The Magistrate Should Encourage Virtue

(I’ll preface this post by saying that my knowledge of political science is meager.  I also must admit complete ignorance about the economic workings of the stock market.  Just thinking about it intimidates me and reduces my being to the level of a primate – much like those in 2001: A Space Odyssey who when faced with the obelisk could do nothing more than screech and bang the ground with clubs.)


I agree with Ron Paul, who was interviewed by Neil Cavuto this past Thursday, that our society does not need the government to act and act now to correct the perilous economic situation that is upon us.  Paul said we must change our philosophy of government in toto.  I agree in at least one respect:  the philosophy of government that says the citizen must ultimately depend on Washington for the worth of his hard earned money is the same philosophy that leads Washington to encourage the vice of frivolity among businessmen, congressional leaders, and the citizens themselves.  I received an economic stimulus check back in May (I think that’s when it was).  I was very tempted to spend the money in a different country just to prove the contradiction in the philosophy that on one hand says “the government must regulate the economy (by handing out cash)” and on the other hand says “the citizens must regulate the economy (by spending money).”  What the government really wants is a virtuous citizen who will invest in the businesses of his country out of a genuine love for that country.  This is why Peter Martyr considered ethics to be more primary than economics and politics.  He says:

Among these moral subjects, the first place is surely held by ethics, then economics, and finally politics.  I see this order as circular.  Through ethics, those who are its students will, one by one, become good men.  If they prove upright, they will raise good families; if the families are properly established, they will in turn create good republics.  And in good republics, both law and administration will aim at nothing less than each man becoming a good citizen, for they have eyes not only for the body but also for the spirit, and they will take care that citizens live according to virtue. (Commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, p. 12)

But, our government does not want virtuous citizens.  They say “here’s a check for $600!  Now, don’t spend it in Mexico or by paying off your credit card because that will not help your country.”  I think it is great that they do not want me spending my stimulus check in a different country, but why shouldn’t I use it to pay off debt? Well, because if everybody used their stimulus check to pay their credit card debt or student loans then there’d be no new money pumped into the economy and businesses would be forced to close their doors and men and women would lose their jobs and then nobody would be happy.  They’ve made the vice of frugal spending a virtue and wedded this vice to the virtue of patriotism!  Anyone who knows anything about ethics knows that virtuous living is the essence of freedom.  So, can we really say that our government leaders promote the freedom of their fellow citizens whom they’ve sworn to protect when they not only sit passively by while we all become slaves to debt but join in the fight, taking the side of the banks and credit card companies – even becoming their spokesmen by encouraging people to spend money that is not theirs instead of being wise by saving for the future?  

They show no regard for the future and no common sense when they preach that deficit spending is the only option to get our nation out of financial trouble!  That’s like saying “I should take out a $200 loan because I can’t afford groceries,” but instead of buying the essentials I go lay the whole thing down on a craps game. Where have all the wise men gone?  I don’t know much about politics, but I do know that when leaders decide to redefine virtue they stand on a precarious ledge. They are in danger of destroying the very thing they’ve sworn to protect.

4 thoughts on “The Magistrate Should Encourage Virtue

  1. This is one of the best posts on economics from an angle I haven’t seen. I liked how yuo pointed the contradiction. On a related thought, I heard one classics teacher, heavily influenced by Thomas and Subsidiarity (right word?) say that a magistrate is to pass laws in a way that the Church (or preaching of the gospel, or whatever) may flourish. In other words, the state doesn’t have to give handouts or have Rick Warren make decisions, but not to penalize the church.

    Is that accurate as to something Thomas would have said?

  2. Jacob,

    Thomas does not say very much about politics, considering the enormous amount of writing on other topics. He does say in his De Regimine Principum (On the Governance of Rulers) that it is the job of the king to direct the citizens toward a life of supernatural (not just natural) virtue:

    “Therefore since the end of the good life that we live on earth is the happiness (beatitudo) of heaven, it is the duty of the king to promote the good life of the community so that it leads to happiness in heaven so that he should command the things that lead to heavenly bliss and as far as possible forbid their opposite.” (cited in Sigmund, St. Thomas Aquinas on Politics and Ethics, p. 28.)

