Civic virtue  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Civic virtue is the cultivation of habits of personal living that are claimed to be important for the success of the community. The identification of the character traits that constitute civic virtue have been a major concern of political philosophy. The term civility refers to behaviour between persons and groups that conforms to a social mode (that is, in accordance with the civil society), as itself being a foundational principle of society and law.


A republican virtue

Civic virtue has historically been taught as a matter of chief concern in nations under republican forms of government, and societies with cities. When final decisions on public matters are made by a monarch, it is the monarch's virtues which influence those decisions. When a broader class of people become the decision makers, it is then their virtues which characterize the types of decisions made. This form of decision making is considered superior in determining what best protects the interests of the majority. Aristocratic oligarchies may also develop traditions of public lists of virtues they believe appropriate in the governing class, but these virtues differ significantly from those generally identified under the category of civic virtue, stressing martial courage over commercial honesty. Constitutions became important in defining the public virtue of republics and constitutional monarchies. The earliest forms of constitutional development can be seen in late medieval Germany (see Communalism before 1800) and in the Dutch and English revolts of the 16th and 17th centuries.

In ancient Greece and Rome

In the classical culture of Western Europe and those places that follow its political tradition, concern for civic virtue starts with the oldest republics of which we have extensive records, Athens and Rome. Attempting to define the virtues needed to successfully govern the Athenian polis was a matter of significant concern for Socrates and Plato; a difference in civic vision ultimately was one of the factors that led to the trial of Socrates and his conflict with the Athenian democracy. The Politics of Aristotle viewed citizenship as consisting, not of political rights, but rather of political duties. Citizens were expected to put their private lives and interests aside and serve the state in accordance with duties defined by law.

Rome, even more than Greece, produced a number of moralistic philosophers such as Cicero, and moralistic historians such as Tacitus, Sallust, Plutarch and Livy. Many of these figures were either personally involved in power struggles that took place in the late Roman Republic, or wrote elegies to liberty which was lost during their transition to the Roman Empire. They tended to blame this loss of liberty on the perceived lack of civic virtue in their contemporaries, contrasting them with idealistic examples of virtue drawn from Roman history, and even non-Roman barbarians.

During the Renaissance

Texts of antiquity became very popular during the Renaissance. Scholars tried to gather as many of them as they could find, especially in monasteries, from Constantantinople, and from the Muslim world. Humanists wanted to reinstate the ancient ideal of civic virtue through education. Instead of punishing sinners, it was believed that sin could be prevented by raising virtuous children. Living in the city became important for the elite, because people in the city are forced to behave themselves when communicating with others. A problem was that the proletariatization of peasants created an environment in cities where such workers were hard to control. Cities tried to keep the proletarians out or tried to civilize them by forcing them to work in poor houses. Important aspects of civic virtue were: civic conversation (listening to others, trying to reach an agreement, keeping yourself informed so you can have a relevant contribution), civilized behavior (decent clothing, accent, containing feelings and needs), work (people had to make a useful contribution to the society). Religion changed. It became more focused on individual behavior instead of a communion of people. The people who believed in civic virtue belonged to a small majority surrounded by 'barbarity'. Parental authority was popular, especially the authority of the monarch and the state.1

During the enlightenment

Civic virtue was very popular during the enlightenment but it had changed dramatically. Parental authority began to wane. Freedom became popular. But people can only be free by containing their emotions in order to keep some space for others. Trying to keep proletarians out or putting them in a poor house was not done anymore. The focus was now on educating. Work was an important virtue during the Middle Ages and the renaissance, but the people who worked were treated with contempt by the not working elite. The 18th century brought an end to this. The advancing rich merchants class emphasized the importance of work and contributing to society for all people including the elite. Science was popular. The government and the elites tried to change the world and humanity positively by expanding the bureaucracy. Leading thinkers thought that education and the breach of barriers would liberate everybody from stupidity and oppression. Civic conversations were held in societies and scientific journals.2

In the republican revolutions of the eighteenth century

Civic virtue also became a matter of public interest and discussion during the eighteenth century, in part because of the American Revolutionary War. An anecdote first published in 1906 has Benjamin Franklin answer a woman who asked him, "Well, Doctor, what have we got — a Republic or a Monarchy?" He responded: "A Republic, if you can keep it."

