“All the Christian Fathers and Theologians:” De Koninck and Aelred of Rievaulx

Charles De Koninck’s passionate defense of the primacy of the common good over any merely private good, published toward the end of World War II, when an understandable reaction against totalitarianism had lead many philosophers to posit the primacy of the “personal” over the social, provoked an equally passionate response by the Rev. I. Th. Eschmann, O.P. Eschmann chiefly objected to De Koninck’s thesis that the good of the order of the whole universe is that good which God principally intends in creation, and to which all particular goods in the universe are subordinated. “Is it necessary to remind Thomists,” Eschamnn writes, “that they should not, in any way whatever, revive the old pagan blasphemy of a divine cosmos?” And if De Koninck’s thesis were true “then the personalists, and with them all the Christian Fathers and theologians and philosophers, should close their shops, go home and do penance, in cinere et cilicio, for having grossly erred and misled the Christian world throughout almost two thousand years.” According to Eschamann De Koninck’s thesis is really a Platonic/Aviccenan thesis that St Thomas was careful to avoid. De Koninck in his reply shows just how central his thesis is to St Thomas’s whole thought, and how deeply it is rooted in scripture and St Augustine. But what of the rest of the fathers and medieval theologians does one find it there? A glance at the Greek Fathers shows that the primacy of the common good was well known to them. And in the pre-Avicennan Middle Ages? Re-reading St Aelred of Rievaulx’s On Spiritual Friendship I was struck by how well developed the specific thesis of the order (or peace) of the universe as the chief intrinsic common good is in his work:

For God, who is supreme in power and goodness, is a good sufficient unto himself; he is himself his own good, his own joy, his own glory, and his own happiness. Nothing exists outside him that he could need, whether person or angel or sky or earth or anything they contain, for every creature cries out to him, “You are my God, for you have no need of my goods.” Not only is he sufficient unto himself, but he is the sufficiency of all other things, giving to some existence, to others sensation, and to still others intelligence. He is the cause of all that exists, the life of everything with sensation, and the wisdom of everyone endowed with intelligence. Therefore, as the highest nature he fashioned all natures, set everything in its place, and with discernment allotted each its own time. Moreover, since he so planned it eternally, he determined that peace should guide all his creatures and society unite them. Thus from him who is supremely and uniquely one, all should be allotted some trace of his unity. For this reason, he left no class of creatures isolated, but from the many he linked each one in a kind of society. —I.51-52

(Deus enim summe potens et summe bonus, sibi ipsi sufficiens bonum est; quoniam bonum suum, gaudium suum, gloria sua, beatitudo sua, ipse est. Nec est aliquid extra ipsum quo egeat, non homo, non angelus, non coelum, non terra, nec aliquid quod in ipsis est, cui omnis creatura proclamat: Deus meus es, quoniam bonorum meorum non eges. Nec tantum sibi sufficit ipse, sed et omnium rerum sufficientia ipse est, dans aliis esse, et aliis sentire, aliis insuper et sapere, ipse omnium existentium causa, omnium sentientium vita, omnium intellegentium sapientia. Ipse itaque summa natura omnes naturas instituit, omnia suis locis ordinavit, omnia suis temporibus discrete distribuit. Voluit autem, nam et ita ratio eius aeterna prescripsit, ut omnes creaturas suas pax componeret, et uniret societas; et ita omnia ab ipso qui summe et pure unus est quoddam unitatis vestigium sortirentur. Hinc est quod nullum genus rerum solitarium reliquit, sed ex multis quadam societate connexuit. —I.IV)

In other words, the unity of peace that unites all creatures, the tranquility of created order, is the trace of the creator in His creation–that for the sake of which he creates. Hence Aelred goes on to say that sin consists in puttung one’s private good before the common good:

But after the fall of the first human, with charity growing lukewarm, when cupidity crept in and let private gain supplant the common good

(At post lapsum primi hominis, cum refrigescente caritate cupiditas subintrasset, fecisset que bono communi privata praeponi…)

16 thoughts on ““All the Christian Fathers and Theologians:” De Koninck and Aelred of Rievaulx

  1. “Fifth Objection: Society is an Accidental Whole
    This difficulty presupposes a false notion of the common good. The common good does not formally look to the society insofar as the latter is an accidental whole; it is the good of the substantial wholes which are the members of the society.”

    If a particular society is an accidental whole, where does the form exist?

    If a particular society is an accidental whole, then how can the common good exist is in each man as subject according to his nature as social animal?

    While I appreciate his attempt to walk the precarious fine line between the personalists on one side and the social pantheists on the other, his solution leaves the door open for the nationalists for whom the modern leviathans are natural because the difference between a society that a man can walk across in a day versus flying across in day is accidental.


    • I should add, this is probably just my incapacity to understand the issue, but I simply don’t see how it can be natural to a man to be social, but yet the given particular society the man is a member of is an accidental whole.

