The moral philosophy of Tudor colonization
This chapter will examine the moral philosophy that framed discussions of English colonial projects in their first hundred years. That moral philosophy was characterised by two impulses. On the one hand, the projects were promoted as a duty, a means for the citizen to employ his virtues in the pursuit of an active life. Virtue was needed to hold the citizen to the pursuit of the common good and to keep him from using his position to serve his own selfish interests.1 The active life was framed in the context of the foundation of new commonwealths and so offered the glory, honour and profit that were portrayed as the reward of virtuous public service. On the other hand, this impulse to the active life was constrained by the fear of corruption. The profit which could be generated by colonies could also divert men from virtue and threaten the commonwealth through the creation of an 'Asiatic' and effeminate wealth and luxury.
This tension was central to Roman and humanist moral philosophy. Cicero's De officiis was one of the more optimistic representations of the possibilities of the active life. He stressed that the basis of citizenship was the employment of the virtues in political participation. But anxiety about corruption is also central for Cicero. He emphasises that the four cardinal virtues (wisdom, justice, courage and temperance) are necessary for the citizen to place private profit below the common good, and he is acutely sensitive to the possible conflict between these ends. This anxiety over corruption was developed by Roman moralists and historians including Sallust, Juvenal, Tacitus, Seneca and Quintilian. For these writers, corruption – manifested as wealth, 'Asiatic' luxury and the loss of martial virtues – is the cause of the decay of the commonwealth and the rise of tyranny.
1 In Roman and neo-Roman moral philosophy a good citizen was always represented as a man, a vir
virtutis or bonus homo. Masculinity and virility were important elements of virtue, just as femininity
was perceived an element of corruption.