Opinion

In America’s Political Discourse, Why So Little Reference To Our Common Good?

In public life, the first prerequisite of responsible judgment is to take account of the common good.  This does not mean the goods most, or even all people value or possess.  It refers, rather, to the substance without which the whole community is moved to extinction, in principle or in fact. In human terms, the common good is never simply a material thing.  As material objects, human beings are bodies.  But though we all have a body, it is also one thing we cannot actually share with another, except it be in some metaphorical sense.  So, when Christ says (Mark 10:8) “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh….”, we are immediately tempted to assume that he must be speaking metaphorically.  After all, as a material fact, after coition the man and woman continue to inhabit separate bodies.

Yet, with advances in our understanding of the body, we now have reason to know that Christ’s words are quite literally true, when spoken of any child conceived by their bodily intercourse.  But even in light of this knowledge, their two bodies remain separate and distinct.  What constitutes their union, is their mutual exchange of information, which gives rise to a separate and distinct body, if and when a child is conceived.  In that child’s body, the two become one flesh. They do so in much the same way separate and distinct written words join in our understanding to become one thought, while, on the page, they retain their distinct and separate material forms.

As members of a community, we human beings are like those words.  The community itself is, as it were, the offspring of our union with one another.  But though our union is capable of activity that results in concrete material effects, it never appears, as such, in any separately distinct material form.  Yet it does take form in our understanding.  The perception of what benefits or harms the community, in that form, does have material effects on us.  To understand this, we Americans have only to remember our common sense of pain and grief as we endured the attacks against us on September 11, 2001.  That memory makes it clear that we are capable of feeling injury in common, as well as grief, compassion, hope, and solemn pride.

The last are obviously goods that it appears, from time to time, we have in common.  They are real, and yet they only exist in our perception of effects—including all the outward signs by which we know that those who identify, as we do, with our community, are feeling and reacting as we do—even though they do so hundreds or thousands of miles from where we stand in grief, or kneel in prayer.  Informed by the moving spectacle of our fellow Americans wounded and dying; and others risking wounds and death to save them, our separate and distinct bodies are moved as one to fear and anger, grief and admiration.  Though plural in body, we are one in heart and mind.

Pondering such experiences, we are impelled to understand that this identity of feeling, understanding and spiritual effect is, as it were, a demonstration of our national soul, and of the sense in which truly share, in common, some otherwise invisible organic bond, through which we are bound to be moved as one, even as the members of our individual bodies suffer or enjoy experiences as a whole.  But what is the locus of this perception of unity, except in spirit?  That is where the perceptions and feelings our bodies experience join with the ideas our understanding conceives to produce judgments and inclinations that inspire us to act, with a common will.

This accommodation of unity is the very definition of spirit, as it carries the meaning of oneness to and fro’ among existing things.  The spirit moves imperceptibly, yet, in effect, brings all things together in accord with intention of the whole. That intention encompasses the distinct and separate will that allows each to exist in its own way.  Thus, each exemplifies and preserves its own wholesomeness, even as it reflects and preserves the wholesomeness of the whole all, together, comprise.  The being responsible for the sameness each one thus differently expresses; the being therefore capable of endlessly never-changing change, is God—the being assumed by all subsistent things, whose will is the future that informs their past, and does so long before they exist, in any way.  Unless this being is assumed, the very thought of them is inexpressibly extinguished before it comes to pass.

This means that, without reference to God, there is no true union; no being in common; no extensive community; and, therefore, no common good. Does this explain why use of the latter term has now mostly disappeared from our political discourse?