need the disposition of civility that actually respects people as well.

Brett McKay: Yeah. And you mentioned that people can use politeness as a bludgeon, right, to…

Alexandra Hudson: That’s right.

Brett McKay: Knock people over the head and kind of put them in their place, like, oh, well, you don’t know the rules and I’m gonna like…

Alexandra Hudson: Exactly.

Brett McKay: Shove this in your face and make you feel bad.

Alexandra Hudson: Yeah. There’s this great book I read as part of this writing my own book called “Class” by a gentleman named Paul Fussell, a popular writer in the ’90s, it is the ’90s. And he says that America, we like to think of ourself as this classless society. We’re the society where all men are created equal, but he says that’s not true. Like we’re actually a perpetually class conscious society because we pretend that class doesn’t exist and we don’t have these inherited things like rank and status and rituals that accord rank and status. We’re socially mobile and always trying to get an upper hand and define ourselves by the other. And so he says that the middle class are the most status conscious and they’re the most insecure. And the most insecure are the greatest, biggest snobs, the ones that are most fastidious about the rules of others and the social infractions of others.

Why? Because if they know the rules, it breeds their self-righteousness, and if you break the rules, it allows them to feel good in comparison to others. And so I think that’s such a great insight that the people that are the most insecure are the ones that are most fastidious about the rules of propriety, and tone policing and always surveying, making sure that everyone’s doing the right thing, the proper thing. There’s this great line I’m paraphrasing from George Bernard Shaw. He says, if you only take the trouble to follow the rules, you can basically get away with murder. Like that people think that you can follow the rules, you can smile, you can have the proper facade, the proper persona. That that’s enough, but… And we see that a lot today, a lot of silencing, of tone policing, of people worrying about what people are saying and weaponizing what’s appropriate to say and what’s not as opposed to looking at people’s heart and we should not allow the rules of propriety to get in the way of actually having important conversations and actually respecting others.

Brett McKay: Yeah, you see that disconnect, I’ve read just articles in different magazines or newspapers of individuals who maybe came from lower class parts of America, working class and then they… Because they did well in the SAT, they end up at an elite college and they find like the fastidiousness about just what’s proper, it was mind-boggling for them. They couldn’t figure it out and they often felt out of step with everyone else. And then also its… What’s weird is like what they thought was proper as a working class person ’cause they kind of grew up by more of traditional idea maybe of what it meant to be properly mannered, that wasn’t the etiquette thing in the upper middle class. And so there’s this disconnect and no one really explained it to them. And so they had to spend a lot of time just trying to figure out how am I supposed to act? Even like the clothes you wear, you might… So a lot of working class people think, well, I’m at this elite school, or at this business, I should wear business attire. Well, now it’s more like well, that’s actually gauche if you wear a shirt and a tie and a suit. You need to wear athleisure wear that’s kind of like subtly shows that you have this distinction. So yeah, it’s a example of the stuff that it can be used… Manners, politeness propriety can be used to just make people feel terrible.

Alexandra Hudson: You’re absolutely right. It’s such a great point that people today who claim that civility and manners are a tool of people in positions of power to silence or to keep people who are powerless in society powerless, to some extent, they’re right. And I argue that they’re talking about politeness. They’re not talking about civility. And you made the great point that the rules of fashion and politeness like the norms du jour, the fashion du jour, those change with remarkable frequency. And we see that across history and across culture. Why do they change? Because the moment that the lower classes in society begin to adopt certain fashions or certain tastes and certain morals, then that the elites in society have to invent new ones to keep ahead. They have to always have ways of distinguishing themselves from everyone else in society. Two quick examples of this that I love from history.

One is the hidden history of the pineapple. So in England in the 1800s, the pineapple, this quotidian fruit that we see for 99 cents at Costco everywhere today, utterly ubiquitous today was this status symbol of like… Like we can’t even fathom how desirable the pineapple was. I read one article in the Guardian that estimated that a single pineapple in today’s dollars would have cost 150,000 pounds or something outrageously expensive. It was this elite status. So today the pineapple is like the symbol of hospitality and it has roots in this epoch in English history where the pineapple was just the status symbol of luxury. And so people would buy the pineapple and set at their dinner table and then have these lavish parties right up until the pineapple was like rotting on their table. But it was this thing that conferred incredible cachet and status on the people who own the pineapple.

And so some industrious merchants said, “Okay, I see an opportunity here.” And they started importing pineapples from other parts of the world relatively inexpensively and then they also started renting out pineapples. So if you’re a middle class person that couldn’t afford the exorbitant fee of having your own pineapple, that you could rent one for the evening, still paying out the nose, but you could have that status just for one dinner party to impress your guests. And then, of course, the moment that these very industrious merchants made the pineapple more accessible, then the pineapple went out of style. And so the pineapple became increasingly ubiquitous and it is what it is today, a delicious fruit, but just not the status symbol it was at its peak in English history. The other quick example I’ll share is this rule, this rule, Brett, of you can’t wear white after Labor Day. I personally hate that rule. I love monochrome. I wear white all year round. I love my neutrals. But this rule is from kind of the Emily Vanderbilt Gilded Age era of American history, where there were these increasingly baroque rules of etiquette and propriety because the old American money wanted to distinguish themselves from the new money of the robber barons, of the Gilded Age in American history.

