The Common Good in Late Medieval Political Thought

By M. S. Kempshall | Go to book overview

2
Albertus Magnus--Common Good and Common Benefit

When Albertus Magnus analyses the principles of identity and superiority in book I of the Ethics and the actions of bravery and self-sacrifice in book IX, the coherence of his account hinges on the different shades of meaning which can be given to the terms 'common good' and 'individual good'. On Albertus' reading, the common good can be considered in the sense of human happiness but also in the sense of the security of the human community; the individual good can be considered in the sense of living a life of virtue but also in the sense of possessing material property and temporal existence. Shades of meaning should not, in this instance, be taken as a euphemism for any lack of conceptual clarity. On the contrary, Albertus' sensitivity to these differences in deinition takes the form of carefully teasing out the various distinctions between the different types of good which can be found across the entire series of human associations, from the friendship of one individual with another individual to the congregation of all individuals in the political community. It is the precision of this differentiation which enables Albertus to resolve the apparent discrepancy between the superiority of the common good in book I and the superiority of the individual good in book IX-- the common good of happiness may be superior to the individual good of virtue but the individual good of virtue is superior to the common good of material security. Albertus' classification of these different types of good, however, does raise one further issue for his understanding of the relationship between individual and common good. If a distinction is being drawn between, on the one hand, the supreme goodness of happiness and virtue (bonum simpliciter) and, on the other, the well-being and security of the community (salus rei publicae), does this amount to the creation of two separate scales of value by which any human action can be measured and, if so, must these different criteria always be in harmony? To put it another way, Albertus' distinction between different types of good invites an examination of his understanding of the wider relationship between goodness and utility, between bonum and utilitas.

Albertus' basic definition of goodness is drawn straight from book I of the Ethics. According to both Aristotle and the Stoics, Albertus reports, the good is that which all things seek (bonum quod omnia appetunt).1 For Albertus, this means that every action is performed on account of the supreme or divine good in the sense that

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1
Ethica I.3.7, p. 39. Cf. Augustine, De Civitate Dei, ed. B. Dombart and A. Kalb ( CCSL47-8), XIV.8, p. 423.

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