The Plurality of the Good and the Heart of Capitalism

When I first read Joseph Farrell’s, Free Choice in St. Maximus the Confessor back in late 1997, it struck me that the insight of Maximus on the plurality of the Good and a denial of absolute simplicity had so many potential applications. Some of these applications are fairly obvious, once you grasp the initial insight. There are numerous applications to resolving problems in historical and philosophical theology and many of them have been discussed here in the past. There are also applications in ethical theory, specifically in cashing out moral particularism.

 But other applications are not so obvious, such as in social and political philosophy and economic theory. I’d like to take some space to point some of these out for further development. The dialectic of modern social and political thought is freedom and equality. To the degree that you make people free, you permit them to be unequal. Likewise to the degree that you make people equal, you restrict freedom. Capitalism is on the freedom end of the spectrum and Communism is on the equality end of the spectrum.  The backbone of socialistic political and economic models seems to be the singularity and simplicity of the Good. Since the Good is the same for all, what is good for one member is good for all since Goodness is one thing. It is the same. If the same is not meted out to everyone equally, then the good must be many different things (relativism) or there will be inequality. The same is to equity as the different is to inequity. But the Good isn’t many different things since it is one, therefore there will be inequality.

A common occurrence in socialistic models is large scale apathy and eventually poor workmanship. Humans for some reason don’t flourish in these contexts. In the Soviet Union, a popular saying was that the state used to pretend to pay the workers and the workers used to pretend to work.  The political rhetoric is that socialistic models kill incentive and ingenuity. But why? I think that Maximus’ thought on the gnomic will and the plurality of the Good can help explain why capitalism on the whole does a better job with human nature. 

The gnomic will is a particular use of the human power of choice. It is a use of the power of choice that is not yet fixed or congealed with the good that is the telos of human nature. The gnomic will is a use of a natural power that is “between” good or evil. As character formation occurs and the character of the agents “gels” the gnomic will falls away like one of Wittgenstein’s ladders. The gnomic will, like other uses of the will entails the plurality of objects of choice or alternative possibilities.  In sun, this is why the gnomic will entails the possibility of evil acts.

On socialistic models, character formation seems to me to be largely something extrinsic to the agent. The agent is a conduit for the whole to work. As Nietzsche wrote, the will is a “fiction added to the deed.”  The good is the singular will of the collective and there is no place for the gnomic will and no place for freedom. The collective singular good is inevitable.  When the state has spoken, there is no alternative. There is simply no place for a source of action that does not have its origin in antecedent social entities. (Que Kierkegaard)  Contra Marx, socialism breeds the alienation of workers, but not by removing the products of their labor, but by removing in substance the laborer.

Further, reflect on the biblical reference employed by John Cassian and Maximus to King David. David desires to build the temple and God notes that this is indeed a good thing, but God does not then will it. If the Good is simple as socialistic models take it to be, there is no room for alternative and equally worthwhile goods not willed by the state.  But for Maximus the plurality of the Good renders possible situations in which another and different good is available for choice, which is the same as other goods without reduction. The good always leaves you with a remainder, which is probably why G.E. Moore found it so difficult to define. In other words, since the Good is not simple, it is possible for it to be the case that there is available for choice some other equal valuable good that is not in competition with other goods and without division. Consequently the plurality of the Good does not entail relativism, for relativists also seem to me to see the good as simple. It is just that the there is a simple good that is not shareable for each person.  Unlike Maximus’ view, the other two views have a problem with participation. Either one good is for all and hence all must be made to conform to the one which usually entails some kind of force or determinism, or the good is one for each one which usually diminishes the value of the good on an intuitive level. If it is relative, then it doesn’t seem “good.” The good is sharable but participation is inevitable eclipsing freedom or the good is not sharable, maximizing freedom but devaluing the good. 

This is why capitalism on the whole does better with human nature. People require freedom to form their lives and this is because they employ their wills gnomically.  And there are genuinely different goods that are not merely apparent goods available for choice in the world. Ingenuity is a natural manifestation and recognition of this fact. As Maximus noted in response to Pyrrus, the virtues are natural things and all men are not equally virtuous because all men do not choose to employ them. Capitalism also allows for the possibility of multiple goods to be chosen by different agents without competition or opposition between them. Capitalism, I argue, allows for the possibility of misuse and failure because it recognizes that humans by and large in this life employ their wills gnomically. The only way to eliminate that possibility is to eliminate freedom and the possibility of moral goodness. Moral and social goods that aren’t freely willed somewhere down the line are either not genuinely good or not deserving of praise and acclamation.

