The Person and the Common Good

By Jacques Maritain, 1946

Do individuals exist for the community, or does the community exist for its individuals?  The former possibility seems totalitarian, so most of us in the liberal West were brought up to think the latter possibility must be true.  However, in this wise and elegant book, French Thomist Jacques Maritain argues that this formula is also wrong; it eliminates consideration of the distinctively common good, and it even impoverishes our understanding of the individual himself.  Maritain argues that the citizen is both above and below his collective; he does this by distinguishing the citizen considered as an “individual” from the citizen considered as a “person”.  As an “individual”, the citizen has his own needs and wants that distinguish him from his fellows.  As a “person”, he can reach out of himself through knowledge and will, he can make a gift of himself through love, and he stands personally before God and His laws by his free will and moral sense.  The easiest way to get to this distinction would have been to use Kant’s distinction of the “empirical” and “transcendental” ego, but Maritain doesn’t like Kant, so he builds this up from hylamorphic dualism.   The common good trumps the individual, but not the person.  Maritain gives a nice example for a mathematician:  the state may if necessary demand that he teach students math (even though, as an individual, he might want to spend his time otherwise), but it may not demand that he teach rubbish he doesn’t believe, like “Aryan math”, because, as a person, he apprehends the eternal order of mathematical truth.

In fact, Maritain maintains that a conflict between the person and the common good is impossible, if we understand both terms properly.  One can easily see that, since “personality” has been defined mainly in terms of morality and love, that demanding a man sacrifice himself for his country does not, in itself, disregard this man’s quest for personal development.  Self-sacrifice is the supremely “personal” act.  On the other hand, the common good, if correctly understood, can never disregard persons.  Maritain’s understanding of the “common good” is the key to the book.  What does “common good” mean?  First, it must be truly common; the common good is not the sum of individual goods.  Examples would include a local environment, a cherished tradition or historical memory, or a cultural masterpiece.  Each of these things is numerically one, and each belongs to all members of the community and no one in particular.  The supreme common good is God’s Divine Nature, which each of the three Persons possesses in its fullness.  We mere mortals never achieve such a degree of commonality, but that’s just because we’re so low on the scale of being—matter gives us “individuality” (see above).  Second, the common good, or at least the most important part, is distinctly moral.  (Maritain isn’t too interested in the material common good.)  Its purpose is to promote personal morality.  (This may seem to set the person definitely on top over the community, but remember that communal love is a big part of “personality”, and that morality is itself a means to participate in the community of the Holy Trinity.)  Third, the common good must be personally appropriated by the members of the community.  It is not sufficient for the members to all benefit from a good, as when all the bees benefit from the organization of the hive.  Maritain points out that there can be no truly public good except among persons.  So, for example, Shakespeare’s plays are a common good because most of us have read and appreciated some of them.

In the last chapter, the errors of modern times are identified.  Liberal individualists ignore the common good and concern themselves solely with private goods.  In so doing, persons are degraded to individuals, to mere bearers of private interests.  Fascists and communists recognize the common good, but mistake its relationship to persons.  The fascists treat the common good as an end, and people as mere means, and in so doing they forget that a truly common good must be personally appropriated.  The communists deny the common good’s moral nature, going so far as to deny man’s transcendental end (his orientation to God) altogether.  This degrades man by denying his highest goal, and it degrades the common good by reducing it to an economic order.

I like this book very much; it aptly expresses the Catholic communitarian point of view.  One could certainly make one criticism—that the reconciliation of the “person” and the “common good” has only been achieved by moralizing both terms beyond their commonly understood meanings.  The difficulties will come when one starts the work of balancing “individual” goods, which certainly will conflict.  However, given that the liberal West has grown accustomed to thinking of politics only in terms of such balancing, it is important that we allow books like this to remind us that community has a distinctly moral aspect which must be protected.

2 Responses

  1. […] disbelieve the official story, though, comes from reading Maritain’s political writings like The Person and the Common Good.  Maritain was a convinced communitarian.  His opposition to liberalism wasn’t something […]

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