Anda di halaman 1dari 17

The Good Citizen's Psyche: On the Psychology of Civic Virtue

Author(s): Shelley Burtt

Source: Polity, Vol. 23, No. 1 (Autumn, 1990), pp. 23-38
Published by: The University of Chicago Press
Stable URL:
Accessed: 22-03-2016 11:12 UTC
Linked references are available on JSTOR for this article:
You may need to log in to JSTOR to access the linked references.

Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at
JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content
in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship.
For more information about JSTOR, please contact

The University of Chicago Press is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to Polity.

This content downloaded from on Tue, 22 Mar 2016 11:12:16 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

The Good Citizen's Psyche:

On the Psychology of Civic Virtue*

Shelley Burtt

Yale University

What are the psychological sources of civic virtue in the republican

tradition? This article identifies three: the education of the passions,

the manipulation of interests, and the compulsion to duty. The author

explores each and concludes that an appreciation of their distinctions

suggests possibilities for reviving republican virtue in the modern


Shelley Burtt is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Yale Uni-

versity. Her book, Virtue Transformed: Political Argument in

Eighteenth-Century England, will be published by Cambridge Univer-

sity Press.

One of the distinguishing features of the classical republican tradition,

perhaps the distinguishing feature, is the crucial role it accords to

political virtue. This is true of republicanism in both its Aristotelian and

Roman forms.' For Aristotelian republicans, the point of politics is to

provide a forum for the exercise of "active virtue;" individuals engage in

political activity in order, as John Pocock writes, to "fulfill [their]

nature, achieve virtue, and find [their] world rational."2 The Roman

strand of republican thought, reflecting on the collapse of Republican

Rome, advocates the pursuit of civic virtue for more instrumental

reasons: preserving the liberty and furthering the glory of the common-

* I would like to thank members of the Cambridge Seminar on Early Modern History,

the Folger Institute Center for the History of British Political Thought, and the Yale

faculty political theory seminar for their comments on earlier versions of this essay.

1. On these twin strands of republicanism, see Eco O.G. Haitsma Mulier, The Myth of

Venice and Dutch Republican Thought in the Seventeenth Century (Assen, The

Netherlands: Van Gorcum, 1980), pp. 15, 19. On classical republicanism in general, see

Quentin Skinner, The Foundations of Modern Political Thought, v. 1 (Cambridge: Cam-

bridge University Press, 1978), and J.G.A. Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment

(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1975).

2. Pocock, Machiavellian Moment, pp. 317, 114.


Poilty Volume XXIII, Number 1 Fall 1990

Volume XXIII, Number 1

Fall 1990

This content downloaded from on Tue, 22 Mar 2016 11:12:16 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

24 The Good Citizen's Psyche

wealth as a whole. But whether the goal is preserving public liberty or

creating an Aristotelian "structure of virtue" for its own sake, the virtue

sought after is understood in the same way as this disposition to further

public over private good in action and deliberation.

All republicans share this conception of the content of civic virtue. But

they differ strikingly in their accounts of how citizens form and retain

this virtuous character.3 In fact, at least three separate psychologies of

civic virtue coexist in the classical republican tradition: one which

grounds virtue in the education of desire, a second which roots it in the

accommodation of interests, and a third which links it to the compulsion

of duty.

Republicans who advocate the "education of desire" emphasize the

role of the passions and appetites in the cultivation of civic virtue. They

seek to secure the priority of public over private goods not through ex-

tinguishing or subordinating personal desires but by carefully molding

them. They envision a political culture in which the citizens' education

fits them to find personal fulfillment and satisfaction primarily through

public service. Rousseau, for example, in The Government of Poland

recommends cultivating virtue and patriotism "through the games [peo-

ple] play as children, through institutions that . . . develop habits that

abide and attachments that nothing can dissolve." This sort of educa-

tion, he argues, will "cause [citizens] to do by inclination and passionate

choice the things that men motivated by duty or interest never do quite

well enough."4 Algernon Sydney, the seventeenth-century republican

theorist, also grounds civic virtue in the education of desire:

Such as are bred under a good discipline, and see that all benefits,

procured to their country by virtuous actions, redound to the

honour and advantage of themselves . . . contract from their in-

fancy a love to the public, and look upon the common concern-

ments as their own.5

3. All the authors examined in this essay assume that citizens, virtuous and otherwise, are

men and my occasional references to the citizen as "he" reflects that fact. Their psycholo-

gies of virtue, while set out as universally applicable, thus do not address the question of

whether women, once admitted to citizenship, can or would develop civic virtue in a similar

way. Recent work addressing this question, as this essay does not, includes Ruth H. Bloch,

"The Gendered Meanings of Virtue in Revolutionary America," Signs, 13 (1987): 37-58;

Hanna Pitkin, Fortune Is a Woman (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), chs.

