Love of self and the Primacy of the Common Good: a Problem

St. Thomas, in the Question on whether one loves oneself by charity, has this to say insofar as charity is a kind of friendship:

It ought to be said, since, as has been said, charity is a certain friendship [this is a very special friendship, between God and man], we can speak in a two-fold way about charity. In one way, [this is the aspect which interests us], under the common notion of friendship. [Let us understand not this special love, which is charity, but let us consider this common notion of friendship, which we encounter in the human and natural order]. And according to this, it ought to be said that friendship is not properly had for oneself, [if we understand friendship (no longer thinking of charity) in the strict sense, we are not able to say that man loves himself with a love of friendship], but {rather} something more than friendship {is had}. [Man naturally loves himself, but not with a love of friendship; he loves himself with a more elevated and greater love]: since friendship implies a certain union, for Dionysius says that love is a unitive power {virtus unitiva}; Each person is unity to itself which is more powerful than union [Unity bears on union to another and so will be at the beginning of a more powerful love]. Whence just as unity is the principle of union [the lover and the beloved make but one], so the love by which one loves oneself is the form and root of friendship [just as unity is a principle and cause of union, so the more powerful love of which unity is the principle is the cause and root of that less powerful love which is implied in the union of two different beings, such as is friendship]: for in this we have friendship for another, that we will stand to him as to ourselves. [whence: “you will love your neighbor as yourself.”; what we desire for ourselves, we can then desire for others]; for it is said in IX Ethics that the lovables which are towards another come from those which are to oneself. This is as science is not had about principles, but something more: understanding. (IIaIIae, q. 25, a4, comments by Msgr. Dionne from Laval in his lectures on the subject of logic translated by R. Glen Coughlin)

This seems to pose a problem for another claim that St. Thomas inherits from Aristotle: the common good is to be loved more than one’s own good, since one’s own good is less good than the common good. As he says:

30. So, even though the good be the same objective for one man and for the whole state, it seems much better and more perfect to attain, that is, to procure and preserve the good of the whole state than the good of any one man. Certainly it is a part of that love which should exist among men that a man preserve the good even of a single human being. But it is much better and more divine that this be done for a whole people and for states. It is even sometimes desirable that this be done for one state only, but it is much more divine that it be done for a whole people that includes many states. This is said to be more divine because it shows greater likeness to God who is the ultimate cause of all good. But this good common to one or to several states is the object of our inquiry, that is, of the particular skill called political science. Hence to it, as the most important science, belongs in a most special way the consideration of the ultimate end of human life. (translation from

The common good is a greater good than one’s proper good; the greater good is to be loved more; it seems, therefore that the common good is to be loved more than one’s own good. But, this seems to contradict our previous conclusion: for above, we said that one has a greater love for that which is more united to us; we are more united to ourselves than to a friend, much less a city; consequently, it seems that we love ourselves more than our city and our own good more than the cities good.

So, how is this contradiction to be resolved? Drawing on the Scholastic maxim, “Seldom affirm, never deny, always distinguish,” perhaps we must pay closer attention to the wording of the claims: more particularly, does “one’s own” mean the same thing in both propositions?

It seems necessary that what is one’s own and only one’s own differs from what is one’s own and anothers as well. For example, one’s teeth are one’s own and only one’s own: no one else can use them as teeth; on the other hand, one’s house can be both one’s own and another’s.

This suggests the following resolution: what is good for oneself exclusively (one’s proper good as opposed to the good of another) is to be loved less than goods which are common to many. However, a good that is one’s own and another’s is an object of self-love: for, in loving myself, I seek my own perfection: my perfection involves certain common goods, such as truth; consequently, in loving myself, I also love the common good. Since self-love is the greatest natural love, in loving oneself one also loves the common good with the highest love.


4 thoughts on “Love of self and the Primacy of the Common Good: a Problem

      1. The first quote actually comes one Q earlier in the treatise on charity. In Q 26 S. Thomas brings up the same principle in an objection against loving God more than oneself: “One loves a thing in so far as it is one’s own good. Now the reason for loving a thing is more loved than the thing itself which is loved for that reason, even as the principles which are the reason for knowing a thing are more known. Therefore man loves himself more than any other good loved by him. Therefore he does not love God more than himself.” S. Thomas answers as follows: “The part does indeed love the good of the whole, as becomes a part, not however so as to refer the good of the whole to itself, but rather itself to the good of the whole.” I’ve just been looking at this text over here:

        Incidentally, do you happen to have an e-text of “The Subject of Logic” that you could e-mail me?


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