What is the Primary Intrinsic Common Good of Political (or Imperial) Community?

Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Allegory of Good Government

Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Allegory of Good Government

Does the American political tradition at its best consider the good of the republic to be something good in itself, an honest good, or merely a useful good, an instrument to aid citizens in the attainment of their private goods? In a recent discussion of this question a friend of mine proposed looking at American patriotic poetry rather than political treatises. His idea, if I understand him aright, is that while on a theoretical level American political thought has tended to deny the primacy of the common good, the American people have a natural and implicit love for and understanding of the true political good, and this is expressed in their patriotic songs etc. This points to an interesting tension in modern liberal democracies between their theoretical self-understanding and the image of themselves that the must propose to the imagination of their citizens. Alasdair MacIntyre once pointed this out in a memorable passage:

The modern state and those who inhabit and seek to uphold it confront a dilemma. It has to present itself in two prima facie incompatible ways. It is, and has to be understood as, an institutionalized set of devices whereby individuals may more or less effectively pursue their own goals, that is, it is essentially a means whose efficiency is to be evaluated by individuals in cost-benefit terms. Yet at the same time it claims, and cannot but claim, the kind of allegiance claimed by those traditional political communities – the best type of Greek polis or of medieval commune – membership in which provided their citizens with a meaningful identity, so that caring for the common good, even to the point of being willing to die for it, was no other than caring for what was good about oneself. The citizen of the modern state is thus invited to view the state intellectually in one way, as a self-interested calculator, but imaginatively in quite another. The modern state presented only in the former light could never inspire adequate devotion. Being asked to die for it would be like being asked to die for the telephone company. And yet the modern state does need to ask its citizens to die for it, a need that requires it to find some quite other set of images for its self-presentation.

MacIntyre goes on to explain how this incoherence could be glossed over at the level of imagination (hence the importance of patriotic poetry). If MacIntyre’s analysis of the problem is trenchant, he is unable to propose any very satisfactory solution. MacIntyre suggests resistance to the bureaucratic states through the formation of particular associations of virtuous practice in which authentic common goods can be realized.

In a remarkable essay Thomas Osborne shows how MacIntyre’s neglects the distinction between complete and incomplete communities. The associations of virtuous practice that MacIntyre proposes can realize certain common goods, but they cannot have care for the primary common good of human life. St Thomas holds that a all particular communities are ordered to a complete community (communitas perfecta), which has care for the common good, from which is derived the authority to make law and enforce it with the sword:

As one man is a part of the household, so a household is a part of the state: and the state is a perfect community, according to Polit. I. 1. And therefore, as the good of one man is not the last end, but is ordained to the common good; so too the good of one household is ordained to the good of a single state, which is a perfect community. Consequently he that governs a family, can indeed make certain commands or ordinances, but not such as to have properly the force of law. (Ia-IIae Q 90, A 3, ad 3)

But Osborne shows that MacIntyre’s neglect of the importance of communitas perfecta is rooted in a deeper misunderstanding of the nature of the transcendence of the common good. Here Osborne refers to De Koninck’s profound work on the primacy of the common good. The common good of its nature requires a complete community to be realized. But this again leads to question where is such a community to be found? Osborne suggests that the modern bureaucratic state might be a kind defective complete community (imperfect perfect community?): “Although [contemporary nation states] may not express the true justification for their functions and may contain inherent inconsistencies, their role in administering justice and preserving some order may in fact fulfill many roles of the complete community and consequently deserve their citizens’ allegiance.” (Osborne, p.89)

To develop Osborne’s line of thought further one would have to give a more precise account of what exactly the common good is that a complete community is supposed to realize. Michael W. Hannon recently made an attempt at this in an article which was the immediate occasion of the debate on the political good as honest or useful with which I began this post. Hannon defends the idea of the political good as an honest good against an argument by Robert George. Hannon too appeals to De Koninck’s general account of the common good, but when it comes to giving a particular account of what the intrinsic common good of political community is, Hannons account is not entirely satisfactory. Appealing to Aristotle’s politics, Hannon suggests that the good of political community is the activity of political rule itself, in which all the citizens ought to participate. But I claim that while participation in political rule is an element of the primary common good of political community, it is not the whole of that good.