So that’s one holdover today that that particular rule that is emblematic of this era in American history where rules were increasingly complex to confuse people, that it was a way to distinguish the insiders and the outsiders. So if you were caught wearing white after Labor Day, “Oh, we knew you were part of the out group. You’re not part of the old moneyed in group.” So you’re absolutely right that norms have been weaponized and they’ve been this tool to distinguish in group from out group for us to feel better about ourselves in comparison to others. And that’s part of my project in distinguishing between civility and politeness. How do we… How do we… Think about the norms that we actually want in society that contribute to the joint project of human flourishing and the good life and how do we disambiguate that from the norms that divide and that make people feel poorly and that do oppress, that do marginalize? ‘Cause there is a rich history of that the people who argue against politeness and civility are not wrong.

But my take on that is that we just have to distinguish between civility actually respecting others, seeing them as our moral equals and worthy of respect in light of that and mere politeness.

Brett McKay: So you argue that the source of our civility problem is that all of us, humans have this tension between self-love and wanting to be part of a group. So how do these competing forces lead to incivility?

Alexandra Hudson: So I love the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to kind of illustrate this. So Solzhenitsyn said that the line between good and evil runs through every human heart and the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde really embodies that. Dr. Jekyll is a very well respected physician and he’s repressed these darker aspects of self, these longings, these desires, and he creates this potion that allows him to transform into this insidious Mr. Hyde that goes out and creates mischief and does damage and hurts people at night. And the more he indulges his inner Mr. Hyde, the easier it becomes to transform into Mr. Hyde and then he finds himself spontaneously transforming into Mr. Hyde. So what became this outlet for him to indulge these baser desires consequence free while still maintaining his public persona and his great reputation as this prestigious physician ultimately comes to overwhelm him and overtake him.

And that’s a really interesting point that I talk about how we each in our nature we’re defined by a deep social impulse. We long to be in relationship, we long to be in friendship with others, in community. We become fully human in relationship with others. And yet we’re also defined by self-love and we’re morally and biologically driven to meet our own needs before others. An extreme manifestation of our self-love is what St. Augustine, one of my favorite thinkers, called the Libido Dominandi, the lust to dominate others and we see this idea in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde too, that the more we indulge that Libido Dominandi, that selfishness, that manifestation of selfishness within each of us, that the lust to dominate becomes the dominating lust and it dominates us as well. And that’s exactly what happened in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Mr. Hyde, the Mr. Hyde within Dr. Jekyll ended up overtaking him and killing him. And so Blaise Pascal, one of my other favorite thinkers, this French polymath and genius scientist, he said that the human condition is defined by the greatness and wretchedness of man, that we have this unbelievable benevolence and capability of doing wonderful things for the world, for humanity, for… But we’re also fallen and that these two aspects of self are equally part of who we are and what it means to be human. And so which aspect of ourself do we indulge, do we cultivate, do we refine and practice? ‘Cause that becomes our habits and our character over time.

Brett McKay: No. Yeah, I think you’re right. So all of us, we have this desire to be a part of a group. It feels good to be a part of a group. We’re wired for that. But at the same time, we also think about ourselves. And when we indulge too much in our wants and wanting to dominate others and put our needs first, that’s when incivility rises, that’s when the tension in a group starts to rise. So it’s this balancing act ’cause you don’t want to be completely submissive to the group. You want to still be a self, have boundaries, as people talk about these days, but the trick is trying to figure out like how much do I assert myself and then how much do I put others first so we maintain group harmony?

Alexandra Hudson: That’s right. So civility is the art of human flourishing. Politeness wants to reduce human interactions to a science, to a set of rules, but you’re absolutely right that human life, human relationships, human beings themselves, we’re far too complex. It’s too nuanced to just be reduced to a monolithic set of rules. That we need to have the inner disposition that gives us the wisdom to discern when to break the rules, when to say yes, when to say no, when to contravene norms, prevailing norms of the day in order to support the project, the joint project of human flourishing.

Brett McKay: So what you do in this book is you take readers on this sweeping tour of writings running from the dawn of civilization until the present age that grapple with this incivility causing tension. It’s like how can we be a self, but also belong in groups that everyone can flourish? What was the earliest civility manual that you found?

