As coronavirus panic mounts, we Americans are in danger of losing sight of what our country is supposed to be all about. In times like these it's always useful to return to first principles, and for us those are the notions of our 18th century Founders.
In making the decision to break with Great Britain, and, later, to establish a Constitution and federal government for the United States, they rejected monarchy and hereditary aristocracy.
The Founders sought to give us a republican form of government; a government by and for the American people, one which would operate in the public interest, and one which would promulgate, enforce, and follow the rule of law.
In setting up a republic, the Framers knew from ancient, medieval, and modern history that they faced one great challenge. This was whether the American people possessed sufficient virtue in order to maintain self-government.
The quality of virtue, of paramount importance to the ancients as well as the moderns, had several aspects. One of them was the ability to act in a disinterested manner; doing what was best for others.
Altruism, and not self-interest, was required, because, over the course of history republics had foundered and died when the leaders chosen by the people, or the people themselves, had succumbed to corruption.
Corruption remains a central concern for our republic, as the scrutiny of Mrs. Clinton in the 2016 election, and the criticism of the Biden family’s involvement with China and the Ukraine in 2020's contest also suggests.
But virtue is about more than not succumbing to greed.
For the ancients, and Plato in particular, virtue included other aspects. In Plato’s "Republic," still an influential work of political philosophy, he maintained that there are four cardinal components of virtue — wisdom, temperance, courage, and justice.
The current reaction to the threat of coronavirus strongly suggests that this nation is demonstrating a marked lack of all four of these.
The widespread failure to put the national health threat in perspective indicates a national deficit in wisdom. The indications are that the health risk of the virus is not significantly different from that posed by typical outbreaks of influenza or the common cold.
One should obviously take the usual precautions, such as maintaining personal hygiene, dressing appropriately, and avoiding others when one is ill, but to close schools, cancel sports events, concerts, and conferences seems like something other than temperance.
We are even being told by our churches, clubs, and civic organizations that we should avoid basic human contact such as shaking hands. This is not exactly a manifestation of the kind of courage Plato had in mind, or which this country once manifested.
When our great Universities, as is now being done, close down, send students home, and purport to teach by remote learning, something precious is being lost. Actual human contact, live discussion after class among students, real rather than virtual community is what sustains learning.
In our administrators’ understandable avoidance of health risks and possible lawsuits, we are seeing a new and pernicious manifestation of "cancel culture," one that, if it continues, poses the risk of not only cultural collapse, but financial as well, as the precipitous decline in the stock market indicates.
The protection of "snowflakes" on our campuses, the carving out of "safe spaces," where challenging ideas must not be raised, now seems to have transmogrified into a situation where a new risk to health must be met with what amounts to a shutting down of society.
Not only is this not wise, temperate, or courageous, it is manifestly unjust, in that it risks the abandonment of what makes life worthwhile — human society itself.
This is, in short, madness.
What we are seeing is an aspect of a deep failing in current secular society, the notion that our government and our institutions must protect us from all inconvenience and harm from cradle to grave. Related to this notion, of course, are the fundamental errors that science has the potential to bring us utopia on earth; that the purpose of human life is personal safety and comfort.
This is an impoverished view of the human condition, and a prescription for decadence and decline, Our Framers also knew that our lives ought to be about something greater than self-satisfaction, that there was a spiritual dimension to our human struggle, that wisdom sometimes comes from adversity and that we ought to be engaged, together, in the often difficult effort to discover timeless truths and to serve higher ends than our own pleasure.
It might be convenient to pretend otherwise, but as we close our universities, our schools, our sports events, and our society generally, we are becoming much less than we once were.
Stephen B. Presser is the Raoul Berger Professor of Legal History Emeritus at Northwestern’s Pritzker School of Law, the Legal Affairs Editor of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, and a contributor to The University Bookman. He graduated from Harvard College and Harvard Law School, and has taught at Rutgers University, the University of Virginia, and University College, London. He has often testified on constitutional issues before committees of the United States Congress, and is the author of "Recapturing the Constitution: Race, Religion, and Abortion Reconsidered" (Regnery, 1994) and "Law Professsors: Three Centuries of Shaping American Law" (West Academic, 2017). Presser was a Visiting Scholar in Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado's Boulder Campus for 2018-2019. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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