A Good that is Common

The common good is a concept much discussed and rarely understood.  For many, it seems only to be a preference disguised as a universal ideal.  For others, it is a grand metaphysical claim, drawing us inevitably into weighty philosophical discussions.  These opposite stances can often devolve into debates between Hobbesians and Thomists over the meaning and implications of the ideal of “the Good.” These debates often end up excluding those without degrees in philosophy.

Instead, I want to focus on the word common.

The word common derives from the Proto-Indo-European, Ko-moin-i; later, in the Latin “Communis”; and eventually in the French word comun, meaning: “common, general, free, open, public, but also, “shared by all or many, familiar, not pretentious.”

Combined with the word “good,” we can see that a common good consists in those needs and concerns that are identified in the ordinary requirements of ordinary people. The common good is the sum of the needs that arise from the bottom up, and which can be more or less supplied, encouraged, and fortified from the top-down.  In a good society, the goods that are “common” are daily reinforced by the habits and practices of ordinary people. Those habits and practices form the common culture, such as through the virtues of thrift, honesty, and good memory.  However, once such a common culture is weakened or destroyed, the only hope is a renewal and reinvigoration by a responsible governing class.  A politics of the common good makes a good life more likely, even the default, for commoners. 

Thus, the common good is always either served or undermined by a political order - there is no neutrality on the matter. Emphasizing this point in his indispensable book Prayer as a Political Problem (1967), Jean Danielou, SJ, wrote:  “Politics ought to have care of the common good, that is to say, the duty of creating an order in which personal fulfillment is possible, where man might be able to completely fulfill his destiny.”

Danielou pointed to the duty of those charged with leading the political order not to deprive ordinary people of the ability both to participate in and realize the essential goods of human life.  It is not enough to ensure their freedom to pursue such goods; rather, it is the duty of the political order to positively guide them, and provide the conditions for the enjoyment of, the goods of human life.  “Religious liberty,” “academic freedom,” “free markets,” and “checks and balances,” etc., are no substitutes for piety, truth, equitable prosperity, and good government.  The liberal order maintains that the absence of constraint in these and all other domains is the sufficient condition for people to attain fulfillment.  The liberal sovereign treats all people equally, assuming that radically free human beings are equally capable of achieving the goods of human life. It is the liberal equivalent of the old Anatole France quip, “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal their bread.”

What we should notice is that it is ordinary people – the “working class,” citizens in “flyover country,” “essential workers” – are increasingly those who enjoy theoretical liberty and few of the substantive goods that are supposed to flow from their individual choice.  As a political order, we have provided them “the pursuit of happiness,” but deprived them of happiness.

Those who seek to advance the common good should attend especially to the profound ordinariness of the concept – how it can be tested especially by reference to an answer to the question, “how are regular people doing today?”

The answer is: not good. 

Even before the onset of coronavirus, reams of data attested to the economic and social devastation upon less-educated, less upwardly-mobile, working class people.  Economic globalization had deprived many in these communities of the sources of prosperity and stability that made flourishing lives possible.  Attacks on social norms of family, faith, and tradition, in addition to these economic challenges, have contributed to the breakdown of family and communal supports, leading in turn to broken lives of addiction, crime, unemployment, and deaths of despair.  Coronovirus has only increased the advantages of the laptop class and the desperate conditions of the tactile class.

Those in positions of power and influence have vilified and demonized these fellow citizens as backwards, racist, recidivist, even too lazy to get up and move.  This has been the consistent message of an elite class that transcends political categories, but is today the hallmark of the liberal gentry that runs the major institutions of modern liberal “democracies” (so-called).

Classical theorists recognized the dangers of populism, and we are today familiar with many modern variations of these ancient critiques (just tune into CNN if you aren’t). But so too, the thinkers in this long tradition equally noted the dangers of tyranny by elites, particularly oligarchs and their retinues.  In the ongoing denunciations of populists by elites from the commanding heights of their fortified citadels, we should hear as well the ancient echoes of warnings about the ability of oligarchs to use their power, wealth, and positions to oppress and marginalize the ordinary people - ironically enough today, in the name of “democracy.”

Populism is a reaction of the immune system of the body politic, but it is not the cure for our political disease.  The cure lies in the development of a new elite who are forthright in defending not merely the freedom to pursue the good – and who then shrug their shoulders when ordinary people drown amid a world without guardrails or life vests – but instead is dedicated to the promotion and construction of a society that assists ordinary fellow-citizens in achieving lives of flourishing.

Danielou provides a helpful starting point.  His question was, in the pursuit of the common good – the good life that is not “extraordinary,” but common, generalizable, widely achievable by most humans in a generally decent society - how do we order a society that protects and supports the life of prayer among ordinary people?

