What is the “Common Good”? Jacques Maritain’s Thoughts

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It would seem that the “common good” is not really that important to the average person in Modern Westernized societies. Even if it is, what is the “common good” anyway? The term gets used from time to time as something important to sustain, but does anyone really know what it means? Isn’t what’s good for the individual the same as what is good for the community and so there is no real need to focus on the needs of the community if everyone takes care of himself? Well, Jacques Maritain, who was one of the primary authors of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in his book The Person and the Common Good (trans. John J. Fitzgerald.  University of Notre Dame Press: Indiana. 1985) discussed many reasons why the individual person should have a significant interest in the “common good.”

Something that Jacques Maritain makes quite clear in his book, is that there a very strong inter-relationship between the dignity of the person and the “common good” of society. Maritain says, “Man is constituted a person, made for God and life eternal, before he is constituted a part of the city; and he is constituted a part of the family society before his is constituted part of the political society.” (p.75)   A person’s destiny is not an earthly fame or terrestrial immortality like some of the Ancient Greeks thought, as Achilles in the epic poem the Illiad or so many others. No, the person’s real destiny is to achieve his or her vocation in this life in order to live in eternity with God in the next life; and, this is the origin of every person’s dignity, before any other relationship, including before his national citizenship. So, this most transcendent human dignity needs to be preserved both in the family, and in society for the sake of the individual person to achieve his or her eternity with God which is his highest and primary calling. Maritain explains, “To get the right idea of human society, we must consider it as located in the analogical scale between the uncreated exemplar, the super-analogue of the concept of society, namely, the divine society…Infinitely above the city of men, there is a society of pure Persons, who are at the summit of individuality, but without the shadow of individuation by matter…Each one is in the other through an infinite communion, the common good of which is strictly and absolutely the proper good of each…”(p.58) Our destiny as created persons is to experience eternal life with the eternal community, with God, the Uncreated Trinity of Persons, in the beatific vision.

The person’s infinite intrinsic dignity derives from this divine relationship with God. Each person is an unrepeatable, irreplaceable being in relationship to God and in relationship to mankind.  Maritain says something very beautiful here, that “A single human soul is worth more than the whole universe of material goods. There is nothing higher than the immortal soul, save God. With respect to the eternal destiny of the soul, society exists for each person and is subordinated to it.”(p. 61)   We can think of the devastating poverty of abortion in Modern society, and how this purposefully hidden holocaust of ensouled unborn children destroys human creativity, destroys human flourishing and dooms the “common good” by killing society’s most valuable resource: other persons. There is nothing in the universe exchangeable for a single person, nor is the aggregation of all things of the universe worth the value of a single person, because only the person is made in the image and likeness of God, neither the entirety of the universe nor any other material thing.

So, where does society fit in as a “good” between that of the individual person and God? Maritain says, “The end of society, therefore, is neither the individual good nor the collection of the individual goods of each of the persons who constitute it…It is the good [of] human life of the multitude, of a multitude of persons; it is their communion in good living.”(p.51) Society can only sustain itself if each and every person makes an active effort to live in community with one another, at peace and in justice, in mutual subsidiarity to each other’s needs. But, how do people experience the “common good”? What does it look or feel like?  Maritain says the “common good” includes the following:”…the sum or sociological integration of all the civic conscience, political virtues and sense of right and liberty, of all the activity, material prosperity and spiritual riches, of unconsciously operative hereditary wisdom, of moral rectitude, justice, friendship, happiness, virtue and heroism in the individual lives of its members.” (p. 52)   In other words, the “common good” is the sum total of the best, most virtuous acts of human activity and the product of these most virtuous acts can only be offered by persons for sake of other persons.

The “common good” is diminished when a person does not live with his eternal destiny presently in mind throughout his life.  Non-virtuous activity by any person diminishes the human dignity both of ‘the actor’ himself and ‘the acted upon,” everyone else.  Maritain says, “…the common good of the city or of civilization…does not preserve its true nature unless it respects that which surpasses it, unless it is subordinated, not as a pure means, but as an infravalent end, to the order of eternal goods and the supra-temporal values from which human life is suspended.”(p.62) In other words, the person must be free in society in order to orient his life toward achieving his eternal destiny by living out his transcendental values in private and in public.  Therefore, any society that fails to allow its people this freedom deprives the most basic human dignity of the person and destroys the “common good,” and ultimately, itself.  This is why religious freedom is the first and most basic of all individual human rights, as Jacques Maritain understood very well.

One thought on “What is the “Common Good”? Jacques Maritain’s Thoughts

  1. This great thinker understood that without man’s relationship with God man is diminished, and more than this, as expressed by Vatican II, the creature vanishes. In “Caritas in Veritate” Pope Benedict reminds us that the analogue for human relations is found in the communion of Divine Persons. Here Maritain indicates how the common good is grounded in this vision of man and his destiny.

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