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The Virtue of Civil Society*

  • Edward Shils

SINCE MONTESQUIEU, WRITERS ON POLITICS HAVE BEEN aware that there might be an association of particular moral qualities and beliefs with particular political regimes. The association between virtue and republican governments, although duly recorded by students of Montesquieu's thought, has however been passed over. The disposition to participate in politics, the sense of political potency or impotence, certain traits of personality such as could be summarized in the term ‘authoritarian personality’, etc., have all been studied by theorists of democracy. Virtue, or public spirit or civility, has been neglected.

I would like to take up Montesquieu's theme once more. I wish to enquire into the place of virtue or what I call civility in the liberal democratic order, which Montesquieu referred to as the republican type of government. Latterly the term ‘civil society’ has come to be used very loosely as equivalent to ‘liberal democratic society’. They are not entirely the same and the difference between them is significant. In civility lies the difference between a well-ordered and a disordered liberal democracy.

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1 Weber, Max, Zur Neuordnung Deutschlands: Schriften und Reden 1918–1920. Gesamiausgabe, Tübingen, J. C. B. Mohr, 1988, Abt I, Band 16, p. 553 .

2 Schumpeter, Joseph, Capitatism, Socialism and Democracy, London, Allen & Unwin, 1943, pp. 269–83.

3 Montesquieu, , de l’Esprit des lois (Oeuvres), Paris, Dalibon, 1822, II, pp. 213–14.

4 Encounter, XLI, 1 July 1973, pp. 31–43.

5 Weber, Max, Politik als Beruf, Munich, Leipzig, Duncker & Humblot 1919, pp. 48ff .

6 Weber, Max, Zur Politik im Weltkrieg, Schriften und Reden, 1914–1918. Gesamtausgabe, Tübingen, J. C. B. Mohr, 1984, Abt I, Band 5, pp. 421596 .

* This is the text of a Government and Opposition lecture delivered at the Athenaeum Club on 22 January 1991.

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Government and Opposition
  • ISSN: 0017-257X
  • EISSN: 1477-7053
  • URL: /core/journals/government-and-opposition
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