Individualism, Statism and the Common Good

Edward Hadas

In this article, Edward Hadas explores the two ideologies that dominate modern thinking and societies. Individualism gets most of the words, but deeds largely demonstrate Statism. He shows that both fail, because they are too one-sided and because neither honours truth or love. He proposes a better way – “koinonia” which respects absolute truth and is motived by love, especially divine love.

The great tension

The human condition is entirely solitary. From before birth until the moment of death, my life, like the life of every other human being, takes place in a distinct body and mind. The internal reality of my experiences is entirely mine. It cannot be shared with anyone else. Yet the human condition is also and just as entirely, from before birth until the moment of death, lived with other people. We are bound together in many ways, starting with family, friendship, language and worship. Our relations with each other are unceasing and complex. They are full of freely made choices, but they are also constrained by rules and expectations which we receive as members of social organisations. We follow – and sometimes alter – the traditions of our families, the customs of our communities, the standard practices of our employers and the laws and rules of our governments. We are members of some groups by birth or something else beyond our control. Others we join by choice.

These two opposite claims are equally true. We are both individual and social, alone and together. The human experience is always a combination, an uneasy duality of individual autonomy and structured sociability. It is indeed any uneasy mix, because the two sides often pull us in quite different directions. I will always struggle to be true both to myself and to the people and groups who make up my world. And we, the members of our social group, will always struggle to be true both to our group and to each of its members.

Life would certainly be simpler if the human experience were not so conflicted. I might want simply to follow my way, to choose my goals and follow my dreams. Or perhaps it would be better to live only as ‘us’, for all of us to find our common direction and meaning from our great and wonderful group. Is such simplicity possible? Can the individual-social duality somehow be avoided or eliminated? Can people live without any tension between ‘I’ and ‘we’?

Some very influential philosophers have thought so. They have disagreed, though, about which side of this duality is to be lived out and which is to be eliminated. Indeed, much of the last four centuries of Western political philosophy can fairly be described as a grand intellectual debate between those promoting the life of ‘solely me’ and those calling for a society that is ‘uniquely us’. The first side can be called Individualists, and they can be associated with the 17th century Englishman, John Locke. The second group might be called Statists, as the State is generally considered the most powerful of all organisations. Their emblematic thinker is the early 19th century Prussian, G. W. F. Hegel.

More than mere ideas

This battle is not merely intellectual. Far from it. It is the central struggle in the history of modern government. It is much more than that. Both of the one-sided visions greatly influence how we live in our families, how we raise and educate our children, how we approach our careers and even how we search for meaning in our lives. In this essay, I will talk about these ideas and their current influence. My brief and rough summary: “We talk Locke, we act Hegel”. However, my purpose is not merely to describe. I also have a judgement and a prescription. The judgement is that neither the Individualists nor the Statists can actually overcome the fundamental human duality. The prescription is not a return to the past, but a hope for the future. I will argue that human flourishing requires each of us and all of us to live in communities which are bound together by a love that is always sacrificial and ultimately divine.

Locke’s big idea

Locke did not invent modern Individualism. Arguably, he was not even really a fully Lockean Individualist. However, his big idea about human nature has become the central assumption of Individualist political and social philosophy. Locke argued that each person is defined, primarily and perhaps exclusively, by his or her isolated and individual thoughts, choices and actions. A true Lockean would say something like, “I am most myself when I choose my own lifestyle, define my own truths and create my own opinions. I live life to the fullest when I am guided entirely by my own experiences, desires and judgements. I am most truly me when I set all my own standards of behaviour.”

That is not all. The Lockean self-centredness has profound implications for interpersonal relations. Basically, they come second to self-fulfilment. The Lockean might say, “As an independent individual, I should live only for myself. I can have no absolute obligations to any other people. I certainly have no obligation to respect the past, which happened when I was not there, or to care for the distant future, when I will no longer be around. I can decide that it is expedient or even necessary to emulate other people, living or dead, or decide to make myself obliged to them, but I am always free to reject any external guidance and to reverse any chosen obligation.

