A Quick Voting Guide

We get plenty of advice about how to be a good or strong leader – ask others for input, don’t take all the credit, don’t micromanage … but these are modes of practice.  When we look around, there is surprisingly little advice on the sort of moral qualities a leader should possess.  Here is a quick review.

Plato advises that rulers be a breed apart – possess no wealth, no property, claim no children, to prevent bias and corruption.  Aristotle call for the politician and lawgiver to be wholly occupied with the city-state.  Both require a sort of asceticism, along with wisdom, practical experience, and isolation from corruption.  Philosopher-kings would be good. 

Look in the other usual places for advice.  The business literature is devoid of advice on moral qualities of leaders. The Bible has some advice, though sparse.  In 1 Timothy, a leader is advised to be of pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith; temperate, self-controlled, respectable, able to teach, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome and not a lover of money.   That is some sound advice, although it seems sort of hidden away in the letters.

Closer to home, and to our times, we look to Mill, Madison, and the American founders for advice on the character of a leader, and find … little.  Without doubt, Washington, Madison, Jefferson, Franklin, et.al. were exemplary leaders, but there seems an assumption that men of intelligence, good will, and perspicacity will naturally lead.  We do have Federalist Paper No. 68  from Alexander Hamilton. This is with regard to what became the Electoral College -

The process of election affords a moral certainty, that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications. Talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity, may alone suffice to elevate a man to the first honors in a single State; but it will require other talents, and a different kind of merit, to establish him in the esteem and confidence of the whole Union, or of so considerable a portion of it as would be necessary to make him a successful candidate for the distinguished office of President of the United States. It will not be too strong to say, that there will be a constant probability of seeing the station filled by characters pre-eminent for ability and virtue.   Little did they know.  But all claim virtue as a common thread.


Some direct advice

Plato, Leo Strauss, Machiavelli and Nietzsche told us that leaders must project power, and Mao told us that power grows out of the barrel of a gun.  All supported use of the noble lie, the lie in service of protection of the state.  I have no doubt that leaders make decisions in complex environments with no pure solution.  We hope that the lies be told not too often, and at least be noble, and that leaders agonize over their choice.  Cheap lies are just so … unvirtuous. 

In ancient China, rulers did not obtain their posts by election or merit. Confucius still had a great deal of advice on how to be a just and fair leader.  He tells us that the most important way for the people to become virtuous is by example, and in that regard, political leaders should be moral leaders. Analects 13:13 - if the ruler makes himself correct, what difficulty will the ruler have to govern people? If the ruler cannot make himself correct, how can the ruler make others correct?

The example is the legendary emperor Shun, whose virtue and wisdom was so great that he could rule by simply facing south and saying nothing, and his administrators would know the right thing to do, and do it.   Analects 12:22 - if we promote the upright people as the examples for the crooked people, the crooked people will become upright.

Leaders should teach virtue.  In order to do so, leaders must of course teach by example and be virtuous themselves. 

Confucian scholar Dong Zhongshu articulated the character of a ruler in Luxuriant Gems of the Spring and Autumn Annals (Chunqiu Fanlu), essays from the Han dynasty -


Establishing the Primal Spirit

Section 1 - He who rules the people is the basis of the state.  Issuing edicts and initiating undertakings, he is the pivot of all living things.  The pivot of all living things, he is the source of honor and dishonor….(H)e who acts as the people’s ruler is attentive toward the fundamental, careful of the beginning, respectful of the small, and cautious of the subtle.  His will resembles the stillness of dead ember …. He calms his vital essence and nourishes his numen (spirit).  He is quiet and nonactive …. He contemplates what lies in the future and observes what has passed.  He deliberates with his numerous worthies to seek out the opinions of the majority of the people. He knows their hearts and understands their sentiments…. He separates their factions and clans and observes the men they esteem….


(Section 2) He who rules the people is the foundation of the state.  Now in administering the state, nothing is more important for transforming the people than reverence for the foundation.  If the foundation is revered, the ruler will transform the people as if a spirit.  If the foundation is not revered, the ruler will lack the means to unite the people…. This is called “throwing away the state.”  Is there a greater disaster than this? … Therefore, when the ruler relies on virtue to administer the state, it is sweeter than honey or sugar and firmer than glue or lacquer. That is why sages and worthies exert themselves to revere the foundation and do not dare to depart from it.


What advice for us, now?

Plato told us that the smartest, the best and brightest, should rule.  They should disdain material rewards.  Aristotle told us that leaders should be wholly concerned with the affairs of state.  In the Bible, we have Timothy – pure of heart, self-controlled, not a lover of money.  Confucius told us that leaders should lead by example, and teach virtue. Dong Zhongshu clarified further. Hamilton in Federalist No. 68 told us that the electoral college would ensure that men of preeminent ability and virtue would rule. 

All would agree that loving wisdom is necessary for good rule.  All would agree that rulers should be exemplars of virtue.  All would agree that rulers should be temperate and sincere.

Why, in the name of Plato, Aristotle, Confucius, Paul’s letter to Timothy, Alexander Hamilton … why in the name of God would anyone be thinking of voting for our current dear leader?  Why would someone want to throw away the state?  The inquiring minds of the sages, all of them, want to know.