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    Quotables: The Roots of American Order

    March 7, 2012 by Brandy Vencel
    The Roots of American Order
    by Russell Kirk

    Yet the ancient Greeks failed in this: they never learned how to live together in peace and justice. {p. 51}

    [N]o Greek commonwealth ever succeeded in establishing a good constitution that would endure long… {p. 52}

    So far as they turned to classical examples for political justification or guidance, Americans paid more attention to the Roman Republic that they did to the Greek cities; and upon them, the direct influence of the Greek historian Polybius–writing about the Roman constitution–probably was greater than the combined influence of Plato’s and Aristotle’s political theories. {p. 54}

    Some of the American leaders, from colonial times up to the Civil War, had read the Greek and Roman historians in the classical languages; many more had read those works in translation, or at least in abridgements.  {p. 54}

    Almost at the beginning of things, the Greeks knew everything. But how did they come to know it? {p. 55}

    Within every city, class hostilities, political feuds, and private ambitions rent the fabric of civil social order every few years. {p. 59}

    Tom Paine…admiringly paraphrased Solon’s principle that popular government was at its best when “the least injury done to the meanest individual was considered an insult to the whole Constitution.” {p. 61}

    [Solon] was a man of vision, a seer: he implied that truths were imparted to him from a source beyond his private rationality, and in that he was like a prophet. {p. 61}

    Without seizing the property of the wealthy, he succeeded in improving the condition of the poor and in restoring a tolerable economic balance in the commonwealth. {p. 64}

    Honor, not possessions, should be sought by the virtuous man–that honor which comes from excellence. {p. 65}

    Puffed up by pride and greed, afflicted by that arrogance which the Greeks called hubris, the Athenian democracy abandoned Solon’s righteousness for the prizes of empire. {p. 70}

    Empedocles had said that his fellow-citizens of Akragas built as if they thought themselves immortal, but lived as luxuriously as if they expected to die on the morrow. {p. 72}

    Plato and Aristotle loom larger in the twentieth century than they did in the eighteenth, so far as Americans are concerned. {p. 73}

    [O]ne cannot fully appreciate Saint Augustine’s City of God without knowing Plato’s Republic. {p. 74}

    [I]n the eighteenth century, and for much of the nineteenth, formal education in American was so attached to classical learning that nobody who had passed through grammar school could be thoroughly ignorant of the teachings of Plato and Aristotle… {p. 74}

    The wisdom and virtue necessary for contending against a sea of troubles rarely are found united in one man. {p. 77}

    The typical Sophist of the fifth and fourth centuries before Christ did not take the health of the soul into his reckoning of success. But if man does not restore order in his soul, Plato reasoned, then order cannot be restored in the state. {p. 78}*

    [Homer] did perceive that his society was disordered because the souls of men were disordered. He recognized that man’s soul is the center of his passions, but also the center of his ability to order and judge knowledge. {p. 79}

    Plato affirmed that God is the measure of all things. {p. 81}

    Plato writes in symbols, for there is no other way in which transcendent knowledge can be expressed. {p. 81}

    The best possible society, Plato argues…, would be one in which every man should do the work for which he is best suited by his nature, and in which the more intelligent men would be guardians of the common good, under good laws. {p. 83}

    [J]ustice is “to each his own”: that is, every person should perform the duties and receive the rewards that accord with his own nature. {p. 83}

    If we form in our minds a concept of the just republic, perhaps we can begin to understand the character of the just man–and commence our social reform thus by reforming one individual, one’s own soul*. {p. 83}

    [R]eform of the soul and reform of society must proceed in parallel fashion. {p. 83}

    Poetic, ethical, and political truths endure longer than do scientific theories. {p. 87}

    [T]he mean amounts to that harmony achieved by avoiding excesses and extremes; it is moderation, or balance, in private life and in public. {p. 90}

    By monarchy, Aristotle signifies the leadership of one man of excellent virtue, under a body of laws which limit his power. By aristocracy, he signifies the predominance of a class of men of high birth, dutiful and filled with the spirit which later would be called noblesse oblige. By a commonwealth, he signifies the exercise of power by a majority–but a virtuous majority, respecting the lawful rights of all classes.

    As for deviations, democracy is rule by the crowd for the benefit of the dominant majority; oligarchy is rule by a few for the good of that few; tyranny is unconstitutional assumptio of power by one man for his own satisfaction.{p. 90}

    *I am going to go back and add this to yesterday’s post under the  Restoring Culture section. I want my list to be complete.

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