Virtus from the Ancient Republics to the Postmodern, Part II

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  

Virtus: from the Ancient Republics to the Postmodern
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." Rome's historian Titus Livius was his guide where Machiavelli "was utterly translated in their company,...her lawgivers and her organizations...that so much virtue should have maintained itself during so many centuries..."12 This was in contrast to the manipulation of power The Prince describes of his own time. Two hundred and fifty years later, after the beginning of the Enlightenment, Montesquieu analyzed the nature of the three principle forms of government…republican, monarchical and despotic, where republican government includes its democratic and the aristocratic forms. His emphasis was on the way these governments actually function, the "passions that set it in motion," rather than their "particular structure," and his book is appropriately titled The Spirit of the Laws. "In a popular state one spring is necessary, namely, virtue" and this "is confirmed by the unanimous testimony of historians" he states, and then goes on to define political virtue: 

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 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 Athens: 

Athens was possessed of the same number of forces when she triumphed so gloriously as when with such infamy she was enslaved...She defended the Greeks against the Persians, when she contended for empire with Sparta...When Philip attempted to lord it over Greece, and appeared at the gates of Athens, she had then lost nothing but time. We may see in Demosthenes how difficult it was to waken her; she dreaded Philip, not as the enemy of liberty, but of her pleasures [it was a capital crime to apply money designed for theatres to military service]...It was ever after as easy to triumph over the forces of Athens as it had been difficult to subdue her virtue.18 

And then of Rome: 

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. 

To be continued...


12.      Machiavelli, Niccolo, 1513: The Discourses. The Modern Library, 1940, New York.

p.xxix, 105.

13.      Montesquieu. Ibid., Bk V, ch. 2.

14.      Rousseau, Jean Jacques, 1754: The Social Contract. Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc. Chicago. Book IV, ch 4.

15.      Ibid., On Political Economy, Pg. 375.

16.      Adams, J., Ibid., Pg. 353.

17.      Adams, J. 1776: Thoughts on Government. Philadelphia, Pa. In Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. Bernard Bailyn, 1992. HUP. Pg. 272.

18.      Montesquieu, Ibid., Bk. III, Ch. 3.

19.      Ibid., Bk. XXIII, ch. 23.

20.      Ibid., Bk. III, ch. 3.

21.  Rousseau, Ibid., Bk.III, ch. 4, 11.

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