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Volume 33, Number 3 (Summer 1993)

The Enduring Wisdom of Bryce

imageThe Hindrances to Good Citizenship,
by James Bryce.
Introduction by Howard G. Schneiderman.
Transaction Publishers, 1993.
186 pp., $36.

Gerald J. Russello

The most revealing fact in James Bryce’s study of the impediments to good citizenship in a democracy, which Howard G. Schneiderman notes in his Introduction, is that Bryce never describes or defines citizenship, good or otherwise. The precise nature of good citizenship is left vague, perhaps because Bryce expected his audience to know the definition of a citizen and what constituted the duties of good citizenship. The contents of this book were originally presented as a series of lectures given by Bryce at Yale University in 1909, and Bryce makes many wise observations about the dangers modern democracy poses to good citizenship. However, this book can also be read as evidence of how far the civil discourse of our nation has deteriorated, even to the point of not understanding the assumptions necessary to any discussion of citizenship.

The annals of Greece and Rome provide us no end of sources for models of good citizens. The Greeks gave us Socrates, who refused to leave Athens in violation of its laws even if the laws judged him to be executed; he had enjoyed the freedom of an Athenian citizen, and so he would also accept the responsibilities. The Romans offer Cincinnatus, the noble-born farmer who takes up the mantle of dictator in order to save his people, and then relinquishes it when the threat is over and returns to his fields.

The classics, as well as Christian and modern concepts of citizenship, are implicit in The Hindrances to Good Citizenship; Bryce expects his audience to know the examples given above among others, and so does not spend time discussing them but proceeds directly to his argument.

That argument is still relatively simple, even after all these years. Individualism, the driving force of democracy and the arbiter of its values, can itself be destructive to democratic society. The needs of the individual must at times be subordinated to the greater needs of the majority; indeed, this is required for a democracy to operate at all. Bryce respected the power and energy of individualism, but he feared that in the glorification of the self the delicate balance needed in a democracy would founder. The theory of democracy assumes a much higher level of civic virtue than can reasonably be expected; as Bryce states,

“the citizens have failed to respond to the demand for active virtue and intelligent public spirit which free government makes and must make. Everywhere there is that same contrast between that which the theory of democracy requires and that which the practice of democracy reveals … Thus the deficiencies which free governments show reduce themselves to the failure of the citizens to reach the needed standard of civic excellence.”

Self-government requires sacrifice and the assumption of responsibilities such as voting and running for office; democracy suffers if in place of sacrifice and responsibility citizens demand more rights and increasing amounts of government largesse; the result of such demands is not a government of free citizens but a nation of dependents.

The irony of a government founded on the powers of the individual but ending as a centrally run mass-state is not lost on Bryce. He discusses it in a lecture entitled “Indolence,” which is the most widespread of the three hindrances to good citizenship; the other two being “Private Self-Interest” and “Party Spirit,” to each of which Bryce devotes a lecture.

Indolence, while always present in human society, has tended to be more evident with the rise of democracy; this is in part a function of the growth of government, a growth just beginning to accelerate in Bryce’s time. The size of the modern state causes the individual citizen to feel that his own contribution is not valued or needed. The ancient Greek city-states had voting populations barely in the thousands; when citizens number in the millions, whence comes the impetus to participate? In large democracies, the sense of public responsibility is weakened:

“A duty shared with many others seems less a personal duty. If a hundred, a thousand, ten thousand other citizens are as much bound to speak, vote, or act as each one of us is, the sense of obligation becomes to each of us weak. Still weaker does it become when one perceives the neglect of others to do their duty.… The Average Man judges himself by the average standard and does not see why he should take more trouble than his neighbors. Thus we arrive at a result summed up in the terrible dictum, which reveals the basic fault of democracy, ‘What is Everybody’s business is Nobody’s business.’”

As Bryce notes, this state of affairs should cause the exceptional citizen to work all the harder; but in a democracy the exceptional are drowned in a sea of mediocrity and can accomplish little. This opens the way for citizens of lesser intelligence and virtue to assume political office, and a depressing cycle ensues: the more good citizens refuse to do anything, the more politics is overrun with corruption, which in turn discourages citizens from attempting to change affairs for the better. This is especially true in our day, when a political class has entrenched itself so thoroughly behind innumerable statues and among countless agencies as to be virtually unmovable. Bryce also notes that in our modern world citizens are too distracted by amusements and newly appearing luxuries to take much interest in reforming politics; this observation has become only more appropriate to an America addicted to the television.

Bryce names three qualities which are needed if good citizenship is to be cultivated at all in a free society: Intelligence, Self-Control, and Conscience. Of the three, the last is the hardest to produce in a democracy, for conscience is at root about duty, and it is conscience that causes a citizen to “feel his responsibility to the community and be prepared to serve it by voting, working, or (if need be) fighting.” A democracy, however, prefers to accentuate not duties but rights. Dating from the Glorious Revolution, Bryce says, the connection of rights to duties has been obscured. “Duty is the correlative of Right. Nevertheless, [this] relation is the one which always tends to be forgotten and to drop into the background, so much more do men enjoy being honoured by the ascription of Rights than they do being reminded of Duties. It is more blessed to give than to receive. But to the average man it is less agreeable.”

In his last lecture, entitled, “How to Overcome the Obstacles to Good Citizenship,” Bryce provides several remedies to help advance the cause of good citizenship. These remedies he divides into the mechanical, those affecting political procedures; and the ethical, those which attempt to alter behavior. Some of the mechanical remedies, such as the Initiative and the Referendum, are rather familiar; others, such as obligatory voting, are less so.

It is with the ethical remedies, however, that we see how far we have come since Bryce’s rather hopeful age. He speaks of reaching the will of the citizen through his soul, and of “moral education combined with and made the foundation for instruction in civic duty” that will combine our disparate immigrant groups into one people, and cause their self-interest to lose its selfish quality. These are noble sentiments, and did in fact work for a time in this country, yet today we need further remedies. We live in a nation where moral education is banned by law from the public school, and where various groups flaunt their differences without at the same time seeking a common good, indeed where many have denied there is a common good and use governmental power for this scheme or that. Bryce spoke in a time when an appeal to the will through the soul might have a wide effect upon public opinion; in his own day, the Yale lectures were considered front-page news. While Bryce’s message is still of value for those who understand the role of the citizen in a free society, Bryce is of supplemental value only for the greater task of national regeneration, that of learning definitions and first principles. 


“A study of the various forms government has taken cannot but raise the question what ground there is for the assumption that democracy is in its final form-an unwarranted assumption, for whatever else history teaches, it gives no ground for expecting finality in any human institution. All material things are in a perpetual flux.… Within the century and a half of its existence in the modern world free government has passed through many phases, and seems now to stand like the traveller who on the verge of a great forest sees many paths diverging into its recesses and knows not whither one or other will lead him.”

—James Bryce, “The Future of Democracy”
in Modern Democracies, Volume II (1921)

Gerald Russello holds a degree in Classics from Georgetown University and was at the time of writing studying Law at New York University.

Posted: June 12, 2016 in Best of the Bookman.

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A culture is perennially in need of renewal. A culture does not survive and prosper merely by being taken for granted; active defense is always required, and imaginative growth, too.

Russell Kirk

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