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March 12, 2012

The leaders of the Arab Spring movement have found it easier to destroy a dictatorship than to build a democracy. That insight comes from Rashid Ghannushi, an intellectual leader in Tunisia, the north African country where the Arab Spring began a year ago.

The first thing to be said to Ghannushi is "Welcome to reality." Likely forever, political idealists have believed that their nation would reach the Promised Land if only oppression would be overthrown and the people could live in freedom.

Alas, it is never simple. Aristotle ended his book on ethics by concluding that virtuous people could only exist in a good society. Then, he ended his book on politics with the insight that a good society could only be created if the people were virtuous. It's a vicious circle.

Aristotle was closer to the truth than the 18th-century philosopher Immanuel Kant who maintained that a just society is possible even in a nation of devils as long as the political institutions are correctly structured.

Idealists eventually discover that even if political structures are sound, the people need to imbibe democratic values before democracy is realized. People must respect the free flow of ideas, they must want to participate constructively in political decision-making, the most distinguished citizens must be willing to assume leadership roles in society, and the people must cooperate in and show respect for the common good.

It must be noted that while the recent history of Canada shows a great emphasis on improving structures, a marked decline has occurred in all four of those democratic values. Personal autonomy has increasingly replaced the common good as society's central value. As this happens, the ties that hold society together unravel and we descend towards a war of all against all.

The world today places great stock – as it ought to – in human dignity. Human dignity consists in our being created in God's image and likeness, our redemption in Christ and our eternal destiny toward communion with God.

Dignity, however, is not simply a characteristic of being human. Dignity can also be perfected or diminished depending on whether one chooses to live a virtuous life. No government can increase one's dignity by enacting virtue. Each person must shoulder that responsibility for him or herself by seeking the truth, resisting sin, repenting of sin and striving to bring about the common good.

Ultimately, each person can achieve full dignity only by living in a right relationship with God. Marred by original sin, such a relationship can only be achieved with the help of God's grace. On this side of the Second Coming, no society will be perfect. But societies can be better to the extent that their citizens become more like angels than like devils.