By Christopher Zehnder

The following the second part of a talk I gave last fall at the Conference of Imago Dei Politics in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. You may read the first part here.

The Common Good and Community

Thus we arrive at the common good, which we can define as that matrix of goods that is productive of happiness for man as man. In other words, the common good is good for everyone, no matter who he or she is. Yet, there is another sense in which we can speak of the common good as common. The common good is common, not simply because we all seek it, but because we can only achieve it together, in community. Despite the ideal of the self-sufficient, self-made man, the fellow who can pull himself up by his own bootstraps, each of us is really dependent on each other to attain even to the least of the common goods.

The creation of Eve, from a late 15th century miniature by Nicolaus de Lyra Troyes

This becomes apparent when we consider our marvelous weakness as individuals. A naked human is a very vulnerable creature, and we are born naked. We do not come ready-made with any of those tools other animals have: we don’t have fur coats or feathers, the swift feet of a greyhound, wings to fly, claws for digging like a sloth or clawing like a cat, strong jaws for grinding like a goat.  There really is not much to us, on the physical level.  Unlike other animals, we are born into a state of utter weakness. As infants, we require the care of others for our very survival – the food, shelter, and warmth necessary for life, the most basic of the common goods. Young children, too, are very helpless. As we grow, we gain in knowledge, experience, and skills; yet, for all of these, we depend for the most part on others. Everything we learn, we learn from others – our parents, primarily, but other adults as well. By these means, we achieve various perfections in the mastery of our bodies and the education of our minds. Yet, even for that rather natural and, as it were, automatic biological perfection – our ability to reproduce ourselves – we must rely on another.  To reproduce another of our kind, a man needs a woman, a woman needs a man. Without the other, a man cannot be a father or a woman a mother.

Thus, if we are to fulfill even our most basic needs, we must live in relation with others of our kind; without them, we cannot have, keep, or perpetuate life. Community thus is necessary for the attainment of the most fundamental goods that we call common, and the most basic form of this community, and the most natural, is what we call the family. The family, too, is the school in which we first attain those habits of will and mind that we call virtue. It is where we learn to be good and attain the fundamental understanding not only of what is good, but what is beautiful and true as well.

Yet further reflection forces us to acknowledge that even the family is itself an imperfect community. It is conceivable that a single family could provide for many of its needs, like families on the American frontier nearly did. Yet, the press of the most basic needs for food, shelter, and clothing in such cases would perforce leave unfulfilled other aspirations implicit in our rational nature. Indeed, such a family, even if it could fulfill its basic material needs, would leave untapped its members’ capacity to achieve the higher common goods in the areas of culture, art, understanding, and spirituality. The care for the body would leave little time for the cultivation of culture, knowledge, and wisdom.

Thus, to attain a higher existence than mere subsistence, families have united in extended family groupings, tribes, and villages. By lending more hands for the basic tasks of life, these larger communities permit the development of the crafts and such things as music, story, poetry, and the plastic arts. These smaller communities, in turn, have tended to unite in larger communities under a common directive principle, a government, in what we might call a city or polity. In a polity they can perfect the arts ordered to practical ends – farming, for instance, or any of the trades – and so achieve a higher level of material sufficiency. But the perfection of the arts allows time for more leisure, by which I do not mean mere recreation but the striving for what perfects us in our apprehension of truth, goodness, and beauty. So it is, in a polity, that we can achieve ever greater perfections in the arts and in the disciplines of knowledge – mathematics, the natural sciences, philosophy, and theology.

With the polity, it seems, we have attained to what Aristotle, for one,  called a perfect community; but what we have said of this community so far does not exhaust its potential for realizing the common good.  For this good is not merely ours, today; it is not even just the heritage of our children. The polity includes all those who have gone before us, shattering the isolation of the now. No generation by itself and in its own time can achieve all the perfections of art, knowledge, and wisdom. We must learn from those who have gone before us lest we be condemned to perpetual reinvention and discovery. In a most perfect way, life in a polity affords greater scope for the recording of collective memory and the transmission of skill, knowledge, and wisdom. Political life, in other words, preserves tradition – the organ that joins individuals and families in a community not circumscribed by time.

