American Consequences - October 2017


The relationship of character to politics was much in the news last year, as two candidates of – shall we say? – questionable character sought to lead us. Whether the character of our leaders truly matters is a question as old as the idea of self-government, chewed over by nearly every political chin-puller since Plato.

By Andrew Ferguson

in his Ethics, “yet none of them are so outstanding as to match the extent and the claim to merit the office [of ruler].” Given the fragility of human nature, Aristotle figured that the more important question would be how to build a system of government that could survive even when leaders went astray. Lucky for us, our founders agreed. “The aim of every political constitution,” says The Federalist Papers , “is or ought to be first to obtain for rulers, men who

It’s not hard to see why. Once somebody got the bright idea that ordinary people (however defined) should be able to choose who their leaders are, the next question immediately arose: “How do we know who to choose?” Plato’s answer was that rulers should be chosen according to their character – their honesty, reliability, probity, disinterestedness, sense of justice, and willingness to keep their hands off the interns. Such qualities should even outweigh other factors such as intelligence or amiability. “The community suffers nothing very terrible if its cobblers are bad and become degenerate and pretentious,” he wrote in The Republic . “But if the guardians of the laws and the state, who alone have the opportunity to bring it good government and prosperity, become a mere sham, then clearly [the community] is completely ruined.” Plato’s student Aristotle, on the other hand, glanced around the Agora, took the measure of his fellow citizens, and decided that no community could count on getting the ruler of Plato’s dreams. “There are many persons who are similar [in quality],”Aristotle wrote

If the government is designed to limit the damage that people of bad character can do, does that mean character doesn't matter?

possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue the common good of the society.” So far so good. However, the second aim of the constitution should be “to take the most effectual precautions for keeping [the rulers] virtuous, whilst they continue to hold their public trust.”

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