Virtue: An Essential Feature of Democracy; Part II in a Series

The 2016 election presents tough choices for Catholic voters. In considering candidates, voters will ask a number of questions. Here is one question that should not be overlooked: Does a candidate possess the virtues necessary to hold public office?

Philosophers of ancient times, such as Plato and Aristotle, said that no political community could survive if the people and their leaders lacked essential virtues. In the 13th century, St. Thomas Aquinas took up this discussion, paying special attention to Aristotle’s Politics and identifying four Cardinal Virtues: moderation, courage, justice, and prudence. The first three virtues were put into practice by prudence, or practical wisdom. Here is a brief description of each virtue.

Moderation: This virtue is necessary to restrain the appetites. This involves not just moderation in eating, drinking and enjoying other pleasures, but moderation in overall behavior and speech.

Courage: This virtue allows men and women to overcome their natural fears in order to do what is right and necessary. Physical courage is well understood, but moral courage is essential in political leaders. Moral courage allows leaders to speak the truth even when it may be unpopular.

Justice: Justice calls for fair-dealings with all people. According to James Madison, “justice is the end of government. It is the end of civil society. It ever has been, and ever will be pursued, until it be obtained, or until liberty be lost in the pursuit.”

Prudence: Aristotle said prudence, or practical wisdom, was essential for political leadership. For Aquinas, prudence is the ability to choose the right course when presented with specific situations. Prudence, therefore, puts the other virtues into practice.

No person or political candidate is perfect, possessing in full measure the four cardinal virtues. It is not unreasonable, however, to expect those running for public office to demonstrate some degree of virtue, including the willingness to serve the common good and uphold the sanctity and dignity of all human life.