The common good, a retrospective of the origins of a concept in tune with the times

Such a strong need for the commons: perhaps this is revealed, consciously or not, by the references to the common good that today pepper public and private conversations. In an age of hyper-individualism and total commodification, of precariousness of public services and of exacerbation of private interests in the economic struggle, the reference to this old notion, often vague and polysemic, attests to the need for a common horizon.

Undoubtedly, the discussions held in the context of combating global warming at COP27, in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, will echo this demand, in the name of preserving natural resources, of climate justice that would not forget anyone on the side of the road. and the concern of leaving a viable world for future generations.

But what is the common good? Its history bears witness to a double filiation. One refers to philosophical history and goes back to Aristotle, who thinks of the common good as a good that gives unity to the political community. For the Greek philosopher, the supreme good is the good of the community. The other genealogical branch is more practical and refers to the history of societies, where there have always been goods that escaped private ownership and were administered in common.

Traces of this can be found in primitive societies, such as among the Maori or Inuit, or in village societies of the Middle Ages, where communal goods were involved in agriculture and livestock, as in the organization of pastures. “Commons can designate community property rights over land as well as collective use rights over private property”, recalls Édouard Jourdain, philosopher and specialist in the question of the commons (1).

The common good and theology

In the history of Christian thought, the notion of the common good has been significant. in the XIIIand In the 20th century, Thomas Aquinas metabolized the notion of the common good in Aristotle’s philosophy to place it at the center of his political reflection.

“For Thomas, the objective of the political community is not to enslave man, but to make him born for himself, helping him to achieve a greater end: the good life or the happiness of living together, highlights Dominique Coatanéa, theologian and professor at the Center Sèvres – Jesuit Faculties in Paris. Thus, the political community allows society to be realized as a community of people oriented towards the good, so that man, led by God’s creative and savior project, reaches his humanity. 🇧🇷

The common good, a retrospective of the origins of a concept in tune with the times

This conceptualization of the common good, where the human is ordered to the spiritual and politics to theology, enters into crisis with the advent of modernity. The Conflicts of the Reformation in the 16th Centuryand century will demonstrate the difficulty of an agreement on the common good, even among Christians. Liberal thinking, which emerged in response to the Wars of Religion, would emphasize the primacy of individuals. It will reduce the question of “good” to the private sphere. The notion of the common good, with strong moral and religious connotations, gives way to the general interest.

For its part, Catholic doctrine will maintain, despite the modern rupture, against all odds, the reference to the common good. on the 19thand century, when European societies were torn apart in the context of industrialization, the encyclical rerum novarum, published in 1891 by Pope Leo XIII, formalizes this reference. Against the class struggle that fragments society, it also establishes the principle of “universal destination of goods”.

Questioning the common good

Throughout this long history, the reference to the common good has never been free from suspicion, that of hiding the power of the powerful to define the good of the society they dominate. “The common good can be a real obstacle for all those who feel excluded from collective attention, ignored, despised, humiliated, as excluded from the social landscape”, highlights the philosopher Françoise Le Corre (2).

The thought of the Catholic Church sought to take this danger into account, insisting on the historical and situated content of this notion, always to be taken up again. The common good involves “the tireless pursuit of the good in a practical and not just an ideal way”, lift it up Compendium of Church Social Doctrine (3). “We cannot lay our hands on the common good, supports Dominique Coatanéa. It emerges from a dynamic that presupposes agreeing to come out of oneself to unite with the other, in search of greater unity, greater fraternity. 🇧🇷

Avoiding this trap requires concrete discussions where we cannot afford words. “The risk is always that the reference to the common good does not compromise too much and constitutes only a minimal civic agreement”, highlights sociologist Patrick Pharo, author of In praise of the commons (PUF). Now, it so happens that for about twenty years, the question of “common goods”, in the plural, it became a fertile field, arousing academic reflections and citizen mobilizations.

O “common” are resources (air, water…), goods (irrigation canals, fishing…) or institutions (hospital, school…) of shared access and that are collectively governed, according to rules drawn up by a group, with the participation and responsibility of its members. members (commoners🇧🇷 This way, “it is not enough to say that health is a common good for it to be so, it is necessary to institute and manage it as such”, insists the jurist Marie Cornu, co-author of the common dictionary (4).

Overcome the public/private divide

The question of the commons arose at the confluence of several realities: the ecological crisis that invites us to rethink social systems and the question of property, the crisis of the welfare state and the failure of some states, the crisis of representation and democracy… was stimulated by the emergence of digital technology and the Internet. “with the emergence of a new, virgin territory, to be regulated, avoiding its appropriation by dominant private actors”, indicates Édouard Jourdain. Faced with the bankruptcy of communism and the impasses of excessively privatizing and deregulating neoliberalism, the thought and practice of the commons arose. “as a third way” overcoming the public/private divide.

The work of the American political scientist Elinor Ostrom, Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009, contributed a lot to activate the reflection around these new objects, “demonstrating that management by the commons was many times more effective than that of the State or the market”, emphasizes Marie Cornu. In its wake, several schools developed, “from reformism, linked to the social and solidarity economy, to something more radical and more revolutionary”, details Édouard Jourdain.

For Catholic theology, this return to the question of the common for the common is stimulating. “It can be seen as a sign of the times that invites us to talk, from a modest position”, reacts Dominique Coatanea. If the issue of the commons was not born in the lap of the Church, it can meet its concern for the common good. “There are points in common because the philosophical and religious traditions of the common good place a limit on what Aristotle calls chrematistics, that man’s desire to always monopolize more material goods and powers, indicates Édouard Jourdain. The idea of ​​subsidiarity, which recommends that decisions be taken as closely as possible to the stakeholders, also makes a very concrete link between the commons and theology today. 🇧🇷

The inclusive and participatory nature of the management of the commons also resonates deeply with the dignity of the human person and the care due to Creation, recalled by Pope Francis in the encyclical Laudato si’. against what he calls “garbage culture” true anti-common good.


Works to go further

The Commons, by Édouard Jourdain, “What do I know? », PUF, 2021, 128 pages, 9€.

common dictionary, under the direction of Marie Cornu, Fabienne Orsi and Judith Rochfeld, PUF, 2021 (2and ed.), 1,392 p., € 42.

Praise of the Commons, by Patrick Pharo, PUF, 2020, 288 p., €20.

Where did the common good go? by François Flahault, One Thousand and One Nights, 2011, 256 p., 18€.

The Return of the Commons, under the direction of Benjamin Coriat, Les Liens qui Liberent, 2015, 202 p., €21.50.

Common. Essay on the Revolution in the 21stand century, by Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval, La Découverte, 2014, 400 p., €25.

Elinor Ostrom. The government of the commons, by Édouard Jourdain, Michalon, 128 p., €12.

“Democracy of the Commons”, review Spirit, June 2022, €20.

“The common good, a spiritual struggle”, review Christus, April 2022, €14.

Article ” Very common “ by Dominique Coatanéa at

The Company as common, by Swann Bommier and Cécile Renouard, Charles Léopold Mayer/ECLM, 2018, 263 p., €25.


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