The Common Good: Opening the Frame

In each of these crises, can be rediscovered to a certain degree the primitive image of all emergencies, namely birth. In that primitive experience, the whole organism had to readapt itself completely to save itself from immediate death. The lungs opened with a cry of distress. The tiny being had to begin to assure all by itself the maintenance of an equable body temperature, to absorb nourishment directly, and so on. This means that for the first time it went through a whole series of experiences which would accompany it throughout its entire life — the wonder of tender caresses, the delightful feeling of satisfied hunger, the light and colour of the world. The same thing occurs as a spiritual experience in every crisis.”[i]

Somehow this description by the Jesuit philosopher, Ladislaus Boros, for me leans very much so into the experience of crises that we are finding ourselves in presently. Something is being born, and yes, this birth is within the very throes of death. How distinct are the cries of distress and delight when the unknown and uncertain are pressing through? We can look about in our world and in our nation, even in our families and circles of work and friends to see these crises.   And, one way to frame it – or perhaps open the frame – as wisdom seekers intending to participate and perhaps even midwife the birth, is to consider from a spiritual field the simple phrase, the common good, as it is found within our nation’s hallowed textand inquire what it could possibly mean in terms of the current crises and what part it could play in the eminent birth or mutation of what is just beyond the horizon.

So, what is the “Common Good?” Or to phrase it differently, how comes or how goes the ‘common good?” From the mental perspective, there is always an implied judgment in the inquiry itself. And that may very well be a good place not to start. But it is also, according to Jean Gebser, where we are so to speak in our predominant structure of the mental consciousness, albeit deficient, within our nation and our world. The utility of judgement, which accompanies the mental structure, is necessary as a functional piece of existence, but it seeks isolation and dualism in its deficient mode, and this seems to be where the disconnecting illusion takes shape, i.e., as isolation and dualism. The term virtue also unfortunately falls in line with the ensuing morality of dualism, which characterizes any judgment of good or bad and thus itself (virtue) becomes another curious specter of identification. In this picture, one may be deemed to be good or act in good-ness to the extent that one’s behavior is judged virtuous. This is a pinpoint geography where stasis rules.

Perhaps to glance at the term common is one place to start. Without delving with any depth into any real etymology, suffice it to say that the Online Etymology Dictionary characterizes the adjective common as having roots of meaning associated with ‘in general, belonging to all , free, open, and public,’ while also noting that it was used from the 15th century on in the sense of ‘usual, not exceptional, not distinguished, ordinary, not excellent.’[ii] Here we can see how quickly the deficiency of the mental rears its bipolar head. Returning to our initial question, perhaps it even needs to be refined in the inquiry. Is common an adjective for good? If we answer affirmatively, then the phrase common good results in the nominalizing of good, wherein common is an adjective describing the noun good. If we take an alternative route other than nominalization, can the question be rephrased as how comes or how goes [the] common good?

What if we do not describe good by common, and instead consider it as unfolding and interactive. This ungrammatical slyness would be a type of reflexive double-verb. Cleverness aside, though, it could perhaps provide us a way to lean into the question or inquiry into common good not as a result or outcome attributed solely to actions and intentions, but as a field already inhabited, alive and open, waiting for intensification. Is this another way of speaking of enstasy – the standing within that participates in a relatedness that is already underway and flowing – as Cynthia has presented? If enstasy is the very intensification (and not expansion) that Gebser relates to structures of consciousness, then we can possibly open up the rigid and flattened frame that we have historically had around the common good. That is to say, if the common good is a field already inhabited, alive and open, an inquiry into its nature could coincide with this sense of enstasy and the intensification of consciousness.

Gebser uses the term systasis to describe this intensification of consciousness and places it in contrast to any type of causal system. As he puts it, it [systasis] is both process and effect, and its effectivity is integrating not simply integral. In terms of the participatory relatedness of systasis with regards to systems, Gebser claims that every system is lifted out of its isolation and concretized when we become aware that the principle of transformation renders illusory all so called ‘ideal quantities’ and destroys all fixities.[iii] If consciousness is intensified through systasis, and this intensification has something to do with transformation, what could this mean within the question of the common good?

If we cast the common good as an open field, a matrix of wholeness, already inhabited with consciousness, can we then begin to consider the common good as related to enstasy and systasis? If we are charged with standing within this field and engaging in the intensity of the open wholeness, would this strip the common good of all its historical and perspectival sheathings? Or is this merely the deficient quandary that we find ourselves within – the mental structure – when we ask the question only from that structure? Can the very possibility for transformation and integrating be that participatory process, which is already its own effect? In short, if we stand within the field, we are the field, and any transformation occurring is going to be co-intensive.

