is there still an American scene?

“One’s final judgment of Europe and America depends, it seems to me, upon whether one thinks that America (or America as a symbol) is right to reject romanitas” — as defined chiefly in this book — “or that Europe is right in trying to find new forms of it suited to the ‘democratized’ societies of our age.”

“The fundamental presupposition of romanitas, secuar or sacred, is that virtue is prior to liberty, i.e., what matters most is that people should think and act rightly; of course it is preferable that they should do so of their own free will, but if they cannot or will not, they must be made to, the majority by the spiritual pressure of education and tradition, the minority by physical coercion, for liberty to act wrongly is not liberty but licence. The antagonistic presupposition, which is not peculiar to America and would probably not be accepted by many Americans, but for which this country has come, symbolically, to stand, is that liberty is prior to virtue — i.e., liberty cannot be distinguished from license, for freedom of choice is neither good not bad but the human prerequisite without which virtue and vice have no meaning. Virtue is, of course, preferable to vice, but to choose vice is preferable to having virtue chosen for one.”

— W. H. Auden, Introduction to a reprint of Henry James’s 1907 book The American Scene. This was published first as an essay, and appeared about three weeks after Auden became an American citizen, in June of 1946.