Virtus from the Ancient Republics to the Postmodern, Part I

George Seaver

Editor’s note: The following article is a research essay by one of our members, George Seaver, a former Teaching Fellow and postdoctoral Fellow at Harvard University and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Dr. Seaver demonstrates here that public virtue has been essential to all republican governments since the time of Athens. Courage, integrity, wisdom, self-control, and justice have been the foundation for the stability of free nations. When governments esteem virtue, the nation flourishes. When they disdain virtue, the nation crumbles. The United States has seen the decline of morality and the rise of relativism; does this mean our nation is doomed? Dr. Seaver investigates.  

NAS is publishing this essay in four daily installments: 

Part I: Public Virtue and Stability in the Ancient Republics
Part II: Public Virtue as Seen from the Enlightenment

Part III: Public Virtue in the U.S. Constitution and the First 200 Years of the Republic
Part IV: The Conflict and Subsequent Impairment of Public Virtue under Postmodernism  


Since the time of the Enlightenment, historians observing the evolution of republics postulated that those of Rome and Athens were illustrative, not determinative. This is true regarding structure; however, regarding Virtus they were determinative. This essay considers the importance of public virtue over the 2000 years from the republic of ancient Greece to that of today's United States, the latter also being vulnerable to internal disintegration under the collapse of Virtus. 

Virtus: from the Ancient Republics to the Postmodern
Public Virtue: Cincinnatus to Foucault 

Montesquieu observed that the elements of a republic have been known since the time of Athens. That is not quite true. Balance in the separation of powers awaited Adams’ insight; disestablishment of religion awaited Isaac Baccus; the division of sovereignty awaited Hamilton; and the control of factions in an extended republic awaited the proposal of Madison. The analysis and improvement in the structure of republican government was the crowning achievement of the Founders of the U.S. Constitution, and in particular, of John Adams, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison. However, there was one transcendent requirement that Athens and all other successful republics brought forth: public virtue, a concept the Romans developed more fully under the name Virtus and whose transcendent character refutes modern cultural theories. In 1848 Montesquieu identified its central importance in a republic in his aptly named Spirit of the Laws. Section I of this essay describes public virtue in the stability of the Ancien Regimes, Section II describes public virtue as seen in the Enlightenment, Section III describes its place in the U.S. Constitution and the first 200 years of the republic and Section IV considers the conflict and subsequent impairment of virtus at the hands of the postmodern ideology. 

I. Public Virtue and Stability in the Ancient Republics 

Much has been written about the unraveling of the first republics. The limited size of the Athenian republic left it difficult to defend and it was ultimately overwhelmed by Alexander the Great. The overextended size of the Roman republic outran its constitution and allowed faction to overwhelm it. In both cases, although the government consisted of separated powers, they were not balanced. This analysis led Montesquieu to conclude that republics had to be small in extent and population, and John Adams to assert that powers not only had to be mixed and separate, they had to be balanced and independent with a 'negative' (veto) over the others. Yet these flaws existed during the earlier, stable period of the republics, as well as during their decline. 

There was another, though intangible, element central to the stability of a republic that caused the same government structure to improve over time at the outset but inevitably unravel and fall later on. Where "republic" is derived from Latin re publica, "public affairs," its essential is public virtue. The Romans termed this concept Virtus encompassing the moral excellence necessary for political stability and achievement in a republic. Thus Virtus, not ancestry, was the proper criterion for public office; is inborn in citizens; and the republic declines when the citizenry loses it. This is how Cicero came to define it.1, 8 Although volumes have been written on the history, the rise, the decline and fall of the Athens and Roman republics, this particular aspect of them, what Plato termed "the manners of the people,"2 was best understood by Montesquieu, Rousseau and John Adams.  

How did the citizenry and their leaders respond when public virtue came under assault from populace demands, from leadership ambitions and intrigue during the early republics? We begin with Athens. The transition at Athens from monarchy to republic in the 7th century BC was contentious and ridden by factions and lawlessness, until in 594 BC the three major factions chose a member of a royal family, Solon, to write a constitution. Solon accomplished the temporary suspension of factions and formalized a republic that was to last, imperfectly, for 200 years. Yet it was very complicated, still fearful of "factious demagogues." As Adams observed, Solon "was obliged to establish such a government as the habits and prejudices of the people would bear, not that which he thought the best,"3 the public virtue of the people being poorly developed. By 510 BC public virtue had matured and reasonable stability was achieved, particularly during the time of Pericles, even though Pericles’ only elected office was as a general, not a political leader. Socrates' trial of 399 BC was described by Plato (Apologia of Socrates, ~396 BC), and in particular, his defense against "corrupting the minds of Athenian youth." Socrates responded in part to this charge: "I tell you that virtue is not given by money, but that from virtue come money and every other good of man, public as well as private. This is my teaching."4 Socrates was found guilty and condemned to death. Public virtue was becoming tenuous. This decline in public virtue led to a weakened military condition and ultimately defeat at the hands of Alexander the Great in 338 BC. This also marked the end of Athens as a republic, and its population began to decline, but in 88 BC it finally began to enjoy some tranquility and its cultural accomplishments as a Roman colony.  

