HOME  |  CONTACT US  |
 

Post Your Opinion
Trying to Retrive Civic Virtue
by Thomas Pangle

This book, by one of America's leading political theorists, is a remarkable academic expression of the moral malaise that is ever more profoundly and precipitously seizing hold of modern liberal democracy. Sandel contends that behind the massive signs of the implosion occurring in democratic politics everywhere in the West, but especially in the United States, is the fundamentally flawed character of our "public philosophy". By "public philosophy", he means "the theory we live": "for all we may resist such ultimate questions as the meaning of justice and the nature of the good life, what we cannot escape is that we live some answer to these questions-we live some theory-all the time." And the theory we are living today "lacks," he argues, "the civic resources to sustain self-government."
So what is, according to Sandel, the "theory we live", and what is wrong with this "liberal public philosophy"? Our Western democratic governments and public policies have been instilling with intensifying moralism that specific ethic which requires the liberation of the individual from all ties of solidarity, responsibility, tradition, and obligation that are not autonomously chosen. The balances delicately articulated in our original, eighteenth-century founding public philosophies have been decisively tilted: rights have eclipsed responsibilities, freedom has obscured virtue, tolerance has rendered suspicious the passing of moral judgements, and concern for autonomous choice has come to outweigh concern for human fulfilment found in dedication and devotion.
The result is a society increasingly bereft of the capacity to foster those specific traits of character that are essential, not only for a vigorously deliberative self-governing people, but even for the more modest bonds of mutual caring and obligation, the more restricted sense of responsibility and capacity for sacrifice, that are required to sustain the contemporary family and the modern welfare state.
At a more profound level, this contemporary public philosophy of ours leaves us with a conception of our souls or selves as narrow, fragmented, isolated, powerless-and hence naturally prone to apathy or resentment. Our public philosophy lacks a vocabulary in which we might articulate those longings and dimensions of existence that we experience as beings situated in larger social wholes entailing strong bonds of affection, duty, and obedience that are not merely chosen, but are instead also discovered, grown into, and accepted as essential. And this crippling of our moral vocabulary frustrates our need to express these dimensions of our civic and moral existence in our public actions, in our laws and institutions, and in the narratives that weave together the fabric of our common lives. This inarticulateness has grave communal consequences. For it conduces to a tolerance that is a "mere" toleration: a thin pluralism of co-existing but mutually indifferent or hostile multicultural posturings, rather than a rich diversity of spiritual strivings, mutually respectful and attentive, teaching and learning, affirming and nurturing, even while criticizing and arguing-because all dedicated to fundamental principles of republican government and human rights, and all sharing a thirst for ever deeper spiritual completion.
But Sandel's book is far from being just a critique or a diagnosis. The book is above all what C. B. Macpherson called "an essay in retrieval": not an effort to return to some golden age, not the reverent recitation of a rosary of supposedly eternal verities, but rather a critical and self-critical confrontation with the most challenging civic-educational views of earlier thinkers-and especially those thinkers who laid down the basic moral foundation of our original civic tradition. In the opening chapter, and in the second and longest part of the book, Sandel elaborates an illuminating synoptic narrative showing how recent is the attainment of cultural hegemony by merely "procedural" liberalism, with its "voluntarist" conception of the self. This triumph comes only at the end of a long and depressing process whereby a competing and mitigating "civic republican" strand of public philosophy was gradually eclipsed.
"Civic republicanism" is rooted in Aristotle-but also in Machiavelli, whose "more modest version" Sandel seems to favour. The classical republican tradition stressed the civic virtues that deliberative self-government requires in the citizenry, and made the formation of character, the fostering of the capacities for active citizenship, a chief and direct aim of legislation and public policy. The historical narrative that takes up the bulk of the second part of Sandel's book tells a moving and melancholy story-not so much nostalgia as lament-that relates how dramatically the liberal public philosophy of the last fifty years has drifted away from originally strong republican concerns.
Thus the labour movement in its youth, and throughout most of the late nineteenth century, challenged capitalism on civic grounds, arguing for limits on working hours, and changes in working conditions, that would enable workers to perform "public duties". But at the end of the century there emerged the new, more effective union movement that made prosperity and fair distribution of wealth its overriding aims.
Thus, again, "the economic arguments of our day," Sandel observes, "bear little resemblance to the issues that divided Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Croly and Louis D. Brandeis. They were concerned with the structure of the economy and debated how to preserve democratic government in the face of concentrated economic power. We are concerned with the overall level of economic output and debate how to promote economic growth while assuring broad access to the fruits of prosperity.. Beginning in the late New Deal and culminating in the early 1960s, the political economy of growth and distributive justice displaced the political economy of citizenship."
