Civility and Rebarbarization

Arthur Milikh

Winter 2018

The idea that all peoples are capable of self-government and that all the nations of the world should be converted into democracies is one of the most deeply held contemporary prejudices. Many political scientists devote their careers to studying the discrete, measurable variables — a functioning judiciary, fair elections, or freedom of the press — that seem to characterize political liberty, in order to discover the formula by which other peoples can adopt republican ways.

This fashionable approach, however, fails to grasp the underlying preconditions for civilized self-government, the means by which human passions are formed toward civility, and the nature of its alternative — barbarism. Having been neglected for so long by our intellectual authorities, civility and barbarism are thought to be merely synonymous with politeness and coarseness. In truth, however, they describe two distinct and opposing organizations of the human character. By rediscovering this distinction, we can revive our understanding of the prerequisites for establishing constitutional republics, and clarify how we can preserve our own.

John Adams offers one of the most lucid treatments of the subject. Some of his earliest published writings include three short but dense essays formulated as letters to the printer of the Boston Gazette, penned pseudonymously in his late 20s and later reprinted by his grandson Charles Francis Adams as "On Private Revenge: No. 1," "On Self-Delusion: No. II," and "On Private Revenge: No. III." Originally published between August and September of 1763 as corrections to individuals of his day who similarly misunderstood the nature of civility and barbarism, together they form what Adams calls a "history of sentiments."

According to Adams, the human passions — in particular anger and the desire for revenge, which especially characterize man in the barbaric state — must be ordered, moderated, and channeled so as to form human beings capable of civilized self-government and rule by laws. These passions, however, are ultimately ineradicable, which means that a permanent transformation into a state of civility is not possible. Indeed, entertaining such hopes is dangerous. Rebarbarization always remains a human possibility. Should it occur, nations may find it impossible to re-civilize major portions of their inherited order. Adams's purpose is to educate his readers on both the origins and fragility of the constitutional liberty that we enjoy.

Despite the great importance of understanding the causes of civility and the nature of barbarism, certain contemporary intellectual authorities hinder or discourage our entrance into such studies. For many years, sociologists have asserted that Western minds are distorted by ethnocentrism: Westerners evaluate other cultures according to prejudicial standards originating in the customs of their own culture. Westerners thus look upon themselves as superior, while ascribing to foreign nations the inferior status of "other." As such, no theoretical distinction between civility and barbarism can be established; any attempt to do so is a reflection of perspectival prejudices. Today, these theories have left the academy, entered into the public bloodstream, and are protected by political correctness, which seeks to limit such inquiries by labeling them offensive.

Meanwhile, cosmopolitanism claims that man is and ought to be a citizen of the world, rather than belonging to and being formed by a particular nation. According to Martha Nussbaum, a leading voice in the chorus of cosmopolitanism, "[W]e should give our first allegiance to no mere form of government, no temporal power, but to the moral community made up by the humanity of all human beings." National attachments lead to the alleged evils of "nationalism" and "factionalism," while becoming a "species being" will culminate in a gentle transnational togetherness. To cosmopolitans, enlightenment consists in finding one's "humanity," accomplished by internally aspiring to transnational "justice and goodness." Such aspirations can be elicited by liberation from loyalties to one's nation, which would imply liberation from, and even irreverence toward, the national laws that shape the human character. In the absence of this power of laws over individuals, international harmony will presumably become manifest — and be freely and eagerly pursued.

These vague dreams of loyalty toward humanity at large, though, disregard and confuse the causes of civility. As Alexander Hamilton summarizes, "Why has government been instituted at all? Because the passions of men will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice, without constraint." Cosmopolitan aspirations lack the power to constrain and tutor strong natural proclivities toward anger, pride, and selfishness. Advocates of these theories indulge in a pleasant forgetfulness by assuming that human passions are artificial and can be overcome or even eradicated. When they look at civilized nations, they believe they are witnessing humanity itself. They fail to realize that the rational, self-possessed individuals surrounding them are the products of generations of subtle education toward civility.

By engendering forgetfulness about what is required to develop and sustain civility, cosmopolitanism contributes to the hopeful illusion that it is both permanent and spontaneous — that civility somehow arises organically in human beings and can remain intact. But the possibility of rebarbarization never disappears from man's nature, only from the imaginations of the over-civilized.


