Dear Bill and Kevin,
The founders often talked in terms of virtue, tied to liberty. Indeed, virtue without liberty could not be virtue at all, and liberty without virtue merely meant license.
In this belief, the founders were VERY western. Tvirtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance appear first in Plato’s Symposium. In the dialogue, the characters merely take the virtues for granted. There is no discussion; the virtues simply are.
Aristotle wrote in his Nicomachean Ethics: “Men will be good or bad builders as a result of building well or building badly. For if this were not so, there would have been no need of a teacher, but all men would have been born good or bad at their craft. This, then, is the case with the virtues also.”
Such character, according to the Greek and Roman ancients, involved duty, loyalty, mercy, justice, and, ultimately, being willing to lay down one’s life for one’s beliefs, the greatest of all sacrifices. One understood that one lived in a community and worked for the common good (the res publica).
The great Roman Senator and republican Marcus Cicero furthered this line of thinking in his On Duties. One “must believe that it is characteristic of a strong and heroic mind to consider trivial what most people think glorious and attractive, and to despise those things with unshakable, inflexible discipline.” Furthermore, he stressed, one must “endure reverses that seem bitter” and “to endure them so that you depart not one inch from your basic nature, not a jot from a wise man’s self respect.”
John Adams, certainly one of the greatest of the American Founding Fathers, differed little in his understanding of virtue: it is, he argued “a positive passion for the public good.” Further, it will serve as “the only Foundation of Republics.
Even that great deist, Thomas Jefferson, noted the need for virtue. In the Notes on the State of Virginia, he wrote unequivocally that virtue “is the manners and spirit of a people which preserve a republic in vigour.
Catholic Charles Carroll believed the same, understanding virtue to be a gift of grace, forming the essence of a thriving society. His father had written to him repeatedly in the 1750s about the need of virtue, and the letters reveal much about the founding generation.
–Virtue is always greater than wealth (October 12, 1751)
–Proud of his son for recognizing the “advantage of a Virtuous Education” Further, “Men of Sense do not content themselves with knowing a thing but make themselves thoroughly acquainted with the Reasons on which their knowledge is founded. I beg you will carefully observe this in your present and future Studies, Memory may fail you, but when an impression is made by Reason it will last as long [as] You retain your understanding.”(October 10, 1753)
But, most importanly, from Proverbs: The Beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord” (July 26, 1756)
Only a vigilant, wise, and virtuous people can maintain a free society. If one cannot government himself, he cannot be trusted to govern others, Carroll argued.
Further, “Not a single instance can be selected from our history of a law favourable to liberty obtained from government, but by the unanimous, steady, and spirited conduct of the people,” Carroll argued. “The great charter, the several confirmations of it, the petition of right, the bill of rights, were all the happy effects of force and necessity.”
This past week, I had the great privilege of staying at Piety Hill, Russell Kirk’s ancestral home and spending time with Kirk’s beautiful widow, Annette. I was reminded of Kirk’s immense work on the meaning of virtue in the republic: virtue “is [the] energy of soul employed for the general good.”