“Constitutional Government: The Soul of Modern Democracy”

Harvey Mansfield, "Constitutional Government: The Soul of Modern Democracy," The Public Interest 86 (1987), 53-64.


How did it come about that virtue is not required but somehow expected under our Constitution? To explain our embarrassment with the notion of “virtue,” we must see why modern democracy is unhappy with the word “soul.” For virtue was once thought to be the virtue of a soul directed or inclined to an end that is beyond the satisfaction of mere bodily appetites. What is this higher end? The classical political philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle tried to define it, but in practice, in politics, the higher end was defined by religion, and by each religion in an exclusive and contentious recipe for saving one’s soul. The constitutionalist philosophers, above all John Locke, decided that this issue–the religious issue–could be solved if the human desire for seeking higher ends could be contained.

This Locke attempted to do by establishing a distinction that is the basis of modern constitutionalism. Modern constitutional government is limited government, as we have seen; and the limitation on government is expressed in the distinction between “state” and “society.” The state, which is public, is in the service of society, which is private; and the state is limited to this service as a means is limited by its end. This is not the whole truth because we do speak of “the public” as having authority over merely private inclinations, and because constitutional formalities such as due process of law cannot be understood merely as means to an end. But the subordination of state to society is the main truth of constitutional government, which is shared by liberals, conservatives, and even radicals despite the various pet projects of intervention in others’ liberties cherished by all three parties. That these projects are known as “intervention” sufficiently indicates the general expectation that government be limited. 

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