It may seem that with the polity we have exhausted the potential of human community to achieve the common good, yet this is not so. The world is, of course, filled with many polities with their own traditions; yet these traditions, rooted as they are in particular cultures and peoples, suffer from limitations. No one culture encompasses all the knowledge, wisdom, insight, moral ethos, and feeling of which man as man is capable.

The angel shows St. John the polity of polities — the New Jerusalem, from The Apocalypse in Figures of the Dukes of Savoy, late 15th century

Thus, since no people or culture is sufficient to itself, it needs the influence of the mores, experience, and thought of other cultures. Though a certain pride in, and preference for, one’s own culture is proper, chauvinism turns a people in on itself, exaggerating its peculiarities, and perverting even its virtues (by isolation) into vices. As long as it is not an excuse for moral or intellectual indifference, the diversity of mankind is an opportunity for the mutual enrichment of cultures.

In sum, then, man, radically incomplete as an individual, can only approach the fullness of the common good through a life lived with others in a series of ascending communities that transcend first sex, then age, then blood relation, and, then finally, time and place. Only in community life can we attain the common good, that is, our perfection as human beings. Community life is necessary for the realization of all of us, and each one of us, as the image of God.

The Common Good and the Person

I have developed thus far what might be called a classic Thomistic doctrine of the common good. It is a doctrine I think that, if understood rightly, provides a sufficient grounding from which can begin to address the longings of our time for a renewed social order and political life. It gives  the lie to the system of Liberalism, which has basically denied the common good and asserted only the reality of the individual good. Yet, if not rightly understood, an idea of the common good can lead to evils other than those that have sprung from this exaggerated individualism.

For we may be tempted to think of the common good as the good of society or of the nation but not of the individual. Such a view has informed both Fascism and Collectivism. For the Fascist, the common good is the good of the nation, which is made up of individuals who do not share in the common good, except indirectly. For collectivism, this good is the good of a social class, the proletariat, but not, properly speaking, of the individuals who make up that social class. Under such systems, the good of the whole community is the only absolute good, and the good of individuals is, on that account, expendable. If the good of the nation or the class demands it, the individual is expendable.

Such an understanding of the common good ignores what is central to the idea of the common good – namely, that it is common. The goods that make up the common good are the goods of human nature, which is to be found not first in the community but in each person. It is the good of the entire community precisely because the community is made up of persons that find their perfection in attaining the common good. For the person, the common good is not an alien good, residing in the community but not in himself. Rather, the common good resides in the community by residing in each and every member of that community. In fact, the common good is only realized in the community when each and every person in the community has, at least, the opportunity of participating in the good of all.

It is for this reason that we cannot be said to love the common good if we do not desire that everyone one of our brothers possess his part of it. We must love the common good as common to all, or we do not love it at all. In other words, love of the common good implies love of neighbor.

Nowhere is this more true than in the love we should have for God; for God, as the object of our final blessedness, is our final common good. In fact, it is the God-given purpose of every person to enjoy union with him forever which provides the basis for including all the other goods of which we have spoken in the common good. We provide for our material needs so that we can enjoy a life of culture and contemplation. We contemplate, however, that we might develop those habits of mind and heart that prepare us for the grace by which we can attain to the summit of our desires, the vision of God himself. This summit of our desires is the object of our love; and in loving him, we perforce love every creature.

This is why society cannot intentionally deny any of the common goods to anyone. This is why we can speak of a human right, not just to life, but to those goods that support and sustain life: the rights to access food, shelter, and health care. It is why we must insist that culture not be the province only of an elite, or that access to education be relegated only to those who can pay a high enough price for it. It is not that every perfection of culture or education belongs to every person, for some have a greater capacity for such things than others. It is to say, however, that each person in society should be able to access what he or she needs to live a fully human life. And since it is life in society that makes these goods possible, society should seek ways to make the access to such goods possible for each and every one of its members, according to his or her capacity and need.

Such a view of the common good and social life obviously asks for devotion on the part of each and every one of us. It is right and proper that we strive for this good for ourselves; for only by attaining it can we perfect the image of God within us with that likeness of God in which Adam and Eve were first constituted and for which we, in inexpressible joy, hope. Yet, if one seeks this good only for himself, he will never find it; it will no longer be the good he seeks, for that good is common. The common good is the good of each and every person, and of all of us together. It is,finally, God, who, the Christian faith tells us, became one of us and gave his life as a ransom for many. And that “many” means all, and each and every human person.