Barbarism, according to Adams, is the original condition of man. In the barbaric state, each man believes himself to have no authority above his own will: "Each individual is his own sovereign, accountable to no other upon earth, and punishable by none." There is no experience of mastery or servitude, nor of ruling and being ruled — barbaric man is the equal of others in his independence. Nor does he possess binding attachments by duty or sentiment; even "[t]he ties of parent, son, and brother, are of little obligation." Individuals, for Adams, are not naturally obedient beings. Importantly, while man is born with a "capacity" to "acquir[e] knowledge and civility," he may or may not become civilized. To Adams, it seems, there is no natural or divine necessity driving man from the state of barbarism.

Adams argues that "self-love or self-preservation is the only spring that moves within" man in this state. Certain qualities, such as courage and strength, are necessary for self-preservation, and are thus "the only excellencies to which [such] men can aspire." Interactions with other individuals, however, will inevitably give rise to resentment.

Emulations and competitions for superiority in such qualities [as strength and courage], will soon commence; and any action which may be taken for an insult, will be considered as a pretension to such superiority; it will raise resentment in proportion, and shame and grief will prompt the savage to claim satisfaction or to take revenge.

For Adams, man is not a passive being interested only in preserving himself, like animals. Animals do not seek revenge, as they do not have pride or a sense of justice. Barbaric pride, to the contrary, contains the desire to believe that the sovereign individual alone is of "any consequence to the world." Self-love does not necessarily lead to self-preservation, as one may love one's pride more than one's life.

Revenge, provoked by real or perceived denials of this "superior" status, originates in a sense of what one is due, a demand established by pride. For instance, barbaric man seeks to avenge the death or the insult of a close relation, not out of love, but rather "from a principle of bravery and honor": "Every one must avenge his own wrongs when living, or else lose his reputation." In this state, barbaric man is his "own avenger," punishing without reference to God, law, or moral opinion. The vindication of one's pride in the eyes of others is what Adams seems to mean by barbaric honor.

Civilized people today are apt to forget the distinct pleasure derived from fully satisfying one's anger through revenge. Slaking the immediate, personal desire for vengeance gives "the sweetest, highest gratification"; indeed, the satisfaction is "a right and privilege extremely dear and tender to an uncultivated nature." Anger's power over the mind differs markedly between people in the states of barbarism and civility. Consider how differently each responds to the murder of a family member. The former takes matters into his own hands; the latter, trained to submit his sense of injustice and pride to impersonal arbiters, almost always turns to the police and courts. To barbaric man, acting out one's anger is a right so "dear" that it gives rise to "that obstinate disposition in barbarous nations to continue barbarous."

All human beings, both civilized and barbaric, experience anger, for "nature has implanted in the human heart a disposition to resent an injury when offered." Anger naturally guides individuals to possess an "ardent judge for themselves, when, and to what degree they are injured, and to carve out their own remedies for themselves." For Adams, anger as it is immediately experienced blends a personal, seemingly unimpeachable awareness of justice, with the belief in one's authority to execute the proper punishment. For this reason, "every individual is his own judge and his own executioner." In this, it would seem, consists the belief in individual sovereignty peculiar to barbarism.

Anger in the barbaric state is neither restrained nor diluted by considerations of proportionality. In fact, barbaric anger can end in "finishing the life of [another]" over a trifle, like an insult. It also contains no natural limit — blood feuds can continue for generations. One can readily find examples of this throughout the world: In Russia, there are frequent reports of severe beatings and even killings provoked by insults. An extreme example of such anger involves the vice president of Afghanistan, Abdul Rashid Dostum, who, while in office, allegedly captured, beat, and sodomized one of his political enemies. Dostum also publicly threatened to turn his anger on the Afghan government and destroy it if certain officials refused to treat him with the respect he believed he deserved. This sort of anger and rhetoric is rare (though still extant) in nations that Adams would likely consider civilized.

Anger also imputes will and design where there is none. The disposition to anger, Adams contends, "is so strong, that even the horse treading by accident on a gouty toe, or a brickbat falling on the shoulders, in the first twinges of pain, seems to excite the angry passions, and we feel an inclination to kill the horse." The objects arousing anger need not be human, living, or even real. "[T]he thought that any mischief has been done on purpose to abuse, raises revenge in all its strength and terrors," Adams observes. Anger attempts to make the universe conform to its inner demands. And while barbaric man may perceive his anger as an expression of justice, it is perhaps merely an expression of self-love, or selfishness.

