Virtue and The Moral Fall of Civilization
“Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” John Adams
“Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom.” Benjamin Franklin
“Whenever we are planning for posterity, we ought to remember that virtue is not hereditary.” Thomas Paine
“It is when a people forget God that tyrants forge their chains.” Patrick Henry
Civilizations fall rapidly due to an inescapable catastrophe. Water sources dry up. A powerful empire invades.
Civilizations fall slowly due to a moral catastrophe. A moral catastrophe is not a failure of arms or food. It’s a failure of the sustaining virtues of the civilization. As the society tumbles slowly downward, it will encounter defeat in battle, collapse of its infrastructure and food shortages. But these are symptoms, not causes. The cause is the degeneration of the society and its people.
A civilization is not a mechanical endeavor, but a moral one. The virtues that uphold a civilization, the ability to reason, to work hard, to study how to solve a problem, to sacrifice now for future gain, to cooperate with those outside the tribe, to value truth, beauty and goodness for their own sake are individual, but they are also social. A society that cultivates these virtues in people can prosper. As society loses these virtues, it grows dysfunctional. It loses winnable wars, it squanders vast wealth, it loses its work ethics, its ability to cooperate and to plan for the long term. It slowly dies.
Barbarians are not savages because they wear loincloths or bones through their noses, or even because they lack the majority of these virtues, but because they lack the ability to appreciate them. A barbarian who appreciates civilizational virtues can become civilized, but a civilized barbarian may wear a suit and tie, but is still a savage because he cannot even appreciate the virtues of his ancestors.
As a civilization declines, it becomes barbaric. Before the savages invade it from the outside, its own people have become savages. They enthusiastically welcome the savages. They are drawn to the culture and norms of the savages because these echo their own descent into barbarism. The cult of the noble savage is simply civilized barbarians glamorizing their own descent down the moral ladder.
Civilized men and women have principles. Such principles are the intersection of ideals and interests. Ideals on their own easily fall into an abstract nobility that can manifest as anything from sainthood to self-destructive aspiration. Interests on their own leave selfish people incapable of maintaining anything greater than themselves. Virtue negotiates between interests and ideals. This negotiation is expressed as a principle. A principle realizes an ideal and localizes it in an interest.
Utopians kill and die for ideals. The Nazis, Communists and Islamists are Utopians. Civilized men live and fight for principles. Utopianism is a civilizational degeneracy. It usually precedes barbarism. Sensing the decline, men and women embrace some pure ideal, they idealize equality or race, and set off on a quest to construct a new civilization around it by destroying the existing civilization. They are convinced that their ideal will create a civilization that can live forever. When their ideal fails, they revert to their barbarian roots by worshiping the shamanic personality force of their leader. And these new barbarians murder, scream and cavort around the fire convinced that their new god can stave off the fall of night. And when the fires goes out, all that remains is ash, horror and rubble.
Civilized men and women understood that nothing mortal is immortal. That which is best in us, is virtue. It is that, which in our flawed and humble way, makes us closest to the God that made us. Our principles are how we aspire to keep that faith. When we lose our principles, we destroy whatever it was we sought to preserve, we become our own worst enemies and bring about our own destruction.
Principles are defined at their farthest end by what we must do and what we would never do. But their soul is self-awareness. The essence of virtue is to know thyself. Few are so innately good that they can always do the right thing without ever examining and questioning themselves. It is this self-examination through conscience that is the great moral labor of all religion and philosophy.
Everyone is naturally inclined to believe in their own goodness. But goodness comes from questioning one’s own worth and examining one’s own deeds. It comes from transcending our emotions, our anger and our pain, our self-pity, jealousy, resentment and vengefulness to become better than we are. The essence of virtue is not doing what comes naturally, but controlling the natural impulse and rising above it. That is how civilizations are built. We build civilizations by transcending ourselves. We destroy them by giving and taking permission to fall to our worst impulses.
Interests and ideals tend to opposite ends. In war, ideals may say that one should never kill and interests counsel one to survive by fleeing the battlefield. Virtues guide us to principles that overcome the extremes by finding our higher responsibility in the intersection of ideal and interest.
Civilizations depend on responsible people. It is the people who come to work every day and do their best who keep a country running. It is the soldiers who advance to the enemy and return fire, who win wars. It is leaders who do the difficult things who leave their country better than they found it. It is the men and women who search their souls, who leave this world better people than they entered it.
In a declining civilization, there are few responsible people. There are many who will want a title, but few who will do the job. There are many who will shout, but few who will reason. There are many who will wave a flag, but few who will fight for a cause. There are many who would destroy, but few who will build. There are many who will lecture, but few who will do.
In a civilization on the verge of a moral catastrophe, the invocation of virtues and principles is met with contemptuous laughter. It is widely understood that irresponsible behavior is better, that decency is for weaklings and fools, that anger is the only true virtue that suffices to achieve all ends. Manners vanish like autumn leaves in a breeze. Moral compasses show nothing. Intellectual consistency ceases to matter. Men believe contradictory things at different hours of the day. Illusory victories are always being achieved even as real defeats follow.
We wonder why great civilizations fall. Couldn’t the Romans see what was coming? The first thing that goes in a moral catastrophe is virtue, the second is reason, the third is foresight, the fourth is competence and the fifth is self-control. And by then you have barbarians in the midst of civilization.
When virtue goes, civilizations rationalize destructive behavior. When reason goes, they become unable to even think about a problem with any degree of consistency. When foresight goes, they no longer understand consequences. When all those are gone, competence is all but impossible. When there is no self-control, nothing matters anymore.
Civilizations are built on virtue. Without virtue, there is no civilization.
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