Such total autonomy is impossible in childhood, so it is not surprising that Locke considered the child’s temporary state of dependency to be deeply unsatisfactory. For adults, though, the good Individualist life is at least hypothetically possible. I already possess the most important ingredients – my heart, mind and body – as my irrevocable property. To gain full control of my world, I must only add the possession of enough property outside of myself to support the life that I decide I want to live. Many Lockeans consider the individual ownership of such external property (land, houses and the like) to be not only necessary for living the good life, but almost sufficient for providing it.

Property is supposed to bring what Individualists call freedom – the freedom to choose what I want, unconstrained by the choices of other people. This freedom of choice is assumed to be a great good, so I should not be forced to abandon any more of it than is absolutely necessary. Even if I must live in the company of other people, I should still be able to choose freely which people I will live with and how I will go about my life with them. These other people should not be allowed to restrict my freedom to think, say and write whatever I want, to believe whatever I want (for example about religion or vaccinations) and to do whatever I want in my professional and emotional life.

In short, no one should get in my way. Of course, Individualists recognise that in practice other people do get in everyone else’s way. Before discussing how Lockeans deal with this obvious problem, though, I want to point out the two most flagrant absences in the Individualist’s self-centred version of freedom – truth and love. 

Locke, truth and love

First, truth. Christians, Platonists, Aristotelians and Kantians might prefer to write the word with a capital ‘T’. Freedom without Truth, they would all say, is not really free. It is a kind of slavery – to caprice, error, passion and ultimately, for Christians, to sin. All of these schools of thought declare that people who make their choices without any moral anchor cannot survive the storms of life. Blinded by the winds of passion, they will ultimately be shipwrecked in a devastating moral disorder.

Philosophers have paid much less attention to love than to truth, but love is at the centre of Christianity. In the Christian understanding of human nature, people are created in the image of the Trinitarian God, the God who is love. In particular, the breath of life which God gives us comes from the Holy Spirit, the divine Person who expresses and is the infinite mutual love of the other two divine Persons, the Father and the Son. In the Incarnation of Jesus, Son of God and son of Mary, God showed his primordial, personal, sacrificial, redeeming and forgiving love for the world. The only appropriate human response to that love is total love – for God and for each other.

Such elevated theological words can be inspirational, but they can also obscure a basic human truth. Christians believe that we can only be truly ourselves when we freely accept our God-given obligation to offer loving and respectful care to all other people, and, ultimately, to the God in whose love we were created. For Christians, any freedom which does not support the universal calling to live together in true love is a pseudo-freedom that is unworthy of humankind’s divine calling.

Christians sometimes insist that their revelation is necessary to understand fully the central rule and role of love. However, followers of many other religions, spiritual traditions and moral codes certainly get the basic idea. For example, anyone who endorses the so-called golden rule – do to others what you would have them to do you – would reject the idea that there could be a freedom not to show love.

Fully Lockean individualists, however, are always in danger of falling into both truthless disorder and loveless pseudo-freedom. For them, truth is basically a sort of intellectual property, something that each individual can shape and reshape as desired. The idea of a truth which the individual cannot control is an insult to freedom. As for love, for the Lockean individual human love is only a choice, not an obligation or a calling. In the judgement of this proud individual, the Christian claim that the unmerited divine love of humanity requires a humble response is ridiculous, and accepting it can only lead to unjust and undignified restrictions on human freedom.

Lockean government and Lockean society

These Aristotelian and Christian objections to Individualism are crucial for my argument, but they do not have to be accepted to understand the enormous practical problems which the mere existence of other people always creates for the Individualist ideal of self-sufficiency. The real world is just too small and too poor to allow everyone to have enough property to be able to thrive in isolation, even if that solitary lifestyle were actually desirable. In reality, people must always live and work with other people.

