Politics and Virtue – Dennis McInerny Series

July 1, 2010

Politics and Virtue
By Dennis McInerny

How many of us today would be inclined to associate virtue with politics? Not many, I would suspect.And for good reason. It would take only a superficial glance at the contemporary political scene. Pick any country you choose to corroborate what we doubtless already suspected, that virtue is not much in evidence there, if it is to be found at all. But what if we were to shift our attention from the factual to the theoretical, and ask: How often do we hear it said, or even suggested, that virtue should play an important role in politics? How many people today, be they average citizens, or political scientists or commentators, would tend easily to commingle in their thought the idea of virtue and the idea of politics? And how many, do you think, seriously believe, and would even be willing to argue the point, that the principal qualification for elected office, pure and simple, is virtue, that to be a good political leader you must be in the first instance a good person? I would suspect, once again, not many.

Most people today would be rather surprised in some cases pleasantly, in some cases not so pleasantly to learn that there should be a natural affinity between politics and virtue. Not that we should to be too quick to blame them on that account, for, if they are at all aware of what typically transpires in the political realm, they could be excused for believing that it is not virtue, but its very opposite, which is the key prerequisite for securing in that realm a thriving, even an illustrious, career.

The fact that it would seldom dawn on us to think of politics and virtue together is but one more indication (as if we needed another) of the extremely muddled quality of our thought. We have become strangers to wisdom. The only remedy for that estrangement is to go to the wise and to listen to what they have to say to us, and to learn from them. And who are the wise? Those who bask in the wisdom of God. Ite ad Thomam, “Go to Thomas!” the great Pope Leo XIII admonishes us, the Thomas in question here being of course St. Thomas Aquinas, the Universal Doctor.

For St. Thomas, it was elementary that politics and virtue should go together. In this he did not consider that he was being at all original, but simply repeating one of the seminal truths of the perennial philosophy, particularly as expressed earlier by philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, who in this were reflecting how closely attuned they were to the natural law. For all three of these thinkers the only truly human society was a just society that is, a society which was characterized by the dominance in it of the virtue of justice, the preeminent social or political virtue and the foundational explanation for a just society is just leadership. A truly just leader would be an all-around virtuous person, for we know that the moral virtues stand or fall together. No one can be truly just and lacking in the other virtues. So, it is virtue in general that ensures a healthy political community.

More immediately, any political community becomes just, and maintains itself in justice, through the instrumentality of just laws. And of course just laws could have no other reasonable source but just legislators. This being so, it does not the least bit surprise us to learn that, for St. Thomas, the principal purpose of civil law is to make men virtuous. Law should be a significant contributor to our moral betterment. How far we have fallen away from this critically important and beautiful principle! We have now descended to the tragic state of affairs where some of our laws, far from promoting virtue, are specifically designed to facilitate vice, such as the laws governing abortion, which give sanction to the commission of the most heinous, the most unnatural kind of crime.

St. Thomas believed that monarchy was the best from of government, because this kind of government approaches nearest in resemblance to the divine government, whereby God rules the world from the beginning. Lest we be prompted peremptorily to dismiss this point of view, as being hopelessly obsolete and quite irrelevant to our times, let us pay heed to the learned Dominican. St. Thomas was not naive, and while he declares monarchy to be the best form of government, it was also for him the most dangerous, for, fallen human nature being what it is, a king lacking in virtue can quickly turn into a tyrant. (By the way, to the extent that we should think that monarchy, broadly defined, is a thing of the past, we might ponder a devolved phenomenon respecting the chief executive office of the United States, which many historians now commonly refer to as the regal presidency. The U. S. president, in many respects, has become in the exercise of his powers much like a king, in flagrant contradiction to what the Founding Fathers had in mind.)


Monarchy is the best form of government only if the king is virtuous, and, to boot, the most virtuous person in the realm. There is nothing that I have been able to find in St. Thomas’ writings to indicate that he ever favored an hereditary monarchy. In any event, he is explicit in stating the opposite: the king is to be elected by the people. Because the burdens of government would be too great for any one person, no matter how virtuous, the king would be assisted by aristocrats. We might reflexively blanche at that term, dyed-in-the-wool democrats that we probably all consider ourselves to be. But wait. The term “aristocrats” comes from the Greek aristoi, which simply means “the best.” The best in this case are the morally best, the most virtuous. Thus, the virtuous king is surrounded by virtuous assistants. Let us listen to St. Thomas as he sums up for us what he would consider to be the best form of government.

Accordingly, the best form of government is a political community or kingdom wherein one is given the power to preside over all according to his virtue, while under him are others having governing power according to their virtue, and yet government of this kind is shared by all, both because they are eligible to govern, and because the rulers are chosen by all. For this is the best form of polity, being partly kingdom since there is one who is the head of all, partly aristocracy insofar as a number of persons are set in authority, partly democracy, i.e., government by the people, insofar as the rulers can be chosen from the people, and the people have the right to choose their rulers.

Is such an arrangement realizable, especially in the light of present day political realities? Perhaps not, at least not in every respect. But it is by no means to be dismissed as having no application to the conditions of our times. What we must be chiefly guided by is the governing principle of St. Thomas’s own political thought, that principle which, very much to our detriment, has become foreign to us: the idea that politics and virtue should go hand in hand. We must learn how to see and appreciate something which should be for us, but in fact is not, a most obvious, common sense truth that a “good society” is impossible without good people, and that “virtuous person” and “good leader” should be regarded as synonymous terms.

This article originally appeared in the May 2009 edition of the North American Fraternity Newsletter. To receive our free newsletter by mail please visit our subscription page.