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Virtue Politics and the Humanities

Studying the humanities provides a better way to do politics

Girls talking together

Humanities majors develop their own responses to The Question that concerned parents, curious friends, and wary prospective employers: “What are you going to do with a degree in the humanities?” My favorite answer is too snarky to be persuasive: “I’m going to be a human!” Whichever answer to The Question you created, consider the alternative by James Hankins, Harvard’s renowned historian of the Italian Renaissance: “I’m going to help save the Republic!”

In Hankins’s recently-published book, Virtue Politics: Soulcraft and Statecraft in Renaissance Italy (Harvard, 2019), he shows that 14th-century educational reforms that created what we call the humanities had as their primary objective not simply the refinement of our sensibilities, but the creation of leaders who understand that “the real source of sound politics [is] the virtuous soul of political leaders and citizens.” The study of the humanities would “unleash... the power of a dynamically balanced and ordered soul, in control of its passions and appetites, impelled to virtuous action by knowledge and love of the good.”1

The hero of the story is Petrarch who, along with his fellow humanists, was reacting to an existential crisis of confidence in the civil and ecclesiastical institutions of the day. While Machiavelli and later constitutional theorists shared a dark view of human nature that focused on ends over means, Petrarch and his colleagues believed that institutions and government structure could not of themselves lead to good governance. Only moral leaders could.2 The study of the humanities was originally based on the premise that “character counts” in our political leaders. The moral of this story is clear: our study of the humanities is more than a way to better understand and enjoy the arts. It is a call to action.

Not long ago, the mantra “character counts” was a prominent feature of our political discourse. Policy outcomes mattered, but the character of our leaders mattered even more. At least that was the argument many Republicans used to explain their opposition to President Bill Clinton, who championed much of their agenda: the most powerful protection for religious freedom ever enacted by Congress; a balanced budget; free trade; welfare reform that emphasized work; a crackdown on crime; more demanding academic and disciplinary standards in schools. None of these policy outcomes was important enough to support a president whose character they viewed as flawed.

That was then. Today, “character counts” is strangely absent from our political conversation, lost in the hyper-partisanship that the Framers warned was the greatest threat to the Constitution they crafted. They called it “faction,” and their bulwark against its corrosive effect was only in part institutional. Separated governmental powers were key, but more important yet was a citizenry and leaders who practiced “virtue,” by which they meant not only moral probity, but setting aside partisanship for the common good.

At its most fundamental level, the study of the humanities not only helps develop “personal qualities of character and intellect,”3 but it requires us to take seriously the lived experience of others. It calls for empathy and reasoned engagement with people different from us but who deserve our respect simply because they are children of God. These are some of the most important tools used in the practice of “virtue politics.

”What might virtue politics look like in our current toxic political climate, dominated as it is by tribal appeals to confirmation bias and where compromise for the sake of unity draws death threats rather than praise? It looks like the charge given to us by President Dallin H. Oaks: “On contested issues, we should seek to moderate and unify.”4 By that measure, much of the current political engagement by members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints falls short. Emeritus General Authority Elder Lance B. Wickman has noted, “Too many of our people seem to have traded their religion for their politics.”5

Elder Wickman’s troubling diagnosis reminds me of something I heard during a remarkable gathering of scholars that Truman Madsen had assembled at BYU in 1978 to discuss various aspects of Latter-day Saint belief and practice. Robert Bellah, the acclaimed sociologist of religion, concluded his sympathetic discussion of our Latter-day Saint community with an indictment that struck like a clap of thunder out of a blue sky: “Mormons often criticize the larger society in which they live and contrast it to their own vigorous community. How many of them realize that their own current . . . political views and actions may contribute to the wasteland around them?”6

Are Elder Wickman and Bellah right? Have we traded commitment to kindness for a political style that divides our nation?7 If so, how do we break out of this prison? Theologian Remi Hoeckman says that to repent is “to rethink everything from the ground up.”8 The humanities were created to help us do that rethinking and use what we learn to change the way we do politics.

This article was included in the Fall 2021 issue of the Humanities alumni magazine.

1, 2, 3. James Hankins. Virtue Politics: Soulcraft and Statecraft in Renaissance Italy. Cambridge: Belknap Press (2019), 62, 37, 37. (Emphasis added.)
4. Dallin H. Oaks. “Defending Our Divinely Inspired Constitution,” April 2021 general conference.
5. Personal conversation. Used with permission.
6. Robert N. Bellah “American Society and the Mormon Community,” Reflections on Mormonism: Judaeo-Christian Parallels, ed. Truman G. Madsen, Provo: Brigham Young University, 11, 1978. (Emphasis added.)
7. I address this challenge more fully in my article “A Mormon Approach to Politics,” BYU Studies,
8. Quoted in Trish Harrison Warren, “How My Faith Shapes My Understanding of Racism and History,” New York Times, November 14, 2021.