I was profiled recently in the Wall Street Journal, which was an interesting experience for a mild-mannered, retiring professor. It illustrated for me how things I’ve written about the Renaissance get filtered through current political passions. Quidquid recipitur, recipitur ad modum recipientis, as Aquinas used to say: People receive what they are prepared to receive. (I knew enough not to read the comments section. It's not good for faith, hope, or charity. Or sleep.)
Anyway, I was grateful to the WSJ writer, Barton Swaim, for taking an interest in my 2019 book, Virtue Politics. For a non-historian coming to the subject for the first time, he did a creditable job of making sense of the book. He took my argument seriously and placed me firmly on the side of the angels. But I couldn’t help concluding that WSJ readers would come away thinking that what I was recommending, political meritocracy, was a bit naïve or utopian. Probably my fault: When I was being interviewed for the article I stressed how the Christian humanists of the Renaissance wanted to reform education to make it morally effective. They wanted to improve politics by making citizens and rulers more virtuous. But there are a lot of good reasons why people in America right now will be suspicious of educators engaged in moral crusades. The article didn’t give any examples of what political virtue was, or how it might be realized in public life today.
So let me give one now. Virtue, according to the ancient understanding, is the ability to do something well—“well,” in this case, applying inseparably to both the moral and rational character of an act. Moral virtue is the reasoned practice of fine behavior. Political virtue requires that the institutions of society and government be led by people who are able to make them function well—like the soul in the body, as Erasmus put it. This means recognizing what the ergon and telos of the institution is: the way it should function (ergon) to best achieve its end or good (telos).
Virtuous political leadership means executing your role perfectly, enabling your institution to reach its proper goals. To do that, leaders have to make the mission of the institution their primary concern. They can’t exploit their position to accomplish some other goal extraneous to the institution’s purpose. When they agree to lead an organization, they are affirming that it has a worthwhile purpose, and they need to subordinate their unruly personal passions to that end. If they divert the institution’s resources to accomplish partisan or private goals peripheral to its common good, they are in effect forcing subordinates to do tasks they haven’t signed up for. As a result, subordinates will not themselves be able to engage in the virtuous practices (to use Alasdair MacIntyre’s word) that are enabled by the institution’s ergon and telos.
Virtuous leaders, in short, have to put the common good of the institution first and not hinder their subordinates’ ability to do their proper jobs with excellence. They have to respect and even love what their institutions can do. Showing respect and love entails acting with dignity, dressing appropriately, and speaking well. A leader needs the ability to champion an institution’s goals in reasonable, moral terms that can win approbation from both subordinates and outsiders. Bad conduct, incompetent speech, neglect of institutional goods, pursuit of private or factional interests—all of that dishonors and dispirits the whole enterprise. That’s how bad leaders weaken and ultimately destroy an institution. Far from being the virtuous soul of its body, they are parasites that undermine its health.
A serious problem with our society at the moment is that our institutions are led by people who simply don’t care, or don’t appear to care, about the primary function and purpose of the institutions they lead. They have other teloi to pursue, other virtues to signal. This has become endemic at many large corporations, media organizations, professional associations, and even sports teams. At my university, for instance, more or less every week the faculty receive an email blast from some self-important administrator, usually written in bureaucratic langue de bois, warning of some moral danger to the community. We are urged to be on our guard against microaggressions, structural racism, misgendering people, not using preferred pronouns, white supremacy. (At Harvard? Really?) We are advised to be “scholar activists,” to take up the woke man’s burden and reeducate our students, half devil and half child, so that they become models of “compliance” (the bureaucratic word for obedience). Administrators act as though the chief purpose of the institution is to school faculty, staff, and students in their newfound woke religion.
All of this incontinent sermonizing has exactly nothing to do with the way we faculty actually spend our time as scientists and scholars. It has nothing to do with the university’s actual mission, which is to advance knowledge and pass on mastery of advanced disciplines to the next generation. To do all of that, at the very highest level formerly expected of Harvard profs, takes a lot of work and intense focus, and doesn’t leave us much time to be “scholar activists.” The Harvard being whipped along by the administrative caste, by contrast, resembles the Children’s Crusade of the Middle Ages: wrong cause, wrong army. And it ends up attacking the wrong enemies.
My university has some serious problems: the declining quality of the faculty, politicization of the disciplines, narrowing of intellectual freedoms, intolerance of competing points of view, loss of pride in our common purpose, students with so many distractions they can’t focus on serious learning. We waste huge amounts of money on matters unrelated to the university’s core mission. Administrators waste huge amounts of everyone’s time on matters that are fundamentally trivial. Somehow we never get any leadership on the real problems we face. Administrators seem not to understand that the active and contemplative lives are two different things, and that the university at bottom is a contemplative institution. It needs distance from the world of politics, not immersion in it.
When the university is represented by people vocally trying to lead a woke crusade against all the supposed evils of American society, the public understandably gets the impression that we faculty are all left-wing activists, and that the contemporary university is in its essence a partisan institution. This isn’t good for the university or the country. It’s also a false impression: Most faculty members, though tribally liberal, are not deeply engaged in activism. That’s not what we do. Many profs I know dismiss activist faculty as colleagues no longer capable of doing serious, original work in their own disciplines. That’s why faculty activists seek other outlets for their energies. That’s how they get recruited for administrative posts.
If we had more virtuous university presidents and administrators whose chief concern was fostering the actual functions and ends of the university—producing high-quality, original research and fearless, open-ended, honest teaching—we’d cultivate a good deal more virtue in the future leaders and citizens of our society. And that would be good for the university and good for the country.
James Hankins is a professor of history at Harvard University.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?