A Dearth of Virtue

Allegorical engraving showing the arts memorializing George Washington

One of the slipperiest aspects of republican government is the requirement that the citizens of a republic be virtuous.  Their moral discernment and scruples come into play, whether in evaluating the claims of their leaders or when called to exercise political leadership themselves.  Without virtue, the Founders thought, the entire republican project is doomed, because the power vested in the government is there to be used for the common good.

Where virtue was to come from was a little fuzzy.  Some equated virtue with economic self-sufficiency; others thought it followed from a good education—from a familiarity with the past, particularly.  For a time early in our history, Americans counted on “republican mothers” to inculcate the necessary virtues in their young.  And, throughout the ages, many believed that the right religious spirit could give republican virtue a powerful assist.

Regardless of the specifics, the success of our form of government ultimately depends on something beyond politics.  It depends on a culture that encourages prudence and goodness.  Unfortunately, in recent decades, wholesomeness and moral restraint have become unfashionable.  Society has thrown off a centuries-old association between virtue and the principle of respectability.  Virtue, once the cornerstone of reputation, has become an attribute too embarrassingly square to endorse or require.

As a culture, we have no shame.  As consumers of news and culture, Americans must tolerate acquaintance with people who behave despicably.  We are forced to take an interest in criminals and lowlifes, their heinousness smothered in a blanket of journalistic “objectivity.”  To be informed, we explore what journalists and artists have to offer, though these offerings imbue evildoers with celebrity and prestige.  In a more intimate society, miscreants would be marginalized, their importance diminished to neutralize their potentially toxic influence on a healthy culture.

Under the circumstances, virtue in America has become a private and personal matter, where once our collective need for it was publicly avowed.

Image: “American Literature & Fine Arts, Rewarding Patriotism & Virtue,”
from this source.
The print, created between 1800 and 1815,
shows the arts working to immortalize George Washington (d. 1799).

5 responses

  1. This is so timely and so on the mark. More than any of the many misguided actions or inactions of this administration, the President’s daily violations of the most elementary tenets of decent society, what I assume nearly all of us expect from people we know and deal with on a daily basis, are what troubles me and I suspect most people who disapprove of him and his administration. This feature sets him far apart from any previous president and certainly all in my lifetime, from Eisenhower through Obama and I include Nixon. I would also include all of the losing candidates in those contests.

    • Evidently, mass society lacks the power to constrain that is a feature of face-to-face society. When people behave badly, mass media may decry it, but it is not nearly as powerful a sanction as when individuals were socially shunned and palpably punished with “a loss of face.”

      Truly we live in a society where “anything goes.” This is evident in the bland sociological coverage given the Las Vegas shooter.

      Within the political sphere, politicians no longer need one another to gain or stay in office, enabling miscreants like Trump to rise without working to earn the good opinion of his “peers.”

  2. I think that virtue (plus putting the betterment and good of the country first) began to fade in a big way when Newt Gingrich became Speaker of the House—in the late 80’s, was it? A despicable man in all aspects: evil, a liar, mean, absolutely without virtue. Our representatives—in the House and Senate—slowly drifted away from putting the good of the country first–it represented a horrid break from bipartisanship. I read that for a Dem or GOP rep to so much as eat lunch with a member of the opposite party was disdained. . . . Eventually Gingrich was ousted after four years (for criminal activities), but his ugly philosophy hung around and still does. . . . . Flash forward to current times. The country has a President who has NO redeeming qualities whatsoever. Trump has a very dark soul, yet almost no one in the Congress (whether in the House or Senate) dares to call him out. Where is their virtue, their obligation to look out for the country?

    • You point to one of several episodes that, in retrospect, led to a long-term decline in political civility. Gingrich’s notion of party war was one; Bush senior’s decision to use the Willy Horton ad was another. Perhaps even LBJ’s mushroom cloud ad should be placed in the same category. As American politics becomes more a “technical” affair, and in many respects less a face-to-face one, politicians feel more comfortable attacking one another in ways that are personal and leave wounded feelings. The good will required among people of different ideological persuasions in order to form deals has evaporated. Partly as a consequence, the art of crafting effective legislation appears to be nearly lost.
      Thanks for your comment.

  3. Yes, a very good point about politics becoming more a “technical affair;” I agree with that totally. The horrid ads placed at an arm’s length and paid for by money coming from who knows where. Wounded feelings run very, very deep. As you point out, agreeing on almost any type of legislation no longer is possible. OH man, what a dysfunctional Congress we have now.