Corruption, Civic Republicanism, And Republican Historiography
Perhaps the most rhetorically powerful and historically influential language of corruption appears in the tradition of civic republicanism associated with Italian Renaissance humanists like Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527), Francesco Guicciardini (1483–1540), and Leonardo Bruni (c.1370–1444), which emphasizes the civic and social nature of the human good. Drawing on such classical sources as Aristotle (384–322 B.C.E.) and Cicero (106–43 B.C.E.), republicans see the realization of civic virtue as requiring the active involvement of relatively equal citizens in making decisions about their common life. Thus, anything that distracts citizens from the common good—internal factions, luxury, security, foreign influences, great disparities of wealth (even, for some thinkers, Christianity itself)—can be seen as an agent of corruption. Conversely, anything that fosters or rewards citizens' mutual self-regard and keeps their efforts focused on the good of all promotes civic virtue and helps stave off corruption. Drawing on both classical and Renaissance ideas, Rousseau advances the single most important modern theory of republican virtue.
Republican concerns about virtue and corruption are not limited to Europe: the tradition has also fundamentally affected the historiography of the American experience. Alongside the American obsession with Lockean individualism, a republican school emphasized the Founders' concern for civic virtue in the citizenry. Connecting Italian humanism and the American founding was the contribution of J. G. A. Pocock's monumental The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition (1975). For Pocock, a discernible discourse about corruption, virtue, and the very nature of the political task ran from Renaissance Italy through England's civil wars and across the Atlantic, where it facilitated the development of the American character and the split with England. The ideal of the active citizen, of republican politics as the effort to preserve civic virtue and keep corruption at bay, has exerted a strong pull on the political imagination down to our own time.
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