Virtue of Contemplation on Super Tuesday

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Super Tuesday may indeed be spectacular in its form, and even stunning in its results, but amidst all of the election fury, today we would do well to remember that Super Tuesday’s “super-ness” has more to do with the large sum of individual votes than with the personality we elect.

Politics are of only relative importance, relative to what good politicians are really capable of doing for you and me, for our families.

As soon as politics, for the sake of politics, becomes a society’s principle passion — its object of hope, its pearl of great price — that society has already subjected itself to a type of totalitarianism. Unwittingly, it has relinquished a citizen’s and a people’s privilege and responsibility of self-determination. It has bet the outcome of the common pursuit of happiness on the eventual good actions of chosen elite.

In this context of moderating, or of channelling, our expectations of politics and politicians, I find it helpful to remember often that Adolph Hitler was elected democratically. By force of personality, and by a sordid alignment of the political stars, he was able to manipulate the German electorate to put their trust and their fortune in him. On that fateful Super Tuesday, of sort, voters chose the easy way out of difficult times. They crowned an earthly messiah who in the subtlest of terms — at first — promised salvation here and now.

Then, as now, “change” and “hope” were in the air, and the effect on the voting public was hypnotic.

Our best defense against political hypnosis of this type is “contemplation.” This is the uniquely human activity of silent — yes, silent — reflection on existential questions including who we are (as individuals and as a nation), where we are going, and the best way to get there. Contemplation prepares the soul to recognize messages of real beauty, goodness, and truth. It also enables us to pick out the impostors along the way.

Contemplation and politics are not mutually exclusive. In fact, the contemplative man or woman is usually the most interested in social wellbeing and the most engaged in its pursuit. He sees politics as a means to prepare the human soul for more important activity (like loving and being loved), instead of as an end in and of itself. He sees the politician as a man or a woman called to collaborate in the ordering of society for the good of the human person, such that every citizen, buoyed first by the family and then by community organizations, may pursue and achieve his natural and supernatural ends.

The contemplative soul knows the answer to society’s ills will never be found in a single, earthly messiah. Instead, he looks for statesmen with a plan to assist people in helping each other.

I’m not making this stuff up, at least not altogether. A glance back at the political philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, of 2400 years ago, puts my thoughts into perspective. In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle argues that moral education should be the main purpose of the political community, as part of the broader ideal of an ordered society: “The main concern of politics is to engender a certain character in the citizens and to make them good and disposed to perform noble actions.”

To the Western ear, this political philosophy may evoke fears of government intrusion, of the legislation of morality. But understood properly, it is an invitation to flee from any politician who promises to build a society based on anything but the virtue and initiative of its citizens. A candidate who promises to make us happy by freeing us from moral restraints, by doing all the work for us, by being the biggest and best administrator of a nanny state, is in fact, promising “change” and “hope” that the contemplative person would reject instinctively as contrary to the recipe for human flourishing.

Contemplation brings peace and serenity in the face of political uncertainty. If politics is about the creation of an ordered society, where people can be good and moral, where families can flourish, and where local communities can solve their own issues, our job on Super Tuesday is less daunting than it may appear. We are simply looking for a candidate who can best remove obstacles on our path to finding our own solutions.

If that candidate doesn’t exist, the contemplative soul chooses the lesser of two, or three evils, and goes on with life, happily. After all, he knows no politician will answer for him the most important questions life poses, like who we are, where we are going, and how we are going to get there.

If this Tuesday is “super” because we can choose a president, then every day is “supreme” because we can always choose to love and be loved, to build a life on solid rock.

This Tuesday, on our way out the door, let’s allow ourselves some silence. We may end up with a better president for it, and even if we don’t, we will at least have scribbled on our souls the first draft of the virtue of contemplation.

God bless, Father Jonathan
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