public spiritedness

Joel S. Berson Berson at ATT.NET
Fri May 6 17:56:53 UTC 2011

At 5/6/2011 11:41 AM, Dan Goncharoff wrote:
>In a NYTimes Op-Ed piece dated May 5, 2011, David Brooks
>writes the following:
>"The first citizens of this country erected institutions to protect
>themselves from their own shortcomings. We’re familiar with some of
>them: the system of checks and balances, the Senate, etc. More
>important, they believed, was public spiritedness — a system of habits
>and attitudes that would check egotism and self-indulgence.

[The following paragraph is also from Brooks's
op-ed piece, although not introduced by a quotation mark.]

>As Kristol points out in the essay, the meaning of the phrase “public
>spiritedness” has flipped since the 18th century. Now we think a
>public-spirited person is somebody with passionate opinions about
>public matters, one who signs petitions and becomes an activist for a
>Is he correct about the change in meaning of “public spiritedness”
>over time? Any idea when and why it changed?

I don't know about the phrase "public
spiritedness" in the 18th century.  I don't
recall seeing it in my scattered reading of and
about the pre-Revolutionary period.  The OED does
have as its earliest two quotations the following:
      1654    R. Whitlock ???????? [my
apologies!]  382   The Spirit of Charity, the old
Word for publike *Spiritednesse.
      1724    R. Fiddes Gen. Treat. Morality
Pref. p. lxxv,   What we term public nothing more than a refined and
well-disguised hypocrisy.  [For this, GBooks has "publick".]

(Greater context from Fiddes' preface indicates
that this was not the general opinion, but rather
that of "They who argue from the Defects and
corrupt State of human nature, [who] affirm, that
Man never acts but from a Motive of Vanity or
Self-love; ..."  This immediately precedes the
OED quotation, which does not begin a sentence but continues the previous one.)

The *notion* (at least) of the ideal, in the 18th
century, was service for the "common good", for
the "common wealth", distinguished from acting in
the interests of a particular group (a
"party").  I am having difficulty at the moment
recalling the terms used then for this notion of
service for the common good -- if in fact there
was a term.  (It was not "public service", I'm
pretty sure; that meant something different.)

The increasing presence of "party" in American
politics after the Revolution may be behind
Kristol's writing "passionate opinions about
public matters, one who signs petitions and becomes an activist for a cause."


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