An Interview with Ann Hartle, Author of “What Happened to Civility”

Ann Hartle is professor emeritus of philosophy at Emory University. She is the author of numerous books, including Montaigne and the Origins of Modern Philosophy and Michel de Montaigne: Accidental Philosopher. In April 2022, the University of Notre Dame Press will publish her newest book What Happened to Civility: The Promise and Failure of Montaigne’s Modern Project. Professor Hartle recently agreed to answer a few of our questions about her philosophical investigation of civility, a vitally important topic for all readers today. 

When did you first get the idea to write this book? 

Ann Hartle

I began to think about civility as a philosophical topic when the idea of “speech codes” became fashionable several decades ago. Later, the attack on free speech and the push for “politically correct” speech were justified in the name of civility. It didn’t seem right to me that being “civil” meant that simple disagreement, even strong disagreement, had to be forbidden. So I began to consider what civility is and what it is not. 

At the same time, I had been studying and writing about Montaigne’s Essays, becoming convinced that this work was displaying a moral character, in particular, the character desirable for modern society. The confirmation that Montaigne is showing us the civil character came through to me when I considered Michael Oakeshott’s claim that Montaigne’s Essays are the classic expression of the character necessary for civil association. Then, as I was working on the book, I read Teresa Bejan’s Mere Civility, which makes the case that civility came into existence in the sixteenth century as a response to the Protestant Reformation, although she does not write about Montaigne in that book. 

What can readers find in your book that will resonate with them during this period of incivility? 

Civility is a very central topic in current discussions of our social and political life. We so often hear that civility has disappeared while, at the same time, frank and open discussion is cut off by the charge that it is uncivil to disagree and to criticize another’s arguments. My book is an attempt to show what civility is and what it is not, how it originated in the context of modern political forms, and how it might be fostered in contemporary life. 

What did you learn while writing What Happened to Civility?

I think I deepened my understanding of liberalism, and of the way in which modern ideas of morality are different from classical-Christian ideas of morality.  

Who is the biggest influence on you and your work?

The teacher who influenced me most on these topics is Francis Slade who is quoted often in my book. He taught me a great deal about modern philosophy and how it is fundamentally different from pre-modern philosophy. Joseph Carpino and Gerald Galgan were teachers who also gave me insight into the nature of modern philosophy. I am also influenced by the work of Pierre Manent and Michael Oakeshott. 

What advice would you give to a scholar who wants to start a book?

When you have a topic that you enjoy thinking about, then work every day on it, even if it’s just for an hour. Then you become “immersed” in the argument, you begin to enjoy it more and more, and you start to make connections. It’s always there in the back of your mind.

Who would you like to read What Happened to Civility and why?

I think it would be of interest especially to those who are concerned about the current state of our universities and of the culture in general. The “cancel” culture, the suppression of speech, and the suppression of religious freedom are very serious threats to the social bond. 

What book(s) are you currently reading?

I am reading Romano Guardini’s work on Pascal. Also, Carl Trueman’s The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self.

What book or project are you working on next?

I am working on a project on Pascal’s modern Christian consciousness. The conclusion of What Happened to Civility actually points to Pascal as the philosopher who can help us to understand ourselves in what has been called the “Post-Christian” world. 

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