(The Conversation) — Polls show that a majority of Americans are very worried about the state of U.S. democracy. One survey from January 2022 finds that 64% of Americans believe U.S. democracy is “in crisis and at risk of failing.”
Both Republicans and Democrats affirm these concerns, but they have very different understandings of what exactly is in crisis and who is responsible. Most importantly, polls have repeatedly found that a majority of Republicans – tens of millions of Americans – continue to believe the lie that the 2020 election was stolen.
For those Americans who know that it was not, the entrenched commitment of their fellow Americans to a falsehood no doubt exacerbates their worries. How do you argue with someone who is committed to a lie? But the bigger question is what to do about it, given that so many Americans – myself included – fear for the very survival of our democracy.
As a scholar who researches democratic virtues, I have spent time with the work of Thomas Aquinas, a Dominican monk who lived in the 13th century. Aquinas’ words are relevant to the times in which we find ourselves. Above all, he shows what it means to hope.
Hope as a theological virtue
Aquinas is widely regarded as the single most important Catholic theologian. His massive body of work speaks to virtually every aspect of the Christian faith. Most importantly, perhaps, Aquinas insisted that reason and revelation were separate but complimentary forms of knowledge. He argued that since both ultimately come from God, they cannot be in conflict.
Accordingly, Aquinas is also one of the first thinkers to reconcile the work of ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle with Christianity. Aristotle argued that ethics is principally concerned with becoming the best version of ourselves. For Aristotle, a truly ethical person is also a truly excellent person.
Aquinas accepted this understanding. But he also argued that Aristotle’s interpretation of ethics was incomplete and imperfect. Aquinas said that ethics must also incorporate the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity. These virtues, Aquinas argued, come to us not from reason but from grace. They are gifts from God that serve to direct people toward their salvation. According to the theologian, they make it possible for human beings to achieve a dimension of both happiness and excellence that they cannot achieve otherwise.
Aristotle defined virtue as “a mean between two vices, that which depends on excess and that which depends on defect.” So, for example, Aristotle said that courage is found between recklessness – an excess of courage – on the one hand and cowardice, its deficiency, on the other.
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