Thinking about the current acrimony in our politics and society I was pleasantly surprised by a theme in Gordon Wood’s excellent study The Radicalism of the American Revolution. How are we going to get ourselves out of these intractable differences that seem to be consuming us? Part of the answer may lie in some good old fashioned wisdom from our forebears: “disinterestedness”. What is it? Wood explains: “Public virtue was the sacrifice of private desires and interests for the public interest. It was devotion to the commonweal. All men of genius and leisure, all gentlemen, had an obligation to serve the state.” No, this does not mean uninterested or indifferent. It does mean setting aside our personal interests for the good of the community. The founders of our nation strove to embody this virtue. Rather than seeking personal gain in terms of economic benefit or advancement of your own faction or tribe, disinterestedness pushed citizens to seek the good of the republic and its wellbeing, thereby securing the liberty of the citizenry through participation.
Republicanism thus put an enormous burden on individuals. They were expected to suppress their private wants and interests and develop disinterestedness—the term the eighteenth century most often used as a synonym for civic virtue: it better conveyed the increasing threats from interests that virtue now faced. Dr. Johnson defined disinterest as being “superior to regard of private advantage; not influenced by private profit.”
In an America that is obsessed with identity and committed to eschewing the good of the whole for the values or partial good of our faction, political party, or identity group, this could be a radical corrective. We have become over-obsessed with the victim and protecting the minority, whoever that may be. Both left and right are guilty of this sin. Protecting the minority from the majority is important, but we protect the whole republic, the common good of the nation, when we are committed to not being driven solely by our own good or the good of our tribe.
In most areas of modern life we are encouraged to seek our private good, first and foremost. It is a virtue to go all out for our team and to defeat the enemy. We embrace our factions—be it race, gender, class, religion—as an army set to do battle with the enemy whom we must defeat. It is a zero sum game that seeks to pummel our opponents into submission. We celebrate our small victories in the Supreme Court or in elections and lament when we lose. Identity politics is the exact opposite of disinterestedness because it makes our identities the common object of our allegiance rather than the republic and public interest. The public interest cannot be identical with our private interest. It’s a delusion to think that the advancement of my own tribe is in the public interest, instead of faction seeking to assert our interests upon another group of citizens.
Wood is very sober about the dangers factionalism and private interest presented for the survival of republics. Virtue and commitment to disinterestedness were so forcefully promoted because republics were fragile polities that could easily become corrupted. He cautions:
Republics demanded far more morally from their citizens than monarchies did of their subjects. In monarchies each man’s desire to do what was right in his own eyes could be restrained by fear or force, by patronage or honor. In republics, however, each man must somehow be persuaded to sacrifice his personal desires, his luxuries, for the sake of the public good…In their purest form they had no adhesives, no bonds holding themselves together, except their citizens’ voluntary patriotism and willingness to obey public authority. Without virtue and self-sacrifice republics would fall apart.
The question is whether or not we as Americans can commit to serving the public interest of our republic beyond our parochial identities. Within certain sections of our society, any commitment to patriotism is viewed as racist, misogynist, or benighted. It is a relic of the past the must remain in the past. But as we have moved towards factionalism, our common life has suffered tremendously.
What binds people together are shared values and common projects. Those are in short supply these days. Disinterestedness was a common ideal that all aspired toward, especially our leaders. It could be a virtue that might help us to once again lay hold of the American project as a common project that unites rather than divides us.
Daniel Strand is a postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Political Thought and Leadership at Arizona State University. His scholarly interests are in history of political thought, religion and politics, and the thought of St Augustine of Hippo.
Photo Credit: General George Washington Resigning His Commission (1824), by John Trumbull, via Wikimedia Commons.