The Common Good in Late Medieval Political Thought

By M. S. Kempshall | Go to book overview

7
Henry of Ghent--Authority, Obedience, and Resistance

Henry of Ghent's analysis of the relationship between the individual and the common good differs in at least one significant respect from the theories put forward by Albertus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas, and Giles of Rome. Rather than seek a metaphysical explanation for the principle of the superiority of the common good in human society, Henry spends most of his time demonstrating the importance of good for the individual. This difference in emphasis is indicative of a fundamental difference in approach. Self-love, inclusion, and dependence may not, in themselves, have been novel considerations to introduce into the debate. Nevertheless, by choosing to highlight these notions at the expense of any principle of love for a superior common good, Henry avoids the need to posit any correlation between goodness in the political community and goodness in the universe. Henry's emphasis on the presence of good for the individual should certainly still be seen as a contribution to the scholastic interpretation of Aristotle--stressing the importance of the 'greater good' for the self in book IX of the Ethics and minimizing the impact of the 'more perfect' common good in book I. However, it should also be seen as part of a wider debt to Augustine--defining the categories of the ordo caritatis, pointing up the shortcomings of a non-Christian conception of happiness, and realizing the limits of natural human perfectibility in a fallen world.

If Henry's abstract treatment of individual and community is short on references to the priority of the common good when it is compared to the theories of other scholastic theologians, then it also provides a contrast with the frequency with which a notion of the common good appears in his own discussion of more practical questions. Henry was thoroughly conversant, for example, with the idea that utilitas should define the exercise of authority on behalf of those subject to it--a prelate is instituted for the sake of utilitas aliorum and a temporal ruler for the sake of communis utilitas.1 This is a general principle for which Henry provides a number of specific illustrations. In 1290, for example, he sets up communis utilitas as the criterion by which all demands for taxation should be judged--in order to be legitimate, they must secure the common benefit.2 After the fall of Acre in 1291, utilitas ecclesiae is the criterion which he uses to justify the flight of a bishop from a city under siege--if the

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1
e.g. Quod. XII.28, p. 168, quoting Augustine, De Civitate Dei, ed. B. Dombart and A. Kalb (CCSL 48), XIX.19, p. 686.
2
Quod. XIV.8 fo. 352r-v; see below, pp. 193-7.

-179-

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