Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Civic Virtue, Civilization, and Society

There is a concept that I don’t hear much about anymore; civic virtue. Heck, virtue in general is seen as a quaint, obsolete idea. But these two closely linked but distinct ideas, virtue and civic virtue, are as critical today as ever.
The simple definition of "virtue" is ‘ a character trait that is inherently good’, so that developing and holding these traits is something that makes a person better than they would otherwise be. The Four Cardinal Virtues are Prudence, Temperance, Courage, and Justice. While I grew up hearing of these traits (for all his faults, my father is of the Greatest Generation, after all), they are so outrÈ today that many don’t know what they mean.
‘Prudence’ is not caution (although that is the usual modern meaning) or timidity – it means ‘sound judgment’, the ability to distinguish between acting with courage and acting recklessly, for example. Prudence is seen not as action, but the knowledge and wisdom that guides actions.
‘Temperance’ is usually seen as another word for ‘moderation’, but it is more. It really means ‘moderation through control of the self’. The ability to control oneself is a key element of acting virtuously. After all, a person with the prudence to know which actions are proper and which are immoral but without the self-control to avoid the immoral in favor of the good cannot act in a proper manner. Temperance is seen as guiding not just eating, drinking, and sex, but also the choice of words and courses of action.
‘Justice’ is the impartial treatment of all individuals, regardless of race, creed, or origin, and thereby according them what they actually deserve. This is not some blanket ‘everyone is OK’ PC tolerance concept. Justice encompasses punishment as well as reward, rejection as well as acceptance. A stranger is judged by his actions, not the color of his skin – but if his actions merit punishment, then the color of his skin is no shield against justice. This is also true of gender, religion; you name it.
The fourth cardinal virtue is Courage. ‘Courage’ means the trait of acting in a moral manner in the face of fear. Regardless of shame, pain, loss, or death, the courageous man acts properly.
These virtues are Cardinal because they are each necessary; without prudence, you cannot know when or how to act; without courage, you will not act when it is risky (and moral behavior is almost always risky); etc. In short, you either have them all, or you effectively have none of them.
The ancient Greeks, especially Socrates, identified these virtues and their central, critical role is moral life and it was soon assumed by his intellectual heirs to be proven that these virtues were key to living a proper, moral life. Thus, these virtues form the foundation of the concepts ‘good’ behavior.
This brings us to the Civic Virtues. Where the Cardinal Virtues are seen as the elements that make a person’s own life worthwhile, the Civic Virtues are the elements that make a person a good citizen and the building blocks of a good society. In other words, just as the Cardinal Virtues make you an objectively good person, Civic Virtues build an objectively good society.
There is some debate on exactly what is meant by ‘civic virtue’, with some arguing that it means simply to be involved in the community, or even to send our children to public school. In the end, however, the definition of ‘Civic Virtue’ boils down to the core concepts that each individual has a duty to society as a whole and that this duty is to act in a moral, selfless manner. In The Discourses, Machiavelli sets out to use history to prove that a classical republican government founded upon the concepts of liberty and civic virtue as co-dependent ideas is the most just form of government possible. Political leaders and philosophers from Hannah Arendt to Thomas Jefferson agree with Machiavelli both in regards to republican government and the concept that liberty is only achievable in conjunction with the classical view of civic virtue as ‘selflessly moral actions by citizens for the society’. Machiavelli’s conclusion that when citizens reject civic virtue in favor of self-interest the inevitable result is subjugation (either to a despotic ruler or a despotic foreign invader) is also widely accepted.
The fascinating thing about civic virtue is that it is a virtue of individuals, not the group; it is not about the government helping the people or forcing certain activities with laws, but about individuals placing the common good above their own narrow interests of their own free will. Especially in the initial conceptualization of America by the founders, government was seen as a tool to prevent citizens from being denied freedom, thus allowing citizens to act as they should. It was assumed that proper citizens (i.e., those practicing the Cardinal Virtues) would be driven by their very character to embrace Civic Virtue. An untrammeled version of this drove the Anti-Federalists to aim for a very limited government. A fear that some day the majority would discard the Cardinal Virtues drove the Federalists to do such things as insist on the Bill of Rights being added as amendments to the Constitution.