A fuller understanding of public virtue and republics was given by John Adams in his 1787 book5: "Plato has given us the most accurate detail of the natural vicissitudes of manners and principles, the usual progress of the passions in society, and revolutions of government into one another." Thus, Plato in the fourth book of his Republic (380 BC) describes a perfect republic:  

...the children receiving from their infancy an education agreeable to the laws of the constitution, grow up to be worthy men: where the system, both of laws and education, are contrived to produce the virtues of fortitude, temperance, wisdom, and justice, in the whole city, and in all the individual citizens...republics are generated by the manners of the people, to which, as into a current, all other things are drawn... 

Plato in his 8th book of the Republic considers what should happen when challenges appear, "When sedition is risen...[wise leaders] will lead the soul towards virtue and the original constitution."6 

The Roman republic followed a similar process, from kingdom to republic to dissolution. One of the first elected Roman consuls was Manius Valerius, circa 506 BC, who described this process. He supported mixed government, monarchy (2 consuls annually elected), aristocracy (senate), and democracy (popular assembly), but above all he spoke of the importance of public virtue in all of these works. As consul in this early stage of the republic, he had experienced its vulnerability to "demagogues and sedition" and, in a speech before the Roman senate in 505 BC, proclaimed:  

Lest the people themselves, when vested with so great a power, should grow wanton, and, seduced by the worst of demagogues, become dangerous to the best of citizens, (for the multitude generally give birth to tyranny) some person of consummate prudence...will...excite the citizens to virtue, and appoint such magistrates as he thinks will govern with the greatest prudence: and having effected these things within the space of six months, he will again become a private man, without receiving any other reward for these actions, than that of being honored for having performed them.7 

Over the 400-year span of the Roman republic, the need to "excite the citizens to virtue" was precipitated by the excesses of the senate over the assembly (the "conflict of orders," 494 to 287 BC) and over the military, populace excesses of the assembly against the senate (Gracchus usurpation, 123 BC), and slave revolts (139 BC). The appointment of an interim dictator, formally termed "Master of the People" (Magister Populi), by the senate was done successfully many times, though only because public virtue was perfused throughout the citizenry; that is, until Julius Caesar.  

After Valerius, Cincinnatus in 458 BC became the model of Roman virtue. Under impending military defeat close to Rome, the Senate nominated Cincinnatus to be Master of the People. Cincinnatus raised an army, led the rescue himself, was overwhelmingly successful and with a minimum of bloodshed, then disbanded his army, resigned his dictatorship and returned to his farm, only 16 days after having been appointed 'dictator'. Universal military training and the citizen's response to quickly raise an army reflected the Virtus of the Roman republic. Cincinnatus was again called to be Master of the People in 439 BC, at 80 years of age, this time to put down an uprising of plebeians; again he was successful, retired as dictator and returned to his farm. Cincinnatus was revered in Rome for his public virtue, and other cities were named after him as well: Cincinnato in Italy, Cincinnatus in New York and Cincinnati in Ohio. The Society of Cincinnatus was formed in 1783 to honor the ideals of the military officer's role in the new AmericanRepublic. Its first president, from 1783 to 1799, was George Washington, who reflected Cincinnatus's virtue in his refusal of titles, a permanent presidency or even a third term. The United States began with public virtue as its essential characteristic. 

