Politics, Virtue, and the Intellect: When Rulers Fail to Rule Themselves

In contemporary political systems, every citizen can vote no matter what his level of intelligence or relation to virtue. Some of the worst political systems have high turnouts on elections days. The worst rulers also want to be popular.

“There is nothing more profound in the life of the intellect than our eagerness to know, without tepidity and without fear, under conditions of a certitude totally determined by the power of truth.”
Yves Simon, A General Theory of Authority

“The truth of the biblical revelation…is modern liberal democracy, whose hallmark—freedom of thought, speech, and religion—is as much a religious obligation as it is a demand of reason. In simple terms, modern liberalism is nothing but a secularized variation of biblical morality, or so Spinoza, the pro-typical secularizer of the early modern period, would have us believe.”
—Ernest Fortin, “Augustine, Spinoza, and the Hermeneutical Problem”

In contemporary political systems, every citizen can vote no matter what his level of intelligence or relation to virtue. Some of the worst political systems have high turnouts on elections days. The worst rulers also want to be popular. We are, to that extent, anti-elitist. We think any man’s vote is as good as any other man’s, no matter what the result. But we do try to modify this apparent lowering of the value of virtue and intelligence. Senates were historically designed to add wisdom and prudence to the public order. Courts were expected to be run by those who knew and applied the law which sought to embody justice.

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Corruption, however widespread or successful, is never admitted to be itself a qualification for rule. But even corruption is not called what it is. It is presented as virtue, as practicality, as help for the people. Most people would admit that it is better to be governed by wise and prudent leaders that the electoral system is supposed to ferret out. In short, both intellect and politics have their place. Intelligence is not to be seen as intrinsically hostile to politics nor, in spite of Socrates, is politics alien to intelligence.

Each person is to rule himself reasonably, especially, if we could find them, rulers over themselves. Few individuals cause more damage than rulers who do not or will not rule themselves. This preference for good leaders is true of organizations of several or all civic institutions. Members can appeal to standards, to norms, in order to judge qualification and performance of officials. Some ways are readily recognized as improper. Tyrants and ideologues, however clever, are to be identified and, if possible, avoided or, if in power, deposed.

The purpose of intellect, for its part, is to know what is, to know the truth of things. This purpose does not change in a culture or philosophical atmosphere that denies that truth can be known, where it is even dangerous to propose the truth because this preference leads, it is said, to hostility, hatred, and war. So, we are told, since no truth exists, we must lower our sights. We must not seek the truth. In public, we must discuss only relatively unimportant things. It is too dangerous to bring up important ones. Truth is dangerous. It is better to make tolerance “the truth,” better to deny that truth is either desirable or possible.

Rather we must never challenge what is claimed to be true, whoever says it. The most dangerous public crime must be the claim that truth exists and can be known. Indeed, the very claim that something is true should be a civil delict, a crime, in fact. It is bigotry or hate-language to maintain that something is wrong or incoherent or dangerous, whatever it is. Of course, this latter claim, that it is true that there is no truth, is itself incoherent. How can it possibly be true that nothing is true?

Living together in tolerance, however, cannot mean that we abandon the purpose of mind. It can mean that we agree to pursue the truth by persuasion, respect, and argument. It can also mean that we rightly prevent or punish those who use coercive means to prevent any meaningful discussion of the truths of the theoretic and practical orders, of religion, metaphysics, morals, history, or politics.

“Political philosophers generally start with the consideration,” Yves Simon put it, “that human life and property have to be protected by force against bad men with whom the methods of persuasion do not work.” Simply because something claims to be true does not make it true. It does not make it false either. Traditionally, institutions of higher learning, universities, were designed as places in which the more controverted and difficult truths were weighed and judged. We would be hard pressed to maintain that this purpose still remains the actual mode of procedure of such institutions.

To describe accurately the nature of the political regime under which we live is often a disconcerting, if not dangerous, enterprise. We all want to be patriotic, to think that we live under the best regime, or at least the best regime possible. We all call ourselves “democrats.” We would like to say that we live in a democracy, with human “rights,” toleration, free markets, just civil law, and no corruption on the side of our politicians, police, and bureaucrats.

We tend to think that everyone else should also live under such conditions, with the same principles, as we do. We need to make over all regimes to look like this “democratic” one. Thus, only one “good” regime is possible. This is the regime of “tolerance,” of relativism. The claim that truth exists is an enemy of this sole “legitimate” regime. Its source of legitimacy is not God but we.

We talk of religious freedom as the first “right.” It is even listed first in our constitutional amendment. But tolerance has become a doctrine higher than truth. Classical and Christian social thought was based on the need and practice of virtue. Virtue could not automatically be imposed on citizens. They had themselves to choose to practice it. Many did not so choose. Most actual regimes were, in fact, much less than the best. The practical result of this fact of citizens who were not virtuous was that there were naturally different regimes based on the different kinds of virtues and vices that manifested themselves in various regimes through the activities of their citizens.

