Civic Virtue and the Rise and Fall of Empires

Edward Gibbon, Historian
Edward Gibbon, Historian


 Every great civilization of which we have record in history that came and went, failed from within.  Edward Gibbon, in his seminal work The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, outlines this process in great detail: internal weakness precipitates external vulnerability and collapse inevitably follows.  

Gibbon argued that the Roman Empire succumbed to barbarian invasions because of the gradual loss of civic virtues of its citizens.  Thumbing through the pages of history, it is easy to see a similar pattern unfold in any great civilization, up to our present era.  Basic civic virtue lies at the center of any great nation.  

In a Republic such as the United States, decisions about public matters are made by a relatively large group of people, rather than just one person, such as in a monarchy.  The decisions in such a system are ideally based on the civic virtues held dear by that society.  

Benjamin Franklin was queried while leaving Independence Hall after the final day of deliberation of the Constitutional Convention in 1787:  

“Well Doctor, what have we got – a Republic or a Monarchy?”  

to which Franklin reportedly replied:  

“A Republic, if you can keep it.”  

Do you feel you’ve done your part to keep it?  

George Washington, in a letter to Lafayette written in 1788 noted: “Though, when a people shall become incapable of governing themselves and fit for a master, it is of little consequence from what quarter he comes.”  In the absence of basic civic virtue, people become incapable of self-governance.  

Virtue doesn’t appear automatically.  It must be cultivated or drawn forth from the individual.  Families, schools, churches, civic groups all have opportunity to strengthen the fundamental sense of virtue in their members.  Benjamin Franklin emphasized this point, noting the importance of teachers:  

“…I think with you, that nothing is of more importance for the public weal, than to form and train up youth in wisdom and virtue.  Wise and good men are, in my opinion, the strength of the state; more so than riches or arms…  I think also, that general virtue is more probably to be expected and obtained from the education of youth, than from the exhortations of adult persons; bad habits and vices of the mind being, like diseases of the body, more easily prevented than cured.  I think, moreover, that talents for the education of youth are the gift of God; and that he on whom they are bestowed, whenever a way is opened for the use of them, is as strongly called as if he heard a voice from heaven…”    

Today I encourage you to consider your civic responsibilities, to cultivate a greater sense of civic virtue in yourself and in those around you and to thank a teacher (who deserves the thanks) for his or her work in shaping the future of our great nation.  

6 thoughts on “Civic Virtue and the Rise and Fall of Empires

  1. Pingback: The Simple Things in "L"ife « Gregg Hake's Blog

  2. Mark

    Great to consider the responsibility behind our “civic duty” and the elements of character and virtue that truly make a grand and sustainable nation at every level – no weaknesses in the structure. I’m prompted to account for my thoughts, words and actions in light of this consideration. From this came the question “What is it that I follow?” It may not be what I think it is. Whatever it is in fact, that is where I am pouring my life’s energy, and it is also the source of what I am broadcasting to others. Particularly I am thinking of the example I set for my children – is the message as I intend it to be, or am I saying one thing but doing another?


  3. Colin

    There is a lot of contention right now in our country on this very topic. Many opinions are spouted on how to fix this problem and that problem, but I think you have hit at the root of the central issue we are facing. If we make sure that the central tenets of the people in this land are things like integrity, virtue, and wisdom, then no issue, whether is comes from within or without, is likely to phase us. I read a quote today that said to be a true man (or woman) you need to step up to the plate, do what you think is right, and take responsibility for your actions. I think that would be a good place to start. Thanks again!


  4. Reina

    This is so valuable to understand in a society that is far more priveledged than many places in the world. This sometimes creates a sense of entitlement in our youth where they tend to lack appreciation for that which has been given them. This lack of appreciation is the seed of destruction relative to virtue and strength of character. The fighting and the horror of how we are dealing with our current circumstances in government, or in world affairs, is similar to spoiled chidlren failing to appreciate anyone elses views. With the economy in such dissaray it is easy to get caught up with the stress of day to day living, forgetting that how we handle this time is setting an example for our children. I will take this week to challenge myself to be be that shining example for my children. Maybe if we ach take on that challenge our children may provide a future of more stability and character.


  5. Kimberly

    Civic virtue starts in our hearts.
    We can teach it to our children by letting them see how we handle disagreement, disappointment or conflict. Do we let hate, fear or blame rule our words and actions?
    To me civic virtue begins with kindness, patience, tolerance and appreciation in our homes.
    I think this is where the “internal weakness” that Gibbons outlined starts. It ripples from there to our workplace or school, then into our larger society. Now even our law makers are being harrassed and threatened by those that don’t agreee with them. Bullying in the schools is another example of the lack of civic virtue.
    But all that starts in someones heart, that is where the “grass roots” change begins.

    Great topic and I will thank a teacher today. I know one in particular that understands the value of teaching these habits; for the benefit of student and the future of our country.


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