What Saint Thomas Aquinas teaches about hope in democracy |

CHRISTOPHER BEEM State of Pennsylvania

Polls show that a majority of Americans are very worried about the state of American democracy. A January 2022 survey found that 64% of Americans believe American democracy is “in crisis and at risk of failing.”

Republicans and Democrats affirm these concerns, but they have very different understandings of exactly what is in crisis and who is responsible for it. More 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 Americans who know this was not the case, their fellow Americans’ entrenched commitment to a lie no doubt heightens their concerns. How do you argue with someone who’s committed to lying? 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.

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As a scholar who studies democratic virtues, I have spent time with the work of Thomas Aquinas, a Dominican monk who lived in the 13th century and whose feast day was January 28. The words of Thomas Aquinas are relevant to the times in which we find ourselves. Above all, it shows what it means to hope.

Hope as a theological virtue

Thomas Aquinas is widely considered the most important Catholic theologian. His massive body of work speaks to virtually every aspect of the Christian faith. More importantly, perhaps, Aquinas was insisting that reason and revelation were distinct but complementary forms of knowledge. He argued that since both ultimately come from God, they cannot be in conflict.

Accordingly, Thomas Aquinas is also one of the first thinkers to reconcile the work of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle with Christianity. Aristotle argued that ethics is primarily about 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 flawed. Thomas Aquinas said that ethics should also incorporate the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity. These virtues, according to Thomas Aquinas, do not come to us from reason but from grace. They are gifts from God that serve to direct people to their salvation. According to the theologian, they allow human beings to reach a dimension of both happiness and excellence that they could not reach otherwise.

Aristotle defined virtue as “a medium between two vices, that which depends on excess and that which depends on deficiency”. Thus, for example, Aristotle said that courage is found between recklessness – an excess of courage – on the one hand and cowardice, its lack, on the other.

Deciding how to be brave is never simple and highly dependent on the circumstances, but courage will always lie between these extremes. Aquinas follows this concept of virtue and he argues that the theological virtue of hope fits the pattern. According to him, it is between two vices: presumption is the excess of hope, while despair is its fault.

Presumption is the easy confidence that everything will be fine. The presumptive person thinks that no matter how much he sins, as Aquinas notes, “God would not punish him or exclude him from glory.”

Despair is the opposite. This means that the sinner believes he has fallen so far from God that he has no possibility of salvation.

The question of salvation is one thing, while the condition of American democracy is another. Nevertheless, there are examples of many Americans reacting to the current democratic crisis with the same vices of presumption and desperation.

Democratic presumption and desperation

In the current democratic crisis, the presumption appears as a vague optimism that American democracy has survived many crises and that this is just one more. Many Americans believe that the current crisis is a problem facing those in power; whistling in front of the cemetery, they see no reason to change their own behavior.

Political scientist Sam Rosenfeld notes that despite a prevailing sense of crisis, “voting behavior has not changed in response; it showed remarkable stability and continuity with the models established at the beginning of the century.

The desperation is even more apparent. Most Americans have expressed at least temporary feelings of hopelessness about climate change and a seemingly endless pandemic, as well as about our democracy.

And no doubt, the fact that all of these crises are coinciding at the same time only adds to the feeling that they are beyond our ability to resolve them. But for Thomas Aquinas, hope is not only the middle ground between these two vices; it is also the most realistic response to our condition.

Hope as a democratic virtue

According to Thomas Aquinas’ definition, hope is based on a desired future that is both possible to achieve but also very difficult. Hope is therefore more realistic than either vice.

Presumption denies the difficulty of the goal, but also the responsibility of the individual in its achievement, while despair denies the fact that the goal, despite its difficulty, is still possible. Hope is the means because it requires people to be both clear and aware of what they are up against and what they are striving to achieve.

In this understanding, hope is more than just optimism. Hope is an act of will. We choose to hope. Hope insists that although the task is difficult, even daunting, change is still possible. He therefore supports all who undertake the work that needs to be done.

If this act of will seems beyond your abilities right now, consider this. Thomas Aquinas said that “we hope chiefly in our friends”. It’s easier to have hope when others love us, support us, and share our hopes. That is why, he says, Christians need a community of believers.

For Americans facing the current democratic crisis, community can include anyone equally willing to embrace the hope that American democracy can endure. This community is also better able to overcome the tendency to despair and more apt to achieve the desired outcome.

Understood as Thomas Aquinas suggests, hope appears as a properly democratic virtue. Without willing and realistic hope, and without a coalition of hopeful people working together, Jim Crow does not stop, the Berlin Wall does not fall, and marriage for same-sex couples remains impossible.

This story should also inspire us to find the hope we need right now.

Christopher Beem is chief executive of the McCourtney Institute of Democracy and co-host of the Democracy Works podcast.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.