Liberty requires virtue

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From an essay in The Public Discourse by Robert R. Reilly, replying to an essay by Patrick Deneen, who claims that the Founders created a Hobbesian republic containing the individualistic, antinomian seeds of its own destruction.

However, he fails to mention that Madison, like almost all of the Founders, makes explicit that the principal condition for the success of the republic is virtue. In Federalist 55, he states:
As there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust, so there are other qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence. Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form.

Without the exercise of those qualities, Madison said, "the inference would be that there is not sufficient virtue among men for self-government; and that nothing less than the chains of despotism can restrain them from destroying and devouring one another." Ironically, it is precisely the chains of despotism that Deneen suggests the Founders laid in creating a Hobbesian regime, the very thing Madison is rejecting here.

As Professor Thomas G. West points out in his superb new book, The Political Theory of the American Founding,

the founders' concern with natural rights and their concern with virtue did not belong to distinct categories of thought. Instead they thought of virtue as a condition of freedom and a requirement of the laws of nature. In the Virginia Bill of Rights, as elsewhere, we are told that "no free government, or the blessings of liberty, can be preserved . . . but by a firm adherence to . . . virtue."

The reason is that the key to republican government is not merely free choice. As we know from the Weimar Republic, people can freely choose anything, even Hitler. The key, as the Founding Fathers knew, is virtue.

Freedom is not divorced from nature; it is rooted in and limited by nature. Virtue is conformity with what is naturally good. That is why freedom, rightly understood, is freedom to choose the good. It is not license or licentiousness, which is unnatural, i.e., against nature. Only a virtuous person is capable of rational consent, because only a virtuous person's reason is unclouded by the habitual rationalizations of vice. Vice inevitably infects the faculty of judgment. No matter how democratic their institutions, morally enervated people cannot be free. And people who are enslaved to their passions inevitably become slaves to tyrants. Thus, the Founders predicated the success of democracy on the virtue of the American people. If there is any one thing on which the founders and the founding generation agreed, it was this. Without it, the republic would fail, and it is why it is failing now--not because of the Founding but despite it.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on October 17, 2017 12:55 AM.

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