The Common Good in Late Medieval Political Thought

By M. S. Kempshall | Go to book overview

Conclusion

The history of late thirteenth- and early fourteenth-century scholastic political thought is frequently construed along the lines of two important twentieth-century interpretations. The first of these explanatory frameworks is generally traceable, in one form or another, to the influence of Walter Ullmann. The rediscovery of Aristotle's Ethics and Politics, it is argued, had an inevitably corrosive influence on medieval hierocracy once the rediscovery of the principle that humankind is political by nature rather than by sin prompted the conceptual transformation of the subject into the citizen and the emergence of a 'secular' theory of 'the state'.1 The second of these interpretations is usually associated with the work of Georges de Lagarde. The dissolution of a hitherto dominant ecclesiastical corporatism, it is argued, was hastened by a novel concentration on individual consent and individual rights which was inspired by the refusal of nominalist epistemology and metaphysics to accept anything 'real' outside of the individual.2

The attribution of either of these twentieth-century paradigms to scholastic political and ethical thought, either as 'secular' naturalism or as 'secular' individualism, needs to be reassessed in the light of the scholastic understanding of the common good. The first interpretation, for example, invites an analysis of what the scholastic notion of the common good reveals about the secularizing potential of the reintroduction of Aristotle Ethics and Politics. Did the reception of these texts constitute the inherently revolutionary force which it is sometimes claimed to be? The second interpretation, meanwhile, invites an analysis of what the scholastic notion of the relationship between the individual and the common good reveals about the inclusivity of medieval corporatism. Did the idea of 'the individual' have to wait for nominalism in order to be freed from a complete and absolute subordination to the political and ecclesiastical hierarchies? In suggesting alternative solutions to these issues, moreover, two further questions arise. Once it is established that scholastic theologians were able to distinguish between what is morally good and what is advantageous, this naturally invites a consideration of the consequences for scholastic political thought of being able to choose between two different definitions of the common good, between bonum commune and communis utilitas. Likewise, once it

____________________
1
e.g. The Cambridge History of Medieval Political Thought, 360: 'The chief innovation of late medieval political thought was the development of the idea of the secular state as a product of man's political nature. This concept was acquired through the rediscovery of Aristotle Politics and Ethics. Aristotle provided a ready-made theory of politics and the state as existing within a purely natural and this-worldly dimension.'
2
G. de Lagarde, La Naissance de l'esprit laïque au déclin du moyen âge, 3rd edn ( 5 vols.; Louvain, 1956-70), vols. iii-v.

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