In Macbeth, Act 1, Scene 1, Lady Macbeth fears that her husband is “too full of the milk of human kindness” to seize the crown and become king. And with that single line from Shakespeare’s work, a phrase for the ages was born.
Since that time, the phrase “milk of human kindness” generally refers to the care, compassion, friendliness or hospitality that one person generally feels for another. Established norms of social behavior, and the associated polite and respectful dialogue of citizens, are indicators of a mature civilization that understands and values the need for an ordered hierarchy in interpersonal relationships.
In a look back into history, we see that every successful society had rules of conduct that expected people to treat each other with courtesy and respect. The relationships between men and women, adults and children, bosses and employees, and even servants and kings all had rules of conduct. Of course, people were people, and it didn’t always work out perfectly, but even insults were exchanged in a proper and dignified manner. For example, “I can see you were not burdened with an overabundance of education“ is so much more kind that calling someone a dumbass.
Unfortunately, it appears that we may have left the milk of human kindness out on the counter a little to long, and it is beginning to go sour.
The internet is a prime example of the death knell for human kindness. The hatred, animosity, and rancor is unmatched in history, and millions of anonymous trolls seem to relish every opportunity to insult and demean perfect strangers who they will likely never meet. Political parties are so contentious with each other that cursing and physical confrontations occur in the halls of government. Even our president engages in the most public derision of anyone who offends him, or seems to offend him.
Society has gone from proper to coarse to openly hostile in less than a hundred years. Anger and revenge have replaced decorum and restraint as the foundations of interpersonal relationships, and it doesn’t look like it has stopped worsening. Lady Macbeth would be proud to see that we have come so far.
The milk is sour, and every day we take another drink.