The same shift throws into gear the Keynesian revolution in economics:
"From Jefferson to Brandeis, republicans worried more about conditions of production than about conditions of consumption because they viewed the world of work as the arena in which, for better or for worse, the character of citizens was formed.. Keynesians, by contrast, focused on consumption and wanted to increase `the propensity to consume'. .The New Deal differed from earlier reform movements in precisely this respect; it sought better to satisfy Americans' wants and ends, not to elevate or improve them."
Now it is in the course of Sandel's historical narrative that we gain more concrete indications of just what the specific civic virtues or qualities of character are that he seeks to regenerate. But we get these indications, not so much from his own words, as from the figures he quotes. Sandel himself speaks more in generalities, not to say abstractions. Still, one can generate a list of specific virtues from the historical sources and authorities that he cites. What are those virtues?
In the foreground are virtues of family and marital fidelity, together with the economic virtues of the workplace and of the market as well as of household management: honesty, frugality, industry, craftsmanship, simplicity of manners; and, more generally, economic independence or even self-sufficiency, epitomized in the exemplars of the yeoman farmer, the small businessman, and the self-employed craftsman or artisan.
Then there are virtues of self-control, including discipline, moderation, temperance, even self-denial, and a capacity for shame. We find frequent invocation of the kindred virtues of obedience, respect for authority, orderliness, "equality of station", and reverence for tradition. And of course there is abundant reference to religious piety, and obedience to God and His commandments.
But in counterpoint to this stress on equal obedience to lawful authority is the repeated invocation of manliness, manly pride, and courage; the prominent place assigned to manliness is associated with the moral value of the "rigours of war". And here we finally reach unquestionably political or civic virtues-for, to a surprising degree, the virtues that are actually mentioned in the course of Sandel's narrative are as often as not personal, not to say private, rather than distinctly civic or political. The political virtues evoked, in addition to military courage and manly pride, are a "positive passion for the public good, the public interest, honour, power, and glory, established in the minds of the people," as opposed to the vices of "avarice and ambition" and "a rage for profit and commerce" (quoting John Adams); the "love of fame", as "the ruling passion of the noblest minds", a motive "which would prompt a man to plan and undertake extensive and arduous enterprises for the public benefit" (quoting Alexander Hamilton), "a vision of republican glory and greatness", of "grandeur and glory" (quoting Hamilton again); a patriotic sense of union and national identity.
Last but not least, Sandel's favoured sources of inspiration speak emphatically of the virtue of wisdom, by which they mean not only, and not even chiefly, far-sighted practical judgement: no, these sources-Jacksonian Democrats, the Knights of Labour, Theodore Roosevelt-have in view the noble employment of genuine leisure in a life of the mind pursued for its own sake.
When we step back and survey the results of our attempt to generate a list of the specific virtues that Sandel's narrative evokes, we cannot help but wonder whether there are not major lacunae in the tabulation. What about justice? Or can we leave it at the assumption that "everybody knows" what justice is or demands? But it suffices to recall the current burning debate over so-called "affirmative action" (reverse discrimination) to recognize at once that there are in fact deep and intense disagreements over what justice means-in principle, and not merely in application. Can one turn back seriously to the civic republican strand in our tradition of public philosophy without confronting the fact that classical republicanism has a conception of justice that severely challenges, in important respects, the current liberal-democratic conception? Does the civic republican tradition not argue that while justice as fairness means equality in some sense, this "equality" must be further analysed? Strict or arithmetical equality characterizes only "commutative" justice, the justice that prevails in law-courts and in the marketplace, where each plaintiff or negotiator is conceived as possessing equal claims. But distributive justice is a higher form of fairness; it is the fairness that prevails in the allocation of office and honour, as well as shame. Here justice consists not in a simple equality of persons, but in an equality of value between what is distributed to each person and that person's deserts or merits.
This conception of distributive justice is indeed "aristocratic" (as opposed to plutocratic): for is not the civic republican democratic tradition inspirited with a powerful aristocratic component? Thomas Jefferson's famous and influential educational proposals ("Preamble to the Proposed Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge", 1779) were explicitly aimed at ensuring "that those persons, whom nature hath endowed with genius and virtue, should be rendered by liberal education worthy to receive, and able to guard, the sacred deposit of the rights and liberties of their fellow citizens, and that they should be called to that charge without regard to wealth, birth, or other accidental condition or circumstance." For, Jefferson goes on to declare, these latter, "whom nature hath fitly formed and disposed to become useful instruments for the public," are more likely to come from the poor than from the rich or the middle class. He therefore proposed publicly funded scholarships for higher education: "by this means," he explains in Notes on the State of Virginia (Query 14), "the best geniuses will be raked from the rubbish annually." It is these few of whom he later speaks, in a famous letter to John Adams (28 October 1813), as "the natural aristocracy": "the natural aristocracy I consider as the most precious gift of nature, for the instruction, the trusts, and government of society.. May we not even say that that form of government is the best which provides the most effectually for a pure selection of these natural aristoi into the offices of government?"
