Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Common Good and Its Counterfeits

THERE ARE RULES, AND THEN THERE ARE LAWS. Laws are rules, but not all rules are laws. What is it that distinguishes rules or ordinances from law in the strict sense? The distinguishing feature between laws and all other systems of order is that law "stands for a rule relative to the common good, and more precisely, to the common good of a community distinguished by [a relative] amplitude and completeness." Simon, 87. The laws' direct relation to the common good raises in tandem the question of whether the common good has a relative primacy over private good, and thereby have a superior claim to our loyalty over our private interests. This takes us directly into the question of the relationship between the individual and the community. In this post we will review Yves Simon's comments regarding the common good. In the next we will address Simon's comments regarding individualism.

The modern Western world idolizes individualism, and shuns any form of collectivism, and with such bias becomes tone deaf to the calls for the common good, to solidarity among people. Modernly, there is, without doubt, a bias against the common good to which we must become sensitive if we are to regain balance. The prevailing individualism expresses itself in the language of right at the expenses of the language of law; whereas a collectivist view will express itself in the language of law at the expense of the language of right. To walk between excessive individualism and excessive collectivism and speak in terms of the "common good" where both individual and collective good are balanced is to walk a tightrope. (The disease has infected even Evangelical Christianity which talks much of a personal, individual relationship with Christ, but seems to have completely overlooked the equally important obligation of membership in the Church and incorporation into the Body of Christ. Private prayer and private penance is given precedence over public liturgy and public confession.)

For all the value placed on the individual, it is apparent that the community has certain qualities that make it transcend the individual in the natural order. Simon places the preeminence of the community to the individual in the qualities of "duration" and "completeness" that the common good has over the private good. These qualities of the community are what justifies law, which aims to the common good, and not private good.

The common good is of greater duration than individual good. It is true that human communities do not live eternally; only individual human souls do. Knowledge of the individual soul's immortality is something that is vouchsafed by reason and by revelation. (The Church, being of divine institution and not of natural institution is excluded from this analysis, as the Church , in distinction from the State, transcends time and lives in eternity in the Church Triumphant. But there is no "Tribe Triumphant" or "State Triumphant" or "Nation Triumphant" in the Eschaton.) Though only the individual soul is immortal, the individual soul's immortality does not impeach the importance of the community in the natural order which persists beyond the individual deaths of men, irrespective of the eternal life of their souls. Simon refers to the requirements of the duration of the temporal order over and against the individual as the "problems of duration."
In this life, contemplation, joy, and the happier forms of love raise men above the world of becoming and destruction. But these true images of eternity are accessible here below, only by rare privilege, and their supratemporal way of existing is quickly suspended by the needs of a life which never ceases to be engaged in the stream of universal becoming.
Simon, 88. Wealth, education, language, science, culture, tradition. These are natural goods that must be taken up and passed down, or they would be lost by the death of the individual if not resident in the community, and these therefore have a life beyond the individual. They reside, as it were, in the community, and an individual shares in them but in passing. These endure in community, but not in the individual. Macbeth well-expresses man's short, seeming limited contribution in the natural order, albeit with the pessimism of a pagan:
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.
Shakespeare, Macbeth, V.5.19-28.

The human species is expressed but briefly in an individual life, individual life is an ephemeral spark. Yet within the chain of individual lives one finds in the expanse of generations that occurs in the life a community, a nation (though nations come and go) and, more broadly, a human people (such as the Jews, though they come and go, e.g., the Cro-Magnons) or, more broadly yet, the human species, that human life persists virtually immortal. No individual man has the staying power, the duration of a family or tribe, much less of a nation, a people, or the species. "The duration is a trait by which the primacy of the common over the private good is clearly established." Simon, 89.

There is, however, something more than "duration" that accords a dignity to the common, rather than the individual, life. "[M]ore profoundly, it is a completeness which determines the greater excellence of the common good." Simon, 89. What does Simon mean by "completeness"? The fact is that individuals are limited. This is what drives the need for the division of labor and the specialization that comes with it. The specialization is required even for the necessaries of life: safety from aggression, shelter, food, and so forth. But the specialization is required a fortiori for the more noble pursuits: the sciences or the arts, or even moral wisdom. There is, therefore, an intrinsic need to contribute to the common life, to sociability. "This need is so deeply rooted in our rational nature," notes Simon, "that when it is frustrated it soon breeds a singular power of destruction." Simon, 90. Refuse a man a wife and friends; put him in solitary confinement, or worse, educate him in moral solipsism, and you will see what Simon means.

