George Washington offers many lessons on how to understand the common good and living well together: it begins with character.
The Taliban has recently scored a victory over an immensely more powerful enemy unwilling to do what was necessary to win. The militant Afghan group was unified and motivated to re-establish its fundamentalist Islamic state at any cost, and no amount of technical or military superiority could defeat it. The only means of defeating them was a better set of ideas defended by a people willing to sacrifice themselves for these ideas.
That is not the United States of the 21st century. Formerly the world’s bastion of self-government, it has become a cesspit of self-love. For all their viciousness, radical Islamic sects know how to habituate sacrifice and drill devotion into their adherents. By contrast, America’s youth are constructed into passive subjects by public educators, an entertainment industry, and advertising campaigns that extol and appeal to individual expression and identity, usually centered around race, gender, social class, or a victim status that severs the individual from other citizens.
The goal is an individual’s self-definition, and then the maximation of this identity, often against traditional communities and the needs of neighbors. This hyper-individuality is easy to manipulate, however, because it is artificial. New, unnatural communities emerge that function like tribes. Within the tribe, passive conformity results, where moral choices, critical thinking, and free will disappear. The only moral “good” becomes that which fulfills the desires of the defining tribal trait. Members are then expected to pit their identity against individuals in other tribes, with each seeking to enforce its will, coerce belief, and punish those who disagree with the prevailing opinions of the moment.
Today’s warped communities, composed of self-centered “others,” are led by a political class dominated by cults of personality that appeal to the various tribes. It is unthinkable that a wise, slow-talking statesman known for humility, modesty, and forgiveness could make a successful bid for the Presidency or maybe even be able to win a seat in Congress. Unity and harmony are elusive because the politics of self-identity are overtaking civic spaces. The extreme applications of this—violent mobs burning city centers and occupying federal buildings—are public manifestations of how Americans habituate themselves to look down on their neighbors and despise their country.
The animating principle behind all of this is love of self. The qualities of “self”—self-confidence, self-expression, self-promotion, self-identity—threaten to destroy us, both as individuals and as a collection of citizens. Atomized individuals who only care about themselves or their tribe cannot agree on a common moral source or ethical system. They would rather fight themselves than a common enemy. They find it impossible to sacrifice for each other. This self-love dooms the courage needed to win wars abroad or achieve peace at home.
Self-love has always been a temptation that can ruin self-governing citizens. Plato, an acute observer of Athens’ troubled democracy, regarded extreme self-love as the root of all sins. In book 5 of his Laws, Plato described how the self-loving man, obsessed with his perceived identity and importance, is blind to his own faults and learns to hate any who deny his desires. The self-loving man’s twisted conception of goodness and justice is neither rational nor grounded in historic experience. He is his own divinity, and his pride will not allow the intervention of others. He attains a false “greatness” when he exerts his power to achieve what he wants. With no God, no concern for others, and no appeal to reason or history, the will to take and use power is all that exists. In a community of self-lovers, the strongest and most ruthless eventually emerges as the ruling tyrant.
Plato’s self-loving man is a damning parallel of America’s modern citizen.
Models of Self-Government
America has only recently been bewitched by the politics of self-love. This civic vice has supplanted self-government. Self-government, being the opposite of self-love, requires that citizens habituate hard work, live honest and upright lives, and sacrifice for the good of their families, neighbors, and country. This foundational value prompted America’s historic successes and emergence as a beacon of law, order, and human flourishing.
The self-governing citizen orders his life on tradition, reason, and the duties he owes to those around him. He does not fight nature but seeks to understand it. He does not deny God but humbles himself before God. The self-governing citizen—being subordinate to God, law, and the place where he lives—is kind to his neighbor, serves his community, and will die for his country.
When crafting a republic for a self-governing people, America’s founders scoured history in search of models. This enterprise itself was unselfish, in that they humbly sought wisdom outside their current moment. The most exhaustive example of this was John Adams’ multi-volume tome that surveyed all the republics of history.
Adams said history’s two best constitutions were England and Rome, but he and the other founders consciously chose to emulate Rome by eschewing a monarchy and forming a mixed government that prioritized a bicameral legislature. Even more important was the model of Roman civic virtue. The Republic was leery of any leader whose self-aggrandizing ambition raised him above his peers, and it expected sacrifices from all of its citizens. The stories of great Romans still familiar to us today are reminders.
Cincinnatus is perhaps the most iconic. He is featured several times in the art of the U.S. Capitol. Constantino Brumidi painted a pair of frescos there, comparing Cincinnatus to Revolutionary hero Israel Putnam. He inspired the names for Cincinnati, Ohio and the Society of the Cincinnati. The founders saw him as a symbol of the American fighting spirit.
While farming his small plot of land, Roman representatives summoned him to become a dictator. This was a temporary command with near absolute power to resolve a crisis. Cincinnatus dutifully laid down his plough, raised an army, defeated the enemies threatening Rome, and then gave up his power and returned to the farm.
