Vermigli on the Task of Politics

In his introduction to his Commentary on the Nicomachean Ethics, Peter Martyr Vermigli has some excellent, pithy remarks about the relationship of politics to ethics.  Vermigli’s schema offers us an attractive articulation of what Jordan Ballor has in a recent post designated “subsidiarity from below,” recognizing that the establishment of virtuous societies must proceed from the individual to the family to the commonwealth.  Yet just because good citizens are a prerequisite for a good commonwealth does not mean that the commonwealth has no role in moral formation; for Vermigli, the order is “circular”:

“I will . . . distinguish practical philosophy by providing the rules that refer to the life and upbringing of one person or man.  If an individual is concerned, it is ethics; if more than one is concerned it is important whether they are many or fewer.  If fewer, the subject is domestic economy; if more, it is politics.”

“Among these moral subjects, the first place is surely held by ethics, then economics, and finally politics.  I see this order as circular.  Through ethics, those who are its students will, one by one, become good.  If they prove upright, they will raise good families; if the families are properly established, they will in turn create good republics.  And in good republics, both law and administration will aim at nothing less than each becoming a good citizen, for they have eyes for the spirit as well as the body, and will take care that citizens live according to virtue.” (In The Peter Martyr Library, vol. 4, Philosophical Works:  On the Relation of Philosophy to Theology, 9, 12)

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