Alexandra Hudson: So the oldest book in the world, Brett, is a civility book. It’s called “The Teachings of Ptahhotep”, so Ptahhotep from ancient Egypt, and we get it from 2600, 2700 BC. And Ptahhotep was an Egyptian advisor, so an advisor to the Egyptian pharaoh, and he had reached the pinnacle of political life in Egypt and the civilized world at the time. And he was actually offered to become pharaoh himself. He turned down that offer to power. And after being in the room where it happens his entire life, he chose to retire and he reflected on the stuff of the good life. What are the timeless principles of human flourishing? And so he wrote down these 38 teachings, these maxims that we have today as the maxims of Ptahhotep. And what is so fun is that if you look these up, they are remarkably timeless. They could be in a Miss Manners column in the Washington Post today. They’re very basic and rudimentary things like be kind to your friends, not just when you need something, but just do it spontaneously.

Do it just because they’re your friends. Don’t be cruel to people who are less powerful than you. Like don’t abuse your power. This is a great one when I also saw time and time again when I was looking at these civility handbooks across history and culture. Ptahhotep several times in his maxims, has several maxims dedicated to, do not gossip. He says, don’t gossip, don’t do it. It undermines trust and undermines this fragile project of community and civilization. So it’s just remarkable how the continuity, he was just a thoughtful observer of the human experience and the human condition and saw that we were prone to act selfishly. And he said, don’t, that’s not the stuff of the good life. And it was fun to… So it’s fun in my chapter too. I start with Ptahhotep and then trace this kind of ethos of civility as I define it restraining the selfish aspects of who we are so that the social can flourish. And we see that time and time again to ancient Greece etiquette manuals there to the medieval period, to the Renaissance, to ancient Indian epics, to modern day American etiquette manuals. So human nature doesn’t change. It’s an important problem today, but it’s one we’ve been grappling with for a really long time.

Brett McKay: Yeah, so the Egyptians had the first one and basically it laid the groundwork. It’s all about putting others before yourself and kind of harnessing your selfish desires. And then you just see that throughout the rest. I mean, all of them, what they all have in common, whether it’s from ancient Greece, you particularly see this in ancient China with Confucianism where it’s all about the social order. What I love about Confucianism is yes, they have these like strict rituals that you’re supposed to follow in order to be a good person there, but the underlying principle was it’s Aristotelian. It’s really interesting. It’s very Aristotelian. You have to do the right thing for the right reason at the right time in whatever situation you find yourself in. So it’s all about just helping the social order flourish and that you see that in everything. It’s not, yeah, they have these guidelines and rules that are there to help you because they work in most situations, but the underlying thing is like just do the right thing for the situation you find yourself in in order to help that social gathering be its best.

Alexandra Hudson: That’s absolutely right. I’m so glad you brought up Confucianism, both the handbook of Confucius’ Analects and also the Chinese Book of Rites, which is are all these rituals and decorum of politeness. But central to Confucianism is this concept of ren, which is a sort of humaneness and benevolence and goodness and love. And so ren is central to Confucian philosophy and to Confucius’ idea of how do we… Of the good life, how do we thrive in community with others? And what’s key is that people like Ptahhotep, people like Confucius, people like Erasmus of Rotterdam, Daniel of Beccles, these other heroes of civility that I talk about throughout my book from different times and places, they would not have needed to take the time to write these works, these handbooks for their societies if people had been following them intuitively.

They wrote them down because they looked around them, saw that people were falling short of these ideals and said, “Okay, let’s think about what we need to… Let’s reassess and let’s put down in writing these principles that can guide us and help us flourish.” And it’s really easy for people to look around us and feel like we’re in the worst era of civility. And a lot of pundits and commentators, there’s a lot of apocalyptic rhetoric around this topic. But I love zooming out and looking to the past and looking across history and culture. People have been grappling with these questions for a very long time since the dawn of our species, which I think is comforting and humbling because it allows us to recognize there are no easy solutions to this. This is the problem of the human condition. It’s not a now problem, not an America problem. This is a problem of who we are. And so it’s never gonna be perfectly resolved, but we each have a role in making it a little bit better or if we choose to, a little bit worse.

Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors. And now back to the show. So etiquette manuals really begin to proliferate during the Renaissance. And there’s this sociologist, his name is Norbert Elias, who had this theory about why that is. And we wrote about this years ago, and it’s still an idea that I think about all the time. What Elias said was that the emphasis on etiquette rose in parallel with the emergence of the idea and implementation of democracy because the citizens of democracy need to have self-control for democracy to function. They need to have it in the sense of using their reason to vote for candidates and not be swayed by propaganda or demagogues. And you have to have the self-control to be able to get along with your fellow citizens. Just because you disagree with someone, you can’t punch them in the face, right? And manners are the regular exercise that keep people’s self-control muscle in shape. So basically, if you want to have a well-functioning democracy, you have to have a well-functioning culture of manners.

