The End of American Public Virtue
Is public virtue on the decline? Yes, of course it is. We can each summon up our own proof: fill-in-the-blank politician or celebrity or professor is contributing to the decay of public virtue by…
Yet at the same time, new kinds of public virtue are on the ascendancy, as new people and new ideas rise up. Of course, champions of the old virtue might well declare that the newer virtues are not, in fact, virtues at all—they’re stupidities, maybe even sins. And so the dialectical struggle is joined: old idea confronts new idea, with some new synthesis destined to emerge.
All this is brought to mind by the October 14 death of Yale literary lion Harold Bloom. As The New York Times obituary put it, he was “the prodigious literary critic who championed and defended the Western canon in an outpouring of influential books.” The phrase “Western canon,” of course, is certain to “trigger” most academic faculties and other PC types.
Yes, Bloom was undeniably on the cultural right, even as, at the same time, he was also, in his fashion, a force for change; some might even call him a subversive. In The Book of J (1990), he argued that the Judeo-Christian God was nothing more—or perhaps, in Bloom’s mind, nothing less—than a literary fiction. In response, some upholders of Judaism and Christianity might say, if Bloom is a friend, who needs enemies?
In fact, even though Bloom treasured Western civilization and its creative works, he was pessimistic about its flourishing. As he wrote in 1994, “What are now called ‘Departments of English’ will be renamed departments of ‘Cultural Studies,’ where Batman comics, Mormon theme parks, television, movies and rock will replace Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth and Wallace Stevens.”
As The New Yorker described him in 2002, Bloom was “The Prophet of Decline.”
Ah, decline, that much-favored topic of conservatives, including secular conservatives.
And speaking of decline and secular conservatives, we now come to perhaps the most influential “sec con” of all, Edward Gibbon, author of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, published in six volumes, 1.1 million words, between 1776 and 1789. It was on October 15, more than a quarter-millennium ago, that Gibbon got the flash of inspiration he needed to commence his magnum opus: “It was at Rome, on the 15th of October 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefooted friars were singing vespers in the temple of Jupiter, that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city first started to my mind.”
Gibbon’s key argument in Decline was that Christianity had undermined the old Roman virtues. As he wrote at the conclusion of his long labor, “In the preceding volumes of this History, I have described the triumph of barbarism and religion.” Yes, that’s the way Gibbon thought: barbarism and religion were connected.
Gibbon argued that what made the Romans great in the first place was their public virtue, defined as active and muscular—including military—participation in the life of res publica, the public thing. As he put it, “public virtue…denominated [in] patriotism,” was the “sentiment which had rendered the legions of the republic almost invincible.”
In Gibbon’s reckoning, the paramount personal virtues were courage, honor, and rationality—and these were gathered together and bundled by the republican and early imperial Romans. (Some will dispute, of course, that there’s any virtue in slave-holding, conquest-loving paganism.) Gibbon’s work is a meditation on the fading of the above-named Roman virtues, replaced by weakness, avarice, and “religious enthusiasm” (in those days, “enthusiasm” was a synonym for “excessive” and was thus a pejorative).
Indeed, his description of the official Roman view of religion is famous for its detached cynicism: “The various modes of worship which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher; as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful.”
Warming to his theme, Gibbon continued, “Toleration produced not only a mutual indulgence, but even religious concord.” Thus we see Gibbon as a true child of the Enlightenment; just a few years earlier, the like-minded Voltaire had made a similar point—that it’s the pluralistic proliferation of religions that makes for tolerance and happiness.
In that Enlightenment era, Gibbon must have pleased his increasingly skeptical reading audience when he wrote, “We may hear without surprise or scandal that the introduction, or least the abuse, of Christianity had some influence on the decline and fall of the Roman empire.”
Expanding on that point, he added:
The clergy successfully preached the doctrines of patience and pusillanimity; the active virtues of society were discouraged; and the last remains of military spirit were buried in the cloister. A large portion of public and private wealth were consecrated to the specious demands of charity and devotion, and the soldiers’ pay was lavished on the useless multitudes of both sexes who could only plead the merits of abstinence and chastity. Faith, zeal, curiosity, and more earthly passions of malice and ambition kindled the flame of theological factions, whose conflicts were sometimes bloody and always implacable; the attention of the emperors was diverted from camps to synods; the Roman world was oppressed by a new species of tyranny, and the persecuted sects became the secret enemies of the country.
As Gibbon put it, “The theologian may indulge the pleasing task of describing Religion as she descended from Heaven, arrayed in her native purity.” And yet, he continued, twisting Clio’s knife deeper into the body of Faith, “A more melancholy duty is imposed on the historian. He must discover the inevitable mixture of error and corruption which she contracted in long residence upon earth, among a weak and degenerate race of beings.”
To be sure, Gibbon felt moments of admiration for Christians. He recalled, for instance, the fourth-century stand-off between the Roman emperor Theodosius and the Catholic hierarch St. Ambrose: it seems that Theodosius had ordered the slaughter of thousands in the city of Thessalonica, for which Ambrose excommunicated him. Only after he repented was Theodosius received back into the church. As Gibbon put it, “The rigorous conditions of peace and pardon were accepted; and the public penance of the emperor Theodosius has been recorded as one of the most honorable events in the annals of the church.”
So yes, Gibbon could see the power of a church to improve public virtue. And yet, just a few lines down, he added that such power can work for worse as well as for better: “The priest, who holds in his hands the conscience of a king, may inflame, or moderate, his sanguinary passions. The cause of humanity, and that of persecution, have been asserted, by the same Ambrose, with equal energy, and with equal success.”
Yet interestingly Gibbon’s work is not just about the decline of something he admired; it’s also about the rise of something he admired, namely a new kind of public virtue.
Regarding the late Western Roman Empire, Gibbon described its inhabitants, palsied by Christianity and other debilitations, as “a race of pygmies.” Yet then, as he told it with a Tolkien-esque flourish, “The fierce giants of the north broke in, and mended the puny breed. They restored a manly spirit of freedom; and after the revolution of ten centuries, freedom became the happy parent of taste and science.”
Among the invaders, Gibbon singled out for praise the Franks. Over time, they evolved into the French, whom Gibbon greatly admired as the creators of the first nation-state.
As we have seen, Gibbon’s idea of public virtue was closely connected to his idea of sturdy patriotism. Such thinking deeply affected the American Founders, who themselves were steeped in Roman history and were thereby highly resolved to revive the best of Latin civics in the New World.
To a remarkable degree, the Founders were successful in forging their Novus Ordo Seclorum. Indeed, over the next two centuries, the whole world learned about those “new giants,” the Americans, their “manly spirit of freedom,” and their manifest “taste and science.”
Today, of course, Americanism is in flux. Indeed, it’s fair to say that it’s under siege, just as is Bloom’s Western canon. It’s hard to imagine what life would be like if we were to lose these anchors—yet like it or not, we may soon find out.
So what will happen next? Will the old public verities continue to be weakened? Or will they somehow—perhaps miraculously—be strengthened?
It’s impossible to know, of course.
Yet one day, a new Gibbon will come along and record all this history. Although at the rate things are going, that work will be written in Chinese—or, just maybe, in computer code.
James P. Pinkerton is an author and contributing editor at The American Conservative. He served as a White House policy aide to both Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.