Danielou posited that prayer is a central practice of a flourishing human life, one in which we are cognizant of a horizon beyond our time and place, aware of our neediness, humbled by our dependence, and called to think and pray for others. Yet, he noted that so many aspects of the modern age increasingly make a genuine life of prayer - and these attendant virtues - exceedingly difficult.  Danielou understood that encouragement to personal piety in a world of constant distraction, technological acceleration, and consumerism was not sufficient to the task.  The “freedom to pray” in a world inimical to the habit of prayer was functionally equivalent to its outright deprivation.

Cluny Media’s reprint of Danielou’s classic book wisely chose for its cover the painting “The Angelus” by Jean-François Millet. The painting portrays what appear to be a husband and wife reciting the Angelus prayer (Annunciation), likely around dusk at 6 p.m. They seem to be simple farmers, but at this moment all the farming implements and potatoes have been dropped and lie scattered at their feet as they pray together. In the distance at the horizon we can discern a church tower, far off but presumably near enough that the couple could hear its bells. It is a picture of simple but profound piety, and captures a culture that points us beyond commerce and individual desire toward a wider and transcendent horizon.

Speaking of his most well-known and popular painting, Millet would later relate,

The idea for The Angelus came to me because I remembered that my grandmother, hearing the church bell ringing while we were working in the fields, always made us stop work to say the Angelus prayer for the poor departed, very religiously and with cap in hand.

Millet and Danielou both emphasize the democratic aspect of tradition in such a society: its goods are widely shared, not requiring advanced degrees at elite institutions or special language of inclusion and exclusion in order to participate and flourish. Today’s church towers are overshadowed by the skyscrapers of high finance, and its bells rendered silent in preference to auto horns, the cacophony of construction, and earbuds playing noise produced by a music “industry.”

We can extend Danielou’s analysis to nearly every aspect of life today. We have the freedom to marry, but fewer people wed. We have the freedom to have children, but birthrates plummet. We have the freedom to practice religion, but people abandon the faiths of their fathers and mothers. We have the freedom to learn of our tradition, to partake in our culture, to pass on the teachings of the old to the young - but we give only debt to the children that are left. In a world hostile to all these potentially “democratic” goods, we have eviscerated their actual achievement in the name of theoretical liberty but increasing thralldom to addictions afforded by big tech, big finance, big porn, and an impending artificial Meta world that will assuage the miseries of this world we have actually built.

Danielou understood that flourishing required more than individual choice in a world that resembled the Wild West. Achieving the life of prayer could be made easier or nearly impossible, depending on the ambient conditions fostered by the public and social order. He lamented the loss of what had once been a “democratized” life of prayer – represented well in Millet’s The Angelus – that been replaced by a kind of elitist sequestration of leisure and contemplation:

I might mention that monks … create for themselves the environment in which they can pray effectively.  It is this last consideration that brings us to the heart of our problem. If monks feel the need to create an environment in which they will find prayer possible, if they think that prayer is not possible without certain conditions of silence, solitude, , and rule, what are we to say of the mass of mankind? Should prayer be the privilege of a small spiritual aristocracy, and should the bulk of the Christian people be excluded from it?...

Danielou denounced the elitism that deprived ordinary people of a vital horizon of hope:

We must react against any view that  makes spiritual life the privilege of a small number of individuals; for such a view betrays the essential point of a message which is not only Christian, but religious, that a life of prayer is an absolutely human vocation.

We should similarly lament the deprivation of prospects for sound marriage, happy children, a multiplicity of siblings and cousins, multi-generational families, a cultural inheritance, the rhythms and comforts of a religious life assisted by the fortifying presence of its holy men and women, of cemeteries and the memory of the dead in our midst as reminders of what we owe and what we should pass on - of a public and political culture in which the ordinary goods were commonly found.

Danielou writes:

We shall be speaking then of the prayer of man involved in social life. It is in this sense that prayer belongs not to the strictly interior life of man – with which politics has nothing to do – but to the political sphere.

So, too, the fortifying forms of family, community, Church, and a cultural inheritance are a “political problem” in need of a political solution. The offer of mere freedom is not enough.

Liberalism offered to humanity a false illusion of the blessings of liberty at the price of social solidity. It turns out that this promise was yet another tactic employed by an oligarchic order to strip away anything of value from the weak. To those on the right and the left alike who insist that we need more freedom to cure the mischiefs of freedom, we should resoundingly respond: We won’t be fooled again. Instead, we will and must advance a vision and a practice of the good that is common.