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Society and the Common Good

Last Friday, I had the wonderful pleasure of classes with the two O’Donovan’s back-to-back, the first discussing Anthony Rosmini’s Society and Its Purposes and the second Augustine’s City of God, and the two texts entered into a fascinating dialogue in my mind.  
Anthony Rosmini was an Italian priest writing in the wake of the French Revolution and trying to synthesize the insights and freedoms of liberal politics with more traditional conservative thinking.  In this text, however, he puts himself into a very interesting bind as he tries to have his cake and eat it too, and in the end, I’m afraid he loses the cake altogether.  The tension we identified concerned what was really the crucial question of the whole text--does society exist to provide space for individuals to seek their own ends or goods (liberal model), or do individuals exist to seek the good of society (traditional conservative and also socialist model)? 

Not, of course, that in the latter model, the two need be opposed; in a traditional Christian view, the good of society is the good of individuals, as we shall see with Augustine.  Rosmini wants to maintain that man is naturally social, and points out at certain points, contra Rousseau, that we are born into societies, and cannot rightly speak of a extra-societal state of nature.  The social good, he wants to maintain, is man’s proper end.  Near the beginning of the text, he states,   
“We do not consider persons as advantageous for ourselves, but as people in whose company we can enjoy the advantages offered by things.  Persons united in this way acquire a communion in good, and together form a single end; things are only a means to the end which all persons have in common.  This is a bond of society....Each of the associated persons by the very nature of society, desires the good of all, because each desires the social end, which is common to all.  I call this desire of each member for the good of the whole body social benevolence.”  


Here we appear to have men united in pursuit of the common good, which is necessarily a social good.
But an ambiguity quickly sets in, an ambiguity appears in the statement “the good of all the members is the end of society.”  Is the good of the members defined as “the end of society” (members oriented toward society) or is the end of society defined as “the good of the members” (society oriented its members)?  If the latter, then society becomes a voluntary (though perhaps indispensable) tool by which fundamentally extra-social individuals pursue their own goods.  And indeed, Rosmini, despite his earlier repudiation of Rousseau, finds himself speaking as if men are not social by birth, but voluntarily enter into society as a means to their advantage.  The good which humans seek is elaborated upon, and is shown to consist in a relationship with God that is fundamentally internal and invisible, and therefore individual.  This is a sharp departure from the Augustinian and Thomist dictum that the summum bonum is finally social, and leaves us wondering how Rosmini is holding onto his notion of a common good as the end of society.  How, after all, can a private, internal, invisible relationship be a common public good?  Presumably all Rosmini can mean by common good is a good that all individuals happen to each seek--in other words, a plethora of individual goods which are common in the sense of being identical, yet separate, as if he were to say, “All men share a common meal in the evening” meaning that all men eat a similar meal at a similar time.  Finally, 86 pages in, he tips his hand, and says the following:
“The remote [that is, final] end [of society], which consists in contentment of spirit, always relates to the individual and clearly has its seat in each individual composing society.  This follows from what has been said, namely, that individuals are necessarily the end of society and that societies are and can only be methods, systems, means which tend to increase individual happiness.  The remote end is also seen as something invisible, remaining within the spirit of the person enjoying it.  It is entirely subjective.”
St. Thomas rolled over in his grave when those lines were penned.  Although it is conditioned by the Christian insistence that good is only found finally in God, the substance of the liberal idea triumphs--society exists simply to facilitate individual happiness; society is only a tool to a higher, unsocial end.  


Enter Augustine, declaring that “Yes, the life of the city is undeniably a social life!” (XIX.16)  The common good of the City of God is truly common, and is enjoyed in common.  How else could it be, since “A man’s possession of goodness is in no way diminished by the arrival, or the continuance, of a sharer in it; indeed, goodness is a possession enjoyed more widely by the united affection of partners in that possession in proportion to the harmony that exists among them.  In fact, anyone who refuses to enjoy this possession in partnership will not enjoy it at all; and he will find that he possesses it in ampler measure in proportion to his ability to love his partner in it.” (XV. 5)
Indeed, for Augustine, the contrast between the City of Man and the City of God consists precisely in this--that the city of God is a true commonwealth, united around the pursuit of the truly social, common good of enjoyment of God, whereas the City of Man is simply an association to aid men in the pursuit of private goods.  Therefore, the City of God is able to exist in peace and harmony, united around a common object of love, whereas the City of Man inevitably falls into dissension as each pursues his own desires.  The great vices of the City of Man are individualist--the libido dominandi and the greed for possessions, but the problem is not that the private goods they are seeking happen to be vicious, but that the pursuit of private good is inherently a vice, as he shows clearly at the outset of his account of the two cities, explaining the fall of the angels:
“The contrasted aims of the good and the evil angels did not arise from any difference in nature or origin.  It would be utterly wrong to have any doubt about that, since God created both, and he is good in his creation and fashioning of all substances.  We must believe that the difference had its origin in their wills and desires, the one sort persisting resolutely in that Good which is common to all--which for them is God himself--and in his eternity, truth, and love, while the others were delighted rather with their own power, as though they  themselves were their own Good.  Thus they have fallen away from that Supreme Good which is common to all, which brings felicity, and they have devoted themselves to their own ends....The true cause therefore of the bliss of the good angels is their adherence to him who supremely is.  When we ask the cause of the evil angels’ misery, we find that it is the just result of their turning away from him who supremely is, and their turning towards themselves, who do not exist in that supreme degree.  What other name is there for this fault than pride?” (XII.1, 6)
And this, of course, is why, as I’ve said recently, it’s not a coincidence that liberalism and libertarianism sound so similar--libertarianism argues, contrary to the great Christian tradition, that the goods man seeks are fundamentally private and individual, and society exists only insofar as necessary to safeguard each’s pursuit of his individual desires.  Truly, what other name is there for this fault than pride?

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