Vox Clamanatis: Common Good & Solidarity – Aquinas

As we have said, the root of solidarity and common good in humanity is to be found in our identity, especially our being made in the image of God. This imaging happens primarily through our capacity for reason (and specifically to know and love God).1 Yet this God we image is also Triune, meaning relationship (among the three Persons of the Trinity) is found in God Himself— “that of which man is an image is precisely the very source of all relationality.”2

As a result of this imaging of the relational Trinity, man is inherently a social being—it is, in fact, a part of the natural law. We are social beings also because God has made us need one another in this life; thus Aquinas states: “Man is naturally a social animal, needing many things that the individual cannot procure by himself.”3 The philosopher Jacques Maritain, in looking at what Thomas Aquinas has to say about solidarity and the common good, provides more details on why we need each other, why we are social. On the one hand (and this would seem the most obvious interpretation of those “things that the individual cannot procure by himself”), out of our deficiencies, the things we lack which society provides. Yet we also need each other for our perfections: when we know and love, we have an inclination to share this knowledge and love; but this necessitates someone with whom these can be shared. Ultimately, “man needs an education and the help of other men” to acquire knowledge and grow in virtue.4

Already Maritain has touched on another essential principle for understanding solidarity through Aquinas: the famous bonum est diffusivum sui (“goodness diffuses itself”) that pervades his thought. This is used by Aquinas as a way of understanding creation, as a diffusion of the divine Goodness; yet it could also be said of the particular goodness we have individually been given, our own participation in the divine Good. This particular goodness is itself diffusive, meaning that it is impelled towards being shared.5 Thus the fact that we are created good necessitates our sharing this goodness with the rest of humanity—a basic cornerstone of solidarity.

Aquinas summarizes the meaning and purpose of solidarity in speaking of “the happiness of this life” (recalling that happiness is the good for which man strives, a happiness to be achieved in its fullness only in the beatific vision, but which begins in this life) and seeing it as intrinsically tied with our need for the other, specifically friends: “If we speak of the happiness of this life, the happy man needs friends […] for the purpose of a good operation, viz. that he may do good to them; that he may delight in seeing them do good; and again that he may be helped by them in his good work. For in order that man may do well, whether in the works of the active life, or in those of the contemplative life, he needs the fellowship of friends.”6 This threefold list—doing good to others, delighting in seeing them do the good, and being helped by them in doing the good—constitutes the foundation of living in solidarity.7

Common Good: The Aim of Law, the Work of Justice, the Vision of the Blessed
For Aquinas, our “end” is the good; and thus, the common good is, generally speaking, the common end of all our particular actions.8 In order for a good to be “common” to a group, they must all seek the same good (John Goyette offers that each of us longing for “health” is not a common good, because we actually long for a different end: health for me), and partaking of it cannot diminish that good (Goyette again offers that we may all long for the same wine bottle, yet it is not a common good because my partaking of it diminishes your capacity to do so—it is not truly, then, a good we share in common).

The most excellent form of the common good can be found in God Himself, for the supreme and uncreated Good is itself a common Good, a Good shared among the three Persons of the Trinity.9 This common Good is the ultimate common good towards which we strive—in heaven, this will become the common Good shared between God and the blessed (common between them). It will also be the common good shared among all the blessed: they will each be directed towards it, and be able to share it without diminishing it. Thus, our very existence is driven towards a common good.

Yet there are lesser common goods as well, common goods existing on the order of nature (rather than the order of grace). For instance, a construction crew has the common end of constructing a building; they all strive towards that same end, and the enjoyment of that end by any one of them does not diminish the capacity of the others to enjoy it. The highest common good on the natural order corresponds to the perfect community of the natural order, which for Aquinas is the political community (the “city” or civitas). The common good of this perfect community is the virtuous life of the community—that is to say, the happiness of the community.10 This is not the same as the happiness of each of the members individually: it is a communal happiness. The purpose of the law is precisely to direct this political community towards its end, towards the common good.11

Aquinas also relates the virtue of justice to the common good. Justice in general is concerned with giving to each their due. Thus, it is inherently a virtue directed outside the self, concerned with right relationship with others; this differentiates it from the other moral virtues which are concerned with the perfection of the self (e.g., temperance has to do with self-control).12 Yet Aquinas also distinguishes between particular justice (which seeks the good in an individual relationship) and general justice, which seeks the common good of the whole political community. This general justice directs all the virtues towards the common good (on the natural level), just as charity directs all the virtues towards the ultimate Good.

This research into the place of solidarity and the common good in Aquinas reveals common themes that have been discussed thus far in Vox Clamantis: ultimately, these principles flow from God. Because we image a Triune God, we are social; because we have been given a share in God’s goodness which is self- diffusive, our own goodness must be self-diffusive in the context of society. Our entire lives are a journey to God, a striving to share in the Goodness that God shares in Himself, the ultimate end of our life; this goodness is shared in common, and is the common end (good) of society.

(1) ST I, q.93, a.4.
(2) Brendan O’Connor, “The Foundations of Solidarity in St. Thomas Aquinas” (licentiate thesis, Universidad de Navarra, 2006), 34.
(3) Summa Contra Gentiles, III, Chapter 128.
(4) Jacques Maritain, The Person and the Common Good (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons: 1947), https://www3.nd.edu/Departments/Maritain/etext/CG.HTM (accessed September 20, 2014), Chapter 3.
(5) O’Connor, 35.
(6) ST I-II, q. 4, a. 8, respondio.
(7) O’Connor, 61-62.
(8) T I-II, q. 90, a. 2, ad 2; John Goyette, “On the Transcendence of the Political Common Good: Aquinas versus the New Natural Law Theory,” National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly (Spring 2013): 136.
(9) Maritain, Ch. 2.
(10) Goyette, 139.
(11) ST I-II, q. 90, q. 2.
(12) Goyette, 146.