Rain poured down just outside my tour bus going through the vineyards and wheat fields of Normandy, France. I was on a trip with my school to visit all the landing beaches and battlefields our forefathers stormed through the thick off-white sand to put the final nail in the coffin of Nazi-occupied Europe. My friend brought Starship Troopers with him on that journey, and I had brought Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes. Since we had both finished our respective books, we agreed to do a book swap. I opened the first page, and just near the beginning, I read a line that was familiar to me. I know id heard it in some random Youtube video. But when I read it this time, I was struck in a particularly profound way by it. It wasn’t a beautiful line, but its poignancy was all the more evident as I had just finished looking at Omaha beach. The question was asked what the difference is between a civilian and a citizen: citizen being synonymous with a soldier in this work of fiction. It reads as such:
“The difference…lies in the field of civic virtue. A soldier accepts personal responsibility for the safety of the body politic of which he is a member, defending it, if need be, with his life. The civilian does not.”
At that moment, I didn’t know how relevant that phrase was in today’s world. But now, it all makes sense. While the world imagined by Heinlein is nowhere near our own, I thought about that idea for a while. The concept of civic virtue, to be exact. After I had read the book, I had a lot of time to formulate my ideas on this subject. The more I thought, the more I realized how important this idea of civic virtue is to a nation’s health and how the lack of it leads to societal atomization and the complete collapse of civilization itself.
In this essay, I will discuss the idea of civic virtue to the best of my ability. I will demonstrate how necessary it is to our civilization, in particular, the USA, and how our very nature is tied so closely to it.
And hopefully, I will instill in those reading with the desire to pursue this good in their own lives. We must all ask ourselves every day regarding the strength and virtue of that nation:
Am I doing my part?
Firstly, it would be proper and necessary to provide a definition for Civic Virtue. Simply put, Civic virtues are the habits and actions essential for a person to serve their nation and their community. Additionally, it is to take up as their personal responsibility and obligation the needs of their fellow countryman.
It is being your brother’s keeper. It is taking up the struggles of the nation on your shoulders; to bear the weight of the responsibility of the maintaining and flourishing of civilized society.
But this concept of “civic virtue” begs the question: what is virtue? This may seem like a redundant question, with most people having a basic sense of right and wrong. But where does that good come from, and more important for the sake of this argument, what parts of good are “civic,” so to speak?
First, the good that we presuppose in our daily lives is rooted in Christian values. Whether you are a devout Christian or completely atheist, the very basis for your sense of right and wrong originates from Christ. This reality is commonly referred to as “Judeo-Christian values” by the mainstream conservative movement. If you are a westerner, you make judgments on your world every day through this lens, whether you like it or not. This is not to say that it’s being forced upon you by some all-powerful being (well, in some sense, there is some all-powerful being who’d like you to act a certain way, the way I see it), but it’s more intuitive and assumed through the long cycle of socialization that you and all your forefathers went through growing up. You quickly learn a basic sense of right and wrong from birth, with the messy details being sorted out later in life.
But virtue is not all-natural. Virtue, as described famously and most eloquently by Aristotle, illustrates the necessity of acting virtuously to make it a habit that one could describe as a “virtue.” He says:
“We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit. The greatest virtues are those which are most useful to other persons.”
Think of things you could do right now that follow this. These are small things like helping family, volunteering, picking that piece of trash off the sidewalk. Obviously, these are things that have small to minimal impact on the wider society but nevertheless develop character in the individual. Do good in your capacity.
Our politicians, our corporate leaders, our rich and powerful are the people who have the most extraordinary capacity to do good at home. However, we do not measure virtue as a function of wealth. The best among us are those who take on the most significant responsibilities of their neighbors to their greatest capacity. These people are role models from every class in society. Our soldiers take on the infinite weight of death for the safety of all. Our policemen and firefighters do this too.
It is only fitting that we strive for a society that places the best of us, in moral capacity and competence, at the top to take on the responsibilities of the whole nation. Those who make the greatest sacrifices to the body politic in the pursuit of the common are those who are most virtuous and should be “running things,” so to speak. No others would be more fit.
So now that I have laid the groundwork, we arrive at the main question: What is Civic Virtue specifically, and why is it so important for functioning society for everyone to take up the responsibility that belonging to a nation entails?
First, it is important to make the responsibility of being a citizen very clear. In our nation, we have too many that cry out for the excellent among us to be taken down in the name of justice and too many rich who are content to bask in arrogance atop their heirlooms of bountiful wealth. In all classes of society, there is an epidemic of the greedy and the envious. We need a new model citizen that we can all aspire to, one that is universal and also specific enough in its expectations to be tangible to all.
A true citizen of the United States should make it his personal responsibility to guide his nation toward the common good, in material and spiritual goods. A true citizen pulls his weight in his community and exercises his right to vote only if he has a legitimate stake and concern for his community and nation. He does not vote in self-interest. He votes in the way of the Lord. A true citizen takes his responsibility seriously. He knows that those worthy of self-governance are those who demonstrate through their virtuous actions that they are capable of being their own lord.
But how do we manifest the opportunities to lift up our fellow Americans in everyday life? While some we can do every day, like picking up that piece of trash from the street, some need to be made obvious to all so that the best among us are identifiable, tangible, and able to be aspired to.
Let us go back to our policemen, our soldiers, our firefighters; these are people we entrust with the collective betterment of our lives. These are the people that protect us from harm in very tangible ways. These are the people that exemplify virtue in occupation but are also held and ought to be held to the highest standard in their conduct in their field.
Also, at a more humble level, our families exemplify virtue insofar as they have invested in the future of our nation through the process of having and raising children. While maybe we shouldn’t all be firefighters, having a family is only natural and the first step to showing society that you care about its future.
All of these examples are given to say how there exists a natural order of hierarchy in society not by oppression but by nature and choice. We order ourselves by competence, materially, and by morality, spiritually.
Despite the best efforts of the modern world to fight foolishly against human nature itself, it still remains albeit, caged to some degree by the shackles of postmodern thought that is becoming more and more prevalent in society as I speak.
We order ourselves in hierarchies by nature, and it’s what we ought to strive to do. We are best when we act in accordance with our nature. The best of us in competence and character should be at the top and subsequently held to the highest responsibility to pull our nation to greatness.
I’d like to close with a common post that all of you should be familiar with. You’ve probably seen it floating around on the internet for a while, but it sums up civic virtue well. This is the infamous “shopping cart analogy.”
The shopping cart is the ultimate litmus test for whether a person is capable of self-governing. To return the shopping cart is an easy, convenient task and one which we all recognize as the correct, appropriate thing to do. To return the shopping cart is objectively right. There are no situations other than dire emergencies in which a person is not able to return their cart. Simultaneously, it is not illegal to abandon your shopping cart. Therefore the shopping cart presents itself as the apex example of whether a person will do what is right without being forced to do it.
The shopping cart analogy presents a simple example of what you can do in your life that is small but impactful in the vein of Civic Virtue. It sounds cliché, but you should “return the shopping cart” in your life every day. Whether at the ballot box or in the neighborhood, do good when no one is watching or when no one will care. We all do this, and we can make this democracy really work.
After all, John Adams, the most esteemed founding father, said that,
“Our Constitution was made only for a moral and pious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
So take up your weight, citizen. It is time we do our part on the long march towards excellence as a nation.