Active virtus, to achieve its highest development in the confrontation with fortuna...requires the fullest participation in the life of the city, . . . Bruni goes on to develop an idealization of Florentine civility along lines consciously modeled on the Funeral Oration of Pericles, the citizen is he who can develop as many forms of human excellence as possible and develop them all in the service of the city, and a constitution like that of Athens--which Florence now follows--was praiseworthy because it encouraged and required this combination of versatility and patriotism from as many individuals as possible. The case for the open society, as Bruni saw it, was that the excellence of one could only flourish when developed in collaboration with the diverse excellences of others; not only was it better for any citizen that there should be many rather than few others, but such civic if not directly political excellences as the arts and letters could flourish only under conditions of liberty. it was also better for any one republic that there should be others than that it should rule the world alone. J.G.A. Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition, p. 87-88.
I've been reading Pocock to understand better why the imagination of republican virtue seems no longer to have much traction in the American imagination.
Pocock's book traces the American founders' ideas about the founding of the new republic back to the Renaissance thinkers Bruni, Machiavelli, Cavalcante, and Guiciardini who retrieved classical republican ideals that trace back to Thucydides, Aristotle, and Polybius, Livy, Plutarch. I don't think I've ever really appreciated how the neglect of these writers in our education as Americans has played so significant a role in our loss of any imagination of Republican virtue. In fact, if it's alive in anyone's imagination these days it's in the fevered minds of the Tea Party. I would argue that the rest of us have to reclaim the Republican tradition from the fanatics on the right.
I suspect that their neglect by "liberals" derives from the contemporary intelligentsia's compulsion to debunk as quaintly unhistorical the events and characters rendered by these classical authors. Why read these ancient sources when we can get a more historically accurate, modern account elsewhere? The result: we have become divorced from the imagination that shaped the nation's founding, and we don't care anymore when attitudes and policies that erode that imagination become commonplace. For the founders were more influenced by the imagination of these events and personalities than they were by the historically verified truth of them.
I'm not saying that's it's not important to understand what really happened; it's just not as important. There's been a misplaced emphasis. These texts should play the role in our political life that the Bible plays in our relgious life. Oh, I forgot--the liberal imagination has rejected those texts as quaintly unhistorical as well. I would argue nevertheless that our political health and the progress that progressives insist that they want depends on retrieving the earlier relationship to these classic texts, but, of course,in a way that is adapted to 21st-century realities.
Or perhaps that's just question that I'm posing to myself without being sure yet what the answer is. For republican ideals and virtues cannot flourish in big, populous, centralized states. And yet some degree of centralization is inevitable in a world as complex and globalized as ours is. But it should be minimal, and so subsidiarity has to play a role here in framing the relationship of local, face-to-face polities and their ability to function as small republics like the Greek, Latin, and Italian Renaissance city states. Ultimately it's about finding a balanced tension between local autonomy and liberty on the one hand, and a central, rights-protecting, peace-keeping authority on the other. Is such a balanced tension possible?
Human excellence and flourishig is possible in the Bruni sense only in face-to-face relationships. There was a time in American history during which there was more prestige in working in Hartford or Richmond than in Washington. How and why that happened would be important to understand and then to reverse. We've become paralyzed by our focus on things we cannot change in Washington rather than focusing our energy locally on things we do have the power to change. It's more likely that we'll get real health care reform on the state level, for instance, before we ever get it on the federal level.
Another problem lies in that republican theory requires the "armed citizen"--this is the theme the Tea Party and Second Amendment fanatics seize on. I think there is a place for the warrior spirit in the republic that I would work to realize, but such martial energies must be channeled into other projects besides the domination of one's neighbors. I'm not sure that's possible, though; for so much of the American ur-repubican identity lies in this idea of the warrior citizen imposing his will on fortuna, the chaos of the primitive wilderness and the aboriginal forces who would thwart him. Perhaps there is some way of reworking those archetypes, but I"m not sure what it is.