As the Anti-Federalists saw it, the benefits of living a virtuous life were so overwhelmingly positive and so readily apparent that there was little need to do more than make sure people knew what they were and were afforded an opportunity to see the results; the rest was inevitable. At first it seemed hard to argue with them; a life lived virtuously is one that leads to peaceful prosperity, after all. Prudent people married with as much attention to the future as to their impulses, thought issues and events through, and were courteous. Temperant people saved their money, invested carefully, and avoided excess. Just people were open-minded, but not to the point of being gullible. Courageous people did what needed doing. Combined, these traits were the character traits that formed the core of the American Dream [while Hollywood may tell you that the American Dream is to ‘get rich or die trying’, the real American dream is to live free beholden to no one]. Rich or poor, virtuous people live the best life they can, strive to better themselves, and also strive to help fellow citizens.
The Federalists were quick to point out that even in the face of evidence plenty of people weren’t virtuous. Furthermore, vicious people (people of virtue are virtuous; people of vice are vicious) were capable of taking advantage of the virtuous society around them to simultaneously ‘artificially’ improve their own life, avoid contributing to society, and make that same society worse. This threat, they argued, was serious enough to warrant safeguards.
In the end, I fear the Federalists were correct. More and more people "realized" that if they lived within a virtuous society and acted in a selfish manner, they could reap the benefits of both society as a whole and of the hard work of others without developing virtues of their own. This is attractive in the short term because being virtuous is hard work; you must live by the most onerous of all limitations – self-imposed limitations. Why deny yourself anything if most of the tab is going to be picked up by someone else?
Indeed, the ethos of the Baby Boomer generation is just that; discarded virtue. ‘Turn on, tune in, and drop out’ is a pretty thorough rejection of virtue, after all – ‘turn on’ is ‘forget temperance and indulge in whatever you want’; ‘tune in’ is ‘ignore prudence and do what’s popular; and ‘drop out’ is ‘justice and courage are for saps who enjoy hard work, man’. The problem is, so many people of that generation rejected personal and civic virtue that the remaining virtuous couldn’t maintain stability as it had been.
Thus we have the fruits of the embrace of vice. The horrifying escalation in violent crime of the ‘70’s, the siphoning of billions of dollars to murderous drug lords in the ‘80’s, the financial malfeasance of the ‘90’s, the devil-may-care explosion and collapse of businesses in the early ‘00’s. Police are the most visible personification of authority and order, so they were hated and reviled (and under-funded and demoralized) – resulting in robbery, rape, and murder. ‘I’m just getting high, man, I’m not hurting anyone’ led to murderous billionaire criminals that effectively control the governments and armies of a handful of nations. ‘greed is good’ led to junk bond fiascos and the bust as people focused not on building, but looting.
The personal toll is worse. Addiction, fatherless children, alcoholism are endemic, especially in the young (who are told that temperance is a bad thing). The phenomena of ‘helicopter parents’ is a symptom, showing how a broad section of people reject prudence and justice in favor of their own child getting special treatment. Even the sharp declines in fertility are symptomatic; our primary social responsibility, the social group we are to sacrifice for first and most, is our family. More and more people are refusing to have children, and most openly admit that it is because they are ‘too selfish’ to endure the hard work, expense, and emotional investment children demand. In the end, when these childless people are elderly, society as a whole will be forced to care for them when they can no longer care for themselves. Of course, if enough of their fellow travelers join them in having one or none, then there won’t be enough young people to pay for and care for them as they age. Their abandonment of family duties and rejection of the future will not be deferred until after they are dead, but only until they face death.
While many in the blogosphere and MSM speak of a ‘clash of civilizations’, I think this lack of virtue is more critical. Indeed, the rejection of virtue and civic duty is a clash f civilization itself with barbarism.
The Greek writers who coined the term ‘barbarian’ originally used it to refer to ‘someone who doesn’t speak Greek’. It was expanded, however, until it meant ‘cowardly hedonists unable to control their own appetites’. The rejection of reason and culture was assumed to be inescapable from these self-same traits. Interesting, isn’t it, that the same Greeks who formalized logic, prized reason, invented geometry, etc. dismissed those who ‘turn on, tune in, and drop out’ as being incapable of reason?
Today, the barbarians aren’t at the gates, they are in the university faculty lounge. From Hollywood to New York they fill printed pages, the airwaves, and theatres with glorification of a life without virtue while painting the virtuous as stupid, foolish, or actively evil. Attempts to teach virtuous behavior (abstinence education, for example) provoke howls from the tribes of hedonists who shriek that teaching temperance is fruitless, even evil.
So immorality and selfishness are described by the self-styled intellectuals of the West as good, while morality and selflessness are derided as traps for the foolish. Like the grasshopper and the ant, the barbarians mock those who built the city they are burning, not noticing how very close Winter has become. When the snows do arrive never doubt that the barbarians will insist, nay demand! that the builders put them up and feed them until Spring comes.

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