Alexandra Hudson: It’s the laws of nature, right? Like you steal from me, I steal from you, and it’s like survival of the fittest. And the whole story of human civilization is saying, okay, we’re gonna cooperate. We’re gonna define some rules that we’re all gonna abide by that’s like an early form of the rule of law and we’re going to see how we can… See if we can survive a little bit better, maybe flourish a little bit more. And so one thing I conceive in my book is we’re familiar with this idea of the social contract. The social contract is this relationship between citizen and sovereign in the history of political theory that we surrender a few of our rights. For example, someone takes from you, you punch them in the face. Okay, we agree that we surrender our right to punch someone in the face when they steal from us. We surrender that right to the sovereign. So sovereign’s going to be the arbiter of justice. They’re gonna take care of that. And in exchange for that, we get certain protections. Like for example, there’s an agreed upon rule, law, that we don’t steal from another in society.

So that’s the relationship between that traditional conception of the social contract, that vertical relationship between citizen and sovereign. But there is also this underappreciated horizontal social contract between citizens. It’s an unspoken, often unwritten social contract that governs these invisible bonds that are just as essential to supporting the vertical social contract. The vertical social contract, again, which enabled us to come away from this state of nature, whereas Hobbes said, it was this war of all against all. Like this free for all state of nature where we’re just constantly in survival mode that we move away from that so we can actually flourish and build institutions and build beautiful buildings and have art and survive and not just be at the level of survival. But that our horizontal, this horizontal social contract is sustained by our social norms, norms that respect one another, and that demand that we not just single-mindedly pursue our own interests at any given moment. That no, we live in society, and that means we voluntarily put a natural cap and limit and restrain our desires for the sake of this joint project of living well with others, that is society.

Brett McKay: Okay, so that’s interesting. That’s a big argument you make in the book. We do have this formal social contract. We have laws that establish, here is how we are going to behave in certain situations. So instead of you punching somebody in retaliation, you go to the courts, right?

Alexandra Hudson: That’s right, that’s right.

Brett McKay: You go to the state to mediate your conflict.

Alexandra Hudson: Yeah.

Brett McKay: But your arguing is that, and what Eliza’s arguing is that formal social contract relies on a horizontal, informal…

Alexandra Hudson: Exactly.

Brett McKay: Contract.

Alexandra Hudson: Yes.

Brett McKay: If you don’t have that sort of informal codes and manners of what it means to live well with others, then the formal one will just disintegrate.

Alexandra Hudson: So yeah, exactly. That’s exactly right. And so here’s a story that I’ve been reflecting on recently. So the earliest example of positive law that we have is from ancient Babylon called the Hammurabi Code. I was talking with a friend and my husband recently about the Hammurabi Code. So the king, Hammurabi, decided one day that he was going to enact on stone tablets 271 laws. And my question is, what was going on in ancient Babylon that caused Hammurabi to say, “Okay, now we need laws.” Right? Like, is it the case that norms, and the ancient Babylonian citizens’ decision to voluntarily comply with social norms, had that been sufficient up until that point and then the norms had degraded? And Hammurabi’s like, “Okay, society’s going to hell in a handbasket. Now we need laws with serious consequences, not just social sanctions and not mob violence too.” That’s another reason for the sovereign, that we’re not just ruled by mob violence, that we need these laws in place to protect the peace and tranquility of society. And my friend, her name is Stephanie Slade at Reason Magazine, so classical liberal libertarian. She’s like, maybe that’s the case or maybe Hammurabi said to himself, these laws, these norms are so widely followed, why not just put them into law? Why not just codify them and make sure that we’re all on the same page?

My husband offered a third idea that he had been reflecting on recently that positive law has, across history and culture, been a power play. It’s a way for a sovereign to say, even if there is no problem, no moral or norm degradation, to say, I am your sovereign and I’m gonna protect you from this possible potential threat. So for example, one of the laws in Hammurabi’s code is like, you steal from someone. It’s very lex talionis, very eye for an eye kind of theory of justice. Like, you steal from someone, you get your hand cut off. It’s pretty draconian. But so we don’t know if people stealing from one another was this rampant issue that Hammurabi decided to enact these laws to prevent against, but it’s possible that it was just a way for him to consolidate power. Like, okay, just in case anyone ever steals from you, know that I’ve got your back and we have these laws in place to make sure that they’re punished. So all that to say, yes, the norms that we have as a society, they are what allow a government to be limited in nature, which is a whole argument I make in my book about why civility supports freedom and limited government, democracy, and human flourishing.

Brett McKay: Yeah, you talk about how that civility and manners are often an informal code that exists outside the law and it’s up to individuals to keep each other in check. But there are times when governments make laws to enforce manners. Like when we don’t exercise, or like when we don’t have individual self-control, we can’t govern ourselves, then we open ourselves up to greater governance by external bodies.

