What is Republicanism?

“Republican” is a term invoking so many disparate people, ideas, and countries that many have suggested it constitutes no coherent tradition at all. In past centuries, the moniker has been applied to Ancient Rome, Renaissance Florence, and Puritan New England. Today, it is the preferred label of such totalitarian regimes as North Korea, which calls itself a “people’s republic,” as well as more plausibly-republican countries such as the United States. Further muddying the waters, republicanism has been so modified since the time of its origin that very few realize how distinct the tradition is from classical liberalism. If republicanism represents a valuable tradition, it thus behooves us to clarify what it actually signifies.

Central to the republican belief that citizens can pursue “common things” is the doctrine, famously expressed by Aristotle, that human nature is naturally political. “It is evident,” he explained, “that the city belongs among the things that exist by nature, and that man is by nature a political animal.”[3] For republicans, man’s constitution itself demands robust involvement in community affairs to be complete. It is therefore specious to consider men as the liberals do: as—by nature—autonomous individuals who would rather live in isolation from others and cut themselves out of political life.

While we are today accustomed to thinking of civic participation as simply voting, recycling, and perhaps protesting, republicans considered it to be something much more profound than that. Participation in the affairs of the republic meant that one had an equal share in being ruled and, in turn, ruling. Political participation is an outgrowth of man’s reasonable and moral capacities. Through the exercise of reason, man can discover the truth. Because he is sociable by nature, it is important for him to pursue the truth with his fellow citizens. A republican citizen does not exist merely to pursue his individual pleasures. Instead, he fulfills the call of John Winthrop in A Model of Christian Charity to “bear one another’s burdens” and to “look not only on our own things, but also on the things of our brethren.”[4] He recognizes his duty to care for his fellow citizens and, because he seeks what is best for the whole community, he involves himself in political discussions so that he can attempt to discover the common good for the society.

For republicans, the end of politics is the cultivation of virtue. Aristotle insisted that “the city is not a community sharing a location and for the sake of not committing injustice against each other and conducting trade.”[5] Instead, he averred that “good governance gives careful attention to political virtue and vice” and argued that the city aims not merely for “living” but for “living well.”[6] Reformed Commonwealths added that virtue consists not exclusively in qualities such as courage or wisdom, but more importantly in Christian piety, humility, and charity. Ultimately, all republican political thinkers rejected the idea that the health of a polis could ever be divorced from the well-being of each citizen’s morality.

Those who live in the 21st century may be tempted to view these key republican characteristics as utterly alien to our own world. The idea of a “common good” causes libertarians to shriek in indignation, even though republicans believed that a common good could only be pursued in the context of small, self-governing local communities. Additionally, the republican emphasis on virtue presents a profound challenge to the liberal notion that the best form of government simply protects individual rights. Republicans could very well justify—as Christians republicans certainly did—moralistic legislation that sought to “train up a nation in wisdom and virtue” and make the community “but as one huge Christian personage… as big and compact in virtue as in body.”[7] To liberal democracies that look with skepticism upon any effort to legislate morality, republicans appear to be outdated and perhaps even dangerous. 

What, then, is the lingering relevance of classical republicanism to contemporary conservatism? First, republicanism—unlike other illiberal traditions such as feudalism and monarchism—has deep roots in the American political tradition. It thus offers to American conservatives a more helpful political language than the European “throne and altar” monarchism that has no serious hope of ever being instituted in this country. Secondly, republicanism, in elevating classical virtue ethics and Christian piety to positions of political prestige, offers an alternative to the moral nihilism of both secular liberalism and more radical forms of postmodernism. Lastly, republicanism has a deeply Reformed and Protestant pedigree. The English Commonwealth of 1649-1660, the Puritan Commonwealths in New England, the Dutch Republic, and the Republic of Geneva all represented republican efforts by Reformed Protestants to apply the Christian ideals of servant leadership, charity and humility to political life. Far from being an archaic and incoherent political tradition, republicanism offers conservatives a powerful set of guiding principles that are needed now more than ever.

Citations & References [1] Marcus Tullius Cicero, On the Republic and On the Laws, trans. David Fott (Ithaca: Cornell University, 2014), 47, sec. 1.39.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Aristotle, Politics, trans. Carnes Lord (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1984), Book 1, 1253a.
[4] John Winthrop, “A Model of Christian Charity,” in The Puritans in America: A Narrative Anthology, ed. Alan Heimert and Andrew Delbanco (Cambridge: Harvard University, 1985), 90.
[5] Aristotle’s Politics, Book 3, Ch. 9.
[6] Ibid.
[7] John Milton, “Of Reformation in England,” in The Prose Works of John Milton (Philadelphia: John W. Moore, 1847), 1:17.

Gordon Arnold

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Gordon Dakota Arnold is a graduate student at Hillsdale College’s Van Andel School of Politics and Statesmanship. He is a graduate of Regent University, where he studied government, and was a Fellow at the John Jay Institute. His research focuses upon Reformed political theology as well as the interaction between political philosophy and the American political tradition.

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