The importance of virtue in building the Common Good

It’s understood that the Common Good depends on people of goodwill, but to what extent are we conscious of exercising virtue in our every day life? In an entertaining meditation on Dante’s Divine Comedy, Wayne Parsons takes us on a journey through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise to enhance our understanding of the role of the virtues, in particular humility, in building the Common Good. This is an abridged version; download the full meditation here.

If you have never read The Divine Comedy, or if you have tried but given up, this year might be a good time to get acquainted with one of the greatest books ever written. A long narrative poem by Dante Alighieri, it was written between 1308 and 1320. It is perfect for the season of Lent and Easter.  

Dante’s journey through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise takes place from Holy Thursday, and concludes on Easter day itself. You could have a three day ‘Dante Binge’!

I have used the book for many years and in my meditation I imagine going on a journey with Dante accompanied by one of my heroes, the Unitarian theologian and economist Philip Wicksteed.

The idea of the Common Good, of course, owes much to Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas who (as Chesterton put it) ‘baptised Aristotle’. In the meditation we consider how Dante ‘poetises’ Aquinas!

The advantage of reading Dante with Wicksteed as a guide is he helps us see the relationship between ‘common sense’ and the Common Good, and moreover, he helps us understand the role of the ‘cardinal’ virtues and the theological virtues in building the Common Good.  

Wicksteed shows us that the main feature of a ‘common sense’ political economy is that it is mindful of the ‘all permeating laws’ articulated by Aristotle and Aquinas and also as illustrated in the Divine Comedy.

In Dante’s poem, love and humility perfects reason – just as pride and the disordered love of the self ultimately infects and corrupts reason.

Humility in the Divine Comedy is a spiritual or theological virtue, but it is also an intellectual, social and civic virtue. Only when human beings are able to exercise humility can we advance the Common Good and build the kingdom of God. 

In hell, human beings experience loneliness and isolation, whereas in heaven we see people living in a community.

The divine love itself is a community, indeed a trinity. In paradise, therefore, we have a paradigm of the ideal society. In paradise we see a community in which all lives are ordered by justice and the Common Good.

And yet, and this a is defining quality of the Common Good, the harmony we experience in paradise is not characterised by uniformity. A society ordered by justice and the Common Good requires our God-given diversity and uniqueness as human beings.

Wayne Parsons

Download the full meditation here

Professor Wayne Parsons works as an independent scholar and formerly held the chair in public policy at Queen Mary, University of London. He has also held visiting professorial appointments including at Vienna University and most recently Cardiff University. You may also be interested to read his opinion piece On the Road to the Common Good.

Header image: La Divina Commedia di Dante, by Domenico di Michelino, 1465 [Public domain] from the church of Santa Maria del Fiore, Firenze. Dante Alighieri is shown holding a copy of his epic poem The Divine Comedy. He is pointing to a procession of sinners being lead down to the circles of Hell on the left. Behind him are the seven terraces of Purgatory, with Adam and Eve representing Earthly Paradise on top. Above them, the sun and the moon represent Heavenly Paradise, whilst on the right is Dante’s home city of Florence. The illustration of Florence is self referential, depicting the recently completed and much celebrated cathedral dome inside which the fresco is painted.