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
NAS is publishing this essay in four daily installments:
Part I: Public Virtue and Stability in the
Part II: Public Virtue as Seen from the Enlightenment
Part III: Public Virtue in the
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
Virtus: from the
Public Virtue: Cincinnatus to Foucault
Montesquieu observed that the elements of a republic have been known since the time of
I. Public Virtue and Stability in the
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
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
For the next 350 years
When Sylla thought of restoring
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.
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
Shakespeare had it wrong. It was not
1. Virtus. Historic description. Wikipedia. <e.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virtus>
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. www.gorgiaspress.com.
10. Royster, Vermont, 1949: In Hoc Anno Domini. Wall Street Journal, Dec. 25, 2009. <online.wsj.com/article>
11. Plutarch, ~ 100 AD: The Parallel Lives: the life of Cicero. 49.5, pg. 209.