Carol Platt Liebau: The Virtue of the Founders

Sunday, June 25, 2006

The Virtue of the Founders

Jon Meacham, in an insightful book review, discusses the character of the Founding Fathers and asserts hopefully that we may find their like again.

I believe we will. But certain features of American society have made the task more difficult than it was, even as recently as the era when Ronald Reagan was growing up.

For one thing, today, we don't talk of "virtues," we speak of "values" (and, all too often, conclude "to each his own") -- the term itself bespeaks a certain relativism. What's more, as a society and as a culture, the cultivation of virtue has all but disappeared as an open, public aspiration. Too often, it's been replaced with the search for "fame" -- not as the Founding Fathers understood it, ("hav[ing] honor across space and time", as historian Gordon Wood puts it), but in terms of notoriety, exemplified by the breathless dedication to the exploits of Angelina, Britney and the newest cast of the hottest reality TV show. Bad behavior is overlooked or even celebrated if the person doing it at least has th panache to be cleverly immoral.

It's hard to escape the conclusion that the redefinition of terms like "values" and "character" (as Meacham points out) and "fame" result from the diminishing influence of religion in the public square. Religion is one of the few forces that remind human beings that the here-and-now isn't all there is; it's one of the strongest restraints on unhealthy ambition and excessive pride.

The Founding Fathers understood this, and actively strove to live lives that were not only about power, prestige and wealth -- but likewise about being natural artistocrats whose power had come to them "by merit" . . . that is, excellence of judgment and character.

Encouraging such aspirations to virtue, not just to fame, is particularly important to democracies -- for it's harder to find a Washington or a Reagan to elect in a society that too often glorifies glibness and facility above less glamorous but more solid virtues. Even so, I'm optimistic -- America is a great and good country, and surely it will continue to produce great and good leaders.


Blogger Dittohead said...

Let us not forget that the founding fathers also hated paying King George's taxes.

12:35 PM  

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