Of course, Individualists philosophers notice this universal socialisation. They pay especially close attention to one aspect of it, the fact that all societies have and seem to need some sort of political authority – a government. Locke himself reconciled his Individualist idea of human nature with his observation of actual social practice through the creation of a historical fiction. He declared that each of us has implicitly but freely chosen to ratify a sort of contract which sets the terms for living together. Most significantly, the putative signers of this “social contract” agree that rival claims over particular pieces of property should not be adjudicated by violent contests among free individuals. Rather, each individual abandons her freedom to fight. She freely delegates judgements on all disputed matters to a commonly accepted government. The government should be Lockean – it should impose the least possible restrictions on individual freedom. Each citizen should retain as much as possible of the pre-contractual freedom to act, think and believe as she or he wills, and governments should have only as much power as is needed to promote and protect the property and remaining freedoms of each of the governed.

The minimalist governments are complemented by purely functionalist social organisations. For Individualists, the only legitimate goal of any social group, from the smallest family to the largest corporation, is to serve its individual members. The Individualist members’ good is all that matters – there is no place for any entity which might have its own distinct and superior identity. For example, Lockeans reject claims of a sacramental unity in marriage and of a divine charter and mission for a religion. Members of any group always retain the irrevocable freedom to leave whenever they believe it is not serving their personal good. This freedom renders all Individualist social commitments weak and tentative.

All this should sound familiar, because, as I said, we talk Locke. Mainstream Western politicians and political philosophers almost all accept some variety of Individualism, and children in Western schools are almost all indoctrinated in it from an early age. The Individualist model of society is especially well established In the United States, where it has generally been both lauded and taken for granted for the better part of last two centuries. The philosophy’s dominance is more recent in most of Western Europe, where Individualist rhetoric was relatively rare before the Second World War.

How do Individualists think that people actually live together? According to most contemporary Lockean philosophers, who are sometimes referred to as “liberals” or “proceduralist liberals”, Individualist freedom inevitably leads to what they often call “pluralism”. The philosophers assume that when all individuals are free to decide for themselves what is good, true and desirable, they will inevitably make many different choices about how to live and what to live for. These different “values” may coexist peacefully, create tensions or clash violently, but the diversity of beliefs is considered the natural result of Individualist freedom. The philosophical liberalism of pluralism should not be confused with the political “big government liberalism” of the United States, an arrangement which is in fact a variety of the Statism I am about to discuss.

Since the existence of pluralist societies is considered self-evident, liberals argue only about how best to govern and organise them. Typically, they demand that each individual cultivates “tolerance” of the views and lifestyles of all other individuals. They sometimes worry about how to deal with intolerant people, how to keep parents from limiting the freedom of their children, or how to prevent people from making choices they will later regert. There is also some concern that excessive pluralism could have adverse social side effects. For example, these days there is much talk about the danger of “tribalism” and “culture wars”.

We do not think Locke

The intense theoretical and practical debates about liberal governments and societies may be interesting, but they start by assuming a positive answer to the most basic question – are modern societies actually liberal and pluralist? When this question is explored with an open mind, the answer is clear, and disconcerting to Individualist philosophers. In practice, Locke-talk is often no more than empty words. Contemporary societies, even the most seemingly individualistic and socially divided ones, are not very Lockean, at least not in some very significant ways.

The basic unreality of the Lockean emphasis on separated individual lives shines out in every sort of academic study of the human condition They almost all emphasise the social side of the fundamental human duality.

It is not surprising that anthropologists and sociologists barely recognise individuality, since their disciplines primarily study social structures and the relations of various groups of people. Similarly, management experts and social psychologists study the rule-bound operations and communal aspirations of huge hierarchical bureaucracies. However, even psychologists, who primarily study individuals, always emphasise the importance of familial and interpersonal relations. Indeed, the professionals of the mind and heart find that even our most intimate emotions and judgements are deeply influenced by our experiences with other people and by the ideas that we have inherited or acquired from other people.

I could go on. The full list would include linguistics, history, hermeneutics, aesthetics, urban planning, media studies and cultural studies. All of these explorations of life as it is and has been lived assume that we are who we are primarily as people who respond to each other, who share practices and beliefs, who pursue and argue about common goals. The only notable academic discipline which is fully Lockean is mainstream theoretical economists (not Marxists). However, the exception actually supports the rule, since standard economic theory has little connection to the real world. Economists who do look at the economy as it is always note the tremendous power of organisations and relations – multinational corporations, shared knowledge and systems of mass production and mass marketing.