4-6; and Carole Pateman, "'The Disorder of Women': Women, Love and the Sense of

Justice," Ethics, 91 (October 1980): 20-34.

4. Rousseau, The Government of Poland, trans. Willmoore Kendall (Indianapolis:

Bobbs-Merrill, 1972), pp. 4, 12.

5. Algernon Sydney, The Works (London, 1772), p. 236. Another republican who

grounds civic virtue in the "education of the passions" is Andrew Fletcher whose prescrip-

This content downloaded from on Tue, 22 Mar 2016 11:12:16 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

Shelley Burtt 25

In this view, civic virtue rests less in the sacrifice of self-interest or private

advantage than in an education that makes the pursuit of public good im-

mensely rewarding in emotional terms. The aim is to shape the essentially

egotistical desires of citizens for power, prominence and pleasure so that

individuals find satisfaction only in the performance of publicly

beneficial deeds.

Republicans who ground virtue in "the accommodation of interests"

believe a rational calculation of personal advantage grounds the political

behavior of most individuals. But they do not argue that such self-

interested action is at odds with virtue. Rather, they claim that the pur-

suit of self-interest, when properly structured by the norms and institu-

tions of the commonwealth, can in itself produce politically virtuous


One of the first republicans to advance this sort of argument was

James Harrington. Harrington warned that no constitution could

eliminate the private interests of a citizenry or persuade them to sacrifice

personal advantage to a greater public good (people are just not made

that way). However, a good constitution could successfully produce civic

virtue by structuring the way in which such private interests found ex-

pression. Thus the virtuous republic, Harrington argues, establishes

"such orders . . . as may give the upper hand in all cases unto common

right or interest, not withstanding the nearness of that which sticks unto

every man in private"6-and he outlines just such a republic in his


This characterization of the grounds of civic virtue can sound more

liberal than republican. After all, is it not a hallmark of liberal political

arrangements to put private interest to use for public good? Without

pressing too hard on the not always helpful distinction between

liberalism and republicanism, it remains worthwhile to distinguish be-

tween those (usually liberal) who offer the checks and balances of private

interest as a substitute for civic virtue and those (usually republican) who

believe the selfish concerns and commitments that animate the modern

citizenry can, appropriately structured, lead to civic virtue.7

tion for virtue relies on a citizen militia which "beginning with them [men] early . . . would

dispose them to place their greatest honour in the performance of those exercises, and in-

spire them with the fires of military glory, .. .; which impression being upon their youth,

would last as long as life. Such a camp would be as great a school of virtue as of military

discipline" (The Political Works [Glasgow, 1749], p. 44).

6. James Harrington, The Political Works, ed. J.G.A. Pocock (Cambridge: Cambridge

University Press, 1977), p. 172.

7. Tocqueville's account of the uses of "self-interest properly understood" (Democracy

in America, ed. J. P. Mayer [New York: Doubleday, 1969], pp. 525-30) is a classic expres-

sion of the first approach. See also Federalist 10 in which James Madison describes the way

This content downloaded from on Tue, 22 Mar 2016 11:12:16 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

26 The Good Citizen's Psyche

Republicans do not, on this reading, require citizens ready and willing

to sacrifice private interest for the public good. In fact, part of my argu-

ment here is that republican theory contains approaches to civic virtue

quite close to what we typically think of as liberal. The "accommodation

of interests" approach understandably reminds us of liberal strategies

for grounding the good polity, but it is not one itself.

The first psychology of civic virtue then has citizens serving their coun-

try from an all-encompassing love of the fatherland; public and private

ends commingle in a devotion to the patria. This account takes individ-

uals to be primarily creatures of passions and appetites, motivated

by desires (for fame, advantage, happiness) that can be shaped to public

ends. The second psychology understands individuals as inevitably self-

interested. This self-interest cannot be educated to take an object other

than the self for its end, in the way that Rousseau believed citizens might

be brought "to love their fatherland and its laws." But, as Harrington

argues, the pursuit of such self-interest can produce civically virtuous ac-

tions in a properly structured political environment.

Theorists who believe citizens can be brought to the practice of virtue

only through "the compulsion of duty" reject both of these

psychological models. In this third view, virtuous citizens serve their

country because of a rational understanding that it is their duty to do so.

Passions, appetites, and self-interest all appear as obstacles to the perfor-

mance of this virtue, obstacles which must be overcome by the exercise of

will, reason, and perhaps self-mortification. Cicero remains the out-

standing example of such a theorist; two later proponents of this path to

virtue, examined below, are the Englishmen Charles Davenant and

Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke.8

In elaborating this tripartite account of the psychology of virtue in the

republican tradition, I am not claiming that all republican psychologies

are so clear or explicit as to fall unambiguously under one or the other of

these three categories. Machiavelli, for example, may plausibly be seen as

grounding virtue in "the accommodation of interest," although I argue

that his primary emphasis is the "education of desire."9 I offer these

in which the presence of self-interested factions may be made, through the expansion of the

polity, to serve the public good. Such arrangements are intended to help the polity flourish

in the absence of virtuous citizens, not provide virtue itself.

