One of my quests in the intellectual life is to understand how metaphysics, the most abstract and seemingly obscure of all the sciences (besides Sacred Doctrine), has any concrete bearing on life. Philosophy is not merely supposed to be an abstract pursuit, confining itself to the mind, but should flower out from the mind into every aspect of human life, so that it is the whole man who is wise, and not just a partial man. In philosophy, traditionally, the parts that pertain to practical living are the sciences of ethics and politics. Aristotle stresses more than once that the purpose of these studies is not merely in knowledge, but in practice, namely living well.
The political doctrine of the common good is, I think, one especially important application of the metaphysics of participation, which I have been exploring much on this blog (and will continue to explore in even more depth, eventually). Aristotle expresses the doctrine of the primacy of the common good in these terms:
Even though the good be the same for one man and for the whole state, it seems much better and more perfect to procure and preserve the good of the whole state. It is admirable, indeed, to preserve the good of an individual but it is better still and more divine to do this for a nation and for cities. (Nicomachean Ethics, 1094b7)In one essay (in The Aquinas Review, Vol. 14, 2007), John Nieto argues that the notion of the primacy of the common good is in fact axiomatic in character, i.e. a principle that is common to all the sciences, according to each of their particular modes - although it seems to belong to politics in a special way. Axiomatic principles, like self-evident first principles, are established first by metaphysics (though not demonstratively, since they are first after all), which is the first philosophy, according to Aristotle. Thus, in another essay Nieto writes that all the human sciences depend upon the fundamental axioms received from metaphysics, if they are to bear an ordination towards wisdom:
Only by resolution of these subjects to that of metaphysics do each of the other sciences properly bear the notion of philosophy. Each of them is in some way second philosophy; each takes part and shares in the power of first philosophy to reveal the first causes of all being. This notion alone grounds first philosophy's claim to wisdom. Unless, therefore, one grasps the causality proper to each subject of the sciences that examine some part of being, such as mobile being or the political order, in light of the first being as known to metaphysics, the science bears only the character expressed by its proper name, say 'physics' or 'politics.' Only for him who sees the subject of such a sciences as taking part of and taking part in he higher causality known by metaphysics does that science bear the notion of philosophy - secondarily but truly. (The Aquinas Review, Vol. 21, 2016, "Where Aristotle Agrees with Plato About Participation," 51-52)Thus, it is expedient to understand the metaphysical meaning of this principle, the primacy of the common good, prior to inquiring about its application in the other sciences, especially politics.
In metaphysics, we stress that created things are good by participation in a highest Good. The perfection of created things is something partial, incomplete, and divided, in comparison to the perfection of God, in whom these same created perfections exist in an uncreated and wholly unified way. God, as the highest Good, diffuses His Goodness to all creatures. All creatures are likenesses, in some way or another, of God. But no single creature can perfectly represent God; therefore, in order for a more perfect likeness to be found in creation, God created a great multiplicity of things, each of which participates in some distinct aspect of God's own goodness. Thus, a more perfect relation is found between the whole of creation, the order in its multiplicity, and God Himself, than between an individual creature and God. The Goodness of God is more perfectly reflected by the order of the whole than by the part. (See St. Thomas, Summa Contra Gentiles, II.,45)
The goodness of things, moreover, is that which is most desirable in them insofar as they desire their own perfection, i.e. the actuality of their natures. All things tend towards actuality. But insofar as they tend towards an actuality which is their own, as individuals, they tend towards an actuality which is still only partial. Insofar as this actuality is a participation in the fullness of actuality, the uncreated perfection, which is God Himself, they tend towards God as their ultimate final cause. Thus, in a certain way, creatures desire God more than themselves, insofar as their own perfection is secondary and participatory in relation to God's perfection. But God's perfection, as stated above, is more perfectly reflected by the whole universe than by any particular creature. Therefore, every creature naturally desires the good of the whole more than its own individual good.
Thus we establish the fundamental metaphysical principle of the primacy of the common good. The political application should actually be rather easy to spot from here. In politics or ethics, the fundamental ruling principle is the concept of the good. Not rights, as in modern political philosophers such as Hobbes or Locke. Nor even duties, as in Kant. It is the good which regulates the true science of politics, and it is the concept of the good that is received precisely from the classical metaphysics of the good which I have just (inadequately) summarized in two paragraphs. On the basis of this doctrine, Aristotle is famously compelled to recognize a hierarchy of goods, when he investigates the nature of human happiness. I won't go through the argument here, but what I do wish to emphasize is that, for Aristotle, human persons are given the unique privilege among all created things of being able to grasp the highest common good directly by way of their intellect. -- I say "directly" only in comparison to how irrational creatures attain the highest good "indirectly," i.e. through man, whereas man grasps the highest good through a faculty in himself. Man's "direct" grasp of the highest good is, in Aristotle, nothing like the direct and immediate vision of God that is enjoyed by the blessed in heaven. -- A man, by his intellect, is capable of grasping the good consciously, apprehending it precisely as good, desiring it consequently, and directing his actions accordingly. The desire of all creatures for the good seems to reach its apex in man himself (as if they all "participate" in human desire in some way?), in whom this desire is rational and spiritual in nature.