    That the king must “command the things that lead to heavenly bliss” does not mean that he believes that the state takes on the role of the church. He believes that the king can only lead the citizens to their intermediate end by supplying them with peace, material goods, and protection from heresy.

    Thomas speaks of the “Highest Priest, the successor of Peter, the Vicar of Christ, the Roman Pontiff, to whom all kings over Christian peoples should be subject as to Christ himself. For those who are responsible for intermediate ends should be subject to the one who is responsible for the ultimate end, and be directed by his command.” (Ibid., pp. 27, 28.)

    So, Thomas here may appear to favor what I think you implied: i.e., “have Rick Warren make decisions.” However, Sigmund warns that Thomas appears to contradict in the above passage statements in the Summa and Scriptum super Sententiis where he implies that the civil ruler must only submit to the spiritual in matters pertaining to religion.

    “In theory, it would appear that Aquinas would be a dualist or advocate of the ‘indirect power’ of the Church, defending a moral rather than a legal or political supremacy for the Church, but, as far as the texts go, he ‘waffles.'” (Cambridge Companion to Aquinas, p. 219)

    I don’t know if this answers your question or if there is a definite answer. One thing is sure: Thomas believed it the job of the king to promote virtue (civil and supernatural) and protect the Church from heresy.


  3. One thing is sure: Thomas believed it the job of the king to promote virtue (civil and supernatural) and protect the Church from heresy.

    All of the Reformers believed this too. They would say that the magistrate had to do this because of his position as a deacon of God. This was true of all magistrates, but believing magistrates were optimal, as it would be they who would have the best knowledge of God’s law. They have the regenerate wisdom. This is a benne esse distinction of course. It is the best case.

    The difference for the Reformers, I suspect, is that they could appeal to the invisible Church, saying that the King might be in the right when he defies the bishop, and indeed the King would be protecting the church when he did so.

    Indeed, the bishops ought not to try to be the king, for their office is of a different order. Both are the Church, but they have different roles to play.

  4. Steven,

    Just to supplement your discussion of the Reformers, Vermigli praises the virtue of Solon, Draco, Choarondas, and Numa Pompilius as “lawgivers who justly deserve to be praised for their prudence and good institutions.” (Commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, p. 265)

    He also disagrees with Eustratius who said that Moses should not be considered a praiseworthy lawgiver since he “instructed his people not by human means but wholly by divine inspiration.” (Ibid) Martyr responds:

    “As for me, I would say, despite Eustratius, that this does not seem to be the case, since all the legislators who apply themselves to making men good fall into this class, and it makes no difference whether they achieved this by divine or human means. For Lycurgus claimed that he was taught by Apollo, Minos by Jupiter, and Numa by Egeria to make laws that they promulgated.” (Ibid)

    Martyr continues commenting on Aristotle’s statement that only he who is “truly a statesman” seeks to promote virtue among the citizens:

    “He [Aristotle] does not say simply “statesman,” but “truly a statesman,” since there are sophists and impostors in teaching, and in the practice of public administration there are often false and corrupt magistrates who either do not have or do not want to use knowledge of how to rule a country, and have another design to make their citizens good. We should now add to this that it ought to be a magistrate’s concern that his people behave virtuously and that their prime virtue be piety. So it will be a good magistrate’s responsibility to do everything possible to see that pure and sincere religion prevails in his territory. Those who do not do this do not keep the true way of governing a state. It is easy to understand how the application of virtue follows from a design to make the citizens good, since the virtues are the causes of goodness.” (Ibid., pp. 265, 266)

    This passage corroborates what you said above: “This was true of all magistrates, but believing magistrates were optimal, as it would be they who would have the best knowledge of God’s law. They have the regenerate wisdom. This is a benne esse distinction of course. It is the best case.”

    Vermigli says that Moses can be considered a praiseworthy lawgiver since all men who promote virtue fall into the class of praiseworthy men. That means Moses is in the same class as the pagan lawgivers! Of course he ADDS to the natural lawgivers the necessity of a leader who will direct his subjects toward supernatural qualities, i.e., piety. This only is the “true way of governing a state.”


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