None of this is to say that Capitalism as it stands is perfect. Capitalism is currently governed by the twin ideas of the inescapability of greed and the necessary oscillation of benefit and loss-if someone profits, someone else is getting poor. I don’t think either of these are necessary for a free market system. We can still recognize that individuals can choose different and legitimate goods for themselves while also not implying that those options not chosen are necessarily bad. Likewise, Maximus thought opens up the space for us to find ways in which it is possible for multiple parties to benefit simultaneously.

Humans are therefore made for activity and for free activity the good, always choosing between options. The elimination of options engenders inactivity, stifles freedom, and breeds despair. This is probably why the best medicine for many forms of mental illness is simple and regular physical exercise.  With activity, many people simply get better on their own. 

In sum, Maximus’ thought on the plurality of the Good not only helps explain and motivate many of the guiding intuitions of capitalism, but can also serve to perfect it. The plurality of the good and the gnomic will also explain why attempts at economic equality inevitably fail. The Good is not simple.


  1. Perry. its wonderful to see you posting again. This is an interesting topic and it would be good to see some more examples of the idea of the plurality of (the) good as applied to political and economic theory fleshed out in greater detail. I’m hoping for a nice little conversation to get rolling here.
    Anyway, I pray all is going well and improving for you.


  2. Very interesting post. Have you read Wilhelm Roepke? If not, you should pick up his Humane Economy sometime and compare your thoughts with what he says by way of introduction in the first 10 or 15 pages of the book.


  3. Very interesting post. Have you read Wilhelm Roepke? If not, you should pick up his Humane Economy sometime and compare your thoughts with what he says by way of introduction in the first 10 or 15 pages of the book.


  4. Human freedom is a rapidly depreciating commodity, both conceptually and politically. This can be seen from the state’s interference in the market by rewarding ineptitude, to the coddling of the criminal class en lieu of punishment. For me this can be seen with the greatest clarity in the vitriolic hatred of the liberal arts. Education no longer grants to students the tools necessary to live virtuously within a republic, i.e., tools of discernment associated most often with philosophy, broadly considered: metaphysics, ethics, logic, inter alia. Such things, while not the summum bonum of the virtuous life, were nonetheless necessary to cultivate the virtues, to be exercised in moral judgement, and to apprehend rightly the consequences of one’s actions. The moral man no longer exists. Reinhold Niebuhr’s book would now be entitled The Nonmoral Man in an Ambivalent Universe. If man, following Joseph Pieper’s excellent essay Leisure the Basis of Culture, was created for festive reflection, a world in which work is only a means to this end (as opposed to vacations, or coffee breaks, to rejuvenate us for more work), than the end of all activity is to result in reflection, the liberal arts, and not in more work, or the servile arts. Socialism inherently, and modern forms of capitalism consequently, work from the model of man as higher brute, and not one in which man, unlike the animals, is free to overcome the passions (we could for shorthand sake, read instinct). I think Perry’s spot on insights touch an aspect of this that has been seen by others, viz, von Mises and von Hayek, as well as Murray Rothbard, that individuals alone know the best way to pursue their own ends, and once a state interferes they muck up the works. Look at what is happening now, the state, by propping up failure and moral lassitude, have effectively destroyed any notion of cogent goods to which the virtuous can choose (why invest in Honda when the state is going to spend my future subsidizing failed competitors like GM).

    Some initial thoughts, anyway.


  5. Iohannes,
    Good to mention Roepke. I think what Perry describes here gells wonderfully with Ordoliberalism as an economic theory – something I’ve recently been delving (ever so slightly) in.


  6. Sometimes I posit that my inclinations with regard to economics are one third Wendell Berry, one third distributivist, and one third Wilhelm Röpke. I think that what Perry suggests here is very much in keeping with Röpke’s thought, though, of course, Röpke would never have suggested these terms.