      The people watching a play at a park are a social accidental whole. A society where a common good formally exists, where men can be demanded to die in war defending it is more than accidentally a whole because defense of the integrity of the society can be a reason for defense.


  2. Pingback: De Koninck and Aelred of Rievaulx | John G. Brungardt, Ph.L.

  3. CDK is using “accidental whole” in the strict sense where it simply means not a substantial whole. He does not mean to imply that society is an arbitrary, artificial, conventional, or dispensible thing. In this sense that very natural society the family is an accidental whole. In created things perfection is a matter of accidents, not of substance. So the unity of order of the whole cosmos is an accident, the unity of virtue in the individual soul is an accident etc. Man is called good or evil (simply speaking) in virtue of accidents. Now, St Thomas does teach that in any perfect society that achieves an authentic common good there is also a separate substance (an angel) at work watching over that good (e.g. for the People of Israel St Michael the Archangel), but the angel is not a member of that society.

    I agree with you, though, that De Koninck does not sufficiently consider the difficulties with the “default” form of political community in modernity.


    • Do you think the problem is with the nation as such or the modern liberal nation-state? There is quite a difference in my opinion.


        • I have in mind the distinction between pre-Revolutionary France and modern France. The nation of France exists in both cases, but there is a radical difference between them. One is much closer to the political model you would prefer (heirarchical Catholic monarchy), while the other has no concern for the common good (MacIntyre). Pierre Manent would of course note that now Europe is attempting to move beyond the liberal nation-state and politics for the sake of pure democracy.

          I guess what I am getting at is the issue of whether the nation as such is a problem. Is the political form separated from its current liberal manifestation itself a problem? It isn’t compatible with a MacIntyrian conception of politics, but perhaps it would be with a more Dantean model. I am thinking of the original hope of Catholics for European integration.

          This distinction is also what makes Manent’s defense of the nation so frustrating because he utterly fails to make this distinction. But that is another digression.


          • Well, I don’t the nation as such is a problem, but I do think that the idea that the nation must coincide with the “societas perfecta” the sovereign political unit, is.


  4. Let it be that society is an accidental whole, It doesn’t take much for me to be over my head when delving into these subjects, but nevertheless referring to society as an accidental whole where that whole is insufficient to be looked at for the common good and where the individuals must be looked at leaves much to be desired.

    Let it be an accidental whole, but that accidental whole has a natural human scale limit, (A natural limit according to human scale which of course puts me at odds with every person who would defend the war of northern aggression as just according to the concept of preserving a natural social union.) a human scale that is first as society, not first as substantial whole individuals. Because men are by nature born into society, (not compacted into society), there exists a natural unity that may be accidental insofar as made up of this or that person in the same manner as this matter or that may be accidental to the substantial whole individuals, but there is some type of form that appears to exist as society where the common good occurs in society just as sightedness occurs naturally in men.

    To cite that society is an accidental whole, and then in turn go straight to the individuals as substantial wholes bypassing all else in between may not be wrong insofar as society is an accidental whole, but nevertheless the bypassing of all else in between likewise appears to miss the in between where society actually exists.


    • I think the question of the natural scale of human community is an important one, and I see the force of your argument for small scale (though I can also see the force of Virgil and Dante’s appeal for universal empire). Nevertheless it remains true that it is individual substances who are finally the beneficiaries of the common good–a city has no mind with which to know its own good and no will with which to love it. The common good is common, but it is known and loved by persons. Finally the good of a community is common to its members.


      • Sancrucensis writes : “a city has no mind with which to know its own good”

        Where does a city exist?
        A city does not exist apart from those who compose it, and those who compose it do have a common mind.


        • Well, OK, but what does it mean to say that they have a common mind? If a city is delivered from siege or something everyone rejoices, one can say “the city rejoices in the knowledge of its salvation,” but it is really those who compose it rejoicing together.


          • I don’t disagree that the final good is individual.

            A common mind is in part the inculcated dispositions and traditions of the people to act for common ends. A common mind, for lack of a better word, is the soul of the people.

            A properly ordered society not only has unified dispositions and traditions in all the various aspects of daily and civil life, but more importantly, men by nature order themselves to be unified in those dispositions and traditions.

            Or look at it this way, voting is a singular act of each individual, but the election is the act of the unity. The city exists in the people as a common subject made up of individuals.


  5. btw, I don’t think “Virgil and Dante’s universal empire“ is necessarily at odds with a localized human scale insofar as what he sought was an overarching government that would help ensure universal peace.

    Unfortunately, we have all too much experience of what would most likely be the result. Part of human scale that must be accounted for is fallen nature and how it’s disorder is geometrically increased as institutions increase in size. Fortunately, Christ established an institution that can serve the purpose because it’s both sufficiently benign and authoritative where it needs to be authoritative.


  6. Pingback: Edmund Waldstein OCist | kolokvium

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.