Republican Virtue vs. Servile Institutions

“Republican Virtue vs. Servile Institutions” delivered at and then reprinted by the Poynter Center at Indiana University, May 1974. (Reprinted in The Alternative, February 1975.)


This is a serious matter. For the American democracy today seems really to have no other purpose than to create more and more Scarsdales—to convert the entire nation into a larger Scarsdale. That is what our political leaders promise us; that is what our economic leaders promise us; and even our religious leaders will issue indictments against the nation because there are still so many people who are “underprivileged” by the Scarsdale standard. But Scarsdale is obviously an experiment that has failed. And the reason—equally obvious, I should think—is that the life it proposes to its citizens is so devoid of personal moral substance, and is therefore so meaningless.

We are troubled by this phenomenon, and we wonder why it is that Americans, even as they improve their material conditions, are losing faith in their institutions. We also begin to wonder how these institutions can be made more “responsive” to the people, so as to soothe their discontent. What we do not wish to see is that our institutions are being made ever more “responsive” to the wrong people—to the people as they are, not as they might be. People do not respect institutions which are servile; people only respect a society which makes demands on them, which insists that they become better than they are. Without such a moral conception of the self, without a vivid idea as to the kind of person a citizen is supposed to become, there can be no self-government. And without self-government, the people perish—from boredom, from a lack of self-respect, and from a loss of confidence in their institutions which, they realize, only mirror their alienation from the better selves that lie dormant within their actual selves.