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Thomistic Institute Conference on 'The Common Good'

Tuesday, October 08, 2019

By Br Albert Elias Robertson | 'For St Augustine the City of God and the City of Man exist side-by-side, sometimes rather uncomfortably; but for Augustine the true vocation of the City of Man is only fully realised in light of its proper relationship to the City of God.' Br Albert tells us about his recent participation in the Thomistic Institute Conference in Washington D.C on the Common Good in St Augustine's The City of God.

The political atmosphere is, to say the least, febrile at present; and I’ve found myself reflecting a lot this summer about Catholic ideas of the state, the individual, and the common good. Part of the reason for this was a conference I attended in Washington, D.C. back in July. Organised by the Thomistic Institute in collaboration with the Institute for Human Ecology. The conference brought together graduate students from around the world to reflect on understandings of the common good in the Catholic intellectual tradition from Augustine, through Aquinas and his twentieth century interpreters, to the legal thought of the late Justice Antonin Scalia.

It was the first time that I had studied the City of God at any length, always having been put off by its door-stop proportions, but listening to C. C. Pecknold speaking about Augustine’s great work, I was inspired to go a bit deeper. I must confess I still haven’t read the entire thing, but have been encouraged to take a longer look and also look at some of the surrounding secondary literature. What I suppose struck me most profoundly was a similarity between Augustine’s approach to pagan culture, and Aquinas’s approach to pagan philosophy. Just as for St Thomas, pagan philosophy probes at something of the truth of God which is fully brought to light in Divine Revelation, so too for St Augustine something of the culture of the pagan world had certain principles which could finally come to full bloom in a Christianised culture.

One such virtue would be the Roman understanding of honour. Using the example of the Roman Consul Marcus Atilius Regulus, St Augustine explains that the strong understanding of honour he held showed how, even in pagan societies, it was possible to live for the common good of all, preferring that common good to one’s own individual good. Regulus, having been captured by the Carthaginians was forced to return to Rome to negotiate an unfavourable peace treaty, and, standing before the Senate, he urged his fellow citizens not to accept it. But most stunningly, he kept his word to the Carthaginians and his vow to the gods, returned to Carthage, and, because of his failure to sell the treaty, was tortured to death. Why would such a character be a good example? Why on earth did he return to Carthage? While Aquinas may well have said that this was precisely the kind of vow which one is not obliged to keep (see Summa Theologia, IIaIIae, 88 on Jephthah’s vow (c/f Judges, 11)), St Augustine says that Regulus is showing us that sometimes the good is outside of our own will, in fact sometimes what is actually good causes some negative impact for us. For our own society this is far from obvious, because most of us only see the good as being that which accords with our own wishes and desires.

Just after I began my summer assignment in London, I caught up with another event run by the Institute for Human Ecology in D.C.. The Institute hosted a debate between two leading conservative commentators, David French and Sohrab Ahmari, about the state of conservatism in the US, and what the future might look like. It was a lively debate, to say the least, and much electronic ink has been spilled on various blogs by way of post-match analysis. But what did strike me in light of a summer of tense politics and the conference I attended in Washington, was Ahmari’s explanation of a new conservative movement which seeks to emphasise once again the natural constraints and humane boundaries which are necessary for a healthy civil life. (You can read more about his thoughts in his article for First Things.)

The kind of desire for personal freedom from any kind of constraint which Ahmari identifies as the root of our current malaise, is something I’ve seen with increasing frequency. In Oxford, I do a good deal of work with a student run charity attached to the Order of Malta, and at Freshers’ Fair a couple of years ago, asking new students if they were interested in helping the homeless (to my mind the perfect opening gambit, because after all, who could say no to that?), I was quite surprised by how many people said no. I was left wondering whether we had now reached the stage where even volunteering to help the most vulnerable in our society had become one of those burdens and constraints which liberal capitalism had “freed” us from.

I’ve spent most of the summer in major international cities, which has been a great joy: I’ve lived most of my adult life in London, and I really love to spend time there, but during my stays in London, Washington, D.C., and New York I’ve kept returning to the questions of the City of God. For St Augustine the City of God and the City of Man exist side-by-side, sometimes rather uncomfortably; but for Augustine the true vocation of the City of Man is only fully realised in light of its proper relationship to the City of God. This means that there are aspects of the City of Man which point us towards the City of God, which prepare us for a truly Christian society. But in a city where the liberal capitalism has sought to extend personal freedom and autonomy to such an extent that even the most basic limits to social life and humane norms are eroded, how can we begin to go about the task of rebuilding? Part of the answer is, I think, what Ahmari has identified: our task is to ‘shore up a moral culture capable of inspiring a sense of responsibility, to rebind liberty to legitimate authority, to return the individual to his place as a member of the political community.’ But most fundamentally, our task is something which unites Catholics across the political spectrum and is the most basic message of the City of God, man is made for more than this world, and is called out of himself into a relationship with God.

Br Albert Elias Robertson O.P.

Br Albert Elias was born in Surrey and went to university at the London School of Economics, where he read Social Anthropology before going to Oxford, where he read for an MPhil in Material Anthropology. After studies, he had a propaedeutic year in three Anglican parishes in north London. He became a Catholic in 2013 and worked for a short time in London living at St Patrick’s Soho before entering the noviciate in 2015. Br Albert helps to run the Thomistic Institute and so has an interest in promoting the theology of St Thomas as well as Patristics. In his spare time he likes to read novels [lots]. | albert.robertson@english.op.org

Below you can find the first talk from the conference:



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