Alexandra Hudson: Just a few years ago in New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg instituted this whole politeness campaign. So if you’re a parent at your kid’s baseball game and you’re too loud and rambunctious, you get fined $50. If you are sitting in the movie theater and texting, fined $50. If you do something gross like spit in the street, like gross and rude, right, fined $50. If you put your feet on the subway, fined $50. On the subway seat next to you, fined $50. And New Yorkers were like, what? Like, they did not at all like being civilized by the local politeness police and their city government. So it was totally ineffectual and it didn’t last long. It was immediately revoked. But the point is the less that we restrain voluntarily our own conduct and interactions with others, autocrats past and present will and have been tempted to enforce propriety and decorum and basic courtesy for our fellow citizens and our fellow people by law, by fines. And that’s not an appropriate use of state action, in my opinion. And I think that most people would agree that we don’t wanna be micromanaged, have the horizontal invisible bonds between citizens. Those shouldn’t… The state should have nothing to do with that, but that does require that we each choose and volunteer to consider the needs and well-beings of others alongside of ourselves, which is the hallmark of true civility.

Brett McKay: But what do you do when no one else is doing it? Do we each enforce each other? Or are we just like, all we do is be an example of good civility hoping that’ll rub off on everyone else?

Alexandra Hudson: So this is where the Larry David’s of the world come in. Do you watch “Curb Your Enthusiasm”, Brett?

Brett McKay: Yes, yes, pretty good, pretty good, pretty, pretty good.

Alexandra Hudson: Pretty, pretty…

Brett McKay: Pretty good.

Alexandra Hudson: Pretty good. So I love “Curb Your Enthusiasm”. It’s one of our favorite shows and it’s a comedy of manners. And so Larry David, he calls himself… So the creator of Seinfeld, for those of you who don’t know, he calls himself in his own show, Curb Your Enthusiasm, he calls himself a social assassin. So he is this agent out there, always on the lookout for people who are committing social infractions. And he is everyone’s inner ego and inner id where like every day we’re out and about, we’re in society, we see people cutting people off, jumping in line, just doing thoughtless, selfish things. And normally, like most people, we roll our eyes, but we don’t say anything ’cause we’re like, you know what, I don’t want to deal with that. I don’t want that fight right now. But Larry David does all the time. That’s all he does.

He sees the social infractions, the petty selfishness around him all the time, and he calls people out. So I love the example of the chat and cut. Larry David’s in line at a buffet, and someone, a woman walks into the person in front of Larry David, and starts chatting up with this person, and said, “oh, remember we met at this place several years ago.” And Larry David goes, “Excuse me, ma’am. I know what you’re doing. This is a chat and cut. You’re trying to rekindle a very tangential relationship with a person that may not exist just so you can cut in line, but you see all these decent Americans behind us me included, we’re not gonna let you do this. Like, anyone else might let you commit the social infraction, the chat and cut, but not today, not here.” And so he makes her go to the back of the line. And so that’s where the Larry David’s of the world come in. Like, if we don’t want Michael Bloomberg and others… There are other stories I tell in the book of similar campaigns that happen in London and Paris, and so in the last two decades. So there is this temptation. It has happened in recent history where governments do get involved in politeness, in manners, if they get bad enough. But if we don’t want that, then a few Larry David’s of the world, keeping people in check, that’s where they come in. I call Larry David a foremost defender of civilization in that way.

Brett McKay: Okay, so we need some Larry Davids to call people out. But again, you talk about like, Larry David does it in a way that is incivil, uncivil sometimes. So again, it’s just figuring out how to encourage people to be better, but do it in a way that doesn’t bludgeon them, right? It maintains their dignity. And that’s a tough thing to balance.

Alexandra Hudson: It is.

Brett McKay: But okay, so if your kids are doing things that are not great, call them out. If you see a coworker, maybe take them aside and say, “Hey, this is probably not appropriate what you did.” Yeah, but it’s tricky. It’s always tricky to call someone out like that.

Alexandra Hudson: Yeah, but you’re right. Actually calling people out, especially calling your children out, that is a way of respecting them, that’s a way of loving them and not indulging them in harmful behavior that hurts others and that hurts themselves too.

Brett McKay: Okay, so civility can allow democracy to flourish without the state punishing us for being incivil. You also talk about how civility can allow us to live a life of integrity. So having a civil disposition means making sure your outward matches the inward, right.

Alexandra Hudson: Yes.

Brett McKay: I think sometimes people discount the role that outward actions can have on your inward actions, right? Sometimes people say, well, I might not be… I might not know all the rules of etiquette, but my heart is good and my intentions are good. That’s fine, but sometimes you gotta go a step further and be like, actually show what your inner disposition is by your outward actions. And then even if you don’t have that inward disposition yet, Aristotle talks about this, you can cultivate that inner disposition by doing the outward things and…

Alexandra Hudson: Exactly.

Brett McKay: The goal is by doing virtuous things, you become a virtuous person.