    Today on another Orthodox blog that is discussing something of these issues I wrote, “In my opinion, man’s freedom is just as much at threat from the power and influence of corporate trusts as it is from the power and influence of the state. Increasingly in our times, states are becoming agents of corporate trusts, a mirror opposite, perhaps, of the relationship between business and the state in socialist economies.”

    Indeed, the banal homogeneity, the despair bred when one is surrounded by legion upon legion of Homo Sovieticus or his cousins and the context of human slavery that follows in such a culture, the profane bombardment on the mind of images meant to coerce and twist the last bit of life out of you — all this is now seen in the capitalist West. I was in Russia in the summer of 1992. For all the cultural horrors I saw there, I witnessed less homogeneity, and less intellectual stupidity, than one finds in the American suburbs and American college campuses today. I grant that the infringement upon human freedom, or rather slavery, that is wrought by contemporary capitalism is more (I shudder to use this word regarding it) subtle than the slaveries of overtly statist societies, but the result, in the end, is of the same spirit.

    Following Cyril’s comment above, Joseph Pieper wrote against both statism and unrestrained free markets. In the last couple of decades of his writing life he spent much more energy attacking such things as contemporary advertising techniques and political speech in the West, than he did attacking communism (an easier target perhaps, or one which his prior work had shown to be without any virtue).

    With regard to the Austrian school, I am not a fan, though I at least recognize it as a principled position, and at great odds with what one sees going on in the American economy at the current moment, when the state and certain corporate interests act in complete disregard of freedom, law, and honor. Austrian school economics, like, say, distributivism, or Berry agrarianism, has never been seriously attempted on a large scale, and in this sense, communism has the disadvantage of having undergone multiple full-scale attempts and we have seen that as an economic ordo it never works in the long run.

    The real question at hand is not really free market vs. state socialism, but rather a more unrestrained free market vs. a more european style social liberal restrained economy. Given that I am two-thirds Berry and Distributivist, I would choose neither of the above, but if I had to choose, I would have to say it would depend on who my neighbors are. Some folks can handle freedom, some can handle being given entitlements without becoming social leeches. Other folks, well, come to Memphis sometime, the bulk of the population here is unfit for freedom or for entitlements.

    It seems to me in these debates (though at present there is no debate here) we all, and I count my own laxity here, tend to forget the muddle of a hodge-podge mix we are in today.

    On the one hand, the free-marketer can suggest certain things, say things regarding the humane treatment of workers by large corporations, and how concerns regarding that treatment are overblown or tend toward biased hysteria. That is easy today living in a world that inherited what it did from 150 years of the labor movement.

    My mother used to have the shake the soot off of the laundry that was hung outside her childhood home in Canton, OH. The Austrian school would wait for a non-governmental solution to that problem. In Canton’s case the government got involved, and most of the good steel jobs went to other countries. Still, the Don’t Tread on Me American in my gut says Timkin Steel can keep its #*&! soot off of my underwear.

    It is easy for the distributivist or the agrarian to forget that he is typing on a Dell computer, which he can afford because of our credit economy, and was shipped to him via FedEx.

    The management of any human freedom, especially when the situation is as Perry describes, that is with a plurality of goods, requires a balance, a poise – and the ability to achieve such a management is truly a charism, it seems to me: a talent given by God.

    I would think it a good thing were our society to head more in Wilhelm Röpke’s theoretical direction, with land and soil nourished by the insights of Berry and others. But for this to happen men of great integrity and insight would have to come to positions of influence. Thus the tragedy of contemporary America, where such simply cannot happen, as we have enslaved ourselves to personality cults paid for by despicable interests.


  7. Interesting post. I want to comment on one part (I hope this doesnt take us too far off topic):

    “Further, reflect on the biblical reference employed by John Cassian and Maximus to King David. David desires to build the temple and God notes that this is indeed a good thing, but God does not then will it.”

    St. Prosper of Aquitaine, “truly a man of God,” according to St. Photius the Great [], debunks this with his Christological reading of the Old Testament and with New Testament examples.

