Saturday, December 15, 2018 | site map | contact | FSJ

Subscribe to Salvo magazine today! Take a look at an issue online and if you like what you see, SUBSCRIBE at a discounted rate.

Department: ARCHIVES

Citizens Cain
& Abel

The Dilemma of Soulcraft & the State

by Cameron Wybrow

Does a good state depend on the existence of virtuous citizens, or only upon a good constitution and good laws? On this subject, the old books disagree.

Aristotle, in his Nichomachean Ethics and Politics, taught that constitutions and laws would be inadequate if the citizens lacked the key virtues: moderation, courage, justice. Those virtues were dispositions of the soul, arrived at through the habitual regulation of the passions. But habituation to virtue was not something that occurred naturally. It needed a system of support. The state, having an interest in the virtue of its citizens, must supply that support. It must provide public, compulsory education aimed at the cultivation of the virtues. The state must practice soulcraft.

Opposed to this was the view of Kant, who in Perpetual Peace (1795) boldly wrote: "The problem of organizing a state . . . can be solved even for a race of devils, if only they are intelligent." For Kant, founding a good state "does not require that we know how to attain the moral improvement of men"; it requires only clever constitutional arrangements, such that "although [the citizens'] private intentions conflict, they check each other, with the result that their public conduct is the same as if they had no such intention[s]."

Kant's view resembles that of James Madison. In The Federalist #10 (1787), Madison argued that one could not abolish selfish interest ("faction") from a republic without abolishing freedom itself. The trick, then, was to manage faction through a shrewdly designed federal system which allowed competing factions yet prevented any single faction from gaining control of the republic as a whole.

The state of Kant and Madison recognizes that citizens are frequently not virtuous but selfish; but instead of practicing soulcraft to turn the selfish virtuous, it balances selfishness against selfishness to produce public good. By substituting political arrangements for soulcraft, Kant and Madison avoid the risk run by Aristotle's policy: the risk of totalitarianism. Yet their own policy seems to be flawed. Does not today's experience show that citizens untrained in virtue lack public spirit, break the law when they can get away with it, and spawn social decay? And if so, is there a way to produce virtuous citizens without coercive state indoctrination?

There is; or rather, there was. We see it in the letter from John Adams to officers of the Massachusetts militia (1798):

[W]e have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.

Adams is here advocating neither compulsory religion nor compulsory indoctrination in the virtues. He is appealing to religion and virtue that already exist, but do not proceed from the state. They are the fruit of a particular society—a society habituated to the Classical and Christian virtues. The state can provide a sound political framework—the Constitution. But only society can provide the moral and spiritual cement which binds the nation together in love and loyalty.

The state of Kant and Madison did not have to make good citizens out of devils, for it did not start from devils but from people already infused with virtue. Aristotle's educational regime was not necessary, because social traditions performed its work. Yet we no longer live in that world. Our society does not promote virtue; it promotes the liberation of the passions. What Adams could take for granted—a moral consensus built on something deeper than the state—no longer exists. So do we return to Aristotelian soulcraft, and try to rebuild virtue through state action? Or can a moral society be regenerated without such coercion? 

If you enjoy Salvo, please consider giving an online donation! Thanks for your continued support.


A Boy's Life: 5 Recommendations for Shielding Our Sons from the Anti-Culture—And Setting Them Towards Manhood by Anthony Esolen

Revolution 101: How the 'New Civics' Is Fomenting Civil Unrest by Terrell Clemmons

Up for Grabs: In Science, When 'Anything Goes,' Everything Goes by Denyse O'Leary

Optimal Optics: Evolutionists Don't Know a Good Eye When They See One by Jonathan Wells


The Darwin Tales: It's Time to Remit Darwinian Storytelling to the Annals of History by Terrell Clemmons

Engendered Confusion: The Chaos of Postmodern Sexuality by Laurie Higgins

Zombie Killer: The "Icons of Evolution" Have Joined the Ranks of the Undead by Denyse O'Leary

My Favorite Zombies: Can We Let Them Rest in Peace? by James M. Kushiner

Eye Openers: Eight Common Factors for Atheists Changing Their Minds About God by Matt Nelson

Tuning Out the Universe: How Naturalism & Post-Fact Science Ignore the Evidence We See by Denyse O'Leary

Deep-Seated Rights: What They Are & Why You Have Them by Steve Jones

Improbably So: Fine-Tuning Is Unlikely, but Unlikely Things Happen All the Time by Tim Barnett

The Long Red Shadow: Mike Shotwell Has a Message for Millennial America by Terrell Clemmons

The Good Life: It's to Know, Serve & Love the Truth, Not the Pursuit of Happiness by James Altena

Taking Polls Apart: Human Complexity Foils Electoral Predictions by Denyse O'Leary

Morality as Story: The False Charity of Modern Journalism by Rebekah Curtis

Can We Talk?: It Is Crucial That We Put Our Minds to Contentious Issues by James M. Kushiner

© 2018 Salvo magazine. Published by The Fellowship of St. James. All rights reserved. Returns, refunds, and privacy policy.