All sober inquirers after truth, ancient and modern, pagan and Christian, have declared that the happiness of man, as well as his dignity, consists in virtue.
John Adams, 1776
I came across this quote a couple of days ago (h/t Gloria Deo) and it put me to thinking about virtue. Virtue was a word used often by the founders. By comparison, the word is rarely used these days and when it is, it is usually treated as synonymous with morality. But in the founders’ day, virtue meant much more than just personal morality. Virtue, according to Thomas Jefferson, was the very foundation of happiness. According to John Adams, happiness and dignity have their source in virtue.
When using the word these men were drawing upon the classical Greek philosophical understanding of virtue.
Greek philosophy recognized four “cardinal virtues,” defined as follows:
Prudence: the ability to judge the appropriate action needed for any situation.
Justice: the ability to moderate between your own rights and the rights of others.
Temperance: the ability to practice self-control.
Courage: the ability to confront fear, uncertainty, or intimidation
When the founders, and others of their era, wrote of “virtue,” these were the characteristics they had in mind. A virtuous society (and of course a virtuous government) would be attentive to these values, thus securing the happiness of individuals. The “pursuit of happiness,” which Mr. Jefferson identified as an inalienable right, presupposes a virtuous society.
A life of virtue, as the word was understood at that time, was characterized by moderation, industry, thrift, self-control, independence and devotion to duty. Temperance, or what we might call “moderation” or “self-control” is essential to virtue. Of course, a society characterized by overconsumption, debt, gluttony, dependency and aversion to work would not be, and cannot be, a virtuous society. However “moral” a person may seem to be, absent prudence and temperance the person cannot be said to be virtuous.
Ultimately, a society that does not practice these values is unsustainable. Whatever temporary comfort people may derive from imprudence, intemperance, injustice and cowardice, that comfort is not the same as the “happiness” that philosophers and political theorists identified as deriving from a virtuous life. And a society characterized by a mere pursuit of comfort, or of convenience, or of safety, is not a society in pursuit of happiness. Such a society is unsustainable, because it is not virtuous.
It is easy to recognize an absence of virtue in our government, and in other people, but do we as easily recognize it in ourselves? I wonder how many of those who criticize the government for being wasteful and financially irresponsible (correctly so) are themselves deep in debt due to overconsumption and fiscal irresponsibility. I wonder how many of those who criticize the government for failing to properly administer justice (correctly so), are themselves guilty of helping perpetuate social injustices.
I wonder if the best way to remedy a deficit of virtue in the government is to first remedy it in ourselves.
Any government in a society composed entirely of virtuous citizens, would necessarily be virtuous.
Better yet, in a society composed entirely of virtuous citizens, maybe no government would be necessary. As Wendell Berry has written, “If we all behaved as honorably and honestly and industriously as we expect our representatives to behave, we would soon put the government out of work.”
That sounds good to me. Let’s get to work.