An indication that Hannon’s view is incomplete is given by James Chastek, who points out that the sort of participation that Hannon is thinking of is only possible in a very small community. If the political common good is a prime example of a common good, it would be strange indeed if it could be destroyed merely by increasing the numbers of those in the community. De Koninck recalled that the very essence of a common good is its capacity to to be comunicated without diminution, as Augustine famously wrote: “the possession of goodness is by no means diminished by being shared with a partner either permanent or temporarily assumed; on the contrary, the possession of goodness is increased in proportion to the concord and charity of each of those who share it.” (City of God, XV,5)

For a fuller account of the political good it is helpful to look not just to Aristotle, but also (and even more) to Plato. It is really Plato’s account, as developed in different ways by Virgil and Augustine, that most informs St Thomas’s thought on the common good. The common good is the good of order:

For he, Adeimantus, whose mind is fixed upon true being […] his eye is ever directed towards things fixed and immutable, which he sees neither injuring nor injured by one another, but all in order moving according to reason; these he imitates, and to these he will, as far as he can, conform himself. […] And the philosopher holding converse with the divine order, becomes orderly and divine, as far as the nature of man allows […] And if a necessity be laid upon him of fashioning, not only himself, but human nature generally, whether in States or individuals, into that which he beholds elsewhere, will he, think you, be an unskilful artificer of justice, temperance, and every civil virtue? […] And if the world perceives that what we are saying about him is the truth, will they be angry with philosophy? Will they disbelieve us, when we tell them that no State can be happy which is not designed by artists who imitate the heavenly pattern? (Republic 500)

The divine order (harmony, beauty) is reflected in the order of the visible cosmos, in the order of the virtuous soul, and finally in the order of the just political community.

St Augustine deepens this Platonic teaching, and synthesizes it with the Old Testament teaching on peace as the greatest good. But it is St Thomas who shows most clearly shows the depth of what is expressed in these ideas, in his teaching on the good of order as the primary good intended by God in creation:

The multitude and distinction of things has been planned by the divine mind and has been instituted in the real world so that created things would represent the divine goodness in various ways and diverse beings would participate in it in different degrees, so that out of the order of diverse beings a certain beauty would arise in things.

The order of the whole of creation is what De Koninck calls “the good of the universe” and “God’s manifestation outside Himself.” Man as the micro-cosmos can reflect this order in his own person through virtue. This is why virtue can be identified with happiness, because virtue is a participation in that order which is the greatest image of the divine beauty and goodness. And the order in a community is an even greater participation in the cosmic order. This is what Augustine shows with his analysis of the praises of “peace” in the Psalms: “If I forget you, O City of Peace, let my right hand wither! Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set the City of Peace above my highest joy!”

So I would say that the primary common good of political life is the reflection in the community of the order of the universe. A reflection that consists in each part realizing its proper function, in the various parts being ordered to each other in a hierarchy of subordination, and in the whole being ordered to the glory of the Creator.

Virgil uses this Platonic view of order as the good of political life to show that man is not merely a political animal, but also an imperial animal, showing the implications of Aristotle’s own dictum in Metaphysics XII: “the world refuses to be governed badly: ‘The rule of many is not good; one ruler let there be.’” Since beauty consists in the splendor of each part, as well as their order among each other and to the end, the imperial order envisioned by Virgil is a subsidiarist order. Dante, explicitly relates his Virgilian imperialism to St Thomas’s account of the good of the universe:

It is of the intention of God that all things should represent the divine likeness in so far as their peculiar nature is able to receive it. For this reason it was said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” Although “in our image” cannot be said of things inferior to man, nevertheless, “after our likeness” can be said of all things, for the entire universe is nought else than a footprint of divine goodness. The human race, therefore, is ordered well, nay, is ordered for the best, when according to the utmost of its power it becomes like unto God. But the human race is most like unto God when it is most one, for the principle of unity dwells in Him alone. […]  Likewise, every son acts well and for the best when, as far as his individual nature permits, he follows in the footprints of a perfect father. As “Man and the sun generate man,” according to the second book of Natural Learning, the human race is the son of heaven, which is absolutely perfect in all its works. Therefore mankind acts for the best when it follows in the footprints of heaven, as far as its distinctive nature permits. Now, human reason apprehends most clearly through philosophy that the entire heaven in all its parts, its movements, and its motors, is controlled by a single motion, the primum mobile, and by a single mover, God; then, if our syllogism is correct, the human race is best ordered when in all its movements and motors it is controlled by one Prince as by one mover, by one law as by one motion. On this account it is manifestly essential for the well-being of the world that there should exist a Monarchy or unified Principality, which men call the Empire. This truth Boethius sighed for in the words, “O race of men how blessed, did the love which rules the heavens rule likewise your minds!” (Monarchia I,8,9)

This Dantean line of thought is reflected in teaching of the Church (recently recalled in Caritas in Veritate 67) that there is a need for a world political authority. But in order to really pursue “the common good” such an authority would have to be ordered explicitly to God. Since, as both St Augustine and St Thomas emphasize the order of the universe consists more in a common order toward God than in an order of the parts among themselves. Hence De Koninck writes, “When those in whose charge the common good lies do not order it explicitly to God, is society not corrupted at its very root?”