    “From this text and this reasoning it is not proved in any way that pious thoughts spring from the unaided free will and not from a divine inspiration. For one should not say that David’s intention, which was certainly good, did not come from God for the sole reason that the Lord did not want that it should be he who built Him a temple but his son. We must examine, therefore, from what spirit this good desire of David’s sprang. It came from the spirit which made him say: ‘If I shall enter into the tabernacle of my house; if I shall go up into the bed wherein I lie; if I shall give sleep to my eyes, or slumber to my eyelids, or rest to my temples: until I find out a place for the Lord, a tabernacle for the God of Jacob.’ When the prophet David expressed this desire, he well knew that the true and perfect temple was to be built by Him who, being the Son of God, became also the Son of David; who, when seeing the temple erected by Solomon, said: ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up. But He spoke of the temple of His body.’ It was, therefore, in order to prefigure the temple that was prepared in Christ and the Church, that for the construction of the first temple not David but the son of David was chosen. The son of man, that is, of David, represents Him who is Son of God and man. The material temple prefigure the indestructible tabernacle. It is for the sake of this prefiguration that God approved of David’s intention but entrusted its execution to his son, who was better fit to prefigure the Son of David. And so it was God who both inspired David with this intention and entrusted its execution to Solomon.
    To make this clearer from examples, let us look for other cases in which God did not want the execution of the good intentions which men conceived through His inspiration. Our Lord commanded the apostles: ‘Going, therefore, teach ye all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you.’ When the apostles heard this, they beyond doubt heard more that mere material sounds of the words which struck the ears of their bodies; in their hearts, by the power of the living word, an unquenchable flame of charity was kindled which inspired them with a burning desire of preaching the gospel of Christ to all nations. Yet, when later they were forbidden to preach the word of the gospel in Asia, when at their attempt to go into Bithynia they were not allowed to do so by the Spirit of Jesus, shall we say that God had not spired their desire of converting to the faith those people also whom God in His hidden judgement did not yet want to hear the gospel preached? Or that the Church, when praying every day for her enemies, that is, for those who have not yet accepted the divine faith, is not guided by the Spirit of God? Who would say so except one who himself neglects those prayers, or does not believe that faith is a gift of God? Yet, the Church does not obtain for all what she asks for all. Nor is there any injustice in God, who often omits to grant to men what He inspired them to ask.” (Defense of St. Augustine, pgs. 101-2)

    God’s grace, or his uncreated energies, is the inspiration of all piety, although men may will good things that God does not actively will. As St. Augustine writes in his Enchiridion:

    “Sometimes, however, a man of good will wills something that God doth not will, even though God’s will is much more, and much more certainly, good—for under no circumstances can it ever be evil. For example, it is a good son’s will that his father live, whereas it is God’s good will that he should die. Or, again, it can happen that a man of evil will can will something that God also willeth with a good will—as, for example, a bad son wills that his father die and this is also God’s will. Of course, the former wills what God doth not will, whereas the latter does will what God willeth. Yet the piety of the one, though he wills not what God willeth, is more consonant with God’s will than is the impiety of the other, who wills the same thing that God willeth. There is a very great difference between what is fitting for man to will and what is fitting for God—and also between the ends to which a man directs his will—and this difference determines whether an act of will is to be approved or disapproved. Actually, God achieveth some of his purposes—which are, of course, all good—through the evil wills of bad men. For example, it was through the ill will of the Jews that, by the good will of the Father, Christ was slain for us—a deed so good that when the apostle Peter would have nullified it he was called “Satan” by him who had come in order to be slain. How good seemed the purposes of the pious faithful who were unwilling that the apostle Paul should go to Jerusalem, lest there he should suffer the things that the prophet Agabus had predicted! And yet God had willed that he should suffer these things for the sake of the preaching of Christ, and for the training of a martyr for Christ. And this good purpose of his he achieved, not through the good will of the Christians, but through the ill will of the Jews. Yet they were more fully his who did not will what he willed than were those who were willing instruments of his purpose—for while he and the latter did the very same thing, he worked through them with a good will, whereas they did his good will with their ill will.”


    Good to see you posting again Perry. Hope you’re well.


  8. I think there is another danger, that of thinking the free market is the supreme high good in itself… In other words, the free market can take the place of the communist regime’s equality. Both approaches are dangerous.

    One more thing. While there is a plurality of the Good, the inequality of material goods has been seen by the Orthodox as a perversion, an anomaly, rather than something to be accepted. St. John Chrysostom comes to mind. He speaks boldly against the inequality of material goods that exists in human societies, and points out that division is the cause of poverty.