8. For Cicero's conception of civic virtue, see De Officiis I.xvii.58, xxii.62-xxv.85 and De

Re Publica I.xvii.27.

9. Quentin Skinner offers an accommodationist interpretation of Machiavelli, arguing

that a Machiavellian citizen comes to favor the public interest because "the law operates to

channel his behavior in such a way that, although his reason for action remains self-

interested, his actions have consequences which . . . promote the public interest"

("Machiavelli on the Maintenance of Liberty," Politics, 18 [1983]: 10).

This content downloaded from on Tue, 22 Mar 2016 11:12:16 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

Shelley Burtt 27

psychologies then as ideal-types, accounts to which individual republican

theorists approximate to a greater or lesser degree.

Elaborating these ideal-types is useful for at least two reasons. First, it

reminds us of the significant diversity within a republican tradition too

often seen as monolithic. Although republicans agree on the nature or

content of civic virtue, they differ profoundly on the ways such virtue is

to be cultivated, expressed, and psychologically grounded. Second, a

focus on this diversity offers a new perspective on the current efforts to

revive virtue in the modern polity. It cannot be enough, in this under-

standing of the republican tradition, simply to recommend for present

day citizens the pursuit of virtue as described by classical republicans.

We must also address the question of how such a pursuit is to be

grounded, psychologically as well as socially. Are we to undertake an

"education of desire" or pursue an "accommodation of interests" or

should we rely on the "compulsion of duty?" I return to this question at

the conclusion of this paper, after an account of the three separate

psychologies of civic virtue as exemplified in the writings of Machiavelli

and a number of English republican theorists.

I. Machiavelli, Sydney, and the Education of Desire

The importance Machiavelli attaches to the "education of desire" as a

means of cultivating virtue is best illustrated by considering his account

of the corrupting ambition that plagues a republic's most prominent

citizens. Machiavelli considers such lust for power as the most serious

threat to a nation's freedom, apart from being actually overrun by Gallic

hordes, for such overweening desire pushes men toward actions com-

pletely at odds with republican liberty.'? Thus in Book III, chapter 30 of

The Discourses, he warns public-spirited citizens to beware those

rivals who on seeing you acquire such reputation and greatness can-

not patiently bear your being more distinguished than themselves.

If men of this kind live in a corrupt city, where education has not

been able to infuse any spirit of good into their minds, it is impossi-

ble that they should be restrained . . . but they would be willing

rather to see their country ruined than not to attain their purpose. 1

Specifying the roots of corruption in this way helps illuminate

10. "The ambition of the nobles is so great," Machiavelli says, "that, if it is not re-

pressed by various ways and means in any city, it will quickly bring that city to ruin" (The

Prince and the Discourses [New York: Modern Library, 1950], p. 211).

11. Ibid., p. 498, emphasis added. See also Discourses, Book I, ch. 46.

This content downloaded from on Tue, 22 Mar 2016 11:12:16 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

28 The Good Citizen's Psyche

Machiavelli's psychology of virtue. The free city, as Machiavelli in-

dicates in the passage above, must provide an "education ... that in-

fuses a spirit of good" into the minds of all its citizens. "Men are more

or less virtuous in one country or another, according to the nature of the

education by which their manners and habits of life have been formed,"

Machiavelli says at another point.12 Thus the key to making the am-

bitious citizen virtuous will not be to eliminate the desire for political

preeminence, an achievement Machiavelli considers impossible, but to

educate or orient this desire in ways compatible with the survival of

republican government. Ideally, such an education shapes the passions

and desires of the citizens in such a way that their ambitions are defined

from the outset in a manner that encourages the performance of virtue.

The "education of desire" that Machiavelli envisions in the Discourses

is both public and private and applies to the masses as well as the elite.

The potentially anarchical desire of the masses for freedom is disciplined

by sumptuary laws and mandatory military service. By banning luxury

and cultivating an austere martial ethos, the many's love of liberty is

oriented toward victory and national freedom, rather than license, per-

sonal ease, and plenty.

The proper channelling of the innate ambition of the nation's elite re-

quires other measures. On the legislative front, Machiavelli recommends

a strict regulation of public honors that assures that offices and rewards

go only to those whose "acts . . . are of benefit to the state."3 This

qualification, Machiavelli argues, will "force back the ambitious to the

true path of duty," creating the political culture in which fulfilling one's

personal desires for power requires dedicating oneself to the public

good.14 But achieving such a complete identification between personal

ambition and public good requires, Machiavelli believes, an education

that begins before one enters the public arena. "It is of great

importance," he observes, "whether a youth in his tender years hears

any act praised or censured; this necessarily makes a lasting impression

upon his mind, and becomes afterwards the rule of his life for all

time." 1

This combination of private and public education should create in the

citizen the psychological disposition to virtue that Machiavelli finds so

important in preserving liberty and protecting against corruption. Such a

12. Ibid., p. 530. Machiavelli also recognizes that natural temperament plays a certain

role in making citizens virtuous (ibid., p. 448, 478).

