This Dark Age

A manual for life in the modern world.

By Daniel Schwindt

Univocity fetish and social contract theory

“Due to their fetish of univocity, the men of the Enlightenment were largely unable to comprehend the idea of the common good. The atoms of Democritus and Newton’s particles of light made philosophes think they could ground the common good in private right.

“Since all people discover themselves within a society, and discover within themselves an impulse towards sociability, it was necessary to come up with some other justification for the existence of community, even if the common good was not acceptable as an explanation. This is the origin of social contract theories.”

~ Coëmgenus[1]

One last hallmark of Enlightenment thought needs to be addressed, which is its obstinate, unrelenting insistence on errors of univocity—which is to say, a refusal to acknowledge subtleties in philosophical terminology and to treat everything perspicuous. This is especially damaging when it comes to the traditional distinction between individual or private good and the common good.

For the Liberal philosophers, the starting point was the individual. The individual was also the end point. It was assumed that if there was such a thing as the good, then it was certainly an individual good, and that the traditional concept of the common good, if allowed at all, could be nothing other than the sum total of individual goods. What was in fact a difference in kind was re-framed as a question of simple arithmetic.

Thus, even when Enlightenment thinkers acknowledge the duty of the State to seek serve the common good, they interpret this to mean that the State ought to limit itself to the protection of individual rights, since the common good can mean this and nothing more. We notice here again the inability to identify hierarchies of any kind, which ends each and every time by subordinating the higher to the lower.

This univocity error boils down to the inability (or refusal) to make distinctions. Look through the Summa of St. Thomas, or any work of Aristotle’s. On almost every question these thinkers were concerned first and foremost with making the proper distinctions between orders and meanings for each term, allowing for a diversity of interpretations that nonetheless combine to form more or less coherent philosophies. It is difficult to imagine St. Thomas Aquinas starting the Summa with ‘we hold these truths to be self-evident’, and if he had, he could have finished it in a few pages.

In the traditional conception, the common good is a good of a higher order, complementing the individual good but at the very same time superior to it as form is superior to matter in Greek hylomorphism. They touch, but hierarchically. What is important to note is that one cannot approach the superior by attending only to the inferior. One cannot pretend to seek the common good if one only seeks individual goods.

Thus, a State which does nothing but protect individual rights could at the same time be undermining the common good by limiting itself to an inferior, even if necessary, function.

State action which does not go beyond respect for individual rights does not approach the common good, which is supra-individual. That is not to imply that the common good must be sought at the expense of the individual good. The two only become antagonistic when their proper balance or relationship is disrupted. Our sections on the social teachings of the Catholic Church will comment in more detail on the balance. Here we only wish to point out that the common good is one of many fundamental philosophical concepts rendered incomprehensible through the univocity of the Liberals. They try to hold things together by promoting the pseudo-doctrine of the ‘social contract’, but this contract is purely imaginary.

[1] Coëmgenus, The Josiahs, “Theses and Responses on Antiamericanism”, http://thejosias.com/2014/11/01/theses-and-responses-on-antiamericanism/.

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