The Common Good in Late Medieval Political Thought

By M. S. Kempshall | Go to book overview

4
Thomas Aquinas--Love, Justice, and the Life of Virtue

Aquinas' theoretical analysis of the common good offers a series of metaphysical models with which to explain the relationship between the individual and the common good--the analogical participation of individual goods in universal goodness and in God, the communication of goodness to other individuals as a necessary aspect of being good (bonum est diffusivum sui), and the benefit which is done to others as the effect of an individual's receipt of grace. It was within these terms of reference, therefore, that Aquinas interpreted the comparative terminology from book I of Aristotle Ethics. The common good is 'greater', 'better', and 'more divine' than the individual good because it represents a closer approximation to the likeness of God. Aquinas appears rather more reluctant to use the term 'more perfect', at least in the context of the political community. Otherwise, his metaphysical account of goodness in the universe left him firmly committed to the general principle that the common good is superior to the individual good. Aquinas' commitment to the principle of superiority, however, was also accompanied by an endorsement of the principle of identity both in his account of the predication of goodness in individual things and in his analysis of the natural inclination of all individuals to will the good. Thus, the individual good shares an analogical identity with the universal good, whilst the individual wills what is good for himself in willing what is good in general. At a human level, this principle of identity also underpins Aquinas' account of the goal of happiness. The common good is the same as the individual good because the individual's good of virtue is the same as the supreme good of human happiness. This too was a principle which could readily be tied to book I of the Ethics, where Aristotle's insistence that good for the community is greater and more perfect than good for the individual had been prefaced by the phrase 'even if the good is the same' (si enim et idem).

Aquinas' theoretical analysis of the common good, however, is not limited to the terms which he found in book I of the Ethics. Aristotle's principle that it is better and more divine to secure the good for a people and for city-states, for example, had been preceded by the observation that it is worthy (kalon) to secure it for one person. Aquinas accordingly picks up on this last term (translated by Grosseteste as amabile) and uses it to put forward the more general argument that the individual should show greater love for the common good.1 For Aquinas, the relationship between the

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1
IIaIIae 26.4.

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