The current use for this quotation is to bolster with Franklin's authority the opinion that republics require the cultivation of specific political beliefs, interests, and habits among their citizens, and that if those habits are not cultivated, they are in danger of falling back into some sort of authoritarian rule, such as a monarchy.

The American historian Gordon S. Wood called it a universal eighteenth century assumption that, while no form of government was more beautiful than a republic, monarchies had various advantages: the pomp and circumstances surrounding them cultivated a sense that the rulers were in fact superior to the ruled and entitled to their obedience, and maintained order by their presence. By contrast, in a republic, the rulers were the servants of the public, and there could therefore be no sustained coercion from them. Laws had to be obeyed for the sake of conscience, rather than fear of the ruler's wrath. In a monarchy, people might be restrained by force to submit their own interests to their government's. In a republic, by contrast, people must be persuaded to submit their own interests to the government, and this voluntary submission constituted the eighteenth century's notion of civic virtue. In the absence of such persuasion, the authority of the government would collapse, and tyranny or anarchy were imminent.

Authority for this ideal was found once more among the classical, and especially the Roman, political authors and historians. But since the Roman writers wrote during a time when the Roman republican ideal was fading away, its forms but not its spirit or substance being preserved in the Roman Empire, the eighteenth century American and French revolutionaries read them with a spirit to determine how the Roman republic failed, and how to avoid repeating that failure. In his Reflections on the Rise and Fall of the Antient Republicks, the English Whig historian Edward Wortley Montagu sought to describe "the principal causes of that degeneracy of manners, which reduc'd those once brave and free people into the most abject slavery." Following this reading of Roman ideals, the American revolutionary Charles Lee envisioned a Spartan, egalitarian society where every man was a soldier and master of his own land, and where people were "instructed from early infancy to deem themselves property of the State. . . . (and) were ever ready to sacrifice their concerns to her interests." The agrarianism of Thomas Jefferson represents a similar belief system; Jefferson believed that the ideal republic was composed of independent, rural agriculturalists rather than urban tradesmen.

thumb|Civic Virtue, 1919 These widely held ideals led American revolutionaries to found institutions such as the Society of the Cincinnati, named after the Roman farmer and dictator Cincinnatus, who according to Livy left his farm to lead the army of the Roman republic during a crisis, and voluntarily returned to his plow once the crisis had passed. About Cincinnatus, Livy writes:

Operae pretium est audire qui omnia prae diuitiis humana spernunt neque honori magno locum neque uirtuti putant esse, nisi ubi effuse afluant opes.. . .
(It is worth while for those who disdain all human things for money, and who suppose that there is no room either for great honor or virtue, except where wealth is found, to listen to his story.) - Livy, Ab Urbe Condita, book III.

19th to mid 20th century

Template:Article issues Civic virtues were especially important during the 19th and 20th centuryTemplate:Whom?. Class and profession greatly affected the virtues of the individual, and there was a general division about what the best civic virtues were. Additionally several major ideologies came into being, each with their own ideas about civic virtues.

Conservatism emphasized family values and obedience to the father and the state. Nationalism carried by masses of people made patriotism an important civic virtue. Liberalism combined republicanism with a belief in progress and liberalization based on capitalism. Civic virtues focused on individual behavior and responsibility were very important. Many liberals turned into socialists or conservatives in the end of the 19th century and early 20th centuryTemplate:Whom?. Others became social liberals, valuing capitalism with a strong government to protect the poor. A focus on agriculture and landed nobility was supplanted by a focus on industry and civil society.

An important civic virtue for socialists was that people be conscious of oppression within society and the forces which uphold the status quo. This consciousness should result in action to change the world for the good, so that everybody can become respectful citizens in a modern society.

National Socialism, which claimed to be a nationalist variant on socialism, advocated the creation of a classless society, in which all members of society 'pull together' to improve the society. National Socialism thus claimed to support class cooperation rather than class struggle. However, National Socialism also embraced the idea that certain segments of society (such as Jews, Gypsies, and Communists, as well as most foreigners) were incapable of civic virtue and needed to be systematically oppressed or destroyed.

In later times

A number of institutions and organizations promote the idea of civic virtue in the older democracies. Among such organizations are the Boy Scouts of America, and Civil Air Patrol whose US oath, Cadet Oath and Cadet Honor Code reflect a goal to foster habits aimed at serving a larger community:

Boy Scouts of America Scout Oath:
On my honor I will do my best
To do my duty to God and my country
and to obey the Scout Law;
To help other people at all times;
To keep myself physically strong,
mentally awake, and morally straight.

