The Common Good: a shared life of virtue

Last Sunday I resumed my series of reflections on ‘social justice’, the right order of human society, resuming again the theme of the ‘common good’. I spoke of the common good as ‘living well’ together, which requires a shared vision of the human good. Without a shared vision there can be no realization of a true common good. I pointed out that at its best the United States has possessed a shared vision built around family life and the morality of the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments give us a view of the human good that comes from God and is accessible to human reason.

Traditionally we speak of the ‘two tables’ because Moses wrote the commandments on two stone tablets. (cf. Ex 34:1, 27-28) The first table contains the first three commandments which govern our relationship with God; the second table contains the remaining seven commandments, governing our relationship with our neighbor. Let us start with the second table.

The 4th Commandment (Honor your father and mother) points us to the good of our human origins, those from whom we have received life. It also points us to the good authority, the original source of authority on the human level, rooted in the gift of life, and the first human mediation of divine authority. It is the link between the two tables and makes possible life in community.

The 5th Commandment (Thou shalt not kill) points us to the good of human life, forbidding the taking of innocent human life. It is good to be alive as human beings. It is good for me, it is good for you, and it is good for everyone.

The 6th commandment (Thou shalt not commit adultery) points us to the good of human marriage, the first and most fundamental form of human society and, beneath God, the source of human life.

The 7th commandment (Thou shalt not steal) speaks to us of the good of property, which is above all necessary for the maintenance of the life of the family and the good order of the community, built up from a multitude of families.

The 8th commandment (Though shalt not bear false witness against your neighbor) speaks to us of the indispensable good of truth and trust for human society.

The 9th and 10th commandments (Thou shalt covet) tells us of the need to master our desires, especially in service of the human goods of marriage and property.

We can sum this up: human life needs to be rooted in a generative authority that gives rise to a shared life, built on truth and trust, handed on from one generation to the next. You might say that it is all about collaboration in raising children, helping boys and girls to grow to become men and women, undertake marriages, and have families of their own.
Here, though, we enter into a very delicate matter. Adults don’t like to be treated like children, but adults also need to continue growing; they too need guidance in life; they too need authority; they do not know everything.

The commandments teach virtue, which is the stable character whereby a person does not merely obey the commandments as an imposition from without, but truly desires, honors, cherishes, and acts according to the human goods revealed by the commandments. The adult typically needs ongoing guidance in the practice of virtue so as to grow in virtue.

Living well together, living the truly ‘good life’, following the teaching of the Ten Commandments, means living a life of virtue, the joint cultivation of virtue, each one in accordance with his station in life, in service of the human good. So, we might say the first level of the common good is a shared life of virtue.

Still, hidden within that shared life of virtue is the common good of truth, which even more than virtue points us to God and the first table. (To be continued)

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Fr. Joseph Levine graduated from Thomas Aquinas College and after a long journey was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Baker, Oregon. He currently serves as pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in The Dalles on the Columbia River.