One academic study – of politics – is crucial for my argument. It only confirms what is obvious to anyone who bothers to study the contemporary world, that Locke’s social contract provides a very poor description of the activities of contemporary governments. Far from protecting Individualist freedoms, today’s political authorities are more intrusive than any political power that was even dreamt of in any supposedly pre-pluralist society. In practice, actual liberalism is always big government, not Lockean.

We do not act Locke

Start with the economy. In the standard, Individualistic economic theory, the primary role of governments is limited. In the model, its primary economic responsibility is to keep competition fair, which they do by “intervening” when the normal “free markets” are not really free.

Reality is quite different. Governments are by far the most powerful actors in all modern economies. Their laws and regulations cover many, many things – from working hours and minimum pay to product safety and labelling standards, from pollution limits and radio spectrum allocation to monetary policy and financial transactions. Also, government agencies make most of the important decisions about the production and distribution of most of basic modern economic goods – energy, transport, water, sewage and telecommunications.

The government’s dominant role is certainly not limited to the economy. On the contrary, governments take the lead in many aspects of society. Organs of governments control the education system and closely supervise all aspects of healthcare. Public authorities shape housing and urban design. They guide the direction of research and technical innovation. Taxes and other government policies strongly influence levels of income and wealth. Governments organise the bulk of the welfare systems which care for the weaker members of society. More intimately, governments increasingly intervene in sexual and family matters. They support or undermine marriage and divorce. They favour or discourage having children. They sometimes decree acceptable and unacceptable techniques of childrearing.

Governments are so powerful that even Locke’s beloved freedom-through-property is often strictly constrained. The government says whether and what you can build on the land that you “own”, whether and how you can drive the car that you “own”, what sort of contracts you can and cannot sign for “your” business. It even puts tight restrictions on how you are permitted to dispose of the labour of “your” most intimate property, your mind and body.

In almost all these parts of life the sway of government has been increasing for decades or even centuries. The response to that trend should not be surprising. It is generally taken for granted that anything which is not currently under government supervision can be, quite possibly will be and probably should be. This “governmental reflex” is visible on almost every side of all debates about social issues. Is there a problem with drug abuse? The government should solve it. Ugly art? Change the system for awarding government grants. Unacceptable opinions spreading around the internet? It’s time for the government to legislate and regulate. Unjust discrimination against sexual minorities? New laws and new legally mandated school lessons are at the top of the agenda. Whatever the social question, the government is expected to provide most of the answer.

Almost all governments are powerful, but they are far from identical. Some rely on highly competent and largely public-spirited bureaucracies while other are inept and venal. In some countries the “official sector” keeps some distance from the “private sector”, while in others the two are inextricably entwined. However, these are all variations are around a single theme, the universal centrality of government.

Indeed, while the political philosophy of pluralism and Individualist freedom keeps some intellectuals busy, it is hardly relevant to much of daily life. In reality, we live and move and have our being (cf. Acts 17.28) under the careful guidance of a thick net of overlapping and almost irresistible governmental and quasi-governmental bureaucracies. 

We act Hegel

Hegel’s philosophy of history helps explain what is actually going on. The Prussian thinker agreed with his English predecessor about the importance of freedom, but he rejected the Lockean definition of freedom as the exercise of Individualist subjective desires. For Hegel, freedom requires something far greater and more solid than any individual’s whims. True freedom is found in the life of what he called the Spirit, a Spirt which becomes increasingly manifest in the course of history.

The Spirit of History can only be understood fully as part of Hegel’s all-encompassing philosophical system. However, dialectical logic and the rest of the Hegelian intellectual paraphernalia are not required for understanding the historical model. For Hegel, the historical journey of humanity started with the savage and fearful life led in families and tribes. The Spirit was hardly discernible in this prehistoric era, when the only standards of behaviour were the irrational rules decreed by arbitrary Gods. At the other end of this twisting historical road is the end of history, when the Spirit will be fully active in a single universal State, a State which freely and rationally expresses and encompasses all the true desires of every individual member.

