We live in a democratic republic, and having been formed by the culture of such a country, we are used to putting a lot of thought and passion into the question of what the nature of our governing systems and laws should be. This is, overall, a very good thing, as I think it breeds a sense of collective responsibility for us to think seriously as a nature about how we should govern ourselves. And yet, the temptation that comes with that is to view a certain set of government policies and systems as essential to the good or virtuous life.
Especially for those of us who are particularly interested in the political process, passions can run sufficiently high that we begin to see certain political goods as necessary for human thriving. The man of the right begins to think that life without certain political freedoms is barely worth living. The man of the left convinces himself it is impossible to live a moral and satisfying life without certain structures of social justice.
And yet, one of the liberating aspects of studying history is to discover that people are people throughout history. The personal concerns, struggles and triumphs of individual people through many times and places bear more similarities than differences. And from the Christian perspective, men and women have struggled to live in accordance with Christ's teachings in a wide variety of societies: oppressive and free, secular and religious, rich and poor, tolerant and persecuting.
None of which is meant to undermine the importance of struggling to achieve the best political order that we can. As the experience of many centuries has shown us, the culture and political institutions can provide a powerful incentive for virtue, or for vice. Yet we must do so with the clear understanding that no political order will make everyone virtuous, nor will any political order force everyone to be corrupt. Improving the social order is at best a means to an end.
Learning Notes Week of March 13
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