essays

Sep 1, 1981

Liberalism, Virtue, Rights & Manners

For Pocock, “Liberty is viewed as basically “positive” in that it involves the cultivation of a politicized “civic virtue” in ruling and being ruled.”

J.G.A. Pocock
Johns Hopkins University

“Virtues, Rights, and Manners: A Model for Historians of Political Thought.” Political Theory 9 (August 1981): 353–368.

We seriously distort history in assuming that political theory became “liberal” about the time of Hobbes and Locke and has simply remained “liberal” ever since. To reveal this distortion we need to see how the concept of republican “virtue” evolved alongside the concept of “rights” as used by Hobbes and Locke, and how the concept of “manners” came to evolve from the meaning of the republican concept of “virtue.”

Hobbes and Locke may be understood in relation to the tradition of natural law and jurisprudence, but the origins of “liberalism” itself owes something to the development of a discontinuous paradigm of republican virtue.

In the natural law paradigm, liberty under law has nothing to do with people having a direct voice in the government. Liberty, in this paradigm, is basically “negative” and involves having immunity from arbitrary action by the ruling authorities, be they kings or princes.

In the republican paradigm, human nature requires the practice of active self-rule. Liberty is viewed as basically “positive” in that it involves the cultivation of a politicized “civic virtue” in ruling and being ruled. This notion of republican virtue cannot be assimilated to the status of a “right” that isdistributable with other things, because an unequal distribution of public authority can lower the level of participation in government and thereby deny that all men are, by nature, political animals.

Given that the language of “rights” and “virtues” are incommensurate, it becomes possible to see Locke’s politics of “rights” as marking the close of an age rather than the beginning of another. After the seventeenth century, the central issue in political theory is not whether the people have a right of resistance against rulers who have engaged in misconduct, but whether regimes founded on patronage, public debt, and a professional army don’t, in fact, corrupt both rulers and the ruled; and corruption, then, is a problem of “virtue” rather than of “right.”

However, since the notion of citizenship was to be defended in terms of “virtue,” the “virtue” emphasized in the eighteenth century came to be that of “manners” rather than the classical notion of civic virtue (the activity and equality of ruling and being ruled). “Manners” meant the enrichment of personality, brought about by specialization, division of labor, and the expansion of “commerce and the arts.” Representative government was justified, and the individual compensated for the loss of “antique” virtue in ruling by the refinement of manners that an expanding commerce and arts made possible.

Thus, liberalism was not a simple development from “natural rights,” but depended on the evolution of a commercial humanism and a new concept of “virtue.”

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