In the eighteenth century, the idea of politeness challenged accepted norms of behaviour and laid the basis for a civil society that forms the origins of the culture of volunteering we see in British society today. One of David Cameron’s first actions was to rename the Office of the Third Sector, the Office of Civil Society. What’s in a name? He went as far as saying on the day of the Big Society launch: it’s “no longer to be called ˜the third sector’, from now on: that phrase is to be abolished“.
I’d actually like to sidestep the naming issue because I think the fact it’s an issue at all belies a deeper conceptual difficulty with clearly defining the role of volunteering in today’s society. In this post, I want to argue that looking to the roots of the language and thinking about civil society, helps us to get a better sense of our understanding of volunteering’s place in today’s society in Britain.
This post is based heavily on the discussion as part of the BBC’s In Our Time episode on politeness (from 2004) between Amanda Vickery, Professor of Modern British History at Royal Holloway, University of London; David Wootton, Anniversary Professor of History at the University of York; and John Mullan, Professor in English at University College London.
Roots of civility
Ideas of civility and manners before the eighteenth century had been influenced largely by a courtly model of behaviour. Ethical thinking had influenced ideas of appropriate behaviour since Aristotle‘s ideas on moderation and the ideas of stoicism that believed a person’s behaviour was a better measure of their virtue than their words. Walking the walk, not just talking the talk – put in more current lingo.
Baldassare Castiglione‘s ‘Book of the Courtier’ of 1528, represents the definitive renaissance approach to manners and the link between a person’s behaviour and their virtue. The book’s message was that the formation of the perfect courtier could be expressed in terms of education and learnt behaviour, not just parental lineage. But the notion of decorum was still preoccupied with understanding appropriate behaviour in terms of a person’s place in society based on their gender, age, class, etc.
There were three specific factors that combined to influence the development of politeness as an idea:
- 1688: the Glorious Revolution where the incumbent monarch King James II was overthrown, marked a shift in the power relations between Parliament and the British monarch
- 1689: the Act of Toleration granted freedom of worship to Protestant Nonconformists to who dissented from the Church of England. This drew a line under much of the previous century’s political/religious strife
- 1694: the lapsing of the Licensing Order which effectively ends political censorship unleashing a massive increase in print (significant in this is the founding of Tatler and The Spectator)
These three factors helped create the basis for a new period of free exchange of ideas, opinions and information. It also meant a new way of socialising, where the new freedom to debate created a new sense of public life. The scene was set for politeness to establish a new model of behaviour.
The idea of politeness was accompanied by a specific philosophy that went beyond simple social graces and table manners. Anthony Ashley-Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury, was a key figure in this new philosophy of politeness taking up the idea of self-consciousness, a word invented by John Locke.
Locke defines the self as “that conscious thinking thing, (whatever substance, made up of whether spiritual, or material, simple, or compounded, it matters not) which is sensible, or conscious of pleasure and pain, capable of happiness or misery, and so is concerned for itself, as far as that consciousness extends“. His famous idea that the human mind is a blank slate or tabula rasa meant it was passive in many ways, moulded by external factors.
Shaftesbury was eager to demonstrate that there was an internal vitality to the human self, that meant it had a capacity to reflect on itself and change itself. In particular, this change could come about through conversation between people. But there was also an internal conversation whereby human’s could modify and develop themselves.
Origins of volunteering: right here –>
Shaftesbury was quite hostile to Locke’s assertion that good and evil were remote from the self, being questions of divine law. For Shaftesbury, there is such a thing as intrinsically good acts. Moreover, he argued that human beings have a capacity to recognise these acts of good and respond to them. Human beings are naturally benevolent with a great capacity to love each other, be sympathetic to one another and to respond empathetically to one another.
Politeness is partly about understanding each others feelings. It’s about travelling alongside with one another in conversation. This is an extension of the logic of stoicism: that it’s through how we act and treat each other externally, that points to our inner virtues. What we do, is a reflection of who we are. This is a sentiment buried deep in our sense of the value that volunteering has. It’s not just about the impact that the volunteer can have on its beneficiary and the wider social impact, the value of volunteering is also in terms of the impact of the volunteering on the volunteer themselves, their own character and virtue. It’s something of being ranting on about before – see the post on the ends and means of volunteering.
