The Common Good in Late Medieval Political Thought

By M. S. Kempshall | Go to book overview

Introduction

'I don't approve of mixing ideologies,' Ivanov continued. 'There are only two conceptions of human ethics, and they are at opposite poles. One of them is Christian and humane, declares the individual to be sacrosanct and asserts that the rules of arithmetic are not to be applied to human units. The other starts from the basic principle that a collective aim justifies all means and not only allows, but demands, that the individual should in every way be subordinated and sacrificed to the community. . . . Humbugs and dilettantes have always tried to mix the two conceptions; in practice, it is impossible.'1

For the historian to approach the relationship between the common good and the individual good in medieval scholastic political thought is to steer a careful course between a methodological Scylla and Charybdis. On the one hand, there is the risk of elevating it into a 'perennial question' in the history of ideas; on the other, there is the danger of a contextual relativism which would reduce the ideas behind such a relationship to little more than an eclectic amalgam of subjective debris. Even after the common good has been separated from modern philosophical debates over the nature of personal identity or communitarian critiques of liberal individualism, and even after its various 'traditions' have been returned to their appropriate theological, philosophical, logical, political, social, literary, and linguistic contexts, any attempt to establish what exactly constituted a medieval theory of community, what this 'common unity' meant, and how it related to a notion of the individual, remains highly problematic. Too absolute an antithesis between community and individual presents the common good with too sharp a set of alternatives--either it is the same as the individual good or it is superior. Too smooth a synthesis of community and individual risks obscuring precisely the sort of dialectic which lay at the heart of the scholastic method. If scholastic philosophers and theologians in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries possessed an idea of the individual which might indeed be described as Christian and humane, then they also had a notion of a collective aim for the community, a common good to which the individual was subordinate. They did try to mix the two conceptions, a principle of identity with a principle of superiority, the observation that the individual good is the same as the common good with the statement that the common good is better than the individual good. Whether scholastic political theorists therefore deserve to be called humbugs and dilettantes might not be a subject for historical judgement, but it does raise the question of the precision with which they both defined and employed a notion of the common good.

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1
A. Koestler, Darkness at Noon ( Harmondsworth, 1985), 128.

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