The Common Good in Late Medieval Political Thought

By M. S. Kempshall | Go to book overview

I
Albertus Magnus--Aristotle and the Common Good

In book I of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle opens his enquiry into happiness by examining the goals of various branches of human knowledge--medicine is directed towards health, shipbuilding towards a ship, military strategy towards victory, economics towards wealth. Since the teleological process of choosing to undertake something for the sake of something else cannot be extended indefinitely, Aristotle suggests that there must be one goal which is secured for its own sake. He identifies this goal as the supreme good, to agathon kai to ariston, and defines its science as politics. Politics, he concludes, is the branch of knowledge which orders all other disciplines towards this supreme good, the human good of happiness. Aristotle then closes this part of his discussion with the following observation:

For even if the good is the same [tauton] for an individual and for a city-state, that of the city- state appears to be greater [meizon] and more perfect [teleioteron] both to attain and to preserve. Although it is satisfactory [agapeton] to secure the good for one person alone, it is nobler [kallion] and more divine [theioteron] to secure it for a people or for city-states.1

Aristotle's identification of the supreme good of happiness as the goal of political science has at least two important consequences for his ethical and political thought. In the first instance, it establishes a profoundly social conception of human fulfilment--individuals secure the supreme human good by participating in the political community. In the second instance, it explicitly combines what might otherwise have been seen as mutually exclusive alternatives--the principle that the common good is the same as the individual good and the principle that the common good is superior to the individual good.

Aristotle's immediate concern in book I of the Ethics is to establish that the supreme good for humankind is happiness. In the process, however, he is also drawn into a more general discussion of what it is to be 'good', of what it means to predicate goodness of different individual things. The result is a highly compressed critique of

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1
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, ed. L. Bywater ( Oxford, 1894), I.2 1094b7-10, p. 2. For general introductions, see W. F. R. Hardie, Aristotle's Ethical Theory, 2nd edn. ( Oxford, 1980); J. O. Urmson, Aristotle's Ethics ( Oxford, 1988); T. H. Irwin, Aristotle's First Principles ( Oxford, 1988), chs. 16-21. For 'happiness', see J. L. Ackrill, "'Aristotle and Eudaimonia'", PBA 60 ( 1974), 339-59; A. O. Rorty (ed.), Essays on Aristotle's Ethics ( Berkeley, 1980), 15-33. For this particular passage, see Irwin, Aristotle's First Principles, 352-4; R. A. Gauthier and J. Y. Jolif (eds.), L'Éthique à Nicomaque, 2nd edn. (3 vols.; Louvain-Paris, 1958-9), ii. 10-12; J. A. Stewart, Notes on the Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle ( Oxford, 1892), 23-4.

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