Virtue and Civic Order


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In 1934, T. S. Eliot published Choruses from “The Rock,” a collection of choruses Eliot composed for a play he wrote called “The Rock,” which explored the history of the church and its plight in the modern world. Although the work is relatively obscure compared to many of Eliot’s better known works, it yielded some rather well known lines. It is in the first chorus, for example, that we read,

The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,
All our ignorance brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to God.
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries
Bring us farther from God and nearer to the Dust.

These lines, best remembered for the distinctions they make among information, knowledge, and wisdom, would repay our careful attention.

But it is to another set of lines that we will turn. In the sixth chorus, Eliot wrote,

Why should men love the Church? Why should they love her laws?
She tells them of Life and Death, and of all that they would forget.
She is tender where they would be hard, and hard where they like to be soft.
She tells them of Evil and Sin, and other unpleasant facts.
They constantly try to escape
From the darkness outside and within
By dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.
But the man that is will shadow
The man that pretends to be.

Once again, Eliot gives us much we could reflect upon in these few lines, but let us focus on his claim that, in the modern world, human beings “constantly try to escape / From the darkness outside and within / By dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.”

These lines aptly capture what we might think of as the technocratic impulse in western society, the idea that it is possible to engineer an ideal society independently of how human beings act. Or, worse yet, that human action itself can and ought to be engineered by the application of social techniques. Such an impulse can take on an obviously totalitarian quality, but it is present in subtler forms as well. Most notably, it is evident in mid-twentieth century theories of behaviorism and in the more recent nudging approach to design and policy popularized by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler and championed by many in the tech industry. In this approach, small and often subtle interventions in the form of automated positive reinforcements or periodic reminders are seen as the path toward managing and shaping human behavior. Similarly, in their 2018 book, Reengineering Humanity, philosopher Evan Selinger and legal scholar Brett Frischmann documented the countless ways in which modern digital technology aims at what they called “engineered determinism.”

Historically, the technocratic impulse is evident in the evolution of the rhetoric of progress throughout the course of the 18th and 19th centuries. The earlier Enlightenment notion of progress viewed technology as a necessary, but not sufficient cause of progress which was understood as a movement toward a more just, democratic society. This political vision was gradually replaced by a technocratic notion which measured progress by just one metric: technological innovation. The cultural historian Leo Marx put it this way: “the simple [small-r] republican formula for generating progress by directing improved technical means to societal ends was imperceptibly transformed into a quite different technocratic commitment to improving ‘technology’ as the basis and the measure of — as all but constituting — the progress of society.” Accordingly, technological innovation becomes a substitute for genuine political, economic, and social progress.

Underlying this view is the accompanying desire for freedom without responsibility, or what, riffing on philosopher Albert Borgmann, we have called regardless freedom. To dream of systems so perfect no one will need to be good, as Eliot put it, is to dream of systems that underwrite irresponsibility. Such systems would function whether or not human beings act virtuously and responsibly, but such systems do not exist. They remain a dream, or, better, a nightmare. Virtue, as we will always re-discover, is an irreducible component of any rightly ordered society.

If we are indeed in a moment that affords the possibility of reimagining and reforming our social structures, then we must resist the temptation to offload the necessary intellectual and moral labor to technical systems and solutions.

To be clear, personal virtue is a necessary rather than sufficient cause of a just society. Modern societies do, in fact, require systems, institutions, and bureaucracies of varying scale and power. And it is possible that such systems not only fail due to a lack of virtue, but that they actively sustain and encourage vice and injustice. The well ordered society requires both virtue and a just social infrastructure.

The classical or cardinal virtues of temperance, prudence, fortitude, and justice have long offered a foundation for civic order. These virtues encourage restraint, sound judgment, moral courage, and the desire for an equitable social order. To cultivate such virtues is to assume personal responsibility for the functioning of society.

Beyond these cardinal virtues, the Church has always recognized the theological virtues: faith, hope, and love. These remain indispensable for the church, and, while they cannot, in their explicitly theological character, be expected or demanded of the wider public, Christians can, by their participation, leaven the civic order with these virtues. But it can do so only to the degree that it cultivates these virtues in her people.

Study Center Resources

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In this week’s Dante reading group, we will be covering cantos 17-19 of the Inferno. If you’d like to connect with group, please email Mike Sacasas at

Be sure to check out the archive of resources available online from the study center. Classes and lectures are available at our audio archive. You can also peruse back issues of Reconsiderations here.

Recommended Reading

— Adam Elkus on the emergence of the “omni-cris”:

When social constraints are weakened, the aggregate predictability of human behavior diminishes. Why? The weakening of constraints generates confusion. Things have always worked until they suddenly break. Things have always been decided for you until you have to suddenly decide on your own. Another way of thinking about social constraints – with a very long history in social science – posits them as involuntarily assigned expectations about the future. Prolonged and severe disruption of expectations without immediate prospect of relief accordingly should create greater variance in potential outcomes. The simplest way to understand the omni-crisis is as the sustained breaking of expectations and disruption of the ability to simulate the future forward using assumed constraints.

— Taylor Dotson on “Radiation Politics in a Pandemic”:

The inherent uncertainties in the science of impending dangers complicates government officials’ ability to achieve public buy-in. Because empirical evidence is almost always incomplete or not totally convincing, officials must rely on trust, on their own legitimacy. The trouble […] is that trust is gained in drops but lost in buckets. Storming in to save the day with science is great — until some of the facts turn out wrong. British radiation scientists could have instead worked alongside sheep farmers in finding the pertinent scientific facts, recognizing that the farmers had something to contribute. Instead of expecting the farmers’ deference, this approach would have gone a long way toward earning their trust in the scientists’ own areas of expertise.

— Venkatesh Rao on “Pandemic Time: A Distributed Doomsday Clock”:

Whether or not the stars foretold our present condition, we will be living for the foreseeable future in a distorted temporality shaped by the progress of COVID-19 across the globe. Like the distorted time around a supergiant star going supernova and collapsing into a black hole, “pandemic time” is anything but normal.