    Speaking on the community of Jerusalem as recorded in the Acts, he expresses his vision that Constantinople becomes like that. “If God grants me life,” he says, “I believe that soon I will lead you to such a way of social life”.

    Of course this does not negate free choice and plurality. Capitalism might embrace plurality, but at the same time it is based on division. And “division is costly and the cause of poverty”.


  9. Andreas and Ochlophobist,

    I think the economic term for St. John Chrysostom’s insight is the scarcity of resources, and this inevitably leads, within the world in which we must sweat to produce, inequities. I would agree as well that distributivism (my students had no idea what to do with either Chesterton “What’s Wrong with the World”, or Belloc “The Servile State”) offers a way to avoid the idol that “the market” has become. The tendency in society, at least the USA, is the amalgamation of state and industry where the failure of the one is propped up by the force of the other. I tend toward the Austrians simply because they offer the “pragmatic happiness” of delivering us from the clutches of that Leviathan which possesses the monopoly of force. All things being possible, I would opt for Belloc, for I am still a monarchist politically, seeing in a divided government–one in which aristocratic, personal interests are vested in property (more Montesquieu than Locke)–a guarantor of liberty. Perhaps this world has come and gone, but I think the best society would be more akin to the medieval and early modern world, where social organization depended on religious structures and confraternities, and where all power was not vested in one structure of government. This is why Richelieu despised duels, for it meant that justice could be found apart from the king. This was a truly pluralistic society, one of multiple sovereignties, and in which no one had a monopoly on force. This also meant that the church operated within its own free sphere.

    On an appended note to Ochlophobist: in its purest form you are correct that the Austrians tend to a calculated libertarianism, one predicated on an almost Stoic interpretation of human action. Thus the wait on your part from clean whites. Yet I heard an excellent lecture by Michael Novak on Hayek and social justice (a statist term if there ever was one, since Justice, as Novak points out, is a personal virtue). Hayek saw in such things as confraternities a means to bypass locally the Leviathan that sought to encompass human endeavor. Hayek, though an agnostic, admired the Catholic Church, and originally wanted the Mont Pelerin Society to be the Acton/de Tocqueville Society, but someone in attendance said he’d be damned if he’d be part of a society named for two Catholics. In regard to the existence of local charity, we can see a means to reify the plurality of goods opened to us. Our society, to get back to Perry’s post, has been tending to monism in the name of diversity; a monism now increasingly being enforced by our ever increasingly impotent state (impotent in regard to having answers, not in its power). This homogeneity will always default to the lowest common denominator, and in our society this can only mean the brute appetitive (sex and consumerism; servility). The welfare state demands no virtue, and indeed is predicated on an impersonal charity, which is no charity at all. Since mercy, justice, prudence, inter alia, are realized in humans as made after the “image of Him who was to come”, to grant this prerogative to the state is to grant it messianic status. I am not saying that welfare has not helped people, but it does so by removing virtue from the human person. In this regard it is the state that brings alienation.



  10. Although, I have little knowledge of the world of economics, I do like the Jubilee idea in the Old Testament of a free economy and a redistribution every 50 years or so setting things back to the start again. So, away we freely go for another 50 years. This combines the reality of freedom and diversity but helps to give everyone a chance with the redistribution of wealth every so often. Of course this would have to be organised to ensure there is sufficient capital to maintain industry etc. Also, I agree with the idea that people seem to work best when they are their own bosses. Both State controlled work and multi-national companies don’t provide this and can end with the same problems with worker motivation. Well, my uneducated opinions.


  11. Perry–welcome back. Great post. I look forward to seeing more of your thinking on the ontological underpinnings of political economy.

    Fr. Patrick–a free economy creates wealth, but continuously redistributes social position through social mobility. Redistributing wealth permits the political class favoring redistribution to remain on top of the social heap without suffering challenges from those tacky entrepreneurial arrivistes.

    Cyril–Roepke, Hayek, Mises, and Rothbard are all worthy economists. You may want to add to your list Jorg Guido Hulsmann, who has stressed the importance of property rights specification in determining whether a market functions well. An Austrian who is close to monarchism is Hans-Hermann Hoppe. Incidentally, Austrian economics is a school of economic thought and isn’t a political stance. Hans Meyer was a Nazi, but still was a legitimate Austrian School economist. Most Austrians are libertarian, but not all.


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