And that brings us again to the question of the modern “secular” state. To what extent is it possible for it to realize the common good? Augustine suggests in Civitate Dei XIX,17 that there is a kind of temporal peace concerned merely with securing the necessities of life of which the citizens of the City of God and those of the City of Man can both make use. This seems to be quite close to the “instrumental good” that Robert George proposes. But Augustine goes on to explain that the City of Man has an inevitably totalizing impulse; it cannot rest in the mere securing of temporal goods but tries to force everyone to join in its idolatries.

In a characteristically brilliant essay William T. Cavanaugh applies the Augustinian account of the City of Man to the modern “secular state,” showing how “the state” (in its modern sense) is inevitably opposed to the true common good. Cavanaugh’s solution is to propose the Church Herself as a communitas perfecta  engaged in beginning to bring about the common good which will be unveiled at the last judgement. In another paper Cavanaugh compares the relation of the Church to the City of Man with the relation of the opera buffa to the opera seria in Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos (in which a comic opera is performed simultaneously on the same stage as a serious opera). NowAriadne auf Naxos does indeed provide an excellent image for the situation of theologians such as Cavanaugh himself; Cavanaugh as the brilliant Zerbinetta singing her song to secular modernity’s unmoved Ariadne:

But doesn’t our tradition have any other model of the relation between the Church and “temporal power” to offer? Oh for good old fashioned Catholic integralism! Oh for Boniface VIII!

23 thoughts on “What is the Primary Intrinsic Common Good of Political (or Imperial) Community?

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  2. Just to be clear about your conclusion, that I just defended to another reader: the state per se is not opposed to the true common good, but rather the modern secular state founded upon notions of liberalism and individualism. Is this an accurate account of your position?


  3. Very good essay. I agree with you on the problems in MacIntyre and Cavanaugh. What is the solution? It can’t be George’s position, of course. The nation-state can’t be the keeper of the common good, as it is an alliance. What can? Smaller nation-states? I leave the problem unanswered at the end of my book because I don’t know the solution. Does Augustine give us on? I don’t think so. The best I can say is to keep knocking down the idols as they appear.


    • I’m beginning to think that history bears out Augustine’s pessimism about the relative numbers of the City of God and the City of Man. If the citizens of the City of God are always in a minority (and even that minority is often betraying its loyalties and serving the other city (as we are constantly reminded simply by examining our consciences)) then it would seem that the chances for a political or imperial order that really serves the common good are rather slim.


    • I think there is, but it would need a good amount of argument to establish. My main point here was that a Platonic view of order as the primary political common good allows one to see that it is possible to have a good political community that is bigger than an Aristotelian polis.


  4. I’ll have to mull it over more, but I don’t think that Cavanaugh has shown that the modern state is inherently opposed to the common good. Or rather, I don’t think his sketch of the rise of the modern state (largely taken from Sprayer) is quite accurate, and therefore leads to imprecision in placing the source of the problems he highlights.

    No attention is paid, for one, to the legal continuity between the medieval and modern West. In 1250 and in 1550 there was a Kingdom of France, legally distinct from the King of France, using in either case a common legal framework. The key change is not the new development of an abstract concept of “France,” but a rearrangement of agency as to public functions within it. And that project, which eventually saw the French Crown (and its Republican successors) as the unique original agent of public functions within defined territorial limits is the end result of centuries of Capetian efforts towards it. The France of 1550 differs from the France of 1250, politically, chiefly in that the Crown had made great strides in its perennial projects of territorial expansion and location of public initiative with the Crown within that territory. Or, one might see the great oak tree overpowering all around it, and wish for the sapling of before; the trouble is that the problems of the ancient oak exist in some form in the sapling, and a great deal of ingenuity must be spent in identifying exactly where and in what ways to arrest its growth, assuming that possible.

    More broadly, I wonder if the Virgilian empire–peaceful, universal in scale, perfectly ordered–is useful more as a model than a reality. Such a conception can serve as a focus to direct our efforts in re-ordering existing political arrangements (I have a bust of Charles V in my office, for more or less this reason), without expectation that the inevitable decay of this world will ever allow it to actually exist, or at best exist briefly before becoming corrupt and killing much good in its corruption.


