Virtus from the Ancient Republics to the Postmodern, Part IV

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 

IV. The Conflict and Subsequent Impairment of Public Virtue under Postmodernism 

The Postmodern Era in the United States

The decline in Virtus in the republics of Rome and Athens was gradual, over 400 and 170 years, respectively, and represented a slow change in personal morality. In the case of the United States this inevitable slow erosion also happened, but, more significantly, there was also a rapid change. This came about through an ideological shift under the philosophy of deconstruction and discursive-practices and their postmodern ideology, generally identified by relativism and practiced through constructivist "valuing." How did this come to pass?

In 1967 Jacques Derrida arrived at Yale University from France with his deconstructionist approach to literature; this was a means of interpreting literary works where meaning was entirely in the mind of the reader. Readers "constructed" their own narrative based upon their prior experiences. This soon was generalized beyond texts and other academic disciplines to culture in general through Michel Foucault's discursive practices. By 1988 deconstruction lost much of its credibility in academia due to internal conflicts, but the postmodern at the retail level became pervasive through the culture at large. Truth, gender, freedom, and virtue, for example, became constructs of the individual and, collectively, of particular cultures, and with no significance of one over the other. Hierarchy was abhorrent, and any attempt to impose one led to "privileging" and oppressing the "Other" in society. The antidote for such privileging was social justice and then, distributive justice. Justice was not designed for the individual, but rather on average for the culture; the new diversity was the result of one such campaign. 

An indication of the pervasiveness of social justice became apparent in the research for this essay. In many newer sources the dates are presented as "BCE," rather than "BC." Upon further research BCE means "Before the Current Era" or "Before the Common Era," depending upon the sensibilities of the particular source. It is explained that this has been adopted because “Before Christ” is offensive to some people. In a modern republic the Christian religion, unlike the pagan religion of the republics of Athens and Rome, buttresses the public virtue necessary for its success. In the United States this is the anglo-protestant culture owing to its emphasis on doctrine and the individual, not ritual and the collective; this is the public virtue of Montesquieu, and the relationship to anglo-protestantism is convincingly developed by Montesquieu, Hume, Myrdal, Gellner and Huntington.27a-d 

In contrast, the pervasiveness of the postmodern influence on culture and public virtue can be seen in the post-1980 policies in public education, the media, large corporations, the legal establishment, family policy and the senior officer corps of the United States military. 


The National Association of Scholars (NAS) was founded in 1987 to expose illiberal ideologies, variously manifested as diversity and sustainability and attacks on western culture, that undermine intellectual freedom, reasoned scholarship and civil debate in higher education. Its journal Academic Questions regularly probes the connection between diversity and social justice, for example in Russell Nieli's 2008 paper "Diversity's Discontents." NAS developed soon after the appearance of Allan Bloom's book, The Closing of the American Mind. In his book Professor Bloom described the damage done by postmodern ideologies on campus: that "...the suppression of the name of philosophy...appeals to our worst instincts."36 Also in 1987 E.B. Hirsch wrote Cultural Literacy explaining that "the chief blame should fall on faulty theories promulgated in our schools of education and accepted by educational policy makers" such as the "critical thinking movement."37 By 2001 William Bennett in Broken Hearth found that in the past decade the decline in education had deepened and, more importantly, had spread more broadly through our society and institutions38. This was summarized in a 2003 report upon the twentieth anniversary of the famous Nation at Risk from the Hoover Institution (the Koret Task Force). The failure for education to improve came in "underestimating the tenacity of the thoughtworld of the nation's college of education.39 Finally in 2008 University of Pennsylvania History Professor Alan Charles Kors sadly concluded regarding the state of academic freedom:  

We can only work to protect the innocent, expose what the media are willing to expose, and await a generational shift in administrators and the professoriate. Such a shift, alas, not only is not on the horizon, but also recedes ever further from view given the bigotry against intellectual difference and pluralism, the incentives for conformity, the disincentives for courage and independence of mind, and the willingness...of society to subsidize those who have contempt for the culture...The academic world that I entered is gone...I fight for intellectual pluralism...simply because it is my duty to bear witness to the values I cherish, with no expectation of success40. 

