Freeing Politics: The Need for Virtue

Thomas Griffin (9/15/20)

There are some notions that yearn to be discovered and lived by. There are principles that place mankind on a launchpad towards what is most true, good and beautiful. In the midst of a culture craving to remove men and women, statues and memorials, and the very fabric of the American project there are certain underlying truths that must be salvaged. Particularly, we need principles or rather virtues to organize politics, for politics is the avenue by which human beings derive how they should or should not act. 

Pivotal to human flourishing is the understanding of and call to be virtuous. A man named Aristotle outlined them twenty-three hundred years ago. Among all of the virtues there are four specific ones that bind the rest together and push one towards living in true freedom. These are called the cardinal virtues. The cardinal virtues are fortitude, temperance, justice, and prudence. These are the virtues that all other virtues hinge upon or draw their source from in some way, shape, or form. 

All virtues are “destroyed by defect and excess” and are found in the mean between these two extremes. Whether we speak of pain, pleasure, confidence, fear or other states one is called “to feel them at the right times, with reference to the right objects, towards the right people, with the right aim, and in the right way,” says Aristotle. When pleasures or pains control our actions we are shackled to irrational desires, worldly acclaim, and fleeting moments rather than being moved to act according to what is right and just.  

For example, fortitude is not the absence of the feeling of fear, but the rightly ordered response in the face of fear. Again Aristotle explains that “a man who flies from and fears everything and does not stand his ground against anything becomes a coward, and the man who fears nothing at all but goes to meet every danger becomes rash.” The virtue of fortitude is the mean between cowardice and rashness and, as a hinge virtue, gives rise to acting in both a patient, profound, insightful, and courageous manner. 

Too often, politics is controlled by a cowardice which is exemplified by candidates changing what they believe in whenever it seems most advantageous or neglecting to fight for the weakest in society because it will cost them honors with their party. Too often, the months leading up to November of an election year are riddled with a rashness which makes bold claims and promises that the ordinary listener knows the candidate cannot live up to. 

Next, temperance is not the absence of pleasure nor the indulgence in painful sacrifice, but the rightly ordered response seeking pleasure. “The man who indulges in every pleasure and abstains from none becomes self-indulgent, while the man who shuns every pleasure…becomes in a way insensible.” The virtue of temperance is found in the intermediate between self-indulgence and the rejection of anything to be experienced with the senses. As a hinge virtue, temperance allows one to experience life in moderation and never allow the enticements of worldly allurements to run their decision making. 

Too often, politics is organized by those who are avid glory seekers. The excitement of a race for the future of the country is epitomized by the candidates who run ads with no boundaries and the multitudes who spew more hatred for their opponent than acclaim for their choice. All sides need temperance; all sides need clear decision making which is not controlled by worldly desires, but clearly seeks the good of the other, even if they are my adversary. 

Justice is not grabbing everything and anything for oneself and it is not consumed by merely pleasing others, but the rightly ordered response to giving others their due. Aristotle claims that “both the lawless man and the grasping and unequal man are thought to be unjust, so that evidently both the law-abiding and the equal man will be just.” The virtue of justice is the hinge virtue for countless other virtues because of its ability to directly order interactions with others and the self.

Too often, political debate is not ordered towards giving the other person what they are due but towards giving them what I believe they deserve. The difference between due and deserve is that one is dependent on me, while the other is determined by the fact that every person has dignity and is deserving of respect. When disagreements arise justice shines through the position which upholds the infinite worth of all those involved.

Finally, prudence is not simply having knowledge and commanding others to act as you please in all circumstances, nor is it knowledge that is consumed in the self, but prudence is having the ability to rightly respond to and communicate knowledge and advice to others at the right time and in useful circumstances that concern things “that conduce to the good life in general.” The virtue of prudence is the hinge virtue for numerous others because it orders correct action for situations.

Above all of the cardinal virtues prudence is most needed in our times. In our streets, homes, cities, schools, and media networks there is most often the neglect of speaking and acting at the right time in the correct circumstances. We are what we do; our actions show the world what we believe and what we stand for. Prudence rules over fiery disagreements and heated political grand-standing by enabling one to respond to differences with rational dialogue and never with empty slogans and deceptive political verbiage. 

The cardinal virtues are offered for the taking, for all of us during this election cycle. Virtue is needed in the candidates and in the nation which will elect our next president. Don’t be controlled by hatred and organized through fear. Respond, act, speak, and vote in virtue so that the electorate personifies the freedom which our leadership is meant to permeate.

Thomas Griffin teaches Apologetics in the religion department at a Catholic high school on Long Island and lives with his wife. He received a master’s degree in theology and is currently a master’s candidate in philosophy. He writes for several Catholic media outlets.

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