This idea of politeness is also about the value and importance given to social interaction. Politeness is important because we are polished by contact with others. At this early point in the eighteenth century in Britain there were increasing opportunities to mix socially with others without necessarily knowing each others rank and status. Precisely the same argument is often made to support volunteering, i.e. that volunteering can improve the volunteer through the positive interaction with others in society.
Politeness was important because it facilitated a smooth interaction between people who only 50 years earlier were riven by the English Civil War. There was all kind of social conflict at this time: religious, political and especially between the political parties of the day, the Whigs and the Tories. Jamie Pratt puts this in historical context:
“To understand the role that The Spectator played in these affairs, it must be understood that Tories tended to look down on Whigs as crass, unmannered and unlettered. In this atmosphere it was natural for Whigs to want to prove that they too were educated, cultured and fit material for government… The Spectator was not overtly political, but part of its success was rooted in its natural appeal to the growing power and influence of the Whigs.”
I’d argue that this new thinking about social behaviour provided the basis for what was to develop into civil society, and the much later to become the voluntary sector or third sector. Politeness as an idea provided a theoretical basis for a different mode of association across society that was secular and non-military. Politeness was the belief that it was possible to exchange different opinions without it ending in conflict.
The impetus for martial honour began to be diverted into a new realm of cultural politeness which provided a new way to express your honour socially. It became good manners for gentlemen to leave their sword at the door, before entering all kinds of social occasions. See, for example, how the celebrated Beau Nash led a new informality in manners during the eighteenth century. Demonstrating how cultured you were, through literature, the arts and so on took a new social significance.
In Shaftesbury’s seminal work, ‘Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times‘, his primary principle was ‘harmony’ which he based on a generalised sense or feeling, rather than reason (drawing a line with the Enlightenment). Shaftesbury deduced the virtue of benevolence as indispensable to morality. Just as there’s a sense or feeling for aesthetic beauty, so there’s a sense or feeling for determining the ethical value of actions. It’s a faculty that Shaftesbury described as “moral sense” or conscience. In its essence, it is primarily emotional and non-reflective. As it develops it becomes rationalized through education and practice. In a famous quote from Shaftesbury it’s a moral sense that comes about through ‘amicable collisions’:
“All Politeness is owing to Liberty. We polish one another, and rub off our Corners and rough Sides by a sort of amicable Collision. To restrain this, is inevitably to bring a Rust upon Mens Understandings.” – Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times
The Spectator was a new kind of publication that embodied this new sense of politeness. It was published from 1711-12, and founded by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele in England. The Spectator was a powerful proponent of this new theory of manners and philosophy of social life. It reinforced the sentiment that solitude was bad because human beings were sociable animals.
Society is what’s good for people because it’s solitude that means people become self-absorbed and can turn to fanaticism and dogmatism. The Spectator pushed the narrower form of politeness as described by Shaftesbury, and made it broader. It came at a time when British society was changing hugely. The Spectator fed the growing numbers of gentry and growth of the upwardly socially mobile. In particular, it represented a new urbanity as many from the country moved to more urban areas. In practical terms, the new freer social association led to the growth in clubs and other social groups:
Our Modern celebrated Clubs are founded upon Eating and Drinking, which are Points wherein most Men agree, and in which the Learned and Illiterate, the Dull and the Airy, the Philosopher and the Buffoon, can all of them bear a Part. The Kit-Cat1 it self is said to have taken its Original from a Mutton-Pye. The Beef-Steak2 and October3 Clubs, are neither of them averse to Eating and Drinking, if we may form a Judgment of them from their respective Titles.
When Men are thus knit together, by Love of Society, not a Spirit of Faction, and do not meet to censure or annoy those that are absent, but to enjoy one another: When they are thus combined for their own Improvement, or for the Good of others, or at least to relax themselves from the Business of the Day, by an innocent and chearful Conversation, there may be something very useful in these little Institutions and Establishments. – Spectator no.9, Saturday March 10 1711 – by Joseph Addison
The Spectator represented a belief that the citizens of the world can be improved. It had a strong reformist agenda. Enjoy life through conversation a life of conversation is equality – not hierarchy as with decorum.