For the next 350 years Rome's mixed government suffered from, as Adams termed it, shifting balances. Power moved between the Senate, the Consuls, and the Assembly Tribunes multiple times, but always seemed to return to a semblance of balance, until Sylla (also called Sulla) in 83 BC returned to Rome after subjugating Athens. Sylla then triumphed in bloody internecine battles against other Roman factions, resulting in his indefinite appointment as dictator by the Roman Senate. His rule was arbitrary and ruthless, but still he rewrote the Roman Constitution, now giving power back to the senate over the consuls and the Tribune of the Assemblies. In 79 BC Sylla resigned as dictator, but military force had already overwhelmed public virtue and, despite the constitution, the end of the republic was at hand. As Montesquieu framed it: 

When Sylla thought of restoring Rome to her liberty, this unhappy city was incapable of receiving that blessing. She had only the feeble remains of virtue, which were continually diminishing...Instead of being roused from her lethargy by Caesar, Tiberius, Caius Claudius, Nero and Domitian, she riveted every day her chains; if she struck some blows, her aim was at the tyrant, not at tyranny.8 

Within this final act of the Roman republic plays out a trial that clearly defines the inborn nature of public virtue, of Virtus, and the tragedy of its loss: the life of Marcus Tullius Cicero, 106 to 43 BC. Cicero believed that the political leaders of his time no longer possessed the virtuous character of the Romans of the earlier republic. He hoped that the senate would listen to his pleas as consul to renew the republic, which would then inspire the citizens to follow, and the republic would flourish again. For example, Cicero stated that the change from public to secret voting in the senate was a principle cause of the decline, as public voting enlightened the citizen and inspired their virtue, whereas secret voting admitted the importance of intrigue and corruption, as Rousseau also observed in his "Social Contract."  Cicero wrote in his De re publica (51 BC, from an imperfect translation): 

But our own time, having received the Roman constitution like a magnificent picture which is now fading with age, has not only neglected to renew its original colors, but has not even made an effort to preserve at least its shape and general outlines. For what remains of our ancient customs on which he [Ennius] said the Roman constitution stands solid? As we see, they are so worn out, so in the forgotten past, that not only are they not practical anymore, but now they are totally unknown."9  

These sensations of his mind and soul were in vain. On December 7, 43 BC, Marcus Tullius Cicero was murdered by the agents of Mark Antony and Octavianus, soon to be Caesar Agustus, the first Emperor of Roman. Thus began 500 years of Soviet-style darkness. In 1949 the distinguished writer and editor, Vermont Royster, described what was to come: 

There was oppression - for those who were not friends of Tiberius Caesar. There was the tax gatherer to take the grain from the fields and the flax from the spindle to feed the legions or to fill the hungry treasury from which divine Caesar gave largess to the people. There was the impressor to find recruits for the circuses. There were the executioners to quiet those whom the Emperor proscribed. What was a man for but to serve Caesar? There was the persecution of men who dared think differently, who heard strange voices or read strange manuscripts. There was enslavement of men whose tribes came not from Rome, disdain for those who did not have the familiar visage. And most of all, there was everywhere a contempt for human life."10 

Shakespeare had it wrong. It was not Antony and Cleopatra or Julius Caesar that were tragic figures; their fate was logical and predictable from the lessor of human nature. Cassius and Brutus in a local sense were tragic; they assumed the populace and the senate would applaud their defense of the republic from the ambition of Julius Caesar; instead they were soon condemned in absentia by their senate. Greater than all this, for those who valued public virtue, and later Christianity, the Enlightenment, Classical Liberalism and the Constitution of the United States, Cicero's life and fate was high tragedy, one that left a long shadow. Later, Emperor Caesar Augustus, upon seeing his grandson with a book written by Cicero, revealed, "He was a learned man, dear child, a learned man who loved his country."11 The play that Shakespeare should have written was Cicero Before the Barbarians.  

To be continued...


1.      Virtus. Historic description. Wikipedia. <>

2.      Plato, 380 BC: The Republic, 8th Book. Included in "A Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America. C. Dilly. London. Pg. 189.

3.      Adams, John, 1787: A Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America. C. Dilly, London. Pgs. 267, 282.

4.      Socrates, 399 BC: Apologia. Plato's Apology of Socrates, written 396 BC, translated by B. Jowett for Classics Club, Walter Black, 1942. New York. p. 48, 315.

5.      Adams, ibid., Pgs. 188, 189.

6.      Ibid., Pg. 190 (also in reference 4).

7.      Ibid., Pg. 186.

8.      Montesquieu, Charles de, 1748: The Spirit of the Laws. Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc. Chicago 1943. Book III, Chapter 3.

9.      Cicero, Marcus Tullius, 51 BC: De republica. Book 5. First Gorgias Press, 2004.

10.  Royster, Vermont, 1949: In Hoc Anno Domini. Wall Street Journal, Dec. 25, 2009. <>

11.  Plutarch, ~ 100 AD: The Parallel Lives: the life of Cicero. 49.5, pg. 209.

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