The absolute manifestation of Statist freedom lies some distance in the future. Proto-Hegelian States, however, have already arrived. As I just pointed out, we all rely extensively on our governments’ wisdom, goodness and competence. We increasingly expect their State to do what families, tribes, churches and other organisations used to do – to make communal decisions, set moral standards and give a higher meaning to life. Indeed, modern governments are well on the way to replacing, hollowing out or taking control of all potential rivals for social authority and personal guidance.

In other words, we act Hegel.

China is probably the current world leader in Statist evolution. In the People’s Republic not even the rhetoric of Individualist freedom is permitted. Rather, thought-control, increasingly backed up by “re-education” camps, is government policy. The avowedly Statist ruling Communist Party goes to tremendous lengths to co-opt or control every organisation, institution and social group. Although China’s higher-level Statism is the current extreme, the pattern is similar throughout the modern world. Big governments, big quasi-governmental bureaucracies and weakened non-governmental authorities are almost ubiquitous. Even were individualists are free to talk Locke late into the night, the trend is always towards Hegel’s big State, whether in its advanced autocratic or its less noxious bureaucratic forms.

Statist truth and love

Individualism and Statism are directly opposed in many obvious ways. Proto-Hegelian governments and their pervasive elites want to guide choices and promote unity, not encourage pluralism. Still, the two approaches have much in common. Most notably, the absolute State has no more space than the Individualist society for the absolute, objective and deeply personal goods of truth and love.

To be fair, Hegel himself was confident that the full and objective Truth would eventually be embodied in the Absolute Spirit of the completed State. He mistrusted most of the governments and cultural elites of his day, and would presumably have not wanted them to define truth. Just as Locke was himself not a complete Lockean Individualist, Hegel was not a fully developed Hegelian. Indeed, his many philosophical followers disagreed fiercely about the practical implications of the master’s magnificent vision.

The theoretical arguments continue but, to use a Hegelian concept, history has spoken. Official definitions of truth are now common, long before the arrival of absolute Truth in the totally free State. Any current official truth may respect or integrate scientific or other expert opinion, but it is ultimately nothing other than the governing authorities’ latest subjective judgement.

As for love, Statists sometimes claim to respect it. However, they treat all emotional and social bonds which are not between the individual and the State as potentially dangerous deviations from the social order. In the Hegelian political logic, the State must protect its sovereign freedom by limiting the influence of all groups which might deflect the path of the Spirit of History. Romantic enthusiasms and sports fanaticism are generally fine, but family and clan loyalty are suspect, as are any groups which manifest the irreversible commitment, willing sacrifice and shared purpose proper to communities built on true and noble love. For example, proto-Hegelian States take a dim view of religions which dissent from the official word about sexual morality or educational arrangements. The Chinese government expects all religious groups to be completely subservient to the State.

The Hegelian political evolution is obviously quite incomplete. There are still many separate states, each with its own partial manifestation of the World-Spirit, and national governments are neither fully unified nor in total control of the entire society. I already mentioned the “culture wars” of the West, and there are many other social, economic and ethnic divisions. The disputes, however, do not necessarily indicate that the Hegelian process has stalled or does not exist. On the contrary, Hegel understood that bitter divisions and shared hatreds are tools of the Spirit. They push individuals to identify themselves as members of something higher, as the People of a great State. The vilification of outsiders, including residents who are defined as not truly part of this State, helps bind together those whom the government defines as insiders. In Hegelian terms, these insiders become freer, because they are more completely aligned with the current manifestation of the Spirit.

Religion in a Statist age

Two final observations on Statism may be helpful. First, religion, or more accurately the transcendence of religion, is at the centre of the Statist historical project. The substitution of the State and its Historical Spirit for what Hegel considered less spiritually developed religious authorities (he particularly disliked the Catholic hierarchy), is well advanced. However, this spiritual development is incomplete, so there are many forms of proto-Hegelian pseudo-spirituality.

