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.