For no people will tamely surrender their liberties, nor can any be easily subdued, when knowledge is diffused and virtue is preserved. On the contrary, when people are universally ignorant, and debauched in their manners, they will sink under their own weight without the aid of foreign invaders. - Samuel Adams
This quote from one of our Founding Fathers (not from a beer distributor!) spurned my investigation into the importance of virtue in the success or failure of a society...namely a society built on a democratic republic, like ours. What part does personal virtue play? What does virtue even mean? In the past few hours I've attempted to find answers to these questions by pouring over articles and historical writings. Of particular help was an article featured on the website Intellectual Takeout, posted with permission from the National Association of Scholars, entitled Public Virtue and a Stable Republic (taken from his article Virtus from the Ancient Republics to the Postmodern) by Dr. George Seaver. Also of much help was The Founders' Constitution, a wonderful collection of historical documents.
The prevailing idea throughout is summed up by Dr. Seaver who says "that a republic, such as America, is only as good as the virtue of it's people. In other words, public virtue is arguably the glue that holds this republic together."
An amazing revelation since it's not really something you learn in school! But the idea of virtue was apparently a very big influence on the Founders of our nation...and, therefore, over the nation itself. The Republic of the United States was founded on the basis of ancient republics, such as the Athenian (Greece) Republic and the Roman Republic. These ancient governmental systems were used as an example from which to shape our own republic in America. The Founders, of course, wanted to take the best of these republics to help form our own. And one of the main principles of these republics was the importance of virtue.
The Romans termed this concept Virtus; encompassing the moral excellence necessary for political stability and achievement in a republic. The concept was considered so important it was eventually viewed as a god! Like the Romans, the Athenians before them considered virtue to be a necessary part of a successful republic. It garnered such importance that Socrates was condemned to death for "corrupting the youth" with anti-virtuous ideas! (In actuality he was teaching the correct view of virtue in which virtue is something that one is taught and not something that can be bought, which was the view being propagated at that time, which actually led to the decline of virtue. This loss of virtue is seen as a major reason for the fall of the Athenian Republic.)
But what exactly is meant by "public virtue?" Well one of the first Roman consuls, Manius Valerius, summed it up like this in 506 B.C.:
"Lest the people themselves, when vested with so great a power, should grow wanton, and, seduced by the worst of demagogues, become dangerous to the best of citizens, (for the multitude generally give birth to tyranny) some person of consummate prudence...will...excite the citizens to virtue, and appoint such magistrates as he thinks will govern with the greatest prudence: and having effected these things within the space of six months, he will again become a private man, without receiving any other reward for these actions, than that of being honored for having performed them."
Basically a virtuous man was one who would ride in during times of trouble, take control of the republic, steer it back in the right direction, and then just as suddenly ride out again with no fanfare or desire to keep or increase his power. John Adams described it this way:
"There must be a positive passion for the public good, the public interest, honour, power and glory, established in the minds of the people, or there can be no Republican Government, nor any real liberty: and this public passion must be superiour to all private passions. Men must be ready, they must pride themselves, and be happy to sacrifice their private pleasures, passions and interests, nay, their private friendships and dearest connections, when they stand in competition with the Rights of Society."
One of the most well known examples of Virtus was Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus. In 458 B.C., Rome was in the midst of war, and it wasn't going well. Too many Chiefs, not enough Indians is a phrase that could adequately describe the situation. (That's probably a "culturally insensitive" phrase nowadays...sorry! For the record, I love Native Americans!) Well Cincinnatus was called in and appointed "interim dictator," formally termed "Master of the People" (Magister Populi). He reluctantly left his field half ploughed, took control of the Republic, raised an army, and won the war in a mere 15 days! After the victory, he returned his power back to the Senate, went home, and picked up his plough right where he left it to finish his field. He was called to be "interim dictator" again when he was 80, and once again, did the job quickly and quietly and then humbly went back home after it was finished. He was so revered for his example of public virtue that The Society of Cincinnatus was formed in 1783 to honor the ideals of a military officer's role in the new American Republic. It's first president was none other than George Washington, who modeled Cincinnatus' virtue in his staunch refusal of titles, a permanent presidency, or even a third term. You probably also realized by this point that the city of Cincinnati was named for him as well!