Augustine begins book 19 by looking at different conceptions of “The Supreme Good”: is it centered on pleasure, virtue, or both? does one achieve it as an individual or within a collective? does it focus on the body or the soul? can we ever be sure about it or not? Varro, one of the philosophers with whom Augustine has interacted at various points in The City of God suggests that there may be 288 different ideas of the Supreme Good, or more. According to Varro, though, only three different definitions of the Supreme Good really matter: (1) the things of life are sought for the sake of virtue; (2) virtue is sought for the sake of the things of life; (3) both virtue and the things of life are sought for their own sakes. Varro seems to argue for the third option, based on the concept that humans are both body and soul, where the highest good for the body are the things of life, and the highest good for the soul is virtue. Since we are both body and soul, both highest goods need attention.
Augustine will start exploring his conception of the Supreme Good in the upcoming chapters, but I thought it worth looking at American culture in light of Varro’s ideas about the Supreme Good. I’ve mentioned this before on the blog, but America has essentially no coherent idea of the Supreme Good. Alisdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue examines the loss of virtue and an idea of common good in Western culture, and the resulting chaos. The closest thing we have to a common good is the idea of liberty. The best versions of liberty are defined by liberty from coercion and liberty for some supreme good. But in America, there is no supreme good so liberty is only liberty from. The Declaration of Independence argues for “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” but “happiness” has no definition. A series of recent Supreme Court decisions has tried to fill in that gap, or at least to codify what American culture already seems to believe about happiness. And the Court has suggested that every person can define for him or herself what happiness and the Supreme Good is. Which means that “liberty from” means liberty from any other person stopping me from defining my own happiness and then pursuing it.
There are all kinds of implications to this. First, this liberty is likely to turn into tyranny, as those who have some concept of a Supreme Good are forced out of the public square by those who have none. Second, there is no way to unify the culture because there is nothing like a unified concept of what is good or a unified language about goodness. Third, it will become increasingly difficult to work together on anything – as we see in our current political discourse – because no one trusts anyone with whom they can’t communicate about goodness. The increasing demonizing of political opponents is evidence of this. Fourth, we will become less and less virtuous and more and more vicious as a culture as there is nothing to tie us to virtue and goodness. There are more, but that’s enough for today.
Augustine will describe for us a Christian conception of the Supreme Good, and it is important that we listen to his description. We need a vision of the Supreme Good to draw us to our full created humanity.