The quasi-religions of authoritarian and totalitarian rulers are the most obviously Statist varieties of quasi-religious experience. These secular cults – of personality, the ruling Party, the Nation, the People or the State - have come in and out of historical prominence since the French Revolution, reaching a modern peak in the extreme fervour that surrounded the Nazi Führer and Stalin’s regime. Right now, they are mostly out of favour. Less blatant religion-replacing Hegelian agendas, however, are flourishing, especially in contemporary advanced democracies. In those countries, Lockean talk of religious neutrality puts a thin veil over the governing class’s drive to replace any coherent religious foundation of society with a secularist, technocratic, utilitarian and emotivist worldview. Traditional religion is tolerated, but basically only as a purely private pleasure.

In countries which have advanced less far or more recently on the Hegelian path, traditional religions often seem to flourish. However, that appearance is quite deceptive when the religions in question are defined in largely political terms. For example, while the “fundamentalists” of political Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism certainly accept the transcendent claims of their religions, the movements basically use religious identity and vocabulary to justify a Hegelian approach to government. For example, the move to more religious national consciousnesses in India, Pakistan, Iran and Myanmar have increased the State’s control of society and individual life. In poor countries without such political-religions, there is almost always less authoritative religion of any sort than there was before the advent of modern – i.e. Hegelian – development.

The American non-exception

The second additional observation concerns the United States. A radical-Lockean tradition of anti-government sentiment and a lingering Protestant heritage might appear to make the country an exception to the Statist trend, both in politics and religion. This appearance, like the reliance on religion in some “fundamentalist” political movements, is largely deceptive. The country has just followed its own path towards Hegelian fulfilment.

In politics, dispossessed and discontent Americans often talk a Lockean dislike of extensive government, but their actions do not follow the rhetoric. Rather, they act Hegel. In a firmly Statist fashion, they crave a strong national leader and they are eager to believe almost anyone who promises to embody the true national spirit and to bring them freedom. Most recently, these isolated individuals have welcomed the American identity promoted by Donald Trump. As for Trump’s many opponents, few of them are less Statist than his admirers.

Almost all Americans are comfortable letting vast bureaucratic systems penetrate ever more deeply into almost every aspect of life. Moves to “de-regulate” various parts of the economy have generated much Lockean rhetoric, but the result of governmental retreats is usually the advance of quasi-governmental corporate systems. In other words, the action is still Hegelian. The unfolding Spirit is expressed in the policies of Facebook and Google and in the ever more bureaucratic and standardised approaches to healthcare, education and law.

In religion, American Statism does have somewhat more tolerance for outside spiritual authority than its European counterparts. However, the country was a global pioneer in providing non-religious education and ensuring that mass media was firmly secular. Despite recurrent bursts of organised religious opposition to the State’s social dominance, religious authorities are clearly losing both influence and political independence.

Unilateral failures

It is time to summarise the results of the two great philosophical-historical experiments mentioned at the beginning of this article. The Individualist dream has fared poorly. The historical record shows no lasting popular enthusiasm for systems which respect only the solitary side of human nature and experience. For more than two centuries, fervent talk of Lockean philosophical liberalism has always yielded to increasingly Statist action. I believe that Individualist experiments will always fail, simply because we cannot abandon the social side of our duality, and we do not really want to. Rather, we have to depend on other people, including those who have come before us. Necessity goes together with desire. We do not merely need other people but almost always want to live some parts of our lives with some of them.

All sorts of religious people and idealistic philosophers would add that Individualism ignores the reality that we live together in a common dependence on, or participation in, some higher spiritual reality. I think this transcendental addition is crucial, as will become clear.

While individualism fails the test of history as well as of human nature, the other proposed philosophical extreme, the entirely social order, is historically not totally unrealistic. True, history is not yet far enough advanced to decide whether a perfect Hegelian State could possibly exist. (I do not think so.) However, proto-Hegelian states are undoubtedly quite real, and the more Statist they are, the more they encourage or force people to abandon their individuality in favour of identifying with either the State itself or with the social and moral agenda of the State-backed ideological-economic-cultural elite.