There seems to be a co-creativity here, a birthing/midwifing process that is somewhat familiar, yet strangely always originary. We are already in it and as aware of this now responsible for flowing with it in a reciprocal influencing or integrating – perhaps a co-influence! Jeremy Johnson tells us that creativity and the structures of consciousness are originary phenomenon, such that what we might call a ‘leap’ into a new consciousness is more a participatory process of entrusting oneself to origin and stepping into a process that is co-enactive. And with regards to any choice that we have to make, it is really only a matter of strengthening and exercising a capacity to work with these forces that spring up through us[iv]

So, is this a possible way of opening the frame of the common good? If so, what might it look like? If we allow virtue to be aligned with the common good, that term itself would have to undergo its own mutation it would seem. Jacob Needleman provides a way of looking at what virtue might look like when he somewhat surprisingly claims that the hidden meaning of virtue that has existed down through time is the stepping back, the yielding, the withdrawal. He goes on to say that this withdrawal is not equivalent to non-action. Indeed, this stepping back is what he calls the intensely and uniquely human act of freeing oneself from attachment to the whirlpool of life. And it is this stepping back from our sometimes violent illusions of life (nonattachment) that provides for the emergence of the true self, which now, at least somewhat grounded in the source or origin of its being, is able to serve as a conduit force of conscious creativity and care for one’s neighbor.[v]

If we adopt this face of virtue, then we can become somewhat dispossessed of any preconceived notions or ambitions that rely solely on decisions of duty. We are moved back into a clearing, where we stand waiting for the deeper ‘orders’ welling up from the Whole. As Gebser puts it, we become concretized and this transformatory process reveals the illusion of ‘ideal quantities’ and destroys all fixities.   Here, the ideal quantities and fixities could be seen as our illusory grasp of virtue, or at least the one-sidedness of the perspectival consideration of virtue. This concretizing is both an entrusting and a co-enacting – enstasy flowing into systasis, intensity flowing into participatory wholeness. Here the common good is full intensified participation in the direction from and toward wholeness. This is where virtue itself becomes enstasy, where one steps back and stands within to become a force that can contribute to reconciling and harmonizing without flattening anything. Conscious creativity and care are the hallmarks of this virtue as it flows within and as the common good. Indifference and inaction have nothing to do with this. Furthermore, it is not an isolated event, not merely individual. It is collective, co-enactive, relating, and decisive.

Without referring to virtue or the common good directly, Gebser himself seems to be speaking along the same lines, when he states that what is most decisive for us is to “know” in any given instance where and how to act passively or actively, where and how to make things happen or let things happen to us.   He goes on to say that everything hinges upon this knowledge of letting happen and making happen, and that this knowledge itself is not contingent upon our activity of passivity but on our knowledge of the occurring process that we have gained by our detachment from it.   Our capacity on one level to know what we must do is contingent upon the extent on another level to which we are detached from the either/or, this or that, i.e. to the extent that we are enstatic. This is an integrating and transparent knowledge. And, it is here that we engage with all of our structures of consciousness, i.e., all of our ‘knowledge.” He calls this knowledge the daiphainon, which is not bound to activity or passivity, but rather pervades or shines through them all.[vi]

J.G. Bennett echoes what Gebser is saying about knowing where and how to act passively by making psychological distinctions regarding will, which can be viewed as intensities of connectionthe power to take things as they areand the power to act[vii] With regards to the second distinction, Bennet clarifies that in front of any situation, it is possible to be active or passive, which he then quickly renames affirming and accepting, respectively. Perhaps the real take away here for our discussion is that these three distinctions being made regarding will all combine to give us freedom and responsibility. This is a living bedrock from which any real choice can be made. The choice is always before us, as Bennet says, to ‘take arms against the sea troubles’ or ‘suffer the slings and arrows, but any specific choice we make would flow from this deeper intensified enstatic posture, which is in service to source or origin.

Again, this enstatic posture, which is neither strictly active nor passive, is a direct encounter with source itself. In Gebserian language, access to the ever present origin. Intensely and intimately connected to source we are simultaneously radically detached and capable of acting as a conduit of force where and when needed.[viii] The liberation comes within the detachment because any choice to be made will flow from the transparency in the daiphainon. The shining will be colored by the intensity of the force, as Boros describes, the wonder of tender caresses, the delightful feeling of satisfied hunger, the light and colour of the world. And to Jeremy Johnson’s point, any choice that is made is generated from the enstatic flow, which is not individual at all but rather kenotic, collective and personal. Here is Raimon Panikkar’s beautiful description of a surrender that is pure co-creativity: I am one with the source insofar as I too act as a source by making all that I have received flow again.[ix]

These connective musings are intended not to present any answers or solutions, but rather to simply open the frame of how we might begin to envision and engage the question of the common good and virtue, given Gebser’s structures of consciousness and Cynthia’s suggestion of the autopoetic model wherein the common good is understood within a dynamic flow system as an emergent property of the whole. [Evolutionary Theory and The Common Good: The Beginnings of a Wisdom Inquiry, June 27, 2021, FaceBook]. There is a dynamic and intimate intelligence between the part and the whole that is reciprocally fine-tuned as we ‘individuals’ become collectively person-al. As Teilhard puts it:

Once, however, the warm glow of one and the same common soul lights up in each element of the human throng, distinct from each and yet the same in each: then, in this personalizing centre, itself endowed with supreme personality, as each particle strives to fulfill itself, it finds itself flung upon all the others.”[x]

This is standing embodied, surrendered enstatically within the open field of the common good, connecting with feeling in origin, receptive in sensation to awareness and shining. Yet even this standing within is virtue as engaged yielding, open to what it is that needs to shine forth. And that is illuminated by the withdrawing, which is actually toward each other. Teilhard speaks of being “flung upon all others,” whereas Beatrice Bruteau describes it as backing up in to each other.[xi] As we back up towards the center or the whole (each other), we are sharing more outlooks, desires, wills, and self-realization. This backing up towards the whole is the collective enstatic intensity that can break the rigidity and destroy the fixities, which support the detrimental illusions of isolation that dam the flow of virtue as the common good.

This is the sober task that will take any one of the infinite shapes that are provided by our everyday lives, our professions, our family and friend circles, our sufferings and our joys. And it is here that the enstatic approach becomes the way of approaching the task as much as the task itself. This is the process and effectuality included in systasis. Namely, we must take pause and check our expectations on outcomes and approach the task not only with sobriety, but also with humility, wonder and pliant alertness, conserving the energy that we might be tempted to employ on assigning any level of value or significance to the breadth and impact that the employment of the labor and task may carry forward. One with the source, it will go where it will. As J. G. Bennett proclaims:

“Everyone is capable of the act that makes real, in the Harmony of Creation, the small act is a significant as the big act. Out of many small acts, reality, the purpose of the whole creation, is being forged…or putting it in ordinary language, everything done with quality is a real act.”[xii]

Let us be vigilant and creative in recognizing what Boros names the primitive image of all emergencies – birth – as it presents itself to us in however it does, and at the same time, let us strive to consciously midwife the mutation that seeks to arrive in that unrepeatable unique and manner, which is ours alone and together to give toward any and all common good.

May our inquiries continue to blossom…

[i] Ladislaus Boros, THE MYSTERY OF DEATH (New York: Herder and Herder, 1965), 52-53.

[ii] “common (adj.),” Online Etymology Dictionary, accessed June 28, 2021, https://www.etymonline.com/has. See the following: c. 1300, “belonging to all, owned or used jointly, general, of a public nature or character,” from Old French comun “common, general, free, open, public” (9c., Modern French commun), from Latin communis “in common, public, shared by all or many; general, not specific; familiar, not pretentious.” This is from a reconstructed PIE compound *ko-moin-i- “held in common,” compound adjective formed from *ko- “together” + *moi-n-, suffixed form of root *mei- (1) “to change, go, move,” hence literally “shared by all.”

The second element of the compound also is the source of Latin munia “duties, public duties, functions,” those related to munia “office.” Perhaps reinforced in Old French by the Germanic form of PIE *ko-moin-i- (compare German gemein, Old English gemne “common, public, general, universal;” see mean (adj.)), which came to French via Frankish. Used disparagingly of women and criminals since c. 1300. Meaning “pertaining equally to or proceeding equally from two or more” is from c. 1400. Meaning “usual, not exceptional, of frequent occurrence” is from late 14c. Sense of “not distinguished, belonging to the general mass” is from c. 1400; of things, “ordinary, not excellent,” late 14c.)

[iii] Jean Gebser, THE EVER PRESENT ORIGIN [EPO] (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1984), 310.

[iv] Jeremy Johnson, SEEING THROUGH THE WORLD (Seattle, WA: Revelore Press, 2019), 87.

[v] Jacob Needleman, THE AMERICAN SOUL (New York: Tarcher Putnam, 2002), 137-138.

[vi] EPO, 138.

[vii] J.G. Bennett, A SPIRITUAL PSYCHOLOGY (Petersham, MA: The J.G. Bennett Foundation, 2020), 198.

[viii] The ‘when’ here is related to the concretion of time, which Gebser maintains is necessary for the Diaphainon of the Integral Structure, where “in every instance we are necessarily dealing with the ability of our faculty of consciousness to adapt itself to the different degrees of consciousness of the various structures” (EPO, 99).

[ix] Raimon Panikkar, CHRISTOPHANY (New York: Orbis Books, 2004), 116.

[x] Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Atomism of Spirit in ACTIVATION OF ENERGY (Maryknoll, NY: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1971), 47-48.

[xi] Beatrice Bruteau, RADICAL OPTIMISM (Boulder, CO: Sentient Publications, 2002), 98.

[xii] J.G. Bennett, A SPIRITUAL PSYCHOLOGY, 196-197.

This is originally published on Thomas’ website, Soul Lace, as well as on the Wisdom School Facebook Page.

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