Allan Bloom's 1987 comprehensive historical analysis of education's predicament referred to above provides an explanation and a fitting summary for this section on education: 

Our present educational problems cannot seriously be attributed to bad administrators, weakness of will, lack of discipline, lack of money, insufficient attention to the three R's [reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic], or any of the other common explanations that indicate things will be set right if we professors would just pull up our socks.. Our petty tribulations have deeper causes…The essence of it all is not social, political, psychological, or economic, but philosophic. And, for those who wish to see, contemplation of Socrates is our most urgent task."36 


The media participated in this decline of virtue. William McGowan in his 2001 book Coloring the News wrote, "One of the academic clichés that has penetrated journalism to its detriment holds that 'reality' is merely a set of power relationships in which those who are in control - i.e. white people - impose their vision of the social order on people of color, who in turn must defend themselves by creating 'competing narratives'...the deconstructionist belief that language controls social reality."41  


Large corporations also became participants in the postmodern culture. Professor Terry Eagleton in his 2003 book After Theory talks about the influence of postmodern culture on capitalism: "new cultural ideas sprang up in a capitalism for which culture itself was becoming more important...By 1990 culture had become indistinguishable from it [capitalism]."42 Soon diversity came to permeate most large corporations, as the example of the Bank of America demonstrates. In the 1930's the first National Bank of Boston, now part of the Bank of America, sponsored the publication and distribution of classical works - from Greek histories to the League of Nation debates - because of their relevance to the U.S. republic. Today the Bank of America promotes comprehensive diversity programs including loans to illegal immigrants. 


The legal system and law schools were no exception to the postmodern influence. Stewart Taylor in his 2003 book Until Proven Innocent recounts the yearlong false indictment of the Duke University lacrosse team members for rape. This campaign was caused by a belief in "historic white privileging" by the Duke faculty, media, civil rights advocates, law enforcement officials and the judiciary, and this continued despite the total collapse of the case and the firing of the district attorney43. At the Constitutional level Professor Lawrence Tribe of Harvard University in his 2008 book The Invisible Constitution describes "constructing" the Constitution from an "invisible - ocean of ideas, propositions, recovered memories, and imagined experiences that the Constitution as a whole puts us in a position to glimpse."44 


For any political system the stability and virtue of the family is a crucial element. Kay Hymowitz in her 1999 book Ready or Not considers the well-documented tragic consequences to children as coming from the "ideas and actions of...psychologists, psychiatrists, educators, child advocates, lawmakers...storytellers" who believe that " culturally constructed."45 Harvard Professor Robert Putnam addressed the importance of social capital in democracies in his 2003 book Bowling Alone. He found that "the breakdown of the traditional family" occurred coincident with the decline in social capital starting in the 1960's, specifically in the decline in "reciprocity, honesty and trust" which, he finds, are essential for the "moral associations" cited by Tocqueville in 1830. Finally, he concludes "the bonds of our communities have withered, and...this transformation has very real costs."46  In 1992 William Bennett in his book The Devaluing of America outlined the campaign against the American family over the last 20 years, concluding that, "significant portions of American society have been culturally deconstructed."47 Nine years later in his book Broken Hearth he attributes this to "...a dramatic shift in people’s attitudes towards marriage and the family...from a coalition of cultural voices arguing that the very institution of the family is inherently oppressive."38 

