Political “Science” – in Good Faith

Few contemporary political science students know the checkered history of their discipline, which has principally become an empirical field devoid of metaphysical questions. Aristotle, the “father of political science,” argued, however, that, in a properly and prudently governed polis, the good citizen will be coincident with the good man.

The nature of goodness was thus an essential matter of political inquiry. That simple idea is profoundly significant, for it captures a key element of genuine political science, which aims at developing and inculcating virtue. “The main concern of politics,” Aristotle writes in the Nicomachean Ethics, “is to engender a certain character in the citizens and to make them good and disposed to perform noble actions.”

St. Thomas Aquinas thought that political administration was good if, and to the extent that, it was ordered to holiness. Good people would lead good governments; without virtuous leadership, the citizens would largely fail in the cultivation and practice of virtue. In fact, Aquinas quotes from Proverbs 28:12, 15, 28 and 29:2, the theme of which is that oppressive rulers are ravenous beasts who impair virtue and the common good.

By “virtue,” Aristotle meant excellence of the soul (as did Aquinas), so that “the student of politics must obviously have some knowledge of the working of the soul.” Obviously? Today’s academics?

When almost two millennia later Machiavelli taught that rulers required virtù (not virtue), he argued for might over right, and for the acquisition of power regardless of divine consequences. If Solomon, in Proverbs, warned against oppressive princes, Machiavelli exalted them as effective, contending that the love of power was greater by far – and much more practical – than the power of love.

Since then, political science had become more concerned with what is, than with what ought to be. Cynics argue that we have no reliable measurements of what virtue is, but we have a warehouse of tools for measuring more “useful” matters (such as voter tabulations and public opinion polls).

Lenin defined politics as Kto/kovo (or Who/whom – who does what to whom?) Harold Lasswell (1902-1978) described politics as “who gets what, when, how.” And systems theorist David Easton (1917-2014) said that politics is “the authoritative allocation of values.” Nothing there about virtue, rectitude, or nobility. Nothing there, either, consistent with the Catechism’s observation that “ignorance of the fact that man has a wounded nature inclined to evil gives rise to serious errors in the areas of education, politics, social action, and morals” (#407).

The Tribute Money by Masaccio, 1425 [Brancacci Chapel, Florence]

The American man of letters Russell Kirk (1918-1994), however, struggled to restore the Aristotelian-Thomist understanding that politics is “the application of ethics to the concerns of the commonwealth.” There is a necessary connection, Kirk and his students would say, between Athens and Jerusalem, between the virtues of love and of prudence, between Ought and Is. In conscientiously and continuously seeking that connection between the Perfect and the Possible, one finds both the purpose and the pity of politics.

Philosopher Eric Voegelin (1901-1985) saw clearly the danger of our day, warning of the evil sure to result from “the degradation of political science to a handmaid of the powers that be.” Genuine political wisdom proceeds, from knowledge that “the truth of man and the truth of God are inseparably one.” There is a measure, after all, for determining right and wrong in political life. If Protagoras and all subsequent positivists or secularists proclaim, “man is the measure,” they are grievously mistaken, for, as Plato told us, “God is the measure.”

In the absence of proper diagnosis – that “the whole of man’s history has been the story of dour combat with the powers of evil” (Gaudium et Spes 37) – the medicine of politics curdles and corrupts. Politics is seen either as messianic (with would-be political saviors in the political arena) or as despicable (with debauched despots vying for power and attention).

Here, then, is modern politics: a political convention in Charlotte which boos God and a raft of politicians who, as Walter Lippmann once put it, “advance politically only as they placate, appease, bribe, seduce, bamboozle, or otherwise manage to manipulate” the public, to whom they present themselves as servants of the people.

When we scoff at the true, the good, and the beautiful; when we worship the false and fleeting and call the profane sacred; when we conflate what is noble with what is noisome; when fraudulent education creates, as C. S. Lewis said, “men without chests” – then we will continue to look for solutions to problems in all the wrong places and by all the wrong means. We will create hell and call it heaven; we will kill babies and the elderly and call it mercy (cf. Is 5:20). We will cheer what is filthy and loathsome and call it sublime. We will not know that we do not know. And we will not care, for a drugged and decadent society will divert us.

And what of those who seek to restore virtue in public policy and to remind us that we are creatures of a loving God? What of those who speak faithfully of the moral law and of a political science which tells us – against those who boo God – that we are neither angels nor beasts but beings made in His image and His likeness, trying to work out our salvation in fear and trembling (Phil 2:12)?

Political science, wisely taught and wisely practiced, tells us always that we must know, first, Whose we are (1 Cor 7:6:19, 7:23). Remembering that, we might heed Churchill’s advice: “The day may dawn when fair play, love for one’s fellow men, respect for justice and freedom, will enable tormented generations to march forward serene and triumphant from the hideous epoch in which we have to dwell. Meanwhile, never flinchnever wearynever despair.”

Deacon James H. Toner, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Leadership and Ethics at the U.S. Air War College, a former U.S. Army officer, and author of numerous articles, books, essays, and reviews, including multiple columns in The Catholic Thing, Crisis Magazine, Homiletic & Pastoral Review, The Imaginative Conservative, One Peter Five, and The Wanderer. He taught at Notre Dame, Norwich, Auburn, and Holy Apostles College & Seminary. He has also served as “Distinguished Visiting Chair of Character Development” at the U.S. Air Force Academy.