The Dilemma of Soulcraft & the State

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 managefaction 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? •


From Salvo 25 (Summer 2013)
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received his Ph.D. in Religious Studies from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. He writes on education, politics, religion, and culture.

This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #25, Summer 2013 Copyright © 2019 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/article/salvo25/citizens-cain-abel