13. Ibid., p. 493.

14. Ibid., p. 495.

15. Ibid., p. 535.

This content downloaded from on Tue, 22 Mar 2016 11:12:16 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

Shelley Burtt 29

citizen will not be continually weighing private desires against a separate

perception of what the public good requires. His character will be such

that his personal desires find satisfaction only through public service.

Like Machiavelli's Discourses on Livy, Sydney's Discourses on

Government takes the great achievements of the Roman Republic as its

object of reflection and comment. Affirming the necessity and possibility

of cultivating within a modern citizenry the "love of country" that

prompted in ancient times such noble public service, Sydney writes:

time changes nothing . . . The same order that made men valiant

and industrious in the services of their country during the first ages

would have the same effect if it were now in being. Men would have

the same love to the public as the Spartans and Romans had if there

was the same reason for it.16

How best to cultivate the love of public? Sydney's prescription is

similar to Machiavelli's: the comprehensive education of desire. But

where Machiavelli focuses on the appropriate orientation of two par-

ticular passions-the few's "desire to dominate" and the many's "desire

to live in the enjoyment of liberty"-Sydney begins with a more univer-

sal psychological fact. Every individual, he says, "naturally follows that

which is good, or seems to him to be so." Recognizing this, the wise

legislator will ensure that "men are from their tenderest years brought up

in a belief that nothing in the world deserves to be sought after, but such

honours as are acquired by virtuous actions."" By thus shaping the

citizen's object of desire-Sydney speaks in fact of "imprinting the af-

fections of children"-the state draws men's passions to the perfor-

mance of virtue.

II. Harrington, Cato, and the Accommodation of Interests

Harrington's political philosophy reintroduces Cicero's vision of the

good commonwealth to the republican program. "The main of [my]

philosophy," Harrington announces, "consisteth in deposing passion

16. Sydney, Works, p. 184.

17. Ibid., pp. 218, 216. Montesquieu also roots civic virtue in the "education of the pas-

sions," arguing that the love of equality and frugality that for him constitutes civic virtue is

best nurtured, first, by laws enforcing both conditions and, second, by parental education

and example (Spirit of the Laws [New York: Hafner, 1949], pp. 34, 40-41). It is important

to note, however, that Machiavelli and Sydney are more concerned with harnessing selfish

passions and giving them publicly beneficial objects than with cultivating an independent

love of equality, frugality, or fatherland.

This content downloaded from on Tue, 22 Mar 2016 11:12:16 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

30 The Good Citizen's Psyche

and advancing reason unto the throne of empire."18 But how are we to

secure this virtuous "empire of ... laws" given the unruly passions of

men?1 One route would be to "depose passion and advance reason" in

the soul of each and every republican citizen, an alternative con-

templated by some classical philosophers. But Harrington is too much a

child of the seventeenth century to endorse such a program. No "orders

of government," he warns, ". .. shall be able to constrain this or that

creature to shake off that inclination which is more peculiar to it and

take up that which regards the common good or interest."20

Is civic virtue then beyond the grasp of a republic's citizens? Will the

claims of personal advantage forever taint the pursuit of common good?

Harrington refuses to admit this conclusion. Even a reason inextricably

united to self-interest can produce virtuous acts and deliberation if the

nation's constitution is properly structured.

To achieve this end, Harrington proposes a prudent political division

of labor between the few and the many. The best and brightest of the na-

tion's citizens (its natural aristocracy) should serve in a senate em-

powered to propose but not pass legislation. Charged simply with

debating the best course of action for the public, the members of this

senate will find their personal interest to be best served by as disinterested

a consideration of the public good as possible.21 Representatives to the

popular legislature, in turn, may vote but not publicly deliberate. And

they may and should vote on the basis of their self-interest. Harrington

justifies this conclusion with the argument that the private interests of

the many, when filtered through the political process, become the

"public interest" in both quantity and content. He explains the transfor-

mation this way: "that choice which suiteth with every man's interest

[i.e., that survives scrutiny in the popular assembly and passes into law]

excludeth the distinct or private interest or passions of any man, and so

cometh up onto the common and public interest or reason."22

The lesson that Harrington hopes to convey through his works is that

if a commonwealth arranges its institutions judiciously, selfish in-

dividuals, people necessarily and inevitably devoted to calculating their

own interest, may still be brought to advance public rather than par-

18. Harrington, Works, p. 415.

19. Ibid., p. 170.

20. Ibid., p. 172.

21. Ibid., p. 417.

22. Ibid., p. 416. See also Rousseau, The Social Contract, Bk. II, ch. 3. But note that

Rousseau expects the legislator to work a complete psychological transformation of the

citizen before reliance on popular deliberation will produce virtuous results.