This social unilateralism is not exactly unpopular, but, like the Lockean alternative, it fails to live up to the full truth of human nature. There have been many fair attacks on each of the forms of proto-Hegelian government and society – Communism, fascism, autocracy, late Capitalism, tepid social democracy and now illiberal democracy. The deepest criticism is simple and damning. Each of these varieties of Hegelian action narrow the range of individual aspirations and crush or anaesthetise individual consciences.

The flaws of the two extremes are closely related. Indeed, as Joseph Ratzinger pointed out in 1991, the unreality of the one leads directly to the inhumanity of the other. The then-Cardinal wrote that “a world which for the most part thinks of freedom as an absolute right of the individual…necessarily tends to impoverish all human relations to the point of considering them finally as relations of power…”.[1] In other words, the more we talk Locke, the emptier our social space becomes, and the more we find ourselves turning to Hegel.

At the deepest level, the problem with both the Individualist and Statist models is that they attempt to override the creative tension inherent in the duality of human nature, an effort which does violence to that nature. Humanity cannot be respected unless the duality is respected, indeed treasured. The best way to do that is through the promotion of what political philosophers call the common good. 

We need koinonia

Both Individualists and Statists claim to support some sort of shared excellence. However, their definitions are, of course, one-sided. Lockeans think only of the agglomeration of the goods of individuals, while Statists look simply and solely for the good of the State. The true common good is quite different from either of these reduced models. It is found in the ability of individuals to live their lives to the fullest, a fullness which always includes truthful, loving and often structured relations with other people. This true common good is embodied in organisations which are unified by the members’ loving respect for each other and for truth. In addition, as I will discuss in a moment, the common good requires respect for the sad truth of ubiquitous human moral weakness.

In concrete terms, the common good always includes the spiritual and worldly flourishing of individuals, but also and the spiritual and worldly flourishing of communities. The communities always include families, neighbourhoods and religious congregations but they come in many varieties, from small businesses to giant government bureaucracies, from rock bands and book clubs to schools and advanced research institutions, from schools for the young to care systems for the old, from amateur sports leagues to universal social media platforms.

The Greek word koinonia, usually translated as “communion”, provides a good summary of this deeply personal, richly communal and inherently religious understanding of the common good. Koinonia, which was used to describe the sharing found in the first Christian community (Acts 2.42), is equally opposed to Individualism and Statism. It promotes the integrity of human nature by serving the truth of the transcendental good, a truth that is expressed in the breadth and depth of human love.

In the modern world, we talk Locke and we act Hegel, but we need koinonia.

What truth requires, what love offers

Koinonia always aims to end in an overflow of generous love, but it must always begin with a sometimes-painful obedience to truth. The pain comes from the need to fight against human imperfection. We are oriented to love, truth and unity, but we are also selfish, greedy, stupid and cruel. In the vocabulary of Christians, we all sometimes sin and we are all tempted to sin even more than we do. Koinonia requires and includes an unceasing battle against the disorders of sin, so the common good, the truth of love, is found in the negative restraints of willing self-sacrifice as well as in positive acts of mutual self-giving.

The positive and negative sides of koinonia mesh with the duality of human nature. On the individual side, the true freedom of koinonia is expressed positively in joyous and ambitious commitments, and negatively in well-formed consciences, solemn promises of virtue and a strong sense of duty. Without these constraints, love’s transcendental ambitions will be perverted into all too worldly lust, greed and pride. On the social side, the koinonia of love takes the form of shared dedication to virtuous common goals and the shared and trusting pursuit of excellence. The negative manifestations include just laws, rules and traditions. Without this social infrastructure, which must be constantly renewed and purified, some form of social oppression is inevitable.

Koinonia is hard work, but it brings the great prize of true freedom. This is neither the one-sided pseudo-freedom of morally blind individual choice nor the equally one-sided pseudo-freedom offered by an uncontrolled but totally controlling State. It is, rather, the freedom to become the people that we all truly wish to be, bound together in many different groupings, each founded on the transcendental truth of mutual love. Koinonia will always be a high ideal, which the ubiquity of sin ensures will never be reached.