An immense psychological alteration is required to diminish the power of anger over the mind. Introducing such changes is difficult precisely because individual sovereignty implicitly claims to be self-sufficient in judgment. For Adams, this psychological shift occurs through "the interposition of a third person to arbitrate between the contending parties." This "third person" is an authority outside of oneself to whom one defers and submits, such as the law, courts, or God.

Accordingly, Adams characterizes barbaric man as having lived "before the Christian era." (It is worth noting, though, that Adams has a high opinion of Greek and Roman civilization, citing Xenophon as his favorite author. Rather than arguing that civility is exclusive to Christian nations, Adams seems to be suggesting that Europe specifically was civilized by Christianity's influence.) This new deference is a prerequisite to creating a constitutional republic of laws.

To help illustrate the meaning of an external authority, one might consider the "turn the other cheek" doctrine from the Gospel of Matthew. Accepting this teaching requires accepting the presence of a higher being who punishes on one's behalf and is acknowledged as a perfect judge. Since justice and vengeance belong only to the Lord, all human beings are accordingly subordinate. Individuals no longer see themselves as entirely self-sufficient, individual sovereigns. In this, Christianity creates a new equality among all men, one that moderates individual anger and prepares men for internal self-government and the rule of law. Adams writes:

The divine Author of our religion has taught us that trivial provocations are to be overlooked...[this] inculcates strongly the duty of moderation and self-government upon sudden provocations.

According to Adams, the power of anger and the desire for revenge live within man always. The cognitive synthesis (that is, the belief in one's capacity for perfect judgment and perfect execution) that occurs in anger is precisely what civility — and Christianity — aim to disrupt. Man becoming civilized is the story of altering through compulsion barbaric expressions of pride, and of diluting man's anger by forcing him to submit to an authority outside of himself. Man requires sufficiently powerful and wise authorities to bring about his civilization by restraining these natural proclivities, which are in conflict with his preservation. For Adams, the British common law, building upon the habits formed through Christianity, reorganizes man's self-understanding by introducing a new order into his soul.


Barbaric anger is incompatible with civilized life. This is particularly true of life under republican governments, where citizens are ruled, in the words of James Harrington, by "an empire of laws and not of men."

For Adams, civility is a condition in which man has been made governable by laws. Once achieved, however, civility requires continued, careful, and thoughtful maintenance through laws designed to prevent the re-emergence of barbarism. Criminal law, in particular, attempts to "exterminate" the sentiments and tempers that distort the mind and make man ungovernable. For Adams, governments must understand themselves as exercising directed power against man's passions, at least in the initial stages of developing civility. Later, the law is directed toward continuing to order and moderate them. America's constitutional order depends on the continued existence of a citizenry capable of reverence for and obedience to the law.

Laws should subdue, rather than attempt to destroy, man's proclivity toward anger. They should weaken the belief in individual sovereignty, while channeling the desire for personal revenge toward external authorities such as courts and police forces. By removing the personal from any sense of injustice, laws curb the belief that man can become a self-directing, punishing god. This attaches man's pride to the laws, rather than to his own judgment or passions alone. It also compels the mind to partake in reason — the underlying principles of the law become the mind's organizing principles. For Adams, deference to the law leads to the development of civilized virtues such as patience and moderation, as opposed to the barbaric tendencies toward anger, pride, and impetuosity. In its capacity to accomplish these things, Adams says, British common law is the "most excellent monument of human art." In its ability to correct the problems of human nature, it is among the "instruments of human happiness."

For Adams, the British common law contains within it two interwoven principles. On the one hand, it is founded on a philosophic "knowledge of human nature," rather than on ancient inheritance, revelation, or one ruler's self-serving will. On the other hand, the common law resembles Christianity insofar as it has a "never-sleeping jealousy," an ever-present power over the mind similar to the Christian conscience. To a great degree, American criminal law to this day follows our British inheritance.

Criminal law directly addresses man's passions. The key to the British common law's success, for Adams, is its sharp distinction between self-defense and revenge. This distinction vindicates only violence that is "absolutely necessary for [one's] preservation." For example, the law would not justify the actions of someone who, having been lightly attacked or insulted, kills his attacker in turn. It would not "justify a furious beating, bruising, and wounding, upon the provocation of a fillip of the finger, or a kick upon the shins," as Adams writes. In this way, British common law teaches citizens that anger and revenge will neither be honored nor protected. The law compels individuals to understand that they will be punished if their passions alone govern them. The law thus enforces moderation by teaching that "little injuries and insults ought to be borne patiently for the present, rather than run the risk of violent consequences by retaliation." By contrast, in several Middle Eastern nations today, there are laws that protect husbands who murder adulterous wives and the men with whom they've committed adultery. Such laws guard and sanctify this form of righteous anger and the natural desire to personally avenge affronted pride.