This content downloaded from on Tue, 22 Mar 2016 11:12:16 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

Shelley Burtt 31

ticular ends. And as advancing the public interest is the hallmark of vir-

tuous action, a constitution arranged in this way can be called virtuous in

the republican sense of the term.

Cato's Letters, an extremely influential series of political essays

published in England in the 1720s, takes a similar approach to the

cultivation of civic virtue. Like Harrington, Cato (the pseudonym

adopted by the Letters' two authors) believes that an individual rarely if

ever manages to "separate his Passions from his own Passion and In-

terest" and thus argues for a virtue founded in the accommodation of in-

terests rather than their suppression. "We [cannot] expect philosophical

Virtue from them [men]; but only that they follow virtue as their In-

terest," he says.23

Cato has little hope that those in power can be made to see how closely

their personal interests in security and prosperity coincide with the pub-

lic's interest in good and faithful government. The temptation for office-

holders to abuse their power is simply too great.24 He places his hopes

for civic virtue instead on the self-interest of ordinary citizens, those on

the receiving end of the magistrate's ministrations. These people, Cato

argues, will pursue as a matter of personal interest goods entirely con-

sonant with the public welfare. They want above all political stability,

national prosperity, personal freedom. And they want these goods not

from a selfless concern for the polity as a whole, but because such

achievements immediately advance their own prospects and livelihood.

Thus Cato maintains, "the Whole People, by consulting their own In-

terest, consult the Publick, and act for the Publick by acting for

themselves." 25

This confidence that citizens can and do "act for the Publick by acting

for themselves" provides a substantial echo of Harrington's convictions.

Harrington argues that a self-interested populace, when assembled in a

legislature, can and will achieve the public good through expressing,

rather than transcending, their private interest. Cato is too much the

realist to propose any restructuring of Georgian England's constitutional

monarchy along Harrington's suggested lines. But without advocating

political change, Cato calls, like Harrington, for a civic virtue grounded

in the accommodation of interests.

The writings of the Founding Fathers might also seem to offer an ac-

count of civic virtue that relies on the accommodation of interests for its

23. John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, Cato's Letters, 4 vols., 3d ed. Facsimile

reprint in 2 vols. (New York: Russell and Russell, 1969), 2:49, 56.

24. Ibid., 3:193.

25. Ibid., 2:41.

This content downloaded from on Tue, 22 Mar 2016 11:12:16 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

32 The Good Citizen's Psyche

cultivation.26 My own view is that, to the extent the Founding Fathers

recommend some sort of accommodation of interests in political life,

they see such arrangements as complementing, not constituting, the prac-

tice of virtue. The debate surrounding the place of liberal and republican

ideals in the American Founding is extensive and cannot be presented

fully or resolved here.27 I would argue however that the Founding

Fathers fully intended America's citizens to be a virtuous people, without

expecting or desiring to cultivate this virtue (except in the most indirect

way) through public institutions. Civic virtue would arise from "the af-

fective bond between citizen and ruler" nurtured by a sound constitution

and good government and from the natural operations of existing social

practices-religious training and family education.28 The "accommoda-

tion of interests" represented by the constitution's checks and balances

thus supplements a citizenry's virtue. It does not, as in Harrington's and

Cato's models, provide its psychological grounding.

III. Cicero's Idea of Virtue in the Eighteenth Century

I have just set out two contrasting models of the psychological grounds

of virtue. One roots civic virtue in the "education of desire," the other

grounds it in the "accommodation of interests." In the first case, a

citizen's passions are put to the service of virtue: education within and

26. This interpretation is presented most strongly and most recently by Lance Banning,

"Second Thoughts on Virtue and the Course of Revolutionary Thinking," in Conceptual

Change and the Constitution, ed. Terrence Ball and J.G.A. Pocock (Lawrence, KS:

University Press of Kansas, 1988).

27. For a recent overview of the contested ground, see Peter Onuf, "Reflections on the

Founding: Constitutional Historiography in Bicentennial Perspective," William and Mary

Quarterly (1989): 341-76.

28. Richard Sinopoli, "Liberalism, Republicanism and the Constitution," Polity (1987):

344. Those who interpret the Framers' understanding of and expectation for civic virtue

along these lines include Sinopoli, ibid., pp. 331-52; Jean Yarbrough, "Republicanism

Reconsidered: Some Thoughts on the Foundation and Preservation of the American

Republic," Review of Politics (1979): 61-95; Richard Vetterli and Gary Bryner, In Search

of the Republic: Public Virtue and the Roots of American Government (Totowa, NJ:

Rowman and Littlefield, 1987); Ruth IH. Bloch, "The Gendered Meanings of Virtue,"

53-56; and Isaac Kramnick, "The 'Great National Discussion': The Discourse of Politics in

1787," William and Mary Quarterly (1988): 16-21. Offering a more pessimistic assessment

of the Framers' hopes for civic virtue but supporting the contention that the 1787 constitu-

tion was meant as a substitute for, not an expression of, civic virtue are, among others,

Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic (New York: W.W. Norton and

Co., 1969); John Diggins, The Lost Soul of American Politics (New York: Basic Books,

1984); and Michael Lienesch, New Order of the Ages (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University

Press, 1988), ch. 7.

