Using Chesterton to Reply to Solum on the Martial Virtues


I normally don't link to things that The Sage of Knoxville links to first, simply because I assume most people will have seen it. However, Professor Bainbridge's post on civil and military virtue is one that everyone should take a moment to read. I'm not sure that the subject heading will entice everyone--few are interested in reading about, let alone practicing virtue--but the matter could not be more important:

The professional soldier gains more and more power as the general courage of a community declines. Thus the Pretorian guard became more and more important in Rome as Rome became more and more luxurious and feeble. The military man gains the civil power in proportion as the civilian loses the military virtues. And as it was in ancient Rome so it is in contemporary Europe. There never was a time when nations were more militarist. There never was a time when men were less brave. All ages and all epics have sung of arms and the man; but we have effected simultaneously the deterioration of the man and the fantastic perfection of the arms.
There the good Professor relies upon Chesterton, who wrote just before the horrors of the first World War. He then turns to General Washington:
An energetic national militia is to be regarded as the capital security of a free republic, and not a standing army, forming a distinct class in the community.

It is the introduction and diffusion of vice, and corruption of manners, into the mass of the people, that renders a standing army necessary. It is when public spirit is despised, and avarice, indolence, and effeminacy of manners predominate, and prevent the establishment of institutions which would elevate the minds of the youth in the paths of virtue and honor, that a standing army is formed and riveted for ever.

Is that not precisely where we are? Do we not see each year bringing more public odium upon the Boy Scouts? What do you suppose would be said about an organization that was today 'established to elevate the minds of the youth in the ways of honor and virtue' except for cries that it was 'Hitler Youth' redux? Does not each year bring more demands that "effeminancy of manners" be set aside as an outdated concept, while the practice of such manners by men be accepted? Is not public spirit degraded by people who say that the poor soldiers in Iraq joined the military only because of their poverty and the hope of college money? By people who say they are slaves?

Aristotle taught that the ethics of a man should be precisely mirrored in the politics of the state--that, if you can develop the right kind of man, the state will follow. Aristotle begins his treatment of right ethics with the virtue of bravery. His overview sounds familiar after Washington:

[W]isdom is goodness of the rational part, gentleness and courage of the passionate, of the appetitive sobriety of mind and self-control, and of the spirit as a whole righteousness, liberality and, great-spiritedness.
There is a further treatment of each of those concepts here, for the interested. See also the writings of other men, less famous but many as brave as any Ancient Greek, at the Mudville Gazette.

How to restore the martial virtues in the public generally? It is a difficult undertaking--indeed, it is plagued by several 'chicken and egg' problems, as most of the public steps you could take to encourage them require the acceptance of the virtues that you're hoping to encourage. How would you get a state legislature to vote to institute courses in military science at the high school level? (There is another question as to whether that would work--Plato's Laches begins with the question of whether practice-fighting in armor encourages bravery in the young. That bravery in fighting should be encouraged was never in question for them.) How to approve any such program? You'd need a strong bloc of voters to speak to their legislators.

Where to get them? Through argument--and yet I was approached just the other day on the streets of D.C. by a fellow from something called the Center for Nonviolence, who was canvassing in the opposite direction. He was rather dismayed, even shocked, by my assertion that nonviolence in and of itself was not something to be encouraged. Nonviolence is not a virtue. Nonviolence is a state--usually a pleasant one, but demonstrably inferior to, and to be set aside in favor of, the state of justice. Violence can be a very good thing. Yet this "Stop the Violence" movement has won so many converts that I hear children echoing the slogan the way they might say "Go Team!"--as a blandly acceptable premise that should win approval from all quarters.

We would have a lot less of the sort of violence people wish to stop if we encouraged more people to be prepared to fight bravely for the common peace. This I'll treat separately in another post.

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