The political theorist Leo Strauss considered it a principle of modern social order that the lower foundation is stronger than the higher one: That the republic is better grounded on selfishness than on virtue. Actually the principle has been around for much longer than that. Be that as it may, we ought to consider whether it is true, for our own foundation is very low indeed.
I trust no one will be surprised by this statement. There is no need to belabor the statistics on spousal betrayal, parental abandonment, pederastic seduction by ministers of religion, or the willingness of ordinary people to lie and cheat; we have read them. It would be fatuous to relate copious anecdotes of private vice; we have heard them. As should have been expected, our public life is no more edifying than our private. Long strides have been taken toward criminalizing policy disagreements. The use of private detectives, now even police and intelligence agencies, to dig up dirt on opponents no longer surprises us. Defamatory lying is so much the norm that the sharp term “character assassination” has lost its sting, and one can only wonder how much time will pass before its place is taken by real assassination. The idea that law might not be “whatever judges say” is no longer even considered intelligible enough to be ridiculous. Although a few political science majors may have heard the expression “rule of law,” scarcely one in fifty has a clear idea what it means.
The jaded response to such dark murmurings is that although all times think that old times were better, old times were really just the same. True, some old times were much worse, and perhaps all old times were worse in some ways. Even so, we could give those times a run for their money. Part of our difficulty in seeing ourselves clearly is that we have lost the sense of what good times might be. How could the times be so bad when our vices are so gentle, so nice? We do not herd children off to gas chambers or expose them (very often) on street corners; we only authorize their mothers to kill them in neighborhood clinics. We do not force slaves to disembowel each other in gladiatorial contests; we only buy our young electronic games so that they can become habituated to the lust of bloodshed without actually committing it. We do not have a caste system; we only have hospital ethics boards to decide which lives are not worthy of life.
Another conventional response to such dark murmurings is what Eliot’s dead-on expression calls “dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.” We cheerfully call out the social engineers and assign them the task of making virtue superfluous. This response has three parts.
The first part is to say that what matters is not character, but conduct; it doesn’t matter how sordid you are inwardly, so long as you behave. We may retain the word “virtue,” but we reinterpret it to mean mere compliance with the rules.
The second part is to change the rules themselves. In some domains, especially business, finance, and now health, the rules are made more stringent and complicated, on the assumption that it is easier to get people to comply if they are closely monitored and know exactly what is expected of them. Oddly, in other domains, especially marriage, family, and sexuality, the rules are relaxed or eliminated, on the assumption that it is easier to get people to comply if there is not much to comply with anyway.
The third part is to compensate for the inevitable social consequences of the new regime. Do businessmen break the rules? Then make still more rules and step up the monitoring. Do people have children out of wedlock? Don’t expect chastity; give them birth control pills. Do pills alter behavior so that even more children are born out of wedlock than before? Don’t reconsider the previous decision; allow parents to kill some of them. Are fathers abandoning the ones who survive? Don’t compel them to live up to their responsibilities; put the mothers on the dole. Considering what kinds of fathers and husbands such men make, mothers may even prefer such arrangements. After all, once you have infantilized men, matriarchy looks pretty good. Unfortunately, under such a regime the mothers too are infantilized, so matriarchy doesn’t work either.
I am merely illustrating. The general principle is that the effort to compensate for the consequences of a regime in which virtue isn’t expected inevitably begets consequences of its own. Eventually the regime collapses under the weight of its own supposed perfections. The lower foundation is not stronger than the higher after all.
Instead of dismissing the dark murmurings, then, let us consider what might be needed to become, not compliant, but actually good. Let us set aside foolish thoughts of making virtue superfluous, either among the rulers or the followers, and ask: As a people, what must we do to become less remote from virtue than we are?