This content downloaded from on Tue, 22 Mar 2016 11:12:16 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

Shelley Burtt 33

without the family combine to assure that individuals find their emo-

tional fulfillment, the satisfaction of their most deeply-felt desires,

primarily in service to the community at large. In the second model, such

passionate attachment of citizens to the public good is seen as unrealistic;

people love mainly themselves and naturally deploy their reason simply

to further their own ends. Achieving civic virtue among citizens of this

sort thus requires a constitution that accommodates such selfishness,

teasing virtuous acts (behavior that favors universal over particular ends)

out of the pursuit of private interest.

The final approach to the psychology of virtue identifiable in the

classical republican tradition is exemplified in the works of two English

political writers of the eighteenth century, Charles Davenant and Henry

St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke. Davenant and Bolingbroke both treat

attention to the common good as an inclination that derives from "the

compulsion of duty," from the recognition and acceptance of a moral

obligation to place public welfare ahead of personal advantage.

Davenant, a civil servant and respected political economist, developed

this account of virtue, with its echoes of Cicero, in a series of widely-read

political essays, published in the late 1690s and early 1700s.29 In them, he

defines the primary threat to good government as individuals who,

because they have failed to master their passions, "mingle with the in-

terests of the publick [their] own inclinations." The solution to this prob-

lem is not to accept this mingling and strive to make it less dangerous, as

Harrington and later Cato suggest, but "for every man to... begin

with suppressing his own vain thought of himself."30 How do individuals

thus "reduce themselves to the terms of justice, and right reason? . . .

Frequent contemplations on the publick, and to make its prosperity one

of the principal objects of our thoughts and care, conduce very much to

lead us into the right paths of virtue," Davenant contends.31

This prescription does not preclude emotional attachment to the com-

monwealth. Indeed the point of such directed meditation is to encourage

in citizens "a true affection" for their country, an affection which in

turn will ground virtuous civic behavior-"for we are not willing to hurt

29. The works considered here include "An Essay upon Ways and Means" (1695),

"Discourses on the Public Revenues," parts I and II (1698), "An Essay on the Probable

Methods of Making the People Gainers in the Balance of Trade" (1699), and "Essays on

Peace at Home and War Abroad" (1704), all collected in Davenant, The Political and

Commercial Works (London, 1771). I leave aside the "Picture of a Modern Whig" (1701,

1702) as a polemical set-piece, less useful in illuminating Davenant's political thought than

these other works.

30. Ibid., 4:275, 4:366.

31. Ibid., 4-364.

This content downloaded from on Tue, 22 Mar 2016 11:12:16 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

34 The Good Citizen's Psyche

what we love."32 But while republicans like Sydney understand such af-

fection to stem from a concerted effort to shape men's passions that

begins in infancy, Davenant believes an affection for one's country

derives from the rational efforts of the individual adult citizen. He

recommends for example an intellectual exercise familiar in religious life:

"As to think but lowly of ourselves, is the first step that leads us to revere

the Deity . . . so he who has considered of what little value his single self

is compared to the whole commonwealth, will be soon brought to prefer

its interest much beyond his own." By thus inculcating a respect for the

common good, a person becomes "a good patriot, not by the compunc-

tion of laws, but from the dictates of his own reason."33

This faith that the operation of individual reason can lead citizens will-

ingly to sacrifice their private ends to the public good represents a

decisive departure both from those who ground the performance of vir-

tue in the education of passions and from those who look only to an ac-

commodation of interests. By granting individuals the power to master

their self-interested impulses through self-education and willpower,

Davenant offers a surprisingly optimistic account of the possibility of

civic virtue at a time when both theology and moral philosophy were

ceding increasing scope and power to the selfish tendencies of human


Bolingbroke, from 1726 to 1736 a leader of the opposition to

Walpole's ministry, advances an account of the psychological sources of

civic virtue similar to that of Cicero. Both the "Letter on the Spirit of

Patriotism" (1736) and "The Idea of a Patriot King" (1738) reflect the

familiar republican idea that virtue works to preserve public liberty

against the corroding effects of political corruption. Like Davenant, Bol-

ingbroke grounds this civic virtue in a rational assessment of the individ-

ual's moral duty. "The service of our country is no chimerical, but a real

duty," Bolingbroke announces. "He who admits the proofs of any other

moral duty, drawn from the constitution of human nature, or from the

moral fitness and unfitness of things, must admit them in favor of this

duty, or be reduced to the most absurd inconsistency."34 A similar argu-

ment surfaces in his earlier Letters on History:

It may be easily proved from a consideration of the circumstances

in which we stand as individuals, that the general good of society is

the particular interest of every member. Our Creator designed

32. Ibid., 4:354, 364.

33. Ibid., 4:364.

34. Bolingbroke, Works, v. 2 (London: Henry Bohn, 1844; rpt. New York: A.M. Kelley,

1967), 2:359.