It is perhaps foolish to compare our epoch with ones that we can only read about, but I would argue that the social arrangements of our disbelieving and relativist age are especially far from koinonia. For the most part, we, both as individuals and as societies, do not even aspire to be good and holy, to promote beauty or to create a civilisation of love. Our fight against sin is rarely more than half-hearted. We often aim at nothing grander than the maintenance of a proto-Hegelian society which provides both steadily increasing economic efficiency and individual lives with ever more mock-Lockean freedom to make pointless, harmful or selfish choices.

I believe that we can do better, but only after making at least one radical change – the liberation of organised religion and the religious life from both its dependence on proto-Hegelian authorities and its effective exclusion from social life. My reasoning is simple. Communities are never strong without a shared awareness of and commitment to some transcendental good, so koinonia can only thrive in an essentially religious society. Conversely, all non-religious societies, including essentially all contemporary societies, have a spiritual emptiness that will ultimately but inevitably lead to moral, social, political or military disaster.

My religious claim may sound both fanatical and fatalistic. Am I really saying that our secular societies are too weak to be good? And do I really think that the dominant truthless Statism of “acting Hegel” puts our societies on a necessarily catastrophic path?

The answer to the first question is “yes”. I really do think irreligiosity undermines and poisons the social order. Secular Individualism is simply a vain dream and while proto-Hegelian States are certainly real, the reasonably pleasing peaceful democratic variety is hopelessly flawed. Its relentless dismissal of transcendental truth inevitably spawns an alienated and restless population, fearful and angry people who cannot maintain the peaceful order. Indeed, they often do not want to live lives of quiet, peaceful and meaningless desperation. Such alienated citizens are easily drawn to the more authoritarian varieties of proto-Hegelian organisation. The resulting governments can only unify the people through destructive conflicts – loyalists against supposed outsiders or one such State against another.

The course of history

My answer to second question, about whether this dark end of history is inevitable, is “not exactly”. The Hegelian path is indeed disastrous, but people can change history’s direction. Determinist gloom is certainly inappropriate for Christians, who are called to live in hope, for this world as well as for the next. However, Christians and other positive-thinkers must recognise the scale of the challenge. Without a firm and unchanging standard of the transcendental good, including the great good of loving commitments, human life on both sides of the individual-social duality will inevitably drift towards some mixture of individual despair, political oppression and chaotic strife.

The needed mass conversion to koinonia looks impossible right now. Desperation, though, might eventually open hearts and minds. Alternatively, there is evangelisation. When presented with its true grandeur, koinonia is actually far more alluring than either Individualism or Statism. After all, with koinonia, and only with it, can we be fully human. Only in true communities are we joined with each other in liberating and fruitful love. Only together, and Christians must add only together with the Holy Spirit, can we fight against sin with any hope of lasting success. Only in the great koinonia of humanity can each person both contribute her or his personal gifts to the whole and receive a personal and meaningful role in the social and spiritual drama of life.

We should stop talking Locke but we are not doomed to act Hegel. We are called to strive for koinonia. [2]

© Edward Hadas

[1] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, The Problem of Threats to Human Life, L'Osservatore Romano, Vatican, April 8, 1991, 2.

[2] The approach in this article is complementary to a wide and significant tradition of critical writing about “liberalism”. For a recent and particularly thoughtful critique of the impossibility of the “liberal project”, see Adrian Vermeule, All Human Conflict Is Ultimately TheologicalChurch Life Journal, July 26, 2019 

Edward Hadas is a freelance journalist and a Research Scholar at Blackfriars Hall, Oxford University. He currently writes regularly for Reuters Breakingviews. Edward was educated at Columbia University, Oxford University and the State University of New York at Binghamton. He worked for many years as a financial analyst and then as a journalist, including one year as Assistant Editor of the Lex column of the Financial Times. His next book, Counsels of Imperfection: The Wisdom and Limits of Catholic Social Teaching is forthcoming from Catholic University of America Press. Human Goods, Economic Evils: A Moral Approach to the Dismal Science was published by ISIS books in 2007 He lives in Oxford, UK. He says "I want to show how finance can serve economics and economics can serve the common good. I believe Catholic Social Teaching can help."

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