Why Individualism Requires Virtue

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Posted: Feb 06, 2020 9:12 AM
Why Individualism Requires Virtue

In a recent issue of the American Enterprise Institute’s National Affairs magazine, Joseph Laconte wrote about the “Two Revolutions for Freedom.” He was comparing (and contrasting) the American war for independence from the British government and the French Revolution.

Intoxicated by visions of a truly egalitarian society, the revolutionaries in Paris took a wrecking ball to the institutions and traditions that had shaped France for centuries. Virtually nothing, including the religion that guided the lives of most of their fellow citizens, was sacrosanct. "We must smother the internal and external enemies of the Republic," warned Maximilien Robespierre, "or perish with them." Their list of enemies — past and present — was endless. The men who signed the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia, by contrast, did not share this rage against inherited authorities. Although the Americans, in the words of James Madison, did not suffer from a "blind veneration for antiquity," neither did they reject the political and cultural inheritance of Great Britain and the Western tradition. They did not seek to invent rights, but rather to reclaim their "chartered rights" as Englishmen. From both classical and religious sources, the American founders understood that human passions made freedom a vulnerable state of affairs: Political liberty demanded the restraints of civic virtue and biblical religion.

The idea that “passions” must be “restrained” is repeated several times in the article. Here’s another example:

From both classical and religious sources, the American founders understood that human passions made freedom a vulnerable state of affairs: Political liberty demanded the restraints of civic virtue and biblical religion.

When people read a statement like that, I suspect they usually think of a dangerous animal on a leash or in a cage. But that's not a complete picture.

Think instead of a young dog being trained by a pinch collar. The collar isn’t used every time the dog is taken on a walk. It is used temporarily to train the dog not the go charging into traffic, challenging other dogs, or chasing bicycle riders that go by. With the collar and wisely administered dog treats, the animal learns how to restrain and channel its impulses. As a result, the dog’s owner enjoys walking his dog and does it more often. Since the dog enjoys the walks, he is better off.

Or think of a powerful stallion being directed by a bridle. The bridle can be used to get the horse to stop, but often it is used to merely direct the horse. In this way, the horse is a useful steed who is of value to his owner and is taken care of by his owner.

These analogies don’t fit perfectly, but the point is that the Biblical religion trains people to be who they were created to be. The people's passions are directed in productive directions. As a result, they have time and space to think and realize it is in everyone's best interests to be raised under such discipline. They become different kinds of people than their ancestors were and become capable of a different kind of society.

"We have no Government armed with Power capable of contending with human Passions unbridled by...morality and Religion," wrote John Adams. "Avarice, ambition, Revenge or Gallantry, would break the strongest Cords of our Constitution as a Whale goes through a Net."

While Adams was not an orthodox Christian, his observation was correct. But we can go further. “Avarice, ambition, Revenge or Gallantry” wouldn’t just make the Constitutional order unworkable; they make us truncated characters. It's not just society that is ruined by unbridled passions; human personality gets warped and smothered as well. 

In the New Testament, the book of James indicates that a war among members of society is driven by a war within one’s own body and soul. “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war in your members?” (James 4:1 ESV) James means the members of one’s body, as his earlier description of the human tongue as a member of the body shows. He says that speech must be domesticated like animals are tamed.

People dominated by passions are weak and feeble as persons. They may be anti-authority, but they can't promote individualism—because each person is divided against oneself. “A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls” (Proverbs 25:28 ESV). “Whoever is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city” (Proverbs 16:32 ESV).

People who can govern themselves don’t need much government from an external institution... Until they take their situation for granted and stop transmitting to the next generation. Then comes the zombie apocalypse.