There are common goods. Yet there are also their counterfeits. Utilitarianism ("greatest good for the greatest number") suggests a recipe for the common good, but it is a counterfeit, since at the heart of its premises is still the individual good, which it merely sums up. Utilitarianism is a calculus of added individual good, and so it is qualitatively different from a true understanding of the common good. The difference between a utilitarian view versus a solidaritarian view is the difference between a bunch of people watching the same pornographic film in solitary porno booths versus men watching a football game in a stadium in common. The former really involves nothing that could be characterized as a common good. Add up the multiple individual mastubatory orgasms and you do not derive one iota of common good.
To bring forth the qualitative difference between the common good and the private good, let us remark that a good is common if, and only if, it is of such nature as to call for common pursuit and common enjoyment. It is not an addition, or a multiplication, but an objective relation of the thing desirable to the powers of desire and attainment which distinguishes the common good from the private good.
Simon, 90. Such goods as public peace and safety, the moral order, educational institutions are common goods.
It may be difficult to say in what respects man is, and in what respects he is not, a part of the community. What is not open to doubt is that insofar as the individual has the character of a part, the principle of the primacy of the whole signifies not only that the common good is greater, but also that the private good may have to be sacrificed to the greater good of the community.
Simon, 91. This is what justifies occupations such as the police, or firemen, or the military, who are expected to, and are honored for, sacrificing their lives for the good of the community if called upon to do so. They are heroes to the common good.

There are, however, counterfeits to the common good. As previously mentioned, utilitarianism is one such counterfeit. Another counterfeit is what Simon calls "the myth of a common good external to man," a myth which lends itself to "the temptation . . . to conceive a human community after the pattern of a work of art and the excellent condition of the human community after the pattern of perfection supplied by a masterwork." Simon, 92. This is the haunt of social engineers, of liberals, of socialists, of communists, of collectivists. Tied to this is a tendency to absolutize, even divinize the State.

Apotheosis of Washington, Winterhur Museum

Apotheosis of the Spanish Monarchy by Tiepolo (Fresco at Royal Palace, Madrid)

Politics is not an art; art can be morally vicious, let us say lewd, yet aesthetically or technically perfect. Politics ought not to be thought to be the same way as art. Politics, if morally vicious, is by no means good. Politics is, in its foundation, a virtue which incorporates moral right and the exercise of prudence, and so it defines itself by whether it is morally good. When the common good is treated as a thing of art alone without reference to external moral standard, technical political prowess, not political virtue distinguishes the public man. Politics becomes instrumental, not prudential. Statecraft becomes not soulcraft, but the art of manipulation, of propaganda, of show, of celebrity. It is what gives us Trumans and Clintons and Obamas instead of Washingtons. More sanguinely, it is what gave us Napoleons or Hitlers or Maos, instead of Charlemagnes or St. Louises or Charles Vs. This is because "no art solves any problem of human use," Simon, 94, and so if politics is considered an art, substantive standards are waylaid. The image Simon uses leads one to think of a Dr. Hannibal Lecter:
A clever physician known to be possessed of criminal dispositions is the least desirable person at the bedside of a patient, especially if the patient happens to be an obstacle to the physician's design.
Simon, 94. So likewise, the reign of politics ought not to be given to a man or woman that is morally unfit, even if he may be politically savvy.

The tendency to view governing or politics as an art and not a virtue is exacerbated by the overly secular and materialistic good we have of social good.
The myth which identifies the common good with the perfection of a work of art and thus represents it as something nonhuman is constantly strengthened by the assumption that society, or at least the temporal, as distinct from the spiritual society, is concerned only with external actions, such as digging, orderly conduct in the street, marching, charging and retreating according to orders, paying taxes, fulfilling contracts, etc. Political society, in this view, would have nothing to do with what goes on in the heart of men.
Simon, 95. The common good thus encompasses the whole of man under God. It is something manifestly separate from the State. The State is its servant, not its master.


  1. Yves Simon states that the Law is defined by the common good.

    One of the Laws of Nature is "One (to) rule is the best". What does that have to do with the "common good"? Another Law of Nature is the tripartite paradigm, that many things in the material and living world are constructed that way. What does this have to do with the "common good"?