Military and Security

The military and security establishment was at the core of Virtus in both the Roman and American republics, and universal military training reflected that attitude. However, in 1973 military conscription was ended in America, thereby weakening that relationship. In the present volunteer military Virtus is still the case below the level of "flag" rank; however, both the civilian and military leadership is in the postmodern cultural camp. William McGowan in Coloring the News recites the lowering of physical and intelligence requirements to accommodate the diversity requirement, even though they generate widely felt resentment48. William Gertz in his 2002 book Breakdown describes how "diversity" and "inclusion" policies began in earnest in 1993 in the military, the FBI and the CIA. This led in the late 1990's to CIA Director Tenet establishing "Diversity as a corporate imperative - a strategic goal." The FBI followed suit49. Finally, the author in a 2009 article in Commentary Magazine online entitled "Diversity - An Ideology" describes how the massacre at the U.S. army's Fort Hood by Major Hasan occurred because of the military's longstanding ideologically-based policy on diversity. The army's Chief of Staff, General George Casey, after the event stated "...what happened at Fort Hood was a tragedy, but I believe it would be an even greater tragedy if our diversity becomes a casualty."50 That is, postmodern social justice is more important than defending the republic. 

The summary effect of the above-described cultural changes was provided by the eminent historian, Harvard University Professor Samuel Huntington, in his 2004 book Who Are We:       

These efforts by a nation's leaders to deconstruct the nation they govern were, quote possibly, without precedent in human history. Substantial elements of America's elites in academia, the media, business, and the professions joined governmental elites in these efforts51.

The Conflict Between Public Virtue and the Postmodern

Public Virtue's transcendent and hierarchical nature is in direct conflict with postmodernism's relativist and constructivist nature. As this essay has demonstrated, public virtue has been essential to all republican governments since the time of Athens. This transcendent characteristic is in direct conflict with the historicism36 and relativism of the postmodern ideology.  

In regard to postmodernist constructivism (e.g., that gender is socially constructed) the practical effect of the postmodern ideology is an abhorrence of hierarchy, with its constructivism in irreconcilable conflict with public virtue's inherent hierarchies. Plato in defining the perfect republic starts with virtue in both the state and its citizen. The four great virtues he gives are wisdom, courage, self-control and justice4. Virtus, the virtue necessary in the Roman republic, is also inherently hierarchical; it comes from the Latin vir meaning "man," and incorporates good over evil. In the early Roman republic it began with the simple virtue of agrarian life and the military honor required to defend it. It matured to public virtue: self-discipline and military honor epitomized by Cincinnatus and Cicero. It came to emphasize novus homo over nobilitas: individual ability and performance over ancestry and family. Virtus did not extend to women, children, slaves or private behavior, and is incompatible with postmodern ideology. But deconstruction removes the logic from which ideals, such as Virtus, are created, with each individual or group then left to construct their own virtue. 

Public Virtue's Decline and the Weakening of Republics - Ancient and Modern

By 400 BC the Athens republic had lost the courage, the fortitude—the Virtus—to defend itself, much like today's France. Athens was subsequently overwhelmed by Alexander the Great; a republic would not return for 2000 years. By 134 BC the Roman republic had reached a similar condition of Virtus; Tiberius Gracchus as Tribune had ignored the spirit of the constitution, misused the assemblies and was murdered by a mob. By 63 BC the Consuls and Senate had lost the moral courage and perception they once had, even though Cicero as consul was available to hold to the republic against ambitious generals….Caesar and Octavian. The republic was lost for 1700 years. 

Recent administrations in the United States have seen its president, its senate and its house, like the consuls, senate and assemblies of Rome, acquiesce to the postmodern betrayal of Virtus. A few examples will demonstrate this. The fear of public voting in the later Roman assemblies is also seen in the U.S. Senate, where lobbyists frequently intimidate and subvert that process. The intrigue and demagoguery of the Assemblies under Tribune Gracchus is sometimes seen in labor union involvement in local elections and in the U.S. Congress (such as with the activities of "ACORN"). The Roman generals’ loss of Virtus, such as with Caesar and Octavian at the end of the Roman republic, is seen in the politicization of many U.S. generals over the diversity ideology. In the late Athens republic the vigorous protection of funds intended for public theaters from transfer to the military is seen in the policy to shift funding from the U.S. military to public welfare. That "she dreaded Philip, not as the enemy of liberty, but of her pleasures" demonstrates that shift, as does the response of many of the victims of the 2001 World Trade Center bombing. They wished, not to defeat the perpetrators, but to sue the government. Finally, the Tenth Amendment nullification movement, begun in 2009, now involves seven state legislatures, and is in response to the loss of Virtus in the Congress. This is reminiscent of the northern states’ nullification movement of 1850 in response to the Fugitive Slave acts, which was only resolved by the U.S. Civil War. 

