At one point in high school someone told me that character is destiny
, which at the time seemed profound. (The quote is attributed
to Heraclitus, who is also famous for "you can't step into the same river twice," but I digress.)
After a few years under their belt, most people come to realize that being of good character does not guarantee secular success. Bad things happen to good people, and bad people can be found at the pinnacle of government, business, entertainment, sports, law, media, and even churches and other non-profits. However, the importance of good character still persisted in a society that believed in an after-life when Final Judgment would be rendered.
When fewer people believe in a Deity, and fewer are members of an organized religion, does virtue have relevance, especially since virtue may be the only reward?
Answering in the affirmative, Harvard history professor James Hankins
sees similarities in today's predicaments to 14th century Italy, when the philosopher-poet Petrarch saw virtue as the solution:
it was precisely the collapse of institutions and the twin diseases of violent partisanship and tyranny that drove the great political thinkers of the Renaissance to invent a new instrument of statecraft. They called it the studia humanitatis, or the humanities...
Italy was recovering from the Black Death and the collapse of its financial system. The Catholic Church was divided and corrupt, the Holy Roman Empire was fatally weakened and the Ottoman Turks were knocking at the door of Constantinople...These leaders were ignorant of the past, unable to express themselves truthfully or decently, and driven by their unbridled lust for power and riches to neglect the common good. Feared and hated by their subjects, they were unable to inspire loyalty.
Petrarch’s solution was a new kind of politics: virtue politics...Following Plato, the humanists defined tyranny as the absence of good character, so the ruler who lacked good character could by definition be considered a tyrant. Those who possessed political power by hereditary right didn’t deserve that power unless they were also virtuous—that is, unless they possessed moral excellence and practical wisdom. Virtue was made a necessary condition of legitimate rule, and virtue could be taught and learned—through an education in the humanities.
Your humble blogger buys into much of what Professor Hankins advocates, that widespread education in the humanities is a societal good. However, with regard to the humanities I am referring to the canon as it was 50 years ago, not that which prevails today with restrictions on speech and thought, promulgation of "social justice" through an expansion of State power, and tribal politics that sees everyone through the prism of group identity.
But...teaching men to be virtuous will not make them so. One of the major premises of American constitutional government is that individuals cannot be trusted with too much power, hence the system of checks and balances. That system, while infuriatingly slow at times, has proved to be remarkably stable regardless of the character of those who inhabit political office.
Also, virtue isn't everything. One of the least successful Presidents of the 20th century--but arguably the most virtuous--was Jimmy Carter.
Success in the sacred does not make one successful in the profane. We can support Donald Trump or Bill Clinton for their effectiveness, not their saintliness.
While we wish that our leaders would be both, they are rarely so.