Friday, October 4, 2013

Civic Virtue and the Relevance of History

     This blog has proceeded from the point of view that America is accelerating through unprecedented change. A phase transition, if you will. The problem is how to navigate changes like these. History, perhaps, can provide clues to what we can expect. For instance, the Romans went from a city of citizens all of whom performed military service to a city of subjects who outsourced their defense. Is our professional, all-volunteer force—which looks eerily like the Roman army after the Marian reforms—a precursor to an outsourced military? Ultimately, there were hardly any Romans in the Roman legions. In our case, perhaps we will hand over our defense to drones and robot soldiers. Such mechanical mercenaries will be less susceptible to economic temptations than the troops of late Antiquity, who were happy to bankrupt the empire and dethrone emperor after emperor with demands for ever higher wages. On the other hand, what of the corporations that soon may provide robo-troops for a fee? History tends to validate Machiavelli’s famous warnings against mercenaries.

     Military service is one example of how the American republic at least superficially appears to be following the same track as the Roman. There are many, many others. And if we follow the Roman example, it is clear that for a republic to remain free its citizens must be fully committed to liberty, to the health and survival of the republic itself, over and above their own narrow interests. When Romans no longer behaved and believed that way, they lost their freedom.

     What of Americans? Are we somehow exempt from the patterns of history? How valid is the civic republican model of self-reliant liberty these days? Do we require traditional civic virtues any longer? Traditional institutions, like families and churches? As civic virtue decays, will we simply repeat the history of other famous phase transitions from liberty to tyranny?


  1. You could also make comparisons with the world's previous superpower, Great Britain, which, like Rome, had an actual empire. In both cases the centre was relatively small.

    By contrast, the US, due largely to its size, population and natural wealth, has been almost a world unto itself.

  2. Good point. GB is also interesting because it has proceeded, slowly and intermittently, from tyranny toward liberty. Nowadays, it appears the same forces pushing the US toward soft tyranny are further along in GB.