Alexandra Hudson: You’re absolutely right. So integrity is all parts of the self-making sense together, the inner and the outer co-hearing. We hear the word structural integrity in architecture, but we need a soul-ish integrity where we’re being held together. What we do and say externally is corroborated by ideally the disposition of civility of actually respecting others internally. And I thank you so much for bringing up Aristotle and his idea of habit cultivating the interior. So the story that I love about this is by an English writer named Max Beerbohm. It’s called “The Happy Hypocrite”. And he talks about this con artist who is vicious in every way and dishonest, but he falls in love with this beautiful woman and he decides that he’s going to marry her. But she says, “Nope, sorry, I can’t marry you because I will only marry a man with a virtuous face.” So what does this guy do? He goes to a mask shop and buys a mask of a man with a virtuous face, puts the mask on, and then goes and proposes and marries this woman, the woman he loves. And then something remarkable happens. After he put on this mask of a person with a virtuous face, he becomes more and more virtuous and being with the love of his life makes him better so he starts acting more virtuously. And then one of his rivals from his prior life comes onto the scene and exposes him to his beloved.

He says, “This man’s a fraud. He’s actually a con artist, he’s a vicious person. He’s not who he says he was.” And his beloved says, “Is this true? Like, show me your real self.” And she takes off the mask and what’s behind the mask is the face of a virtuous man. So he had initially put on the face of a virtuous man as a pretense, right? It was hypocritical ’cause internally he wasn’t virtuous, but over time, as he did the actions and practices of a virtuous person while he was married to his beloved, he actually became virtuous. And that interior quality, those external actions formed him internally and that made him actually a virtuous person. So that is a story I love that really illustrates your point that, yes, there is this disconnect where we can be hypocritical and do the right things, say the right things, and not actually be respecting of others. But the inverse is also true, where we can let our virtuous actions form us, form character for us internally, and that our character can be brought into alignment the more that we act selflessly and sacrificially to others.

Brett McKay: So talk about ways we can revitalize civility in ourselves and in our community. You offer different suggestions, civility education, bring that back in schools and also just amongst adults, you talk about Aristotelian magnanimity, but what I want to talk about, hone in on, is reviving the ancient art of hospitality. So how can reviving the ancient art of hospitality… Or maybe this is a better question. What can we learn from The Odyssey about reviving the ancient art of hospitality?

Alexandra Hudson: It’s disappointing today that so much when we hear the word hospitality, we often our minds immediately go to hotels and fine dining and trips like luxurious travel, but there is this rich tradition of hospitality as what I conceive of civility in practice, which is showing kindness to others, showing kindness to the strangers, just because they’re people in need. And so I love the story of Eumaeus in The Odyssey. I particularly love Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey. I’m excited just a tiny footnote of her translation of The Iliad is coming out in just a few weeks. I’m very excited about it, but in The Odyssey, when I read it a few years ago, Emily Wilson’s translation, it was all about hospitality. It’s all about manners, it’s all about Odysseus is constantly adapting his conduct to better put the people around him at ease and to survive. Like he’s very much in a survival mode and it’s all about the duties of host to guest and guest to host. But I love the story of Eumeaus that embodies what I love about hospitality, and ancient hospitality in particular, which is Odysseus comes home and he’s dressed as a beggar, a peasant, and he encounters his prior servant, Eumaeus.

And Eumaeus doesn’t recognize his master because his master has been gone for many, many years and Eumaeus is a very poor man and yet he encounters, he sees someone who’s even worse off than him, clearly wearied by the world and impoverished and in need. And Eumaeus welcomes him into his home, offers him a meal, offers him a shelter, offers him a bath, offers him new clothes, and only after doing all of those gracious, practical things for him, asks him who he is and invites him to tell his story. And Odysseus is overjoyed because he has determined his servant’s true character. His servant didn’t know that it was Odysseus. His servant was just being kind to someone who he thought was in need and clearly in greater need than he was. And so they have this beautiful, beautiful reunion, but there’s this trope across history of the strangers in disguise. It’s kind of a test. So someone who’s of a very high status is dressed as someone who’s a low status just to see, test the true character of the person. Are they going to be kind to me even if they don’t think I can ever repay them for their kindness? Or are they going to turn me away because it’s inconvenient for them to show hospitality to me? So this trope of the stranger in disguise and of hospitality to the stranger, hospitality to someone in need just because of who they are as human beings is this beautiful expression of civility and hospitality.

And again, civility is about what we owe to others, not just those who can do things for us, not just those who we like or who agree with us, but those who can’t do anything for us, and those who will never be able to repay us for these kindnesses, and the Homer’s Odyssey. And we see this again. This come up in “Thousand and One Nights”, this collection of Arabian folktales as well. We see the stranger in disguise trope and Sinbad the character is kind of like this Wily Odysseus type figure, and he’s always playing tricks and getting into it with strangers. But again, even in that distinct and foreign culture, that value of how you treat the other who you don’t know, who can’t repay you, who you may never see again, that’s just a value in and of its own sake by utility because at this point in history, we didn’t have affordable travel planes, trains and automobiles that could get us places safely, we didn’t have credit cards and easy modes of exchange to be able to survive. It’s like often cases, if someone didn’t take you in, you would die or brave the elements. And so it really was this sort of milk of human goodness, hospitality, this high expression of civility, of showing kindness to someone in need just because they were a human being like us.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I think reviving, so the Greeks called hospitality xenia.