However, the United States has not reached the Tiberius Gracchus point as in Rome or the Alexander the Great point as in Athens. There is still civilian control of the military which, below the general officer level, is committed to Virtus; murder of political opponents is strongly opposed; and there are many civilian leaders in politics and the media who understand and reject the postmodern idea of social justice. Most importantly, there is a large populace, perhaps even a majority, who instinctively understand the sensation of Virtus, as Montesquieu described it10. The nature of public involvement in a 2010 special senate election in Massachusetts and the national "Tea Party" movement throughout most of 2009 demonstrated this; they were spontaneous and without traditional political leadership. Public interest and action at the citizen level was still unfettered, principled and peaceful. The motivation, issues and tactics of both the "Tea Parties" and the special election were unique; they did not ask for benefits for their particular group, with so-called "earmarks" now being criticized. The motivation was a return to Constitutional principles, reduced government spending and an end to control of the private sector, and the tactics were civil and collegial. Participants frequently described their experience as uplifting, as a sensation, that is, as Virtus. Nevertheless, it is worthwhile to remember Rousseau's observations at the fall of the Rome republic:

The most incredible fact of all is that, in the midst of all these abuses, the vast people, thanks to its ancient regulations, never ceased to elect magistrates, to pass laws, to judge cases, and to carry through business both public and private, almost as easily as the senate itself could have done."52


History tells us that balance of power shifts are recoverable; loss of virtue is not. The real danger of the postmodern ideology is that it directly attacks Virtus, is abrupt and comes from within. The "Tea Party" movement of 2009 was a call for Virtus; it was not violent, did not demand personal benefits and appealed to ideals. Its numbers were perhaps 1% of the population. We are left with the question: is this a sufficient beachhead to reverse the postmodern threat to the U.S. republic or are we, like Cicero, past our time?


36.      Bloom, Allan, 1987: The Closing of the American Mind. Simon & Schuster, NY.    Pg. 379, 312.

37.      Hirsch, E.B., 1987: Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, MA.  Pg. 110.

38.      Bennett, William, 2001: Broken Hearth. Doubleday, NY.

39.      Peterson, Paul, 2003: Our Schools and Our Future. Koret Task Force. Hoover Institution, StanfordUniversity, CA.

40.      Kors, Charles, 2008: On the sadness of higher education. New Criterion and Wall Street Journal, May 27, 2008. <>.

41.      McGowan, William, 2001: Coloring the News. Encounter Books, San Francisco, CA. Pg. 232.

42.      Eagleton, Terry, 2003: After Theory. Basic Books, NY. Pg. 29, 87.

43.      Taylor, Stewart and K.C. Johnson, 2007: Until Proven Innocent. St. Martins Press, NY. Pg. 420.

44.      Tribe, Lawrence, 2008: The Invisible Constitution. Oxford University Press.

45.  Hymowitz, Kay, 1999:  Ready or Not: Why Treating Children as Small Adults Endangers their Future - and Ours. The Free Press, NY. Pg. 292.

46.  Putnam, Robert, 2000: Bowling Alone. Simon & Schuster, NY. Pg. 277.

47.  Bennett, William, 1992: The Devaluing of America. Summit Books, NY.

48.  McGowan, W., Ibid., Pgs. 206, 128.

49.  Gertz, William, 2002: Breakdown. Regnery Publishing., Washington, D.C. Pgs. 58, 71, 76, Appendix A.

50.  Seaver, George, 2009: Diversity: An Ideology. Commentary Magazine Online. November 17-19, 2009.

51.  Huntington, Samuel, 2004: Who Are We. Simon & Schuster, NY. Pg. 43.

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

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