Sandel cannot help but acknowledge this aristocratic dimension in civic republican arguments about the true nature of justice; but, so far as I can see, he never really comes to terms with these arguments-except to indicate occasionally his discomfort at such unfashionable sentiments. But how can Jeffersonian republicanism be appealed to, once this cornerstone of authentic Jeffersonianism is hidden away in embarrassment?
Nor is it only as regards the pre-eminent virtue of justice that one must entertain doubts as to the adequacy of Sandel's richly thought-provoking attempt to revive serious discussion of civic virtue.
To begin with, must one not establish, on the basis of argument and analysis, some priorities of intrinsic rank among the many virtues or candidates for virtue? Which of the virtues are more important or essential, and which less? For example, is manliness as crucial as it appears from the sources Sandel evokes, and if so, just which sort of manliness-and why? Surely in our time this argument needs to be restated, and can by no means be taken for granted. And if, in response to our query, Sandel wishes to abandon the reverence for manliness so strongly testified to in his sources, then again we must demand from him his argument. Why is the academically fashionable denigration of manliness anything more than another manifestation of slavishly conventional clinging to the mutilated or bankrupt contemporary public philosophy?
To move to another kind of basic question: are all of the virtues that appear to be virtues actually capable of retaining that precious title once they are exposed to searching scrutiny? For example, is the passion for glory, the love of fame, as unambiguously a mark of nobility as John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, following Machiavelli, seem to have supposed? Or is this passion, as Aristotle and Socrates contended, only the essential raw material for great excellence: a material that can also take on the form of great vice, and therefore a material which, in order to become true virtue, is in need of refinement and shaping through critical scrutiny and severe discipline?
Then in the third place, one must ask whether all of the civic virtues invoked by Sandel, even those that survive critical scrutiny, are compatible and harmonious one with another. Are there not severe unexplored tensions among some of the apparently highest of the virtues that his narrative evokes? For example, does even the noble or purified love of fame necessarily go easily with strong and solid attachment to the family, or with the prosaic satisfactions of independent craftsmanship? Does the passionate sense of honour, does proud manliness, does the drive for economic self-sufficiency, sit easily with authentic biblical piety-or is there not here a plethora of problems crying out for long meditation?
Lastly, one must ask how the virtues are to be ranked or prioritized in terms of their relative feasibility for us, given the conditions of our contemporary society. Is it not possible or even likely that we may have to make painful choices between, on the one hand, cultivating lesser, but more attainable virtues and, on the other hand, running greater risks with the entire project of ennoblement in order to prevent the extinction of the greatest and truest forms of human flourishing?
But there is an even broader and deeper kind of critical question that must be raised in the course of any sustained theoretical attempt to revive civic virtue. Are the civic virtues, is republican self-government or participation in deliberative politics, to be understood chiefly as an end, as intrinsically good, because constitutive of human fulfilment? Or is civic virtue to be understood finally and chiefly as instrumental, as a means for protecting and securing sub-political or trans-political goods?
Sandel admits that the philosophic tradition of civic republicanism exhibits a deep division on this momentous issue:
"The strong version of the republican ideal, going back to Aristotle, sees civic virtue and political participation as intrinsic to liberty; given our nature as political beings, we are free only insofar as we exercise our capacity to deliberate about the common good, and participate in the public life of a free city or republic. More modest versions of the republican ideal see civic virtue and public service as instrumental to liberty; even the liberty to pursue our own ends depends on preserving the freedom of our political community, which depends in turn on the willingness to put the common good above our private interests."
But this formulation of the "more modest" version is simply incoherent, or self-contradictory: for how can we put the common good "above" our private interests when that good, or public service to it, is merely instrumental to the pursuit of "our own ends"?! Sandel inadvertently reproduces here a glaring incoherence in the "more modest" version-which he ascribes to Machiavelli, as interpreted by Quentin Skinner, although in fact a careful reading of Machiavelli would show that he is not guilty of the absurdity thus attributed to him. On the contrary: Machiavelli's outlook is ruthlessly coherent and consistent. He is the source of that conception of virtue (virtý) which inspires the famous remark of Hamilton that Sandel repeatedly quotes: "the love of fame is the ruling passion of the noblest minds." This remark implies that a clear-sighted person would never put the common good "above" his greatest personal good or pleasure found in fame. This Hamiltonian or Machiavellian outlook was directly contradicted by George Washington-contrary to Sandel's assertion that Hamilton correctly describes the ruling passion of the American Founders. When called to lead the Virginia defences in 1775, Washington wrote to a friend that "no man can gain any Honour by conducting our Forces at this time, but rather lose in his reputation": he therefore chose to forfeit, he wrote, "what at present constitutes the chief part of my happiness; i.e., the esteem and notice the country has been pleased to honour me with." Similarly, when called to serve as the nation's first president, he judged the office as hardly likely to enhance, as more likely to jeopardize, his already glorious repute; still, he wrote to Henry Lee, "if I know myself,.regard for my own fame will not come in competition with an object of so much magnitude." And is not the outlook expressed by Washington evidently the truer? For once we begin to understand public service or virtue as ultimately an instrument for the acquisition of personal fame, power, wealth, and empire-as Machiavelli argues we should, and the imperialistic Roman republicans did-have we not lost sight of what truly dignifies humanity, and ennobles politics? We may invoke here the testimony of Sandel himself (contradicting what he says later in his book): "a wholly instrumental defence of freedom and rights not only leaves rights vulnerable but fails to respect the inherent dignity of persons. The utilitarian calculus treats people as means to the happiness of others, not as ends in themselves, worthy of respect."