This content downloaded from on Tue, 22 Mar 2016 11:12:16 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

Shelley Burtt 35

therefore that we should promote this general good. It is by conse-

quence our duty to do so.35

In arguing for man's ability to act efficaciously upon the rational

perception of a duty, Bolingbroke simultaneously rejects the notion that

civic virtue either could or should have any other foundation. Thus in

"The Idea of a Patriot King," Bolingbroke sharply criticizes Machia-

velli's effort to ground virtuous behavior in an appeal to the individual's

desire for glory or fame.36 And in the "Letter on the Spirit of

Patriotism," he warns that Harrington's effort to link civic virtue with

an enlightened self-interest too often produces a passion for private ad-

vantage which individuals then "endeavor ... to reconcile as well as

they can to that of the public."37 Only individuals disciplined by a sense

of moral or religious duty can be relied upon to resist the temptation to

turn public service to the service of their own ambitions.

Good citizens must act from the compulsion of duty; only then can

they transcend the petty views of "particular, separate interest" for the

"general and common interest of society."38 Here Bolingbroke affirms

along with Davenant the idea that civic virtue can be and must be

grounded in the sacrifice of private interest to the public good. It is a

characterization of virtue often echoed by modern students of republi-

canism but, with the exception of Cicero, not particularly in evidence

within the tradition before the early eighteenth century.

IV. Civic Virtue Today

The preceding examination is meant first of all to establish the plurality

of approaches taken within the classical republican tradition to one of its

central concepts: civic virtue. There does exist a universal structure to

what John Robertson has called "the civic tradition."39 Authors writing

within this tradition consider the preservation of liberty the primary

problem of politics and look to both a carefully constructed constitution

and the cultivation of civic virtue as the primary means of achieving this

end. Civic virtue in turn is generally understood as the disposition to give

35. Bolingbroke, Historical Writings, ed. Isaac Kramnick (Chicago: University of

Chicago Press, 1972), p. 279.

36. See Machiavelli, Discourses, Bk. I, ch. 10 and Bolingbroke, Works, 2:390.

37. Bolingbroke, Works, 2:357.

38. Bolingbroke, Historical Writings, p. 280.

39. John Robertson, "The Scottish Enlightenment at the Limits of the Civic Tradition,"

in Wealth and Virtue, ed. Istvan Hont and Michael Ignatieff (Cambridge: Cambridge

University Press, 1985), p. 139.

This content downloaded from on Tue, 22 Mar 2016 11:12:16 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

36 The Good Citizen's Psyche

public ends precedence over private desires in both political action and

deliberation. But as the preceding discussion indicates, this shared

agenda in no way implies a shared understanding of the psychological

sources of such virtue.

Recognizing this fact can help those debating the place and possibil-

ities for civic virtue within contemporary American life to consider more

concretely how such a disposition might be nurtured within individual

citizens. Would the appropriate program be one of "education of

desire," "compulsion of duty," or "accommodation of interests?"

Consider first the idea of civic virtue as grounded in the "education of

desire." Might a modern state interested in encouraging a form of civic

virtue successfully shape citizens' passions in the way this strategy envi-

sions? In assessing this possibility we must remember the profound

pessimism of those republican theorists who recommended this route to

the cultivation of civic virtue, Machiavelli and Rousseau in particular.

Bringing citizens to love their fatherland above all else, to find in service

to their country their greatest emotional satisfaction, was always seen as

a precarious achievement and one which most likely required an almost

impossible transformation of human nature.

It may be possible to raise children in such a way that public rather

than private goods remain the object of their desire. Indeed, the record

of religious fundamentalism in Western and non-Western societies sug-

gests that such a shaping of individual passions to find fulfillment in

communal ends is possible. But the success of such a project on a na-

tional level would require so great a concentration of political power in

the name of a controversial political goal that no secularized industrial

democracy could hope to embark upon it. Any modern politics, then,

that sought to root civic virtue in the "education of desire" would most

likely end in failure.

Bolingbroke's understanding of civic virtue as involving the sacrifice

of private interest and ambition in pursuit of the common good remains

a powerful ideal in Western culture. However, any effort to evoke a sus-

tained practice of civic virtue based on this Ciceronian ideal also seems

unlikely to succeed. While such selfless behavior is probably not beyond

most individuals, it is unlikely to be elicited consistently from a citizenry

whose moral education places little emphasis on such an achievement.