New public and private social spaces
The roots of volunteering are connected with the development of public spaces. They spaces metaphorical and literal invited participation and gave many the practical opportunity to play a part in development of British society.
In the eighteenth century public spaces were developing that took advantage of the more liberal political environment following the Glorious Revolution. Coffeehouses, assembly rooms and parks were amongst the kinds of public spaces bringing people together and opening up new opportunities to socialise in very different ways. The Spectator was written to be read aloud. It imagined itself being read in the coffee house. It was disseminated across the country, taking the urbane “space” with it.
The idea of politeness led to new public spaces opening up were people could socialise. Ironically, it also led to the development of a new more private space. For example, it became more acceptable to read silently and you could properly devote yourself to English literature. For instance, the inclusion and discussion of the work of Milton by Addison in The Spectator gave Milton much more respectability than he had hitherto enjoyed.
This private space took the form of corridors in private houses and the introduction of drawing rooms were you could shut the door and ‘withdraw’ for more privacy. Whereas before all rooms were interconnected and it was impossible to pass from one to the other without disturbing its occupants. The reading in private became more acceptable as it provided the basis for sharing in public, such as around the dinner table or in the coffeehouse. Reading in private helped become part of polite level of general knowledge.
This feels very reminiscent of the debate today in the context of the web. What are good manners in an age when the web is everywhere? When does our use of social media become too self-absorbed? Are we more insular today or more socially aware than ever?
Towards the end of the eighteenth century this understanding of politeness and manners came under increasing attack. The Romantic idea that it’s vital to be true to who you are, rather than live a life of moderation overwhelmed any sense of harmony and balance. Yet this idea of politeness has left us with the legacy of civil society.
The belief that human beings are naturally benevolent and can freely associate to the benefit of all meant that manners were a very practical and everyday way of making this accent on the ‘good’ and virtuous real. This is the beginnings of free association and creation of clubs and societies were part of this.
The idea of politeness underlined the growing significance of the social and cultural basis for association, relative to the military, religious, economic and political reasons that had existed previously. The ideas of politeness represented a growing consciousness of the importance of new forms of association. The growing value placed on social harmony and association as a way of expressing inner virtue laid the foundations of a more secular approach to what we’d call social action today. Politeness as a philosophy to change society was the beginning of social projects that brought people together, as distinct from the more dominant religious, political or economic projects of the period.
It’s striking to see how in the eighteenth century many thinkers were talking about politeness in terms than find a certain parallels in the debate of the last decades about social capital. The value of politeness is that it was meant to help make greater social interaction possible and more effective. Politeness was a kind of social lubrication that enabled people to discuss and air the great issues of the day in a civil and moderate way, avoiding conflict and war.
It’s worth mentioning in passing a direct connection to volunteering in the present that I found coincidently when I was looking into the idea of politeness.
Anthony Ashley Cooper, the 1st Earl of Shaftesbury (grandfather of the 3rd Earl I mention above), was a prominent politician during the English Interregnum. He was a founder of the Whig political party and patron of John Locke. The 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury mentioned in the post above was the third in a very long line of Anthony Ashley Coopers. The current Earl of Shaftesbury, the 12th in a long line, has recently been in news after a catalogue of misfortune.
However, the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury, Anthony Ashley Cooper or Lord Shaftesbury as he was later known, was a Tory member of Parliament campaigning for reform on a range of issues including social reform, philanthropy and Christian Zionism. The Shaftesbury Partnership identifies Lord Shaftesbury (7th Earl) as part of its inspiration for the social reform issues it works on.
It’s the Shaftesbury Partnership which is behind the current government’s plan to develop a National Citizen Service (branded The Challenge) for 16 year olds promoting volunteering and social action. Nat Wei (Baron Wei of Shoreditch), the government’s advisor on the Big Society, is an Honorary Founding Partner of the Shaftesbury Partnership. So there’s the connection…