The common good is a value arising anew on our streets as thousands of citizens bear witness to injustice by marching in protest at the killing of a black citizen by police and millions here and around the world feel outrage at racism and its history.
For Aquinas, the common good constitutes the very purpose of law and justice-making. It also constitutes the essence of community and what Dr. King called the “beloved community.”
Considering the common good takes us beyond the values of individualism that so marked the modern era. We now live in a post-modern world where the values and structures of the modern era no longer suffice. Economics, education, religion, policing, politics that appeal only to the individual good are passé.
In waking up to centuries of tribalism, colonialism and racism people are recognizing how passe they are also.
While the importance of the individual matters, so too does the health of the community in which individuals operate. Humans are social animals after all and the specific crises of our time including climate change, coronavirus and racism affect groups—not just individuals.
About the common good, Aquinas teaches this: “It is evident that legal justice stands foremost among all the moral virtues, because the common good transcends the individual good of one person.”
What is this “common good” that transcends individual good of one person? It touches us daily: The air we breathe; the water we drink; the soil from which we derive our food; the laws we make; the gatherings we sponsor. “The common good comprises many things because the community of the state is composed of many persons and its good is procured by many actions.”
The common good lies at the heart of all morality for moral virtues are practiced in matters pertaining to the life of the community. Legal justice stands foremost among all the moral virtues, inasmuch as the common good transcends the individual good of one person.
There must be one supreme virtue essentially distinct from every other virtue, which directs all the virtues to the common good. And this virtue is legal justice. Thus justice summarizes the common good and makes it possible.
Justice derives from the common good and directs people to it. The good of any virtue, whether such virtue directs one in relation to oneself or in relation to others is referable to the common good to which justice directs. Thus, all acts of virtue can pertain to justice insofar as it directs people to the common good…In ‘legal justice’ one is in harmony with the law which directs the acts of all the virtues to the common good.
Aquinas’s very definition of law centers around the common good: Law is nothing else than an ordinance of reason for the common good, made by one who has care of the community and promulgated [to the community].
Adapted from Matthew Fox, Sheer Joy: Conversations with Thomas Aquinas on Creation Spirituality, pp. 417, 408, 480.
Banner Image: Men stand in unity at the Black Lives Matter protest in Washington DC 6/6/2020 (IG: @clay.banks). Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash
Queries for Contemplation
Are you seeing with fresh eyes the importance of the common good? What are implications of our rediscovering the common good in our time?
How grateful are you that Aquinas introduced this concept and its centrality to justice and law and community-building 800 years ago?
Sheer Joy: Conversations with Thomas Aquinas on Creation Spirituality
Matthew Fox renders Thomas Aquinas accessible by interviewing him and thus descholasticizing him. He also translated many of his works such as Biblical commentaries never before in English (or Italian or German of French). He gives Aquinas a forum so that he can be heard in our own time. He presents Thomas Aquinas entirely in his own words, but in a form designed to allow late 20th-century minds and hearts to hear him in a fresh way.
“The teaching of Aquinas comes through will a fullness and an insight that has never been present in English before and [with] a vital message for the world today.” ~ Fr. Bede Griffiths (Afterword).
Foreword by Rupert Sheldrake
Join Matthew Fox in this special free video event Wednesday June 17 at 5:30pm PT