Contemporary American culture, for example, is too steeped in the

ideology of self-interest rightly understood for citizens in general to be

persuaded that they either could or should routinely seek to sacrifice per-

sonal desires in order to further public good.40 And, despite President

40. For the classic account of this culture, see Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in

America, pp. 503-28 and, more recently, Robert Bellah et al., Habits of the Heart

(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985).

This content downloaded from on Tue, 22 Mar 2016 11:12:16 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

Shelley Burtt 37

Bush's enthusiasm for volunteerism, we should not expect the private or

public sector to wean Americans too quickly from a "me-first" mental-

ity. A polity whose public education system cannot even guarantee the

literacy of its citizens is unlikely to produce a national curriculum that

would both convey the ideals of selfless public service and inspire its per-


Not all those interested in reviving civic virtue would be willing to con-

cede these points. Some remain hopeful that the state can effectively in-

culcate an ethic of duty in American citizens. And my criticisms do not

take into account the possibility that the institutions of civil society might

be more successful than the state at encouraging a civic virtue grounded

in a sense of duty or performed from love of country. These possibilities

deserve further exploration, but so does the proposition that the accom-

modation of interests is the most plausible and attractive means of en-

couraging civic virtue available to the American polity today.

What I have in mind in making this suggestion is not so much Harring-

ton's account of civic virtue as Cato's. Convinced that individual citizens

lack the psychological resources to exhibit much civic virtue individually,

Harrington suggests a constitutional structure that channels self-

interested deliberation in such a way that its result is the public good.

Virtue is achieved for the regime at large. This approach to the problem

of virtue is quite familiar to Americans; indeed, one could plausibly

argue that civic virtue conceived in this fashion is well established in the

contemporary polity. But a republican civic virtue grounded in the ac-

commodation of interests can go well beyond Harrington's account in its

effort to influence the citizenry's character. Cato in particular per-

suasively sets out the circumstances under which the pursuit of self-

interested ends produces not just virtuous end results but recognizably

virtuous citizens.

Cato believes that citizens can and will champion public good (the de-

cisive mark of civically virtuous individuals) from fundamentally self-

interested motives-the reason being that public good in a post-Lockean

age consists primarily in the protection of personal liberty and the pro-

motions of national strength and prosperity. In such a polity, Cato

argues, any substantial threat to public good will also be experienced by

individual citizens as threats to their private well-being, calling forth, Cato

presumes, a storm of political protest. But in entering the political arena

to defend their personal interests, citizens act virtuously as well, purging

the polity of the enemies of liberty.4' The American polity does not now

ask or demand of its citizens a civic virtue of this sort. But it might.

41. Trenchard and Gordon, Cato's Letters, 1:37.

This content downloaded from on Tue, 22 Mar 2016 11:12:16 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

38 The Good Citizen's Psyche

Introducing this sort of civic virtue to the United States would, of

course, require considerable political reform. One difficulty with Cato's

account, in fact, is its failure to address the necessary preconditions of

his citizens' virtue. Cato believed non-despotic political societies to be so

structured that any egregious violation of the public trust, any significant

threat to citizen happiness and prosperity, would prompt swift and

vociferous protest from even the most selfish or corrupt citizens. In fact,

we can expect such a response only from citizens who, at the very least,

understand their interests to be affected by political decisionmaking,

define themselves as political actors, and expect political protest to pro-

duce some meaningful change-citizens who, in other words, have been

educated to be republicans.

A commitment to the cultivation of civic virtue grounded in the ac-

commodation of interests thus requires as great a commitment to public

education as that implied by the previous two models. In this case,

however, a concerted educational initiative might actually meet with

some success. To bring citizens to virtue based on an "accommodation

of interests" would mean teaching citizens, first, their right to insist that

their government maintain a basic level of security and prosperity for the

individual and community and, second, their responsibility to defend

these interests if and when government fails to provide for them. Such an

effort involves neither the total transformation of the citizen's character

required by cultivating a "love of the fatherland" nor the rarefied educa-

tion necessary to make the "compulsion of duty" a reality.

To some involved in the effort to revive civic virtue these suggestions

may point to a conception of this disposition too "thin" to merit con-

sideration as republican. But the idea that service to the public must rest

on the sacrifice of self-interest in an all-encompassing passion for the

public good represents only part of the republican tradition. As I have in-

dicated briefly above, contemporary Americans are quite unlikely to

consider the practice of civic virtue understood in this way as either

possible or desirable. The prospects are quite different for a virtue that

looks to the self-interest of citizens for its foundations. A civic virtue

grounded in this way is well within the capabilities of the members of a

commercial republic. If successfully taught what they have a right to ex-

pect from government and truly encouraged to defend these political in-

terests when threatened, these citizens should be able to defend their

community's freedom and should be able to consider and promote the

common good as effectively and as vigorously as earlier adherents of the

republican tradition demanded.

This content downloaded from on Tue, 22 Mar 2016 11:12:16 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions