By Christopher Zehnder
The following is the first part of a talk I gave last fall at the Conference of Imago Dei Politics in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
In our concern for a more just and honorable world, we can easily get distracted by details. Week after week, news stories sting us to anger; or, like the gray skies of late November after the leaf-fall, oppress us with a sense of drear and world-weariness. It all never seems to end. Scandal follows scandal; injustice follows injustice. Rage and passion contend with each other like the wrathful in spirits in l’Inferno that, as the Dante says, in the black, muddy River Styx “smote each other not alone with hands, but with the head and with the breast and feet, tearing each other piecemeal with their teeth.” We long for renewal, for an awakened sense of justice, for the righting of present and past wrongs, and for love. But the world today offers none of this to us. Even the Church has hidden her mother’s face from us. Rather, we are forced to look on what seems utter and irrevocable collapse.
This is a cheerful way to begin a talk, no? Yet, though these are not happy words, they are, I think, a true description of the time. And we cannot hide from the truth. Yet, I don’t think these words are the last word; for, if each of us feels this sorrow and helplessness in the face of events, we can trust there are others who feel it, too. We in this room are not alone in seeking for better things – for justice, goodness, humane compassion, a human-scaled world that responds to human need, beauty in creation and art, a restored Christian devotion: in a word, a renewed creation. That others seek these things with us is a sign of hope. Late November does not have the last word. Spring, we can hope, will come.
Yet, if we are to discover where true hope lies, we must cease, as T. S. Eliot put it, to be distracted from distraction by distraction. We need to step out of the rush of events, at least for a little time, and think about what is constant and enduring, rather than what is passing. Only in what is can we, I think, discover the beginnings of a response to the ills that confront us today.
The root of our malaise today can in part be found in a decayed understanding of who we as human persons are and what our relationship is to society, our earth, and, finally, the cosmos itself. We are all seeking for happiness – in the maelstrom of the news cycle and the swirl of events, this remains a constant. We all want happiness, which we know can only be fulfilled by our appropriating the good – what is good for us – for no one desires evil for its own sake. Yet, if we do not understand ourselves, we cannot know what is good for ourselves and, therefore, what will make us happy. And by “us” here, I do not mean us primarily as individuals, but as members of the human family and, even, the wider community of the natural world.
Our Christian culture gives us the key to understanding ourselves and our happiness. This key, however, is not uniquely religious, in the sense of truths revealed by God or the fruits of sacred contemplation. For Christian culture at its best has never despised the insights of the human mind, unaided by divine grace and laboring only according to its natural powers. It has appropriated these insights, purifying them of whatever is erroneous in them, and has proclaimed them to the world. In particular, Christian culture has an answer to the question, “what is man?” And in answering this question, it reveals what is good for us – that is, what can make us truly happy. It shows us how we both as individuals and as a society can rise above our current malaise and lay hold of the good that we so ardently seek.
What Man Is
What then, is man, according to Christian thought? Thomas Aquinas and other Christian philosophers have, drawing from Greek philosophy, defined man as “rational animal.” This definition is deceptively simple, for its terms are rich with meaning. The term animal in the definition indicates what roots man firmly in the soil of the material world; it denotes that he is linked with the non-human world in an intimate way. That man is animal is fairly obvious – indeed, it is a truth that little children see. Children, for instance, speak of their pet dogs or cats as if they were human, as if they think like humans do and work from the same motivations. And, to a certain extent, they do. Dogs get hungry like we do and look for food. They suffer from fear, anger, pleasure, and other emotions like ours. They see with eyes, hear with ears, taste with their tongues, like we do. Like us, they have memory and imagination, that faculty by which we conjure images of things we have seen, heard, tasted, and touched. Both man and dog are sentient creatures, an aspect that separates both creatures from the plant world. Yet, we share qualities even with the world of plants, for, like plants, we feed and grow. Our animal is in one way vegetative.
Yet, human beings differ in a marked way from both animals and plants – a difference indicated by the adjective “rational” in our definition, “rational animal.” Unlike other animals, we are not bound to the faculties of sense perception. By our intellect, we rise above mere sense images and imaginative images and enter into the realm of ideas. With our intellects we can comprehend the essences of things, because our intellect, unlike our senses, is immaterial. Too, we can perceive not only beautiful things but beauty itself, abstracted from every single instance of beauty. We can know truth and identify goodness. Moreover, being non-material, the intellect does not die with the body but partakes of eternity. Even when the body dies, it in some way continues to be. Christian theology completes this picture in its understanding of heaven as the beatific or blessed vision – the endless beholding with our intellects of the essence of God.
Christian theology has seen in the understanding of man that I have laid out thus far a way of interpreting what Genesis means when it says man was created as imago Dei – the image of God. Of course, all creatures in some measure are like God; for God is goodness itself, and all things created are good by reflecting God. Yet only man is called imago Dei, because only man is like God, a knower. God is pure intellect. Too, because man has an intellect, he has a will by which he can choose the good, not by instinct, but in freedom. In other words, like God, man can love.
The Common Good
Having defined what a human being is, we can approach the question, what is it that makes human beings happy? What is our happiness?
Now, our happiness must be specific to ourselves, for what is good for us is ultimately different from what is good for other creatures. Further, since we are both animal and rational, our happiness has to answer to both aspects of our being. We are neither beasts that find fulfillment in bodily senses nor angels whose joy is purely of the spirit.
Let us look first at what makes us happy as animals. This animal happiness has, of course, to be rooted in the health of the body, for which we require nourishment and, therefore, access to sources of food and drink. We need medicine when we fall sick. Further, we require shelter from the elements, and thus access to some kind of housing. In particular, we animals of the rational kind need clothing, to serve in lieu of fur and feathers. These categories – nourishment, shelter, and clothing – comprise the material goods we require, if we are to function well. The possession of such goods is in some measure productive of happiness.
Yet, none of these merely material goods taken singly or together can go far in making us truly happy. The reason is, of course, simple; such material goods answer to our animal, not our rational nature, which is our highest being. Of course, material goods are necessary for rational happiness; for he who does not eat will, at some point, cease to think. Yet, once we are filled and all our material needs are met, we long for all the goods that answer to the life of our senses, our imagination, and, finally, our mind.
We are so constituted that our intellect and imagination are intimately involved with each other; thus, we find joy in sensual beauty, what we feel, taste, hear, or see. Our intellect directs our imagination in the creation of works of art, both those of the more practical sort, such as spades and hammers, or the contemplative kind, such as paintings, sculptures, and music. Beyond the imagination, we delight in forming thoughts and expressing them, which serves us in understanding our experience of the world and the search for truth. By grasping the truth of what we are, we are able to understand ourselves and our relationship to the world and so direct how we live so we can attain the fullness of happiness. Thus we arrive at the practice of moral virtue. Moral virtue, however, is not our final happiness, which lies in the intellect’s grasp, according to its capacity, of eternal truths. According to Christian teaching, such truths are reflections of God, who alone will fulfill our longing for happiness. Indeed, some Church fathers have taught that when we at last see God face to face, we will have reached the perfection of his image in us, and we will be not only the image of God, but the likeness of God as well – as in Genesis it says that Adam and Eve were created in the image and likeness of God.
I have so far laid, in general categories, of what we humans think good, and what constitutes our good. It is important to note here, however, that none of these goods are what we might call particular or individual. That is, none of these goods are good only for men and not for women, or for youth and not adults, for people of one nation or race alone, or for people of one profession and not another. They are not good for me and not for you. They are, rather, goods which belong to us as rational animals and so belong to all of us, regardless of our differences. They are, in a word, common goods. And since these goods are not discrete and disconnected but in a real sense depend on each other, they form a kind of matrix or linked hierarchy of goods that can be called, in the singular, simply the common good.
It is important to understand that, of the class of common goods, some are more properly said to be common than others. A characteristic of a common good is that it is not diminished the more it is shared. Thus, both wisdom and moral virtue are most properly speaking common goods, for neither are diminished by division. The greater number of the wise and virtuous, the more there is of wisdom and virtue. If I teach you, I give you what I have without in any way diminishing my store of knowledge. In fact, arguably, I increase my store of wisdom by sharing it. The material goods, however, suffer from division. The more mouths we need to feed, the less our store of food. The more people who have access to a common water source, the greater the strains on that source. At a certain point, a material good can only be an individual good, for further division would benefit only person and no other. There is only so far that you divide a hamburger. This is not to say that material goods in no way fall under the category of the common good but only that they do so imperfectly and by participation. It is no so much the material good itself that is a common good but our claim to it. Properly speaking, for instance, food is not in itself a common good, but access to food is.
Part 2 of the talk discusses the Common Good and Community and the Common Good and the Person.
If you found this essay interesting, you might want to look into two novels I have published: A Song for Else, Part I: The Vow and Part II: The Overthrow. They tell the story of a boy growing into a man during the “heroic” years of the Reformation in Germany and of his struggles to make sense of a rapidly changing world.