Are we forgetting the role of civic virtues?

May 1, 2020 10:19 am

A bust of George Washington stands in the U.S. Capitol. (Photo by Kathie Obradovich/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

American civic virtues find their roots in ancient Rome during and after the reign of Julius Caesar, assassinated by 60 conspirators in 44 B.C.

Civil war erupted in the aftermath starring some of history’s greatest iconic figures, still known by celebrity first names: Brutus, Augustus, and Cleopatra.

During this era, another first-name icon, Cicero, proclaimed: “Virtue is its own reward.”

Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 B.C.), orator and lawyer, believed government corruption would lead to the downfall of the Roman Republic. According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, he pleaded with Rome’s Senate to embrace civic virtues and abandon desires for fame, wealth and power.

Those orations displeased the power-hungry general Mark Antony, who executed him in 43 B.C.

However, Cicero’s influence resonated through the ages and informed philosophers like John Locke. The American Constitution is based in part on Locke’s theories of natural law and the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Because of that historic connection, we need to revisit the role of civic virtues. 

In 1993, the Johnson Foundation codified American civic virtues in “An American Imperative: Higher Expectations for Higher Education”:

  • Respect for the individual and commitment to equal opportunity.
  • The belief that our common interests exceed our individual differences.
  • Concern for those who come after us.
  • The belief that individual rights and privileges are to be exercised responsibly.
  • The conviction that no one is above the law.
  • Respect for the views of others.
  • Support for freedoms enunciated in the Bill of Rights, including freedom of religion, of the press, of speech, and of the right to assemble.

America’s iconic founders helped formulate these virtues: Franklin, Jefferson and Washington.

In 1796, at the end of his second term, George Washington gave us a blueprint to maintain ideals of the American Republic. Like Cicero, he pleaded for national unity, warning against the divisiveness of political parties and advocating for morality.

He called the civic virtues “fundamental maxims of true liberty.” Moreover, he put those tenets into perspective for future generations. Americans must adopt civic virtues, Washington stated, because we have the responsibility to elect honorable representatives, not only in Congress, but also in the White House.

Civic virtues uphold the Bill of Rights. Americans are blessed with remarkable liberties, including freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition; right to bear arms; security in homes, protection from unreasonable seizures; due process; speedy, public trials; trial by jury in civil cases; ban on cruel, unusual punishments; and powers reserved by states.

So much trust is invested in the people that the founders even included the 9th Amendment: “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”

In other words, the people have the right to determine future laws and liberties the founders may have overlooked or not even imagined.

“The basis of our political systems is the right of the people to make and to alter their constitutions of government,” Washington said. Thus, if the people have the right to alter the Constitution, then they also have the duty to obey and nurture the established government.

Civic virtues realize that obligation. 

America fought a revolution because it rebelled against monarchs. In that form of government, the only virtues that mattered were ones held by the king. The Declaration of Independence indicts the King George III because of “repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.”

According to the Declaration, rulers derive their power from “the consent of the governed.” 

That right exists only if society practices civic virtues not only in the voting booth but also in their own lives.

An article in Psychology Today, titled “Seven Studies Show That Virtue Truly Is Its Own Reward,” affirms Cicero’s beliefs. Civic virtues provide a purpose in life. They instill generosity, inspire kindness toward others, help us show gratitude, perpetuate good deeds, attract friends and partners, alleviate stress and build self-esteem.

When citizens overlook civic virtues, society may lapse into anarchy, strife and despotism. 

Cicero prophesied the fall of Rome with his second most cited quotation: “The enemy is within the gates; it is with our own luxury, our own folly, our own criminality that we have to contend.”

The lesson is timely today. 

Many of us not only believe in but practice civic virtues. However, we also continue to debate whether Americans are still respectful, believe in equal opportunity, act in the common interest, care about future generations, exercise rights responsibly, and believe no one, including the President, is above the law.

The first step in affirming civic virtues is to remember them. Then we might practice and use them to guide our actions, arguments and decisions. Finally, we have the civic obligation to base our votes on them.

Doing so we prize our liberties and maintain our rights according to the Iowa state motto.


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Michael Bugeja
Michael Bugeja

Michael Bugeja is the author of "Living Media Ethics" (Routledge/Taylor & Francis) and "Interpersonal Divide in the Age of the Machine" (Oxford Univ. Press). He is a regular contributor to Iowa Capital Dispatch and is writing a series of columns on the topic of "Living Ethics."