Virtue And Terror: Abstract For A Paper Never Written

Since the publication of Elizabeth Anscombe’s ‘Modern Moral Philosophy’ there has been much interest in reviving virtue ethics as an answer to contemporary meta-ethical problems, either in more explicitly political formulations by Alasdair Macintyre, Charles Taylor and those theologians influenced by their work such as Stanley Hauerwas, or within the confines of more strict moral philosophy such as Phillipa Foot and Martha Nussbaum. Recently, work on Rousseau’s ethics has noted that contrary to the opinions of some commentators, his ethical system is not a form of radical and hedonistic individualism, but is best resembles a virtue ethics, a case developed by James Delaney’s 2006 work Rousseau And The Ethics Of Virtue and Joseph R. Reisert’s 2003 Jean-Jacques Rousseau: A Friend Of Virtue. The influence of Rousseau on the French revolutionaries is well documented, particular the influence of the concept of virtue upon their attempt to create a new democratic and egalitarian republic. Contrary to the work of Carol Blum in Rousseau and the Republic of Virtue: The Language of Politics in the French Revolution, the French revolutionaries, in particular Robespierre, were not misunderstanding and perverting Rousseau’s ethical schema, but were rather completing it and the tradition of virtue ethics that precedes it. This paper argues that contemporary virtue ethicists must accept Robpierre’s correction of the political application of virtue ethics, and recognise that any virtue ethics requires terror as soon as it becomes politics, and follow him into claiming, that “terror without virtue is disastrous, virtue without terror is powerless”. Only then can one create a just and free republic.

8 thoughts on “Virtue And Terror: Abstract For A Paper Never Written

  1. At the risk of commenting on another hypothetical proposal, it would be interesting to see if Rousseau intersects with Machiavelli, who also makes great use of ‘virtue’ as necessary for a good politics, a politics which necessitates the use of violence and spectacle over one’s governed population.

  2. There is already a book on Machiavelli’s concept of virtue Machiavelli’s Virtue by Harvey Mansfield. As for the relation between Rousseau and Machiavelli, quick Googling reveals a few things around discussing this.

  3. To make the obvious point about this one, I think the difference would be that for Rousseau and indeed, for Robespierre (read The Republic of Virtue, this was kind of my point), virtue means more what it classically means – good character – and for Machiavelli it means something quite different, which is why most commentators used the term virtù – ie the type of character, or more accurately, skills, needed by a ruler to achieve their goals (‘great things’) and retain political power. It then a bit like, though not completely like, virtue attached to a narrow political goal as its end, keeping power, being great etc., not eudamonia.

    Edit: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says it better than I can: “The ruler of virtù is bound to be competent in the application of power; to possess virtù is indeed to have mastered all the rules connected with the effective application of power. Virtù is to power politics what conventional virtue is to those thinkers who suppose that moral goodness is sufficient to be a legitimate ruler

  4. The interesting connection for me between the two would be something like the following:

    Machiavelli severs the traditional connection between eudamonia and virtue, as you note, but not absolutely. He advises the prince to possess the virtues of truth-telling, generosity, etc, but to exercise them prudentially toward the ends of power. As the “great man”, de Medici was to use this new virtue to save Italy and create new conditions of politics; the masses were unable to exercise virtue in this manner, and thus for Mach had to have it exercised for them.

    Is Rousseau reinscribing this princely Machiavellian ad-hoc virtue back into the masses, away from power elites, such that the natural virtues which lead to terror politics are not a reflection of nature, but of the “great man” or “noble beast” that is now everyman?

  5. I’d say that what you’ve described was an absolute separation with Machiavelli from the tradition – all these things are element of virtu, but only insomuch as they pragmatically allow The Prince to retain his power – hence this is not virtue traditionally conceived at all. It is kind of a détournement of the concept of virtue, a parody, which is why I find Machiavelli quite funny: whereas traditionally leaders were thought as classically virtuous all along they were only virtuous in the way he describes.

    I think you are misreading Rousseau if you think he naturally results in terror – this was kind of the point of the post, among other things, because I think it absolutely ridiculous that people believe this – particularly in Phillip Blond’s Red Tory where he is the source of all ills and ‘hates the family’. From what I can understand about what you are saying, I don’t think Rousseau want everyone to be mini little self-interested Princes. Indeed, the kind of self-interested power play would be the prime example of the kind of egoism, jealousy and competitiveness that defines amour-propre that for Rousseau is the down side of civil society and would never occur in a state of nature – opposed to the combination of virtuous citizenship, reason, self-preservation (amour de soi) and compassion that he thinks if people have will result in a just republic in actually existing civil society.

  6. Just found this. Why didn’t you chase this up and write the paper?

    I ask because I’m looking to do an MPhil on this very topic – except I’ll be analysing the concept of virtue in its context in the history of political thought (as well as its connections with terror, of course).



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