Remembering virtue is its own reward

By Michael Bugeja
Posted 5/6/20

American civic virtues find their roots in ancient Rome during and after the reign of Julius Caesar, assassinated by 60 conspirators in 44 B.C.

Civil war erupted in the aftermath starring some of …

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Remembering virtue is its own reward


American civic virtues find their roots in ancient Rome during and after the reign of Julius Caesar, assassinated by 60 conspirators in 44 B.C.

Civil war erupted in the aftermath starring some of history’s greatest iconic figures, still known by celebrity first names: Brutus, Augustus and Cleopatra.

During this era, another first-name icon, Cicero, proclaimed: “Virtue is its own reward.”

Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 B.C.), orator and lawyer, believed government corruption would lead to the downfall of the Roman Republic. He pleaded with Rome’s Senate to embrace civic virtues and abandon desires for fame, wealth and power.

Those orations displeased the power-hungry general Mark Antony, who executed him in 43 B.C.

However, Cicero’s influence resonated through the ages and informed philosophers like John Locke. The American Constitution is based in part on Locke’s theories of natural law and the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Because of that historic connection, we need to revisit the role of civic virtues.

America’s iconic founders helped formulate these virtues: Franklin, Jefferson and Washington.

In 1796, at the end of his second term, George Washington gave us a blueprint to maintain ideals of the American republic. Like Cicero, he pleaded for national unity, warning against the divisiveness of political parties and advocating for morality.

He called the civic virtues “fundamental maxims of true liberty.” Moreover, he put those tenets into perspective for future generations. Americans must adopt civic virtues, Washington stated, because we have the responsibility to elect honorable representatives, not only in Congress, but also in the White House.

Civic virtues uphold the Bill of Rights. Americans are blessed with remarkable liberties, including freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition; right to bear arms; security in homes, protection from unreasonable seizures; due process; speedy, public trials; trial by jury in civil cases; ban on cruel, unusual punishments; and powers reserved by states.

So much trust is invested in the people that the founders even included the 9th Amendment: “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”

In other words, the people have the right to determine future laws and liberties the founders may have overlooked or not even imagined.

Cicero prophesied the fall of Rome with his second most cited quotation: “The enemy is within the gates; it is with our own luxury, our own folly, our own criminality that we have to contend.”

The lesson is timely today.

Many of us not only believe in but practice civic virtues. However, we also continue to debate whether Americans are still respectful, believe in equal opportunity, act in the common interest, care about future generations, exercise rights responsibly, and believe no one, including the president, is above the law.

The first step in affirming civic virtues is to remember them. Then we might practice and use them to guide our actions, arguments and decisions. Finally, we have the civic obligation to base our votes on them.

Doing so we prize our liberties and maintain our rights according to the Iowa state motto.


Michael Bugeja is the author of “Living Media Ethics” and “Interpersonal Divide in the Age of the Machine.” He wrote this column for Iowa Capital Dispatch.


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