The dignity of persons consists in the very directness and intimacy of knowledge with which they are able to grasp the highest good. This must be stressed rather emphatically. Persons are individuals, no less than any other creature; therefore their individual good is, as for every other creature, subordinate to the common good. Nonetheless, even as individuals, they possess a dignity that is infinitely greater than that of irrational creatures, because the common good, precisely as common, may be possessed by them in a direct manner that is proportionate to the nature of that good itself. -- Again, I say "proportionate" only in comparison to the lack of proportion between irrational creatures and the highest good. The highest good is highest and most common because it is intelligible and immaterial in nature, and among all creatures, it is therefore only intellectual creatures who may attain the common good in a manner proportionate to its nature - although, again, it is nothing like the proportionality of the intellects of the blessed to the nature of God. -- As the goodness of any creature consists more in the way it approaches the divine goodness, as something beyond itself, than in the way in which it remains according to its own individual goodness, so much more does the goodness of the human person consist more in the way he approaches the divine goodness, as something that transcends himself, than in the way he seeks his own individual good.
The good human life, according to Aristotle, consists in virtuous activity that is in accord with the best part of man, his reason or intellect, which is precisely that part of him by which he attains most directly to the common good. All of political philosophy, to which ethics is ordered (usually people get this the wrong way round), is directed towards educating the desire of men so that they desire most of all the goods that are most of common, and all other goods only in subordination. For a right ordering of life, all desire must be ordered and formed according to the hierarchy of goods. The goods of pleasure and economy, so often exalted by the moderns as the principal goods of society, must be desired in subordination to the highest goods, the goods known by the intellect in philosophic contemplation. This does not mean that men must devote all of their time exclusively to such contemplation; this is not only a practical impossibility, but it would mean neglecting the lower parts of the human being, which, though lower, are capable of being ordered by the higher. The highest activity of man is thus the contemplation of the good, and virtue consists first in this, and secondly in all other activities performed in accordance with this good. The more the activity of man is regulated by his reason, both in the activity of reason itself and of other faculties in accord with reason, the more perfectly does he tend towards the common good.
Oftentimes, moral philosophers find themselves preoccupied with a dichotomy between self-love and altruism, as if this were the fundamental tension in need of resolution in the study of ethics or politics. The classical doctrine of the common good, however, allows the philosopher, and the political man himself, to transcend this dichotomy. The common good is, by its very nature, the good of all individuals, an eminently personal good, but one which is shared by all without thereby being diminished. Indeed, the joy in possessing such a good is even increased, even made possible, by being thus shared. No individual struggles with the tension between self-love and altruism if he devotes himself to the common good, because thereby he works to ensure the good that by its nature diffuses itself to all equally, to himself and to all others who would receive it in common.
Thus to love the good in which the blessed participate in order to acquire or possess it does not make man well disposed towards it, for the evil envy this good also; but to love it in itself, in order that it be conserved and spread, and so that nothing be done against it, this is what makes man well disposed to this society of the blessed; and this is what charity consists of, to love God for himself, and the neighbor who is capable of beatitude as oneself. (Quaestiones Disputatae de Caritate, a.2; cited in DeKoninck, 24)Again, the practical consequences of this doctrine are vast, pertaining to everything from concrete human actions to the interior dispositions of men in regards to love, and especially, in theology, in the virtue of charity. A kind of program emerges for the development of communities, which are the most perfect when united by a shared love of common goods. Likewise, the interaction between any two or few individuals, the raising of families, the building of villages, and the regulation of entire cities, cannot be carried out without reference to the common good. All of the arts and practical sciences , even down to the most mundane and servile, collaborate in common subordination to the political science, for the sake of promoting the common good. (This is why the political science is considered architectonic by Aristotle, and all other practical sciences fall under it, including individual ethics.) Above all, in view of the Christian religion, a profound doctrine of the relation between church and state emerges when the primacy of the common good is asserted in this sphere; and an ideal vision of political society emerges, in which the worship of God and the ultimate sanctification of the faithful is the final cause of all society, civil and ecclesiastical, the former in subordination to the latter. This is the doctrine that has come to be known as integralism, the perennial political doctrine of the Catholic tradition (which has been very nicely summarized here).
All of this goes to show how much is implied by "living the philosophic life": it has a truly universal application, that extends, not merely to the life of the individual philosopher, but to the whole of civil society. Political life itself, the life of a whole city, turns out to be a communal act of living philosophically, with a view towards the contemplation of God. In the context of Christianity, the ordination of the temporal state is not only towards the natural contemplation of God, but finally towards that supernatural contemplation of God which takes place in the life of the Church.