The concept of the “common good” came from pagan Greek and Roman philosophy. As Peter Brown shows in several of his books on the history of the Church after Constantine, such as Through the Eye of the Needle, churches had a habit of making bishops out of recent converts from the Roman nobility. They did so for practical reasons: those converts had good educations, political power through family connections and wealth to contribute to the church and the poor. But those converts had been educated at the feet of pagan philosophers, especially Aristotle and Cicero, and were often babes in theology. So when they became bishops they preached what they knew, pagan philosophy that seemed agreeable to Christianity. Among the more prominent concepts carried over from paganism were the veneration of virginity (imitating the Vestal Virgins) and celibacy, contempt for business and wealth, and the common good.
What did the common good mean? Benjamin Constant wrote about the “freedom” and “common good” enjoyed by ancient Greeks and Romans in his essay “The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with that of the Moderns:”
All private actions were strictly monitored. No room was allowed for individual independence of opinions, or of choice of work, or—especially—of religion. We moderns regard the right to choose one’s own religious affiliation as one of the most precious, but to the ancients this would have seemed criminal and sacrilegious. In all the matters that seem to us the most important, the authority of the collective interposed itself and obstructed the will of individuals. The Spartan Therpandrus can’t add a string to his lyre without offending the magistrates. In the most domestic of relations the public authority again intervene: a young Spartan isn’t free to visit his new bride whenever he wants to. In Rome, the searching eye of the censors penetrate into family life. The laws regulate moeurs, and as moeurs touch on everything, there’s nothing that the laws don’t regulate.
Among the ancients, therefore, the individual is nearly always sovereign in public affairs but a slave in all his private relations. As a citizen he decides on peace and war; as a private individual he is constrained, watched and repressed in all his movements; as a member of the collective body he interrogates, dismisses, condemns, impoverishes, exiles or sentences to death his magistrates and superiors; as a subject of the collective body he can himself be deprived of his status, stripped of his privileges, banished, put to death, by the free choice of the whole of which he is a part.
So the common good was determined by the will of the majority of voters, which was a minority of a city’s residents. Individuals had no defense against it because they had no rights that the majority could not violate. Greeks and Romans considered slavery the common good because it allowed superior men the leisure to contemplate the good life. Wives, daughters and younger sons were chattel in view of the common good. The common good was nothing by tyranny of the most powerful.
Colonial Americans considered slavery of Africans the common good. In the 1830’s, President Jackson convinced the majority that ethnic cleansing of the states east of the Rocky Mountains from all tribal people and dumping them in Oklahoma was for the common good. The US Supreme Court decided that “separate but equal” treatment of the nation’s former slves was the common good. Scientists convinced us that eugenics was the common good in the decades before World War II. All wars have been fought for the common good even though in most cases they were just land grabs by greedy politicians, like the Spanish-American war. And of course Hitler exterminated Jews; Stalin murdered peasant farmers and Mao killed tens of millions of Chinese all in the name of the common good.
Christianity protected the individual from the arbitrary and tyrannical rule of the majority by acknowledging God-given rights for individuals, the rights to life, liberty and property. It took centuries for Christian individualism to create the institutions to protect individual rights against the state or the tyranny of the majority because the church had baptized the pagan concept of the common good. Rocked by the Reformation, Church scholars at the University of Salamanca, Spain began reconsidering many of the pagan concepts the Church had taught for centuries. Those scholars distilled the principles of limited government and God-given individual rights that John Locke plagiarized. One even promoted the killing of tyrannical kings. Alejandro Chafuen gives a summary of their principles in Faith and Liberty.
So why are many Christians writing about the common good and criticizing radical individualism today? They haven’t read Hayek’s “Individualism: True and False,” which demonstrates that there are two kinds of individualism today. Classical liberalism, such as Edmond Burke and Lord Acton espoused, was the original, true, Christian individualism, the one distilled by the Salamancan scholars. Atheists corrupted Christian individualism in the “Enlightenment” and fabricated what Hayek called false individualism. That is the individualism so many theologians condemn. But failing to distinguish true and false individualism, they throw out both and resurrect the pagan notion of the common good.
Noise about the common good tickles a lot of ears because the West worships the will of the majority as if it were the voice of God, or the Universe. But the majority has committed some grossly evil acts in the name of the common good.
What would be a Biblical idea of the common good? It’s difficult to find the concept in the book because it assumes that obedience to the rule of God’s law is the common good. God’s laws are not arbitrary restrictions from a sadistic deity wanting to show off his power. They are the operating manual for a society in which mankind will flourish as much as possible given the limits of human nature. God’s laws are an objective standard that everyone can know and don’t require consensus or dictation by a political leader. Hayek advocated such an objective standard for a just society
Proponents of the common good need to answer the important question: who will determine what the common good is? The concept promoted by ancient Greeks and by many theologians today is nothing but tyranny of the majority. Natural law, understood as God’s law, is the only objective common good.
The answer to the cultural wars and confusion in the West is not a return to the tyranny of the majority in the pagan concept of the common good. The solution lies in a return to the principles of God’s law for limited government distilled by the scholars of Salamanca.