    Is "The Rule of one is best" and the Tripartite paradigm fit this: "stands for a rule relative to the common good, and more precisely, to the common good of a community distinguished by [a relative] amplitude and completeness"?

    They are not a "relative to the common good", they are laws found in Nature; they are laws that govern the make up of reality. So if Socrates obviously says the phrase "Laws of Nature", is he thinking of the common good?

    If I am to take Yves Simon's definition, especially referring to the Natural Law, should it not, according to the Socratic elanchus, fit each and every situation that the Natural Law fits? Obviously it doesn't!

    Earlier I mentioned "One bad apple destroys the bushel". If that exists in nature, this is what nature teaches, where is the common good in nature? Nature does not have a common good. I find this piece by Prof. Simon, nonsense.

  2. "But there is no "Tribe Triumphant" or "State Triumphant" or "Nation Triumphant" in the Eschaton."

    But Race exists in heaven. When a person dies, his soul is immortal. All of us are descendents of our particular patriarchs. For example, Abraham is the patriarch and all Hebrews have the soul of Abraham. The soul of all Hebrews share in a similarity with Abraham. With the Soul, race exists in heaven.

    Furthermore, the bible teaches this. Around the Tabernacle of Moses, which is a type of Heaven, all the tribes had to camp around it and they did so by tribe, without mixing! This is a picture of Heaven. The Tabernacle of Moses is a metaphor of heaven, a type; the plan. We are not going to be milling around mixing freely in heaven.

    God is the God of Order. As Order exists on Earth, so shall it exist in the Eschaton. Race is not done away with by dying; heaven does not do away with race. Race is part of the Order; of the Logos. As the Logos who is in heaven created the Material World, the Material world is no different from the heavenly world. The Logos exists in Heaven.

    And if race exists, so does nation. Nations exist. We are not going to be milling around willy-nilly in heaven.

  3. Simon has not yet addressed the issue of natural law. He has been trying to grasp the definition of "human law," and from that, he will try to understand the "law behind human law," which will be of divine provenance, i.e., the natural law.

    The notion of the common good, it seems, is consistent with a notion that the rule of one is best. I should think that the "rule of one," in the sense I take it you are using it (that the community should be governed by one person), means that there can only be one main power in ruling. I don't see why that principle is violated by having a group be the "one."

    I can't figure out how requiring human law to take into account the good of the community violates the "tripartite paradigm." Perhaps you can elaborate?

    You are kind of trespassing borders in your criticism of Simon. He has been discussing "law" as used in "human law," not "law" as used in the "law of physics" or "law" as used in "natural law." The word "law" is not like the mathematical symbol, say, "A." A in A+B=C has the same meaning as A-D=E. The word "law" is not the same. It means different things in different contexts, though the word "law" in each instance shares something by analogy to the principle case (which is the "Law" of God, the Eternal Law, which is indeed nothing other than God himself).

  4. I did not think of the 12 tribes of Israel. You are right that, based upon the Scriptures, tribe, and by implication, race will be part of our life in heaven. That would be consistent with the physical resurrection of the body. Though our body will be glorified, it will have identity with the body we have at this point, which is clearly defined by its racial inheritance.

    However, isn't race more of an accidental quality than an essential quality? At least when compared to substantial humanity, which all races share. So can we really say that race and tribe is glorified? Or is it just our common human nature that is glorified, and the race sort of accidentally follows?

    I have a hard time believing that Nation-States are going to be in heaven? Do you really think there will be "Americans" in heaven? I can see there being Jew, and Greek, Arab and Black, Oriental and Nordic in heaven. I cannot see there being groups based upon Swedish or Liberian or Australian citizenship.

  5. The Meaning of "Law" should have one essential meaning. What is the term "law" that exists in each and every case?

    There is always "Genus" "Species". There is the General and then there are the specifics. Law must have a meaning that fits each and every place that it exists. For particular cases, then law carries several secondary meanings.


    There will be no "America" or "Americans" in the Heavens because that is not a race. America is a man-made thing. Australia, New Zealand are the same. Anglo-Saxons from Great Britain, America, Australia and New Zealand would form one tribe in Heaven.

    The American Indian would have their separate places as well. The Comanche would exist separately along with the Iroquis and the Hopi and all the others would have their separate places.

    No nation is glorified. We will have glorified bodies and then assigned to back to our tribes in heaven. We will maintain order in heaven.

  6. What, in your view, happens to persons of mixed heritage (like me)?