Wednesday, November 2, 2011

A Brief History of Political Fortitude I

The lessons of history are the collective experience of humanity, and to ignore them is like an individual who willingly undergoes amnesia. I am also by training an intellectual historian, so I will occasionally offer up a historical essay.  And while the ideal of political participation by all, including women, minorities, and the poor, is a modern invention, leading some to be averse to drawing lessons abut government from pre-modern societies, the experience of ancient republics and democracies about the citizenship of common people is nonetheless valuable, at least in regard to issue of class.

Citizens of past republics developed and exercised many positive qualities of character or virtues to defend self-government from would-be oligarchs and tyrants. Political fortitude, sometimes called courage or sternness, was primary among these civic virtues, alongside the complementary virtues of justice, wisdom, and moderation that traditionally get more attention. I think it is often forgotten that political courage was absolutely critical to preventing tyranny, for without it self-government withers and ultimately fails under the assaults of the politically ambitious. It should be clear by now that I believe it to be the most important of the virtues in today’s circumstances.

Political philosophers from antiquity through the Renaissance heavily emphasized the need to cultivate the civic virtues, for they believed that good citizenship led to good government. Ancient philosophers as diverse as Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Seneca, and Epictetus all discussed the education needed to make good citizens: virtues are habits of thought and action that become ingrained to the point where they become character. The term “virtue” is from the Latin virtus meaning “man,” and fortitude from fortis meaning “strength,” both labels emphasizing how political strength, rather than gentleness, was (and is) a critical quality needed by common citizens. (Political virtues were of course defined in gender biased ways in the past, since politics was a domain of male privilege, and we still have a lot of sexism to clear out of our culture. Today, however, we do not have to so weight the definitions of these terms: women and men are obviously equal in their political potentials, and we know it. Political fortitude is neither male nor female.)  Under medieval Christianity the virtues were redefined to encompass things like chastity and charity, but by the Renaissance Machiavelli was pulling Christian morality back out of the concept of virtue and making it a secular, civic matter again. Political thinkers up through the 18th century were still highly concerned with civic virtue, including Adam Ferguson, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Jefferson, Madison, John Adams, and other American Founders, although by this time liberalism was becoming prominent too. 

All this talk of civic virtue comes from the ancient school of political thought called “classical republicanism,” which, despite its name, has no relation whatsoever to America’s contemporary Republican party. Classical republicanism’s main concept is that there is an identifiable common good that is distinct from individual self-interest, and even distinct from the mere utilitarian sum of the total of individual interests. The public good is located in the res publica or “public thing/public business” that consists of the concerns shared by the people widely, and what that good is specifically in different circumstances must be decided by all in deliberation together.  It immediately follows that the health of the republic depends on citizens regularly setting aside their own self-interest and factional interests, at least sometimes, and attending to the good of all; to do so is to exercise civic virtue. More specific virtues of fortitude, justice, temperance, and wisdom were subsets of this wider definition of virtue. To paraphrase Rousseau, when voting or otherwise doing something political, one should be asking the question, “What do I think is in the public interest?” and not, “How can I advance my own or my party’s interests through politics?” Too much pursuit of personal or factional interest was corruption -- meaning not merely bribery, but anything that diminishes the health and vitality of the republic. Intensive, sustained political participation by the citizenry was absolutely necessary to ward off corruption and preserve liberty, for if the people themselves did not make their own laws, then someone else would make laws for them, and usually in an arbitrary way that went against the public good. This was, by definition, tyranny.

These lessons of history tell us that we need political courage in times of political crisis, but, it turns out, we also need it in the normal course of democratic politics, as it is key to deliberating honestly, openly, and effectively for the good of all, which will be the topic of part II.

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