Alexandra Hudson: Yes, exactly.

Brett McKay: And I think that is like the soul of civility because it’s all about putting the other first, right? So I like the idea of, I try to do this in my own life is in any situation, I try to think of myself as the host. Like, how can I make this person feel comfortable? But what’s nice about xenia, not only is there sort of an ethos required, a civil ethos required by the host, there’s a reciprocal ethos for the guest. And so if you are being treated by a host, there are certain things expected of you as a guest like you’re not going to take advantage of the host, you’re not going to overstay your welcome, you’re not going to… You’re going to say thank you, you’re going to show some decorum. So I think if we had that xenia attitude in all of our social interactions with people, it’s like, well, I’m going to think of myself as a host, and I’m going to make this person feel great, and then likewise, if we’re being the recipient of someone’s hospitality or civil behavior, reciprocate. Like say thank you, and don’t take advantage of them because they’re being civil to you. I think if people just read the Odyssey and followed xenia, things would be great.

Alexandra Hudson: I agree. And so it’s interesting though. Hospitality is this high expression, noble expression of civility, and it’s kind of this above and beyond act of generosity. We don’t necessarily owe everyone an invitation to dinner at our home, right? There are these gradations of response, but it’s really beautiful when we do do that, but there’s a reason why people today especially are skeptical. Well, I mean, people in all human history have been… There’s reason to be wary of letting strangers into your home. The root word of guest and host are etymologically linked in Greek, in German, in old French, because there’s a shared fate and a shared vulnerability that comes with the guest-host relationship. If you’re going into a stranger’s home, you’re vulnerable. You could be poisoned or killed in the night. If you’re a person letting a stranger into your home, you don’t know what they’re going to do in the night. You don’t know. It could be anyone. And so there is this mutual vulnerability. And so the Latin word for the root of hospitality is hospice, which is the root of hospitality and also hospital, but it’s also the root of hostility.

And I think that’s really interesting because it gets to this duality, this dual potential outcome of being hospitable to others. Like there is this mutual vulnerability. An act of hospitality could go really well, it could go really poorly. And there are lots of wonderful stories about and funny stories about hospitality going really poorly and if we have time, I’d love to tell one either between Charles Dickens and Hans Christian Andersen or between David Hume and Rousseau. Do any of those interest you?

Brett McKay: Yeah.

Alexandra Hudson: Those are two different stories. Which one?

Brett McKay: Hume and Rousseau.

Alexandra Hudson: Okay, so Rousseau was kind of a mercurial figure. He was kind of known for having a short temper and for being very volatile. He basically had no friends because he would just turn on people on a moment’s notice. And David Hume was this Scottish philosopher, absolute genius and just universally beloved. Just a very good, very kind guy. The French loved David. They called him Le Bon David, the good David. He was just good and kind. And one of David Hume’s good friends in Paris said, “Look, Rousseau’s in trouble. The king wants to kill him. Can you take him in?” And everyone told Hume, don’t do it. Rousseau had fights with all of his friends and had basically alienated himself from everyone. Everyone said to David, “Do not touch Rousseau with a 10-foot pole. It doesn’t matter what anyone says. Don’t do it.” David Hume did not listen and he invited Rousseau as his guest in England because he was in trouble for his writings with the French king. And so he invites Rousseau to England and puts him up in a little cottage that he had outside of England, outside of London sorry. And pays for his food, pays for his travel, pays for his accommodation, gives him clothes, gives him books, whatever he needs, goes above and beyond to make Rousseau feel comfortable. And almost immediately upon getting to this little cottage, Rousseau starts creating these stories in his head about David Hume conspiring against him.

He says, “You know what, David Hume only brought me here to embarrass me. This is why he put me up outside of London and not in the heart of the city where I should be hobnobbing with the great luminaries of the day. He’s here to embarrass me. He’s plotting against me.” And so he accepts and tells himself this narrative and becomes so unhinged, and David Hume starts to panic. Rousseau is the most powerful intellect and writer, like, in the most powerful pen at the time. And so Rousseau turning on someone had consequences, and David was someone. He was a good person, and he valued his reputation. So he became increasingly concerned, increasingly worried. And Rousseau started writing these letters, these unhinged letters accusing David Hume of conspiring against him and wanting to embarrass him and this whole plot against him. And it became this whole international incident between the French and the English government because Rousseau was totally unhinged. And so that’s just a story that doesn’t really have a very happy ending. Like poor David Hume was brought to his knees by having this volatile guest that he had gone out of his way to make comfortable and brought into his home and tried to accommodate in every way.

