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Too Anxious to be Citizens

Cicero warned that anxiety is a great obstacle to republican self-government.

A statue of Cicero in Rome. Credit: Andrea Izzotti/Shutterstock

Ours, to borrow the title of a book by writer Joseph Bottum, is an “anxious age.” COVID-19 certainly did no favors to Americans’ mental health, but the prevalence of mental illness in the United States was increasing well before the pandemic. Almost 10 percent of American youth have severe depression, while almost 20 percent of American adults have a mental illness. Anxiety disorders are the most common forms of mental illness in the country.

The costs of this crisis are not only social and economic, though those costs are significant. Lonely and depressed people need additional medical care, are typically less productive, and will contribute less to their communities and families (if they have them). The problem is also political, though to understand why, recourse to the great Roman statesman Cicero—whose writings so deeply influenced our Founding generation—is required. For it was Marcus Tullius Cicero, or “Tully,” as scholastics such as Thomas Aquinas called him, who labeled anxiety as one of the greatest obstacles to effective citizenship and statesmanship.

The theme of anxiety is central to Cicero’s De Officiis, or “On Obligations.” The attitude of the true statesman, he argues, is manifested in two qualities: “First, regarding as a good only what is honorable, and second, by being free of all mental disturbance.” By honor, Cicero has in mind a more expansive definition than our contemporary understanding of it, one that encompasses the objectively true, good, and beautiful. The practice of being free from mental disturbance is what helps enable us both to perceive and realize those honorable ends.

The relationship between freedom from anxiety and good citizenship is multifaceted. For example, the anxious person is vulnerable to every passing crisis. Threats both foreign and domestic, news that is either alarming or inconsequential, all of these unsettle the anxious citizen. One sees this today in the vast number of Americans who are relentlessly provoked by the constant churn of the news cycle on social media, cable television, and talk radio. Obsessively attentive to these sources, we are manipulated to endlessly shift our gaze from congressional votes on the January 6 riot to the U.S. departure from Afghanistan to mass-shootings to the most recent allegations of police brutality.

Many of these news stories, however important, often have little, if any, relevance to our actual daily experience. We are urged to worry about terrorists, white supremacists, or foreign totalitarian regimes, though, unlike many issues happening in our local communities, there is little we can practically do about any of these threats. This relates to another area of overlap between mental health and citizenship: how anxiety distracts us from our immediate religious, familial, and civic duties.

“Mental tranquility and freedom from anxiety… make for steadfastness of purpose and high dignity,” Cicero wrote. That purpose is to work for the good of our family members and the res publica (Cicero, as the ideal republican Roman, actually prioritized responsibility to the state over that of the family!). Men have both this-worldly and transcendent ends, securing happiness through virtuous activities that bless their families and their communities, and that orient them to the eternal, ultimately to God. The anxious citizen, however, is distracted from these concrete concerns, instead focusing on whatever media, corporations, and the fickle zeitgeist tell him he must care about.

The freneticism manifested in our contemporary culture points to another danger of anxiety: the heightening of the polemical and partisan temperature, so that one’s opponents are not fellow citizens with whom we charitably, if often vehemently, disagree, but rather enemies to be vilified and destroyed. Mental tranquility and freedom from anxiety, says Cicero, are required “to avoid the stresses and strains, and adopt a sober and unswerving course in life.” Yes, this is precisely what anxious citizenship engenders: an apprehensive apocalypticism that perceives everything as tending towards some totalitarian dystopia, be it white supremacist, Marxist, or whatever.

When we allow this to be the default for our political calculations, we become incapable of disinterested, reasonable evaluations of the social and political trends we witness. We become proverbial Chicken Littles. We fall into what Cicero describes as “fits of agitation and panic.” If one has seen videos or read stories of how students on our university and college campuses react to conservative speakers or organizations, one understands what is at stake for American civil society. A generation raised on dictums like “words are violence,” “safe spaces,” and “dismantling cisgender norms” is, to put it bluntly, incapable of assuming the responsibilities of republican citizenship.

Moreover, our addictions to technology—and the attendant anxieties they amplify—make us incapable of being alone and quiet (Blaise Pascal’s oft-quoted observation is relevant here). This is also important for civic responsibility, because the citizen capable of quiet contemplation and true leisure is better able to exhibit self-mastery and engage in disinterested reflection. Noble men, argues Cicero, must “be serene and clear of all mental disturbance, and this will ensure steadfastness and self-restraint will emerge in all their glory.”

The unanxious citizen in his moderation, self-possession, and attention to immediate civic duties is less vulnerable to the ideologue or opportunist. “The man who possesses one virtue possesses them all,” observes Cicero. In this, we can appreciate how Cicero’s vision of the ideal citizen is thoroughly conservative, a foreshadowing of Burke’s “little platoons,” the framers of the Constitution’s separation of powers and political decentralization, and the Catholic Church’s understanding of subsidiarity. All of these serve as necessary curbs against political schemers and extremists.

In sum, the very nature of conservative living and conservative politics acts as a deterrent to our anxious age. The conservative—in his trust in God and development of personal virtue; in his reliance on and commitment to his family and community; and in his disinterested, prudential evaluation of the world around him—is able to resist the disastrous spirals of mental instability. No crisis or sorrow, however terrible, can sway his heart and mind from the objective realities he believes in and to which he orients his life. He is able to prioritize the highest, most perfect goods (or in Cicero’s language, what is most honorable), over other, lesser goods. The conservative knows that to do otherwise is to flirt with disaster. Or, as old Tully asserts: “When men detach the useful from the honorable, they undermine the very foundations of nature.”

Casey Chalk covers religion and other issues for The American Conservative and is a contributing editor for New Oxford Review. He has degrees in history and teaching from the University of Virginia, and a master’s in theology from Christendom College.

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