The contradiction in which Sandel thus becomes entrammelled can only be resolved, I believe, by his following consistently his deepest and noblest insight, into the non-instrumental, intrinsic, and ultimate value of civic virtue. Such a move would require an ascent from the more "modest" (and, we now see, incoherent or self-contradictory) version to the Aristotelian version of civic republicanism.
Yet to return to Aristotle is not to find simple or easy answers. It is rather to become aware of what is truly perplexing about virtue. If Sandel were to reconsider Aristotle attentively, he would, I suggest, be forced to enlarge considerably his conception of virtue, and of what Aristotle-and the entire classical tradition stretching at least up to Jonathan Swift-means by "virtue". For that tradition, contrary to what Sandel says and suggests, does not conceive of republican liberty, and participation in deliberative self-government, as the fullest and most complete realization of human flourishing. Aristotle insists that "civic" virtue can be maintained as a key constituent of human fulfilment if and only if such virtue is seen as partial, as incomplete, as pointing beyond itself to a virtue that ultimately transcends politics: in the first place, to "moral" virtue, which Aristotle distinguishes from civic virtue, and then, in the final analysis, to contemplative or theoretical virtue, culminating in the imitation of and the meditation on God and the cosmos as a whole, the cosmos within which the human things occupy only a subordinate place or status. This keystone of authentic classical republicanism gives it an obvious kinship with the biblical tradition. But concern for a virtue linked to divinity, this crown of classical republicanism, has been amputated in Sandel's account or invocation-despite our catching glimpses of it shining out from the sources he quotes.
This animadversion brings me to my final critical reflection. The argument, and indeed the structure, of Sandel's book is complicated in a very puzzling way by the fact that he charges our liberal public philosophy with having neglected or diminished a whole range of spiritual goods and concerns that extend way beyond what can be included as aspects of or means to civic virtue, republican self-government, or deliberative citizenship. But a curious effort is made to shoehorn these spiritual goods into the category of "civic virtue". In the introduction and conclusion, and throughout Part Two (the longer part of the book), Sandel speaks as if his main aim is the regeneration of the civic virtues needed for self-government. But in Part One, and periodically in Part Two, the spiritual goods he focuses on-family; independence and fulfilment in productive work; respect for the environment; and, above all, religion-can by no means be understood simply or even mainly as valuable or as valued for their contribution to self-government.
The problem is especially acute in Sandel's treatment of religion, which is praised in this book in almost exclusively instrumental terms. When talking of the importance of "the church" in the lives and aspirations of Afro-Americans, for example, he speaks as if their Christian faith were mainly important for its political role, for its usefulness in fostering civic spirit and civic action, primarily in the civil rights movement. But surely, from the point of view of the faithful adherents of Christianity, such a characterization is narrow to the point of verging on blasphemy. This perspective fails to acknowledge the supreme value of the Church as the avenue to trans-political and indeed transcendent goods. From such a vantage-point we lose sight of the spirituality that responds to the call of supra-rational revelation, and that obeys the Living and Eternal God's commandments-divine laws that demand far more than what can be comprehended as useful for earthly civic well-being.
Until this dimension of transcendence-so powerfully evident in religion, but unmistakably present also in love and in friendship, in the family conceived as sacred, in our reverence for the environing whole of nature, and in our longing for and openness to completion through genuine philosophic contemplation-is made a more explicit and thematic cynosure of our analysis of what has been neglected or diminished by the public philosophy that now reigns among our democratic elites, we will lack, I fear, an adequate beginning point for our diagnosis of democracy's discontent.
Thomas Pangle is a professor of political philosophy at the University of Toronto. His most recent book is The Ennobling of Democracy: The Challenge of the Postmodern Age (Johns Hopkins University Press).
footer

Home First Novel Award Past Winners Subscription Back Issues Timescroll Advertizing Rates
Amazon.ca/Books in Canada Bestsellers List Books in Issue Books in Department About Us