Classical values, American morality

We are heirs to two moral systems, the Christian and the classical.  These often agree, yet just as often diverge.  Christianity is a noble and effective guide to private behavior, but it is ultimately a morality of renunciation, with little to say about the public interest.  The Christian looks first to the salvation of his soul.

Classical morality was nakedly selfish in the private sphere, but exalted service, political participation, and individual sacrifice for the common good.  The republican faith of our Founders, as Eric at Classical Values observes, “represented a classical revival on a remarkable and unprecedented scale.”

Eric believes the Greco-Roman moral tradition is under attack from the opposite ends of the ideological spectrum:  the postmodernists hate it, and conservative Christians have no use for it.  His point, which I find very interesting, is that the American way of life grows out of the inherent tension between its two moral traditions.  To abandon classicism, as he seems to think we are in danger of doing, would be to destroy the moral dynamism that separates us from one-idea nations.

Eric seeks a restoration:

Seeing as there is no hope of eradicating our classical past, what’s wrong with restoring its luster?

I realize that I have not ended the Culture War here, and I know I never will. My point is simply that the tension between Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian values is part of what makes us what we are as a people, and I think that’s a good thing.

The restoration of Greco-Roman values is a good thing not because they are “pagan,” but because they symbolize freedom, especially American freedom.

Two brief comments.  The choice between Christian renunciation and republican patriotism was agonized over by Machiavelli, who was a conventional Catholic and a proud Florentine.  In the end, he professed a willingness to go to hell, if by any crime or connivance he could advance his city’s interests.  This was the grim “Machiavellian moment,” faced by many politicians in the Christian West down to this very day.

My second observation concerns Eric’s equation of classical values with traditional values.  Anyone who has walked over the ruins of the Roman forum, then returned to drive down Constitution Avenue in Washington, will be obliged to agree.  Classical paganism, so far as we Americans are concerned, isn’t about orgies or throwing saints to the lions:  it’s a call to public service, which together with a private morality based on biblical principles makes our country singularly rich in its moral traditions.


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