British common law thus subverts barbaric notions of manliness and honor. Indeed, Adams argues that civilized man has a duty to run away from, rather than engage with, armed assailants. From the perspective of barbarism, running away is cowardice. Yet Adams wants to educate citizens in a new kind of pride, one not based on the longing for self-sufficiency but on respect for the rights of others.

Civilized revenge is not private but public. Civilized justice is carried out through identifiable, transparent procedures accessible to reason. Court processes moderate anger by subjecting it to the demands of evidence, demonstration, and arguments — all with a view to moderating anger's distorting power over individuals. In America, the law takes the side of the accused, who is presumed innocent, while the aggrieved must present his case on the basis of intelligible fact. By dignifying self-defense alone, the law also ensures that vengeance will go no further than the assigned punishment. In each of these ways, courts allay the natural, satisfying, and barbaric instinct to consult only one's passions in the pursuit of justice.

Civilized men understand that they can gain the protection of the state and its courts only when sovereignty is transferred from the individual to a judicial system. The rule of law depends on a citizen body willing to make this exchange. The benefits of such a system are far more widely dispersed than those of the barbaric state; the legal forms we have inherited from British common law help to ensure that justice is accessible to everyone. Wrongs are defined and punished according to clear, universally applicable and intelligible standards, while no special status is conferred upon the proud, the strong, or the pious. The law achieves an objective standard of retribution and thereby reinforces belief in its authority. Civilized pride should be attached to laws that protect citizens' rights and ensure justice.

Moreover, the common law makes "every common man, and even every porter upon the dock" aware that being overcome by anger may result in punishment — even when violence seems justified. One may be charged with manslaughter rather than murder, for example, but one's passion will be neither celebrated nor vindicated under the law. Nevertheless, civilized law is not merciless. It acknowledges the power of the passions and establishes gradations of punishment for substantively similar acts committed under varying circumstances. In this way, the law accounts for pride even while taming it; it assumes that men are capable to some degree of governing their violent passions, while acknowledging that self-rule requires a degree of pride. Too much subordination of individual pride by governments would create a nation of slaves. (Indeed, a certain spirited assertiveness is required to sustain civilization.) Civility does not mean that barbaric passions are extinguished entirely, only moderated and guided by the law and in support of it.

The law fosters a new self-awareness in citizens and strengthens their capacity for self-control. Indeed, one may go so far as to say that for many individuals, the law creates this capacity, as a kind of reason — as opposed to the illusions of self-sufficiency created by unadulterated pride and anger — is forced onto their minds. Even in moments of anger, for instance, there must be a calculation of proportion; and in moments of danger, one must consider whether one's actions comply with the legal standard of self-defense. The habits formed by these legal principles order the civilized character. Since all men's hearts are "deceitful above all things and desperately wicked," and men are inclined to trust in their passions, the law corrects and mediates these tendencies. In this regard, the law's "never-sleeping jealousy" serves as a kind of omnipresent secular conscience.

And as Adams notes, civilized law cannot always protect one's reputation from wrongful attack. In such cases, he advises, it is best to succumb to what is "necessary": One must simply "sit down and bear it." The law compels the development of patience.

The law thus holds the human character in what is the mean of civility: Citizens will neither become docile nothings who cannot respond to an insult or the usurpation of their liberty, nor will they indulge in the illusion of being self-sufficient, punishing gods possessed of perfect judgment. The law supports citizens' self-respect by allowing them to defend their lives, while also punishing passions that exceed this demand. Maintaining this mean, which seems to be the state of civility, is the purview of the statesman.

By imposing this order onto citizens' minds, the law makes individuals homogenous to some degree. Homogeneity of this kind allows individuals to recognize a dependable stability in each other's characters, which fosters trust. They can thus believe that they are engaged in the same enterprise and fate, and be ruled by the same laws and constitution.


The self-awareness created in individuals by the law's reordering of the passions is fragile. As Adams reminds us, those already civilized may once again become "ferocious, barbarous, and brutal." Rebarbarization always remains a possibility, as the achievements of civilization can be reversed. The maintenance of civility is therefore among the principal ends of government. "To exterminate from among mankind such revengeful sentiments and tempers, is one of the highest and most important strains of civil and humane policy," Adams observes. The "whole power of the government should be exerted" to suppress barbaric tendencies and ideas. The development of human character is not to be left to chance.