Cadet Oath:
I pledge that I will serve faithfully in the Civil Air Patrol Cadet Program, and that I will attend meetings regularly, participate actively in unit activities, obey my officers, wear my uniform properly, and advance my education and training rapidly to prepare myself to be of service to my community, state and nation.

Air Force Academy Cadet Honor Code:
We will not lie, steal, or cheat, nor tolerate among us anyone who does. Furthermore, I resolve to do my duty and live honorably (so help me God).

Institutions that might be said to encourage civic virtue include the school, particularly with social studies courses, and the prison, namely in its rehabilitative function.

Other, later phenomena associated with the concept of civic virtue include McGuffey's Eclectic Readers, a series of primary school textbooks whose compiler, William Holmes McGuffey, deliberately sought out patriotic and religious sentiments to instil these values in the children who read them. William Bennett, a Reagan administration cabinet member turned conservative commentator, produced The Book of Virtues: A Treasury of Great Moral Stories in 1993, another anthology of literary materials that might be considered an attempt to update McGuffey's concept.

Comparable ideas in non-Western societies

Confucianism, which specifies cultural virtues and traditions which all members of society are to observe, in particular the heads of households and those who govern, was the basis of Chinese society for more than 2000 years and is still influential in modern China. Its related concepts can be compared to the Western idea of civic virtue.

Lack of civility

Incivility is a general term for social behavior lacking in civic virtue or good manners, on a scale from rudeness or lack of respect for elders, to vandalism and hooliganism, through public drunkenness and threatening behaviour. The word "incivility" is derived from the Latin incivilis, meaning "not of a citizen".

The distinction between plain rudeness, and perceived incivility as threat, will depend on some notion of 'civility' as structural to society; incivility as anything more ominous than bad manners is therefore dependent on appeal to notions like its antagonism to the complex concepts of civic virtue or civil society. It has become a contemporary political issue in a number of countries.

See also


  • Digby Anderson, editor (1996) Gentility Recalled: Mere Manners and the Making of Social Order
  • Benet Davetian (2009) "Civility - A Cultural History"
  • Stephen L. Carter (1998) Civility: Manners, Morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy
  • John Hale, The Civilization of Europe in the Renaissance (London 1993)
  • Daniel Roche, La France des Lumières (Paris 1993)
  • Parker, Harold T. The Cult of Antiquity and the French Revolutionaries (Univ. Chicago, 1937)
  • Wood, Gordon S. The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 (Univ. North Carolina Press 1969, repr. Horton 1975) ISBN 0-393-00644-1
  • Peggy Noonan (2008) Patriotic Grace
  • Dr. P.M. Forni Choosing Civility: The 25 Rules of Considerate Conduct
  • Dr. P.M. Forni The Civility Solution: What to Do When People Are Rude
  • Os Guinness The Case for Civility
  • George Washington Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Covnersation
  • T.S. Bogorad The Importance of Civility
  • Stephen L. Carter Integrity
  • The Bible (Philippians 2:3, Colossians 4:6, Galatians 5:22, Proverbs 22:11 . . .)


  • "Candor, far from being the enemy of civility, is one of its preconditions." Robert George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, May 29, 2009
  • "I don't believe in confrontation. That seems to me outside civil discourse and we all have to find way to be civil to one another." Condoleezza Rice, NPR interview, March 4, 2009.
  • "...people shouldn't underestimate the value of civility." President Barack Obama
  • There is a toxic nature to Washington that thrives on food fights and thrives on controversy and thrives on people not getting along. Matthew Dowd, Bush's pollster and chief strategist for the 2004 presidential campaign.
  • "On both sides of any issue, I'd like to see us increasingly wage ideological battles with words and ideas and not with volume and antic"s." Mark DeMoss, NPR interview, August 12, 2009.
  • "Civility costs nothing and buys everything." Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, 1689-1766
  • "It's too much to expect in an academic setting that we should all agree, but it's

not too much to expect discipline and unvarying civility." John Howard, Australian statesman

  • "Teaching civility is an obligation of the family." Stephen Carter
  • "The greatest challenge facing contemporary civilization is to bring some peace between our competitive spirit and our need for communal well-being." "'Benet Davetian'"

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