Are you willing to perform your duties in service of the common good when no man is watching?
In the book Starship Troopers, Robert Heinlein distinguishes the moral difference between a civilian and a soldier, saying: “the moral difference between a soldier and a civilian is that the soldier accepts personal responsibility for the safety of the body politic of which he is a member. The civilian does not.”
This sentiment is one that champions the importance of civic virtue. Without civic virtue, there will be no one participating righteously in society, and thus society would cease in its ability to promote the common good. To become a “soldier,” one sacrifices their own interest for the interest of all. However, the “civilian,” so to speak, the sacrifice is often a lot less clear. It is easy for a civilian to simply move through their own lane in life, never taking a stand, doing the right thing, or carding for their neighbor — and thus never truly living in society, but merely existing in it instead. There are too many “civilians” in the West today.
Living in the political community means fulfilling our obligations, which have been handed to us by Christ. In other words, everyone is called to join up and do their part — much like a soldier. You are called to live as Christ did — for others and the glory of God. If society is to survive and continue to engender virtue in all of its civilians, someone must carry the responsibility of which there is no guarantee of him seeing the fruits of his labor. He must carry the cross of his nation in the name of God.
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There is a popular analogy used in younger political circles to test if a person is capable of this kind of virtue, and ultimately self-governance. This is called the “shopping cart analogy.” Returning a shopping cart is something easy to do and all recognize this action as inherently good. No one will force you to return it. You are under no obligation to do so, but you know that it is the right course of action intuitively. To return the shopping cart is to voluntarily do the right thing even when no one is forcing you to or actively watching you. Failure to do this means a person cannot govern themselves, as they cannot fulfill their basic political duty. When a people cannot self-govern, they must be governed by the state to the extent which they are unable to do themselves. The government's reach into personal lives is contingent on the ability of its people to govern themselves in virtue.
Aristotle characterized the best citizens as the process of taking part in being under rulership and ruling itself. He says in Politics, Book III: “In the case of the best regime, [the citizen] is one who is capable of and intentionally chooses being ruled and ruling with a view to the life in accordance with virtue.” This is the essence of civic virtue: Are you willing to perform your duties in service of the common good, when no man is watching you with a cane in hand, ready to punish your wrong doings or failings in righteousness? Are you willing to do the right thing simply because it is good?
On this virtue rests the fabric of all societies of all of humanity. Civic virtue understood in our civilization takes its example from many places, but fundamentally from Christ on the cross. As our Lord has said, “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends,” which He did.
Christ also gives us a choice in living our lives on earth. He does not force us to pick up the cross in our mortal days. He does not drag us kicking and screaming to perfection. He opens the door and simply says, “follow me.” We choose for ourselves by the free will He gave us whether to follow Him. This is the core of civic virtue in the West, and it is from this that the question of self-government flows: Will you choose to follow Christ’s will, or your own will?
In a way, Christ wills us to have a kind of civic virtue; to be our brother’s keeper. In all that entails, from the smallest thing we encounter on a daily basis, to massive decisions of leadership that affect the nation and the whole world. However, the Christian citizen, in a paradoxical way, is always watched by God. So how is this any different than a man who cannot self-govern, in that some external force must oblige him to act a certain way?
The difference lies with the nature of God as above existence. He came down from heaven to give us a perfect example, to make things “easy” for us to understand through the person of Jesus. We do not live in Heaven, though. We live on earth. For the Christian, one must submit his will to an omniscient God, leaving no sin of his doing unrevealed to God’s eye. Yet, he does not chafe, but delights in his servantship. For the man who cannot govern himself, the government must and is obliged for its own stability to force its will upon him.
Liberalism tells us that freedom from the compelling force of the government is the inherent goal of politics, but we can easily see how this must be contingent on the civic virtue of the nation’s body politic to have a society that truly cultivates the common good. “Live and let live” is the first sentence written on the West’s suicide note. Perhaps this adage made sense when it was a reasonable expectation that true self-sacrificing virtue was somewhat common from your neighbor.
However, we should not let our brothers live a vice-filled, self-serving lives. It is good to govern those who demonstrate that they cannot govern themselves. Thus, we must always legislate and promote morality in a way that will best habituate the most people into not needing government to compel them to virtuous action.
The clear prescription to the mass dereliction of duty, from the state to the average civilian, is Christian policy and customs. There is no future for America in which it continues to legislate and govern without any objective standard for Truth. The Truth is in Jesus Christ, and all good things come from Truth, including laws and customs. We cannot pretend anymore that tolerating falsehood has done anything to stop this nation’s metaphysical decline.
In a way, Heinlein was somewhat off in his proclamation. Civic virtue, as the West ought to understand it, is not completely fulfilled by the sublimation of the will of the individual in service of the body politic, like a soldier, but in service of God, through which we can all be virtuous civilians and soldiers.