Modern political thought arose out of impatience with the difficulty of virtue’s attainment. Both Aristotle and revelation knew of this difficulty. Modern thinkers from Rousseau wanted to make citizens virtuous whether they chose to be so or not. Goodness and virtue could be engineered with the right political forms and ideas. Men would be “made” to be good apart from their own wills. With this deft step, the state became more important than the action and character of the citizens, the exact opposite of the classical and Christian position.


At first sight, it seems strange to suggest that the modern liberal state, with its desire for civic perfection, arose initially, as Father Ernest Fortin wrote, from biblical criticism. We can easily acknowledge that the disunity of Christians is responsible for many evil things in the public order of various eras and regimes. Eric Voegelin observed that the lack of faith of Christians in the transcendent order was the initial step that elevated politics in this world to a primacy over faith. Politics then sought to subject religion to political ends.

At times, Nietzsche himself seemed to tell us that it was the failure of Christians to follow the example of Christ that scandalized him. He thought evidently that Christ came not to save sinners but to make them in the same perfection as found in the sinless Christ. He began to look for another criterion of human greatness, namely our own self-defined power, to replace a belief that did not inspire its followers to believe or to practice it.

As Fortin pointed out, Spinoza started out with the notion that the Bible was not a coherent whole. It had no single source. Its multiple authorship had no common inspiration or origin. This position was the very opposite of that of Augustine and other Christian thinkers for whom the plan of revelation was unified and coherent from beginning to end. If the Bible was not a unified whole, then it was just a series of individual books that could be examined by scientific methods alone. These books could not reveal anything but what occurred in the time and place in which they were written. Yet, all were leading to and beyond the great event of Christ’s coming which was being prepared in God’s creative and redemptive plan for human beings. Ultimately, God was not defeated by our sins.

With no divine plan present in the world, with no revelation but only human wisdom, it became necessary for the political order to adjudicate the religious and philosophic differences and passions. It had to define what scripture meant. Probably the first step, after Machiavelli rid us of Plato, was taken by Hobbes, who was much concerned with ecclesiastical polity. Relying on the power of the Leviathan, the state, the new law-giver, could put into effect whatever the sovereign willed. What motivated each man, Hobbes thought, was the fear of violent death. If that were true, the state’s power to threaten violent death could be used to reduce ideas and doctrines to order, that is, to ineffectiveness. No longer would there be a separate place for religion in the public order except in the terms of what the state allowed. Religion was subjective and wholly private.

Civil peace, it was argued, would result when truth became a matter of indifference or a purely interior sentiment. Peace would thus not be that “tranquility of order” that Augustine had postulated wherein the individual persons saw and understood the truth of things and agreed to live accordingly. Peace would now be built on the supposition that no truth existed or could exist. Supposed conflicts in the bible mandated this basis. Truth questions were themselves inimical to political order. To ask them in public—such questions as “Why is there something rather than nothing?” or “What is the purpose of human life?” or “What is reason?”— was to threaten civil concord, which became the highest good.

We live in a time in which intelligence is being assumed into politics. Politics, in turn, with its complicit separation from reason finds itself unable to distinguish the human good from any other good. Ecology replaces politics, or, perhaps better, finds itself explaining man’s diminished status as himself subject to nature. The primacy of man to nature that was the foundation of the Genesis command is now reversed. Man is subject to our idea of what nature can “carry.” We do not think in terms of “subduing” nature to serve us, but of restricting man so that nature can go on as if human beings did not exist on the planet.

The fact is, however, that man is himself as natural as anything in the universe. He did not put himself in the universe. Indeed, the universe was made for him, not vice versa. It is his mind and craft capacity that enable him to love on and improve the world as a fit and beautiful place. It now seems increasingly accepted that the only purpose of the world is to keep it going as long as possible. Individual deaths mean nothing in themselves. They are all making the world in the future to be better. They themselves have no lasting purpose other than their instrumentality for something they will never see or enjoy.

Christianity does not think man was created for the world. Rather the world was created for man. And each individual person within the scope of history is created for himself while at the same time being a social animal. This fact means that each of us has more than an inner-worldly meaning. The life record of each person is itself to be judged and the possibility of reaching his final end is open to each person. It cannot be just given to anyone apart from his own free will.

Politics is thus the arena where in the rational being works out his eternal life while being in the period of time in which he lives. Intelligence does not deny the purpose or validity of politics. Rather it puts it in its right place. Whenever politics is not in its rightful place, the ability of men to reach their eternal purpose is impaired. There is an intelligence to politics, and a political openness to what is beyond politics. If the purpose of politics is that we be virtuous, if the purpose of virtue is that we might know the truth, and if the truth makes us free, we need to understand the relation of politics to intelligence and of intelligence to politics.


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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