Civic Virtue and the Republic

cicero-vice-virtue-liberty-justice-quoteOne of the Republican (as in Roman Republic) virtues which the US has exemplified is independence of spirit.  Men took responsibility for their actions; it was not unknown for senators to fall on their swords if they dishonoured their office. The ideal of the Roman world was Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus (519 BC – 430 BC) (and the answer to the question is yes, it was named after him). When his son was convicted of a crime and absconded, Cincinnatus had to pay a huge fine and retired to his small farm. But when the State was threatened by the Volsci, the Senate called upon him to lead the State. He laid down his plough and returned to high office, which he discharged with great distinction; after victory was assured, he returned to his farm. In later life he returned once more and did great service; once again, he retired into private life. He became the beau ideal of the Patrician Roman. A man to whom service to the Res Publica – the common weal – was all.

Your American history has many such men, from the great George Washington, through Jefferson and Lincoln and into more modern times, a man like Eisenhower or Truman. These were men of almost Cincinnatan virtue. They were men who gave to the State and asked for little and ended by being loved by the people.  Has there been one such since Ike?  And if not, is that not a sign of something?

As America came onto the world stage, she did so as a Republic which disdained and distrusted Empire. Yet, did her defence of world freedom end by forcing her into imperial attitudes in some ways?  Should the USA have done what Cincinnatus did – retire back to its farm when it had saved the world?  But do men of power easily surrender it and its privileges?  I don’t recall Washington, Jefferson, Truman of Ike cashing in on their time in office; I can’t recall many recent presidents who haven’t once they retired.

A Republic is a difficult form of government because it depends on civic virtue; it needs men of power to restrain themselves as Cincinnatus did. For a Christian America that act of renunciation was perhaps easier, as it is part of the Christian message. That is not to say non-Christians cannot exercise civic virtue, but it is to say that the Judeo-Christian heritage provides a context in which such virtue is not just its own reward.

A large military costs. An interventionist foreign policy costs. The notion of empire in all its forms is corrupting of civic virtue, because you have to start off believing in your right to intervene in another country and tell its citizens what to do; you start with the belief in your own superiority. This corrupts. However much you do what you think it right for those other people, you are not them and you are assuming the right to tell them what to do in their own country. Well, if these people attack you, you have to attack them. But you don’t have to rebuild their country. You can help them, but they must do it for themselves – and that was the ‘white man’s burden’ about which Kipling spoke. But its problem was what it remains – that if you treat other people like children, they will not grow up, and you will find yourself with an expensive foster-child.

Has power and the temptations of empire corrupted the American Republic? I think there is a case for saying it has damaged it, but my faith in the instincts of a free people is stronger than my fear.

About JessicaHoff
Church of England. Survivor. Grateful. Rabid feminist lefty, according to some, wishy-washy liberal according to me.

6 Responses to Civic Virtue and the Republic

  1. Pingback: Duty, Honor, and Personal Responsibility | nebraskaenergyobserver

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