Saturday, October 25, 2008

Manent on the common good

"The common good is not a good that can be isolated from the different goods and elements that constitute the city. Nor is it a sort of common denominator, unlike the good of self-preservation which for the modern philosophers will be the foundation of human rights. It is both the supreme good and the good which binds the different goods together that can have no direct rapport without which the other goods could not coexist, that is, could not be present at all in the human world."

- Pierre Manent, The City of Man
(trans. Marc A. LePain; Princeton University Press, 1998 [1994]), 168.

Suspicion about the existence of a common good leads to the dissolution of politics into the cynical negotiations of self-interested individuals out to maximise their personal freedom. This is still a conception of the common good, albeit a very minimalist one, in which the only good thing we can share is to not disturb one another. Such a reduction in vision may be the result of previous scars, of well-intentioned policies that caused more damage than harm. But to give up at this point and retreat into self-protection is a failure of collective imagination. That it was "not good for the man to be alone" (Genesis 2.18) speaks not only the possibility of marriage, but also of society. Sharing goods is possible, even if it takes some creative compromises that enable us to each have a smaller share of a greater sum of goods.


Unknown said...

Wow. Really thick stuff here. Starting with the notion of the common good, it seems to me that part of the problem is philosophically transcendental. Can anyone identify the truly good in a post-foundational society? If so then how? In my understanding, Hans Urs von Balthasar suggests that the modern acknowledgment of the good may derive from a common grasp of the beautiful. (That is however my reading of him and it may be wrong given that I only understand about 50% of what he says) In any case, how can humanity practice the notion of common good with unsettled notion of the good itself? One way of course, as you have mentioned, is to minimize the notion of what is good but also as you have pointed out this is little help and actually debases the notion of the common good to mere personal peace and affluence.

byron smith said...

Can anyone identify the truly good in a post-foundational society?
Sure. That is not the problem. The problem is persuading others that I'm right (and being open to being persuaded by them that I'm wrong!). I assume that von B (whom I haven't read on this topic) is modifying Augustine, who famously spoke of a society being formed through sharing "common objects of love".

The pursuit of this common good is not simple or straightforward because of the great variety and complexity of goods. So much so that some despair of there being any possibility of goods shared in common. However, I think that part of what the church proclaims to the world is the very existence of a common good, that is, that human goods are not mutually exclusive. I do not have to lose in order for you to win. Sociality is not the necessary compromise of an aboriginal individuality (as Hobbes argues), but a gift and a fulfillment of who we are.