But it goes to this duality and this mutual vulnerability in the guest-host relationship that doesn’t always go according to plan. When it goes well, it’s beautiful. It’s like you’re bonded by this shared experience, this shared moment in time that you’ll never get again, and you’re brought across differences. It’s beautiful, absolutely beautiful. But it also has the potential to not go well, which is why I outline in my book several timeless rules of the guest-host relationship that can ensure it does go well and that we do flourish in these kind of environments and it doesn’t go poorly as it did for poor David Hume.

Brett McKay: And then also it requires in order to be hospitable because there’s a vulnerability that your hospitality might be taken advantage of, you have to have the courage to do it anyways, right? ‘Cause I think that’s why a lot of people withhold, right?

Alexandra Hudson: That’s right. It does take courage.

Brett McKay: Because like, well, I’m just going to be a sucker. Someone’s going to take advantage of me, but you have to do it anyways and that’s where that Aristotelian magnanimity comes into play, right?

Alexandra Hudson: Yes.

Brett McKay: So you do do good because it is good. You do it because it’s good in of itself and then if someone returns that with what Rousseau did to Hume, you just kind of have to be like, well, that’s their problem, not mine. It’s going to sting, it’s going to hurt, but you just have to kind of be stoic about it.

Alexandra Hudson: Yes. I thank you so much for bringing up Aristotelian magnanimity. So in my book, I have this concept called the mellifluous echo of the magnanimous soul and this is the story of one person, one great souled-man, or great souled-woman. In my case, I talk about my grandmother, who was this magnanimous soul in my life. This potential of one person with their life, their goodness, their kindness, the seeds of life and joy that they sow to make a difference in the world, to make the world a better place, to create what I call a mellifluous echo across time and across place. So often in the news or in tell all memoirs, we hear these stories of generational trauma, of vicious cycles. I mean, we’re very familiar with those kind of stories of generational trauma and vicious cycles. But what about the inverse? What about the potential of one great soul, man or woman, to put in play virtuous cycles that reverberate across time and place? So in the example of my grandmother, she was this person for whom no human interaction was neutral. It was always a gift and it was always a joy for her to engage with anyone. Like the clerk at the grocery store, her taxi driver, like a stranger on the street. She was just someone that was so self-confident.

She was gorgeous, she was beautiful, but she forgot about herself that she could just totally focus on others. And my mother is the same way that she’s just utterly delighting in the relationship with others. She maximized every single human interaction and saw it as an opportunity to lighten and brighten someone’s day, that no interaction was neutral. Every exchange was an opportunity to make the world a better and brighter place. So she created this wherever she went, like left in her wake people brighter and better. She did… I will concede she left a lot of people very perplexed, very confused by her. We’re just not accustomed to people walking up and just being overjoyed to see us, but that is just who she was without any ulterior motive. She was just an ebullient, effervescent personality. She left a lot of people perplexed, but even more, she blessed and she elevated, she ennobled, she made their lives better and she… We’re familiar with the phrase, kicking the dog, right? So a dad has a bad day at work and then comes home, yells at his wife, who yells at the kids, and the kid kicks the dog, right?

But what is the inverse of that where one person’s beautiful interaction and kind word where that creates this ripple effect, this positive mellifluous echo that reverberates across time and place? And with people like my grandmother, magnanimous souls like her, we’ll never know this side of eternity, the good that they’ve done with their lives because it’s invisible, it’s unseen, but I trust that. And we each have the power to do that with our lives. Every single thing that we do can ennoble or debase. It can encourage people to want to be part of this joint project of civilization in a human community, or in the case of democracy, self governance, or we can through our thoughtlessness or our malice or our selfishness, we can choose to… Or our actions can cause people to want to give up on the joint project of living well with others altogether. And so my hope is that sharing the story of my grandmother that this concept of the mellifluous echo of the magnanimous soul can encourage people to really reclaim their sphere of influence, own what they can control, and be part of the solution in their everyday of making the world a better and brighter place.

Brett McKay: Well, Alexandra, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?

Alexandra Hudson: So please do consider buying the book. I created $700 of free gifts to anyone who purchases the book, and you can get that on my website, to claim those gifts. And my publication is called Civic Renaissance, and it’s about reviving the wisdom of the past to help us lead richer and better lives. So please do consider joining me over there.

Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Alexandra Hudson, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Alexandra Hudson: Thanks so much, Brett.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Alexandra Hudson. She’s the author of the book “The Soul of Civility”. It’s available on and bookstores everywhere. You can find more information about her work at her website, Also, check out our show notes at, where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of the AoM podcast. Make sure to check out our website at where you find our podcast archives as well as thousands of articles that we’ve written over the years about pretty much anything you’d think of. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate it if you take one minute to give us your view on Apple podcasts or Spotify. Helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think would get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support and until next time, this is Brett McKay reminding you to not only listen to AoM podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.

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