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
Virtus: from the
Public Virtue: Cincinnatus to Foucault
II. Public Virtue as Seen from the Enlightenment
Niccolo Machiavelli in 1513 wrote The Prince in which he analyzed political power and, in particular, that power corrupts. He also wrote the more comprehensive and personally engaged work, The Discourses, where he puts on "my curial robes...and enters the ancient courts...where I am welcomed kindly."
Virtue in a republic is a simple thing: it is a love of the republic; it is a sensation, and not a consequence of acquired knowledge: a sensation that may be felt by the meanest as well as by the highest person in the state. When the common people adopt good maxims, they adhere to them more steadily than those whom we call gentlemen. It is very rarely that corruption commences with the former: nay, they frequently derive from their imperfect light a stronger attachment to the established laws and customs.13
Rousseau described Virtus specifically in regard to voting in the Roman republic:
It was as simple as their morals. Each man declared his vote aloud and the clerk duly wrote it down. This custom was good as long as honesty was triumphant among the citizens, and each man was ashamed to vote publicly in favor of an unjust proposal or an unworthy subject.14
And he describes its manifestation at large:
Everything both at Rome, and in the Roman armies, breathed the love of fellow-citizens one for another, and that respect for the Roman name, which raised the courage and inspired the virtue of every one who had the honour to bear it...It was thus that Rome was virtuous and became the mistress of the world.15
John Adams (1987) saw in the early Roman republic "the wisest and most respected of the citizens...raised into office; and the assemblies, whether of the senate or the people, without envy and jealousy, suffered themselves to be governed by...a few able and virtuous men. The spirit of the people was in a high degree democratical."16 In his 1776 pamphlet he gave a sense of the elan, the virtue that the Founders held towards the republic that they were building: "You and I, my dear friend, have been sent into life at a time when the greatest lawgivers of antiquity would have wished to live. How few of the human race have enjoyed an opportunity of making an election of government...to form and establish the wisest and happiest government that human wisdom can contrive?"17
Over time, usually measured in centuries, this spirit gradually changed, even though the governmental structure remained nearly the same. The difference was the decline of public virtue, the institution of the Romans’ Virtus. Montesquieu first gives the example of
And then of
The regulations made by the Romans to increase the number of their citizens had their effect while the republic, in the full vigor of her constitution, had nothing to repair but the losses she sustained by her courage, by her intrepidity, by her firmness, her love of glory and of virtue. But soon the wisest laws could not re-establish what a dying republic, what a general anarchy, what a military government...what a stupid, weak and superstitious court has successively pulled down. It might be said that they conquered the world only to weaken it, and to deliver it up defenceless to the barbarians...and soon the barbarians had none to destroy but barbarians.19
How did this loss of virtue manifest itself in ordinary behavior, and what are its early symptoms? Montesquieu tells us:
When virtue is banished ambition invades the minds of those who are disposed to receive it, and avarice possesses the whole community. The objects of their desires are changed; what they were fond of before has become indifferent; they were free when under the restraint of laws, but they would fain now be free to act against the law; and as each citizen is like a slave who has run away from his master, that which was a maxim of equity he calls rigor; that which was a rule of action he styles constraining; and to precaution he gives the name of fear.20
Rousseau tells us "that there is no government so subject to civil wars as popular government, because there is none which has so strong and continual a tendency to change to another form, or which demands more vigilance and courage for its maintenance...The citizen should...say every day of his life what a virtuous Count Palatine said in the Diet of Poland: 'I prefer liberty with danger to peace with slavery.' The death of the body politic is the natural and inevitable tendency of the best constituted governments. But it will end later than any other."21
The conclusion by Montesquieu, Adams and Rousseau and from the ancient republics is that the balance of power experiences periodic, unstable shifts, but stability can be recovered; the loss of public virtue occurs slowly and is not recoverable.
12. Machiavelli, Niccolo, 1513: The Discourses. The Modern Library, 1940,
13. Montesquieu. Ibid., Bk V, ch. 2.
14. Rousseau, Jean Jacques, 1754: The Social Contract. Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc.
15. Ibid., On Political Economy, Pg. 375.
16. Adams, J., Ibid., Pg. 353.
17. Adams, J. 1776: Thoughts on Government.
18. Montesquieu, Ibid., Bk. III,
19. Ibid., Bk. XXIII, ch. 23.
20. Ibid., Bk. III, ch. 3.
21. Rousseau, Ibid., Bk.III, ch. 4, 11.