Adams thinks that rebarbarization can occur when notions flattering barbaric pride become popular among citizens. The danger shows itself in such "smart sayings" as, "If a man should insult me, by kicking my shins, and I had my sword by my side I would make the sun shine through him." Such "romantic, cavalier-like principles" particularly revive the instinct for personal vengeance and the belief in individual anger. Such notions insinuate that one's pride is of the highest value, the defense of which should be unyielding and unquestionable. Any observer may see these habits of character operating in our time in communities where basic social order has broken down.

The widespread adoption of such notions throughout society, Adams contends, will render "shameful" the right of the "public" (the courts and legislatures) to be the sole arbiter of justice. Flattered by the spirit of barbaric pride, citizens will no longer be capable of being "overawed" by reverence for prudent statesmen and other authorities. "Wisdom and virtue, skill in arts and science, and a true taste to what is right" will be scorned. If pride and anger come to govern the public sphere, the freedom of speech will likely vanish first, for it will become impossible to speak frankly and openly, even for the sake of the public good, without wounding someone's pride. The public can thus lose its ability to be governed by reason and law. Adams fears that, once reverence for these is lost, democratic man will transform into a mob being, ruled by his anger and pride alone.

As the law loses public respect, it loses its power, particularly once notions of individual sovereignty begin to animate a citizenry. As the public no longer considers the proceedings of democratic institutions to be "sacred," the law will be unable to offer more than "slight censures" against barbaric behavior. The law's power, after all, has limits: It cannot be materially present in all circumstances with all individuals, like a providential god. Its civilized operation depends on the internal restraint of a broad majority of citizens, combined with the threat of punishment. Widespread irreverence and contempt for the law, however, can reveal its weakness, and thus undermine its power to maintain civility. In order to subdue the re-emergence of barbaric passions, the law must then become harsh — and yet in re-establishing its force, it may subvert liberty. This seems to be the conundrum of rebarbarization.

Those who today advocate unbounded pity for criminals, or who claim the wholesale corruption of our criminal-justice system, may bring about the barbarism they supposedly seek to undo. Legislators should be wary of changing criminal laws such that they no longer shape human passions by punishing them. In our time, modern liberalism also contributes to the possibility of rebarbarization by teaching members of some groups that their resentments are unimpeachably justified and that retaliation is therefore righteous. Meanwhile, political correctness often ensures that these improvident notions remain unquestioned. For Adams, it seems, statesmen cannot count on laws alone — there must be leaders (like Adams) to guide public opinion away from doctrines that could lead to rebarbarization.


Adams portrays civilized man as being in a state of civil war with himself, divided between the natural impulses toward self-important anger on the one hand, and some degree of subordination or obedience to external authority on the other. Reason is naturally weak in the mind, out of which arises the need for external authorities — divine rule, supplemented by the law — to maintain the psychological balance necessary for citizens. Maintaining this balance is the art of statesmanship, an art today regrettably replaced by our view of government as an entity primarily charged with implementing a list of "policy solutions."

Some evidence points to the possibility of rebarbarization today. Lawmakers should carefully consider how discrete laws, policies, or doctrines might foster barbaric tendencies in the human character, and should better recognize the fragility of the status quo. Our nation's unity, commercial productivity, and dignity depend on the endurance of our civilized order. Contra the claims of cosmopolitans, liberation from the law will not reveal inner, self-directing decency. Our civility has been achieved only with great difficulty — citizens' passions have been trained through prudent laws applied over the course of generations. Civility is not a stable, permanent state. A return to barbarism is always possible.

Maintaining civility in our time will entail, among other things, the protection and cultivation of religions suitable for republicanism. Serious people must rethink the popular, dogmatic opinion that religion is a relic of a bygone era. The Christian God, for Adams, helped to humble individuals who believed they were gods. Similarly, according to Adams, good governments moderate and tutor the violent passions of men who think they are gods. As Alexander Hamilton observed while studying Plutarch, religion "could alone have sufficient empire over the minds of a barbarous and warlike people to engage them to cultivate the arts of peace." While religion helped bring about our civility, one wonders whether civility can be preserved should we lose it.

Arthur Milikh is Associate Director of the B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics at the Heritage Foundation. 


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