But there’s a lot more to his story. Why was Cincinnatus on this farm? And why was it so remarkable that he accepted this power and then laid it back down?
Cincinnatus had been one of Rome’s leading politicians until his son, a rising young firebrand known for exacerbating the lower classes, was tried for a trumped-up manslaughter charge. In political maneuvering familiar to republics of any age, a huge fine was levied on the family and Cincinnatus was impoverished and relegated to that small farm. There he should have remained but for the following military crisis. Two Roman armies were in the field, one about to be destroyed by the Aequi and the other pinned down.
Cincinnatus had every reason to reject a summons to save the republic that had dishonored him. Alternatively, he had every reason to seize and maintain his power, using it to crush those that exiled him and his son. It was payback time. Many citizens indeed feared this would happen. Instead, Cincinnatus, having done his duty, traded power for the plough. He loved his son, and so he was forced into exile on his farm. But he also loved his fellow citizens, and so he did not take revenge on them even after they wronged him and his son.
In doing so, Cincinnatus demonstrated two virtues of the self-governing citizen: forgiveness and restraint. These are linked. Had Cincinnatus not been able to forgive his political enemies, he could not have countenanced the restraint to abandon his power. Cincinnatus thus twice saved the republic: once on the field against Rome’s enemies, and the second time by not using his power to overthrow the republic from within. Even if the story is mostly legendary, it was a legend that taught later statesman forgiveness and restraint on behalf of the republic.
Roman history is filled with these kinds of statesmen whom Americans celebrated and sought to emulate. Publicola, a founder of the republic and the later inspiration for the “Publius” pen name of the American Federalist Papers, repeatedly abandoned his own prestige for the people. Two generations after Cincinnatus another statesman, Camillus, had earned a reputation as Rome’s greatest wartime commander, but he was also known for being merciful to enemies and effecting harmony among Rome’s political factions. This earned him the title “first in peace and war,” a phrase Americans have etched on countless monuments related to its own statesmen.
Fabius Maximus, the man who defeated Hannibal by not fighting him, was known as “the slowpoke” because he kept Romans from blundering into repeated defeats against a more talented enemy. At the height of his influence Fabius was meticulous, old, and boring. Nonetheless, the Romans learned to love him so much that when he died, citizens voluntarily paid for a funeral that saw them weeping for a lost father. Fabius’ “strategy of attrition” was used by George Washington and other founders frequently called Washington America’s Fabius.
Stories of self-governing statesmen tell us a lot about what mattered to Romans and early Americans. Slowness of action and a strong but calm resolve were invaluable. Leaders should never give in to the mob but use reason and integrity to persuade their fellow citizens. After making tough decisions, they must be the first to take on the risks. The Roman Republic institutionalized very high age restrictions so that leaders would naturally be tempered by the wisdom and good judgment that comes with years of experience. Leaders were expected to be loyal to their families and traditions, hardworking citizens trained in everyday virtues on the farm, and experienced in sacrificial service, especially combat. America’s founders agreed.
When Selfishness Supplants Service
At the end of its Republic, Rome traded these qualities for the kind of corrupt do-nothings and demagogues we’re familiar with today. Small, routine wars turned into quagmires by corrupt commanders who preferred financial gain or status to military discipline and sound strategic choices. Intense rivalries surrounding the likes of Julius Caesar, Clodius, and Marc Antony harnessed the charisma and oversensitivity of these men and mustered extremism in Roman politics. Julius Caesar gave the office of dictator its modern connotations of tyranny and capriciousness.
Men such as Caesar routinely prioritized personal influence and prestige over the public good. This toxic leadership was exacerbated by a citizenry enamored with their dynamism and the potential benefits that might accrue from picking their side in the violent politics that gravitated to their personalities. Rome’s spirit of self-government had already suffered from its unprecedented successes: foreign influences and a massive influx of wealth and prestige lured the Romans away from the traditions and hardy values of earlier days. They succumbed to the temptations of pride, luxury, and avarice. The Republic was thus unable to navigate the constitutional, military, and economic challenges it had braved for five centuries because its civic ethos became habituated to schism and dedicated to destruction.
Rome’s republic was not brought down by constitutional problems, military demands, or social crises. These were all symptoms of a deeper war raging in the Roman soul over which determined civic life: self-love or self-government. The United States should heed these insights, especially at a time when we have traded civic virtues more subdued for civic vices more exciting.
We are at a crossroads in the United States, able to choose self-love or self-government. Self-governing citizens subordinate personal desires, understanding that their personal identities are not their own. Citizens have natural duties as fathers, mothers, children, neighbors, and fellow citizens. When individuals abandon these duties, it is only a matter of time before the strongest, nastiest, self-defining individual—a tyrant—takes charge. Only by sacrificing the self for others in our daily obligations to families, neighbors, and fellow citizens can we avoid tyranny and recover our strength as a republic.