The Common Good in Late Medieval Political Thought

By M. S. Kempshall | Go to book overview

9
Godfrey of Fontaines--Authority, Obedience, and Resistance

The exchanges of opinion which took place between Godfrey of Fontaines, Henry of Ghent, and James of Viterbo in the 1280s and 1290s suggest that the scholastic notion of the common good could accommodate a significant measure of disagreement. Of the three theologians, it was Godfrey who chose to follow Aquinas in drawing a close connection between metaphysical goodness in the universe and the political good of the human community. As a result, although he made a point of emphasizing that the common good includes the presence of good for the individual, it was Godfrey who displayed the fewest reservations over subordinating the individual to the political community as a part within a perfect whole. It would be a natural temptation to conclude, on this basis, that, of the three theologians, it should have been Godfrey who had the most to say about the overriding importance of the common good in concrete political contexts. Examples of its practical application are certainly widespread throughout his work. However, Henry of Ghent demonstrated that it was quite possible for a scholastic theologian to place the common good at the heart of his political analysis at the same time as having a very weak notion of any metaphysical 'good in common' and a very limited definition of the goods which are actually secured by the human community. It remains an open question, therefore, whether Godfrey's discussion of the practical consequences of the common good in human society was necessarily connected to his analysis of goodness in God and in the universe.

Godfrey's interest in the political application of a notion of the common good emerged from the same contemporary contexts which so stimulated Henry of Ghent. Godfrey was a canon at Liège and (like Henry) at Tournai, and some historians have accordingly inferred a shared sense of Flemish urban 'corporatism'.1 Much more pertinent, perhaps, was the fact that, as a secular master, Godfrey was, like Henry, an interested party to the controversy over Ad fructus uberes. The debates over the legitimacy of the pope's dispensing power and over the relative merits of secular clergy and religious orders which this controversy spawned turned 'benefit to

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1
C. Renardy, Le Monde des maîtres universitaires du diocèse de Liège: Repertoire biographique 1140-1350 ( Paris, 1981), 258; G. de Lagarde, "'La Philosophie sociale d'Henri de Gand et Godefroid de Fontaines'", AHDLMA 14 ( 1943-5), 73-142; id., La Naissance de l'esprit laïque au déclin du moyen âge, 3rd edn. ( 5 vols.; Louvain, 1956-70), ii, ch. 8. In Lagarde's view, this sense is stronger in Godfrey than Henry and leads him to interpret the common good as a formal and 'constitutional' expression of the community ( La Naissance, 212).

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