Are There People Whose Talents Concern Only the Common Good? If So, Could Their Private Lives Still Be A Mess?

All quotes below are from Aquinas: Political Writings, part of the Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought, ed. and translated by R.W. Dyson.

In IaIIae 92:1 of the Summa Theologiae, Thomas considers “whether it is an effect of law to make men good.” It might not be such an effect, says objection 3 of that article, because

law is directed to the common good… But there are some who behave well in matters pertaining to the community who do not behave well in things relating to themselves. Therefore it is not an effect of law to make men good.

Expanding on what was said yesterday about how we are a society centered around the private, so much so we try to carve out a private within the private to find some smidgen of self-satisfaction, we could say that this more severe public/private distinction above gives us a notion of a public wholly divorced from the private!

There’s probably something to that, given the classical figure of Alcibiades, whose private life was a mess but who was very astute politically. Granted, he could have used some moderation by Socrates, but one wonders if that moderation was more to protect him from the mob than to keep his own vision limited (Socrates was of the peace party, and Alcibiades saw more or less empire as necessary, so this argument won’t go where I would like it to go. Still). The immediate consequence for us is that we probably have individuals around, in our society, who don’t quite fit in anywhere because their ability to engage anything public has been cut off from them.

It is more reasonable, in our minds, if one professes personal ambition than if one says “I want to do this for others and myself.” That latter statement sounds like a lot of drivel, because selflessness only is virtue for us. The idea that one would look for things where one could satisfy oneself and others simultaneously is nonsense.

The idea, further, that such satisfaction might mean one’s own life was not an example to anyone even as one advanced a common good – well, that’s preposterous!

So I think there’s a lot in this objection, obviously. The response to the objection, after we have determined that law makes people good, is curious:

The goodness of any part is to be considered in terms of how it relates to the whole; hence Augustine says in the Confessions that “any part is ugly that is not well adjusted to the whole.” Since therefore every man is a part of the State, it is impossible for any man to be good unless he is well adjusted to the common good; nor can the whole of anything be properly composed unless its parts are well adjusted to it.

I haven’t finished writing down the whole response, because I think you can see what’s going on: all the implications I’ve drawn from the objection above still stand. Thomas is placing the term “common good” first, and he says later in the response that it is “enough for the good of the community if the other citizens are virtuous enough to obey the commands of their rulers.”

So what is going on finally? What is happening is twofold: Christianity is attacking the notion of a “common good,” even as Thomas is trying to preserve it somewhat (distinguish between a good we all agree on versus a good we work to agree on). We are all equals and judged before God, not before each other or the tribunal of Reason, even. But Thomas doesn’t want to give up on that latter, which he feels is tied to God more than stemming from an examination of “common opinion.” And so he has a notion of the common good severely divided from the private: notice that Alcibiades’ private faults did him in, that the classical conception might be that public and private virtue do have to converge at key points. But perhaps the classical conception is more flexible than it seems, for whether through virtue or obedience, men are to obey the ruler in Thomas, who is good.

In other words, legislation is the rule of One. There is a common good, and it will be pursued. Yet in the classical conception, there is room for deliberation, a deliberation that encompasses a diversity. Now I’m not saying that’s wholly absent from Thomas, but I think it is more reflected in the fact he leaves a giant space in his thought by not insisting every single person be good all at once than anything else he says. He does leave the possibility open that private good may not be achieved by those who know the common good well (he does think the “ruler” should be “good,” meaning, for Thomas, that he who knows best is good, but he quotes Aristotle to this effect, and one has to wonder whether what is key about the ruler is, as Machiavelli might say, his seeming to be good).

The point is, we can learn from Thomas’ silence on this issue. We need to recognize that our system does exclude people who could help it from being considered for office. Lincoln was suspected of being an atheist while in the House and was attacked for it. Imagine if his political career had been cut short because of that (I think Lincoln was most certainly an atheist, but that’s a suspicion more than anything I have proof of). We need to be more flexible about saying “he seems good in his private life,” and instead look for ways of rewarding those who can give more to us publicly, and not assume, as Thomas seems to do, that they’ll find their own way to the top and orient all of us private people (in Greek: idiotes) to the Good.

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