    • You make a good point. One can also criticize Cavanaugh for the same reason that Osborne criticizes MacIntyre; for not paying enough attention to the need for a coercive societas perfecta. But where I think Cavanaugh strength is in is implication of supposedly “secular” states in idolatry. As Augustine says: ” if the republic is the good of the people, and there is no people if it be not associated by a common acknowledgment of right, and if there is no right where there is no justice, then most certainly it follows that there is no republic where there is no justice. Further, justice is that virtue which gives every one his due. Where, then, is the justice of man, when he deserts the true God and yields himself to impure demons? Is this to give every one his due? Or is he who keeps back a piece of ground from the purchaser, and gives it to a man who has no right to it, unjust, while he who keeps back himself from the God who made him, and serves wicked spirits, is just?…. when a man does not serve God, what justice can we ascribe to him, since in this case his soul cannot exercise a just control over the body, nor his reason over his vices? And if there is no justice in such an individual, certainly there can be none in a community composed of such persons. Here, therefore, there is not that common acknowledgment of right which makes an assemblage of men a people whose affairs we call a republic.” Civ. Dei XIX,21


      • That’s a fair point, but then it would seem that this disloyalty to God, the fountainhead of mis-justice in all social relations, is not inherently more linked to republics than to any other system of governance. Just as there have been monarchies both well- and badly- ordered (by well-ordered, I mean at least intentionally ordered to reflect the divine order, however much the execution may leave wanting), there have been and could be again both well-ordered or badly-ordered republics. The essence of the problem with modern states seems to be two-fold (though interrelated): secularism, which requires the state to turn away from any intelligible source of measure of order higher than itself; and a contract theory which requires the state to view itself as an artificial corporation of fundamentally autonomous individuals with no measure of the mutual obligations involved except, again, itself.

        I think your point about patriotic songs, poetry, etc. is quite good–throughout the West I don’t think the great majority of any nation fully embraces the consequences of secularized, contract-based politics, but merely espouses the principles while relying on older, increasingly vague sentiments to sand away the rougher edges. Thus the typical American will describe the origin and role of states and government as a secular Lockean, while singing old anthems and songs that explicitly or implicitly invoke a far different conception, and all the while leaning on a pared-down, Protestant Christianity to fill in the stark lines of his professed philosophy. Even now, this representative person may recoil from his own professed secular contractualism if he could see it shorn of the inconsistencies left in popular imagination from a past era which disguise its sharper features; as the twentieth and twenty-first centuries go on, however, it seems the principles increasingly displace or colonize the tradition that humanize them.


        • Thinking about it, one issue with republicanism is its weaker defenses to colonization by Enlightenment thought. Hereditary rule makes no real sense unless there is some conception of political hierarchy as reflective of or linked to natural hierarchy, whereas fully elective governments can be conceptualized on a model of autonomous, rights-bearing individuals seeking optimal management of common affairs in their market-like interactions, just as stockholders seek optimal management in business concerns. I’m think, for example, of types who recognize that Madison expected politicians to be self-interested and therefore sought to break up initiative across diverse institutions; and draw the lesson that politicians are *supposed* to pursue their own good rather than public goods for the system to work. This is a hasty thought; you might correct me regarding past uses of the hereditary principle.


          • Well said! I think you are exactly right. I too think that there can be good republics as well as monarchies. Very good point about hereditary monarchy being less liable to colonization by Enlightenment ideas. This is a point that Aelianus as well (although he is actually a republican in the abstract). Another point that I would make w/r/t the republic vs. monarchy thing: republicanism has a much stronger case if one takes Hannon’s view of the primary intrinsic common good of political life than if one takes mine.


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  12. I am not sure why this popped up in my inbox yesterday, but since it did, I will suggest that the Preamble to the United States Constitution seems evidently to point to common goods as the reason for its institution: a more perfect union, the establishment of justice, domestic tranquility, general welfare, the blessings of liberty. (I only omit common defense, which is likely also a common good, at least in a world where defense is necessary.) Each of these are undiminished in being shared, and are properly possessed by all and shared in by individuals.

    Together with the importance of the idea of a “people” underlying the Declaration of Independence and elaborated upon in Federalist 2, I think it makes a radically individualist reading of America’s founding tendentious. My happiness is intimately bound up with my existence as an American, at least as much as an Athenian’s was with Athens: “This country and this people seem to have been made for each other, and it appears as if it was the design of Providence, that an inheritance so proper and convenient for a band of brethren, united to each other by the strongest ties, should never be split into a number of unsocial, jealous, and alien sovereignties.”

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