Jesus Christ and the Common Good

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When I speak to people about politics, I often find that they do not understand the social order.  Historically, ethics is the science of character. It is concerned with how one relates to others. Economics is about the household and the business/firm. Aristotle explained that business/ firms grow out of families.  Politics is concerned with the nature of the city/ state. In Aristotle’s day, only the city/ state is self- sufficient (autarky) and self- governing (autonomy). In our context, the nation/ state achieves autarky and autonomy.

Because the household is the most basic form of community, Aristotle argued that healthy  households were essential to healthy city/ states. Healthy households help form healthy individuals, and citizens who will go on to produce other healthy households. The effective city/ state should have laws that instill virtue and positively affect the family. This effective city/ state is oriented to the common good. So what is the common good?

Aristotle used the idea of “the common interest” (or common good) as the basis for his distinction between “right” constitutions, which are for the common good, and “wrong” constitutions, which are for the good of rulers.  Because of the different types of government that can exist, he believed that one could be a good statesman without being a good man. Regardless of the type of government, Aristotle argued that justice is the common good. To this end, he favored natural families and thought that a society with a large middle class is best.  With the protection and free markets that exist in the cities the state can provide its citizens the “good life.”

Augustine has much to say on the common good. He writes in Caritas in Veritate (7)  “There is a good that is linked to  living in society: the common good.  It is the good of “all of us,” made up of individuals, families,  and intermediate groups who together constitute society. It is a good that is not sought for its own sake, but for the people who belong to the social community and who can only really and effectively pursue their good within it.” Augustine also wrote in Caritas in Veritate (7) “To desire the common good and strive towards it is a requirement of justice and love.”  Man’s love of self results in the temporal city of man. In contrast, man’s love of God moves him to the eternal city of God. He further asserts that justice is loving and serving God only. Augustine identified pride as the enemy of the common good.

Augustine also explains in his City of God (Book 4, chapter 4) that he unconcerned with the type of government, because he viewed all governments as nothing more than a gang of robbers. Human governments cannot instill virtue, because men reject Christ. Consequently,  earthly governments are useful, only in so far as they promote peace and allow for the spread of the Gospel. The authority of the state comes from God so that justice and peace might be maintained. Like Aristotle, Augustine emphasized the importance of natural families.

“The common good,” according to Thomas Aquinas, is the end of law and government.  Aquinas combined the theology of Augustine with the philosophy of Aristotle.  Concerning politics, he was not as optimistic as Aristotle, and he was not as pessimistic as Augustine.  For Aquinas, the common good is a single end pursued and enjoyed by a multitude of individuals. Aquinas then argues for a two-fold understanding of the common good.  In his Summa Theologia (I-II, question 96 answer 3) that the intrinsic common good is the combination of justice and peace. The extrinsic common good is happiness resulting from virtuous living.  Unlike Augustine, Aquinas was concerned with the best kind of government, because the right kind of government will be oriented to the common good. He thought that the best form of government was a monarchy, advised by an an aristocracy.

John Locke declared that “the peace, safety, and public good of the people” are the ends of political society, and further argued that “the well being of the people shall be the supreme law.” Locke’s ideas were followed by the founders of our country, like James Madison.  According to Madison, the “public good,” “common good,” or “general good”  justice is the end of government and civil society. All of these men, were well acquainted with the ideas of Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas. Further, they were in agreement with these men. Consequently, the founders of our country strived for limited government with distributed powers. They also believed in the importance of individual rights because  all men are made after the image of God.

Karl Marx argued that The common good is achieved when the state is the owner of all property, resulting in the equality of all. Marx wanted the abolition of God and of the family unit. He also wanted morality to be determined by the state. In fact, the state is the only source of human rights and receives its authority from a social contract. The common good, according to Marx, is achieved by worldwide revolution.

If you hold to a Christian worldview, you cannot find  the common good  in the writings of Karl Marx.  Marxism in any form is completely incompatible with a Christian worldview. While there is much to be learned from Aristotle, we cannot get the whole picture from him either. Augustine is right to be concerned with eternal things, but he neglects the fact that people also live in the here and now. Only Thomas Aquinas views the common good with both a temporal and an eternal perspective. The founders of this country were by no means perfect, but they agreed enough about the common good so that today, we have the greatest nation on the earth.

As good as our country is, it obviously has many problems. Only the kingdom of God will perfectly achieve the common good. Christians need to remember that the kingdom of God is already, but not yet.  The kingdom of God exists today in the form of the Church., but when Christ returns the kingdom of God will be the one and only kingdom in this world. Only when Christ returns, will the common good be achieved. He is the only one who perfectly understands the common good, because He is the common good. Without Him we cannot in any sense attain justice and righteousness.

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