The Foundations of Christian Ethics and Social Order: Egoism and Altruism vs. Love for the Common Good

by Peter Kwasniewski

This is the first half of an article published in the The Latin Mass, vol. 23, n. 4 (Winter/Spring 2015): 28–35, and appears here at The Josias by permission.  The second half is here.

It is a well-known axiom of Thomistic ethics that whatever good a person loves he loves as his own good (bonum suum). How, then, can there be a true “ecstasy,” that is, a true going out of oneself in love for the other?[1]  How can there be authentic love of the other for the other’s sake?  Does not love collapse into egoism?  And would not the only practical or theoretical alternative be altruism—a sort of spontaneous giving away to others that has no reference whatsoever to oneself or one’s good?

The Contemporary Antinomy

The liberal democratic state and the collectivist or communist state are giant social embodiments of the seemingly inescapable antinomy of egoism and altruism. One system reduces human motivation to self-interest or selfishness, thereby hindering interpersonal communion, which requires the gift of self; the other system undermines human happiness by ignoring the dignity of the person as such, allowing the individual to be sacrificed for an alien “social good.”  The entire political climate of modernity almost forces us into envisioning reality as an insoluble conflict between egoism and altruism.

Because modern society has rejected traditional virtues in favor of materialistic consumerism and hedonism, the modern man habituated to think, feel, and act as a pleasure-seeking consumer is therefore habituated to the error of egoism, and trapped within it. Since there are so many needy people about whom he does not care, the egoist must be “forced” to help others. One thinks in this connection of rampant socialism, of government welfare programs and mandated health care that have taken the place of an organic subsidiarity guided by social justice and charity. Such a “welfare state” breeds cynicism, then resentment, and finally violence because it does not emerge from or appeal to genuinely possessed virtue; it represents an assault on the monstrous ego that modern society has produced. Put differently, modern society inculcates egoism instead of justice and charity, but, recognizing the result as a disaster, it tries to enforce altruism, which both reinforces and chafes against egoism. The result is social tension, antipathy, civil unrest. A further, more subtle result is that modernity, by relentlessly promoting a self distant from divine roots, detached from tradition-based rationality, and doomed to create meaning, empties the ego of the rich content that persons, in their native receptivity, stand to inherit from the society of persons preceding and surrounding them and destined to flow forth from them. The unexpected flip side of a disproportionate inflation of the ego is its evacuation and vacuity—a perverse imitation of Christological kenosis—which may develop into a powerful force of negation and annihilation.

In a seminal political philosopher like Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) we find the presuppositions of this pervasive egoism. For Hobbes, everything is instrumental to my own good, which is understood as a merely sensible good; because self = body (indeed, reality = body), there can be no extension of love beyond the self, beyond the body.[2] Everything outside of oneself is, at worst, a threat to oneself; at best, a means to the end of self-preservation. The social contract is a mechanism which enables me to get more of what I want, while enabling you to get what you want. We cannot desire something common, because there is nothing truly common. All good is private good. Thus I cannot “will the good for another”; I cannot want another to be well for his own sake. Anything I want for another (potentially or actually) takes something away from me.

Hobbes exposes the roots of the modern antinomy of egoism and altruism, whose deep kinship can be exposed as follows. If I am an egoist, I subordinate everybody else’s good to my own private good. If I am an altruist, I subordinate my good to what ends up being somebody else’s private good. (Ironically, altruism, whether in theory or in practice, depends upon the basic assumption of egoism—namely, that my good and your good are simply alien to each other, and that I can help you only at the expense of my good.)  Both alternatives are equally irrational, indeed anti-Christian: the indiscriminate ordering of others to self or of self to others.

This opposition between egoism and altruism is entirely foreign to Saint Thomas’s doctrine of love. In his subtle realism, Thomas grasps well the relationship between my good, the good of other persons, and the transcendent source of all good, the tripersonal God. Human perfection consists neither in the fulfillment of a self sealed off from others, nor in a radical negation of the worth and selfhood of the person. Man’s perfection consists in the giving of oneself to God and neighbor, going out of oneself to the other in a self-forgetful oblation that is also the height of self-perfection, because it involves communication in the common good. This doctrine offers a genuine alternative to tedious debates about egoism and altruism, self-interest and spontaneous beneficence.[3]

Ecstatic Generosity as the Rule of Creation

The human self is not sealed off from others in its fulfillment, but rather naturally inclines to what might be called “ecstatic generosity.”  Implanted in man’s nature—or more precisely, in his voluntas ut natura—is the love of the good as such. As a being that is and is good by participation, man depends upon and is naturally ordered to the simple Good; he is inclined, already before choice, to live more truly in and for God than in and for himself. The many conscious manifestations of extasis follow upon this innate extasis of created being to uncreated being, finite good to infinite Good, likeness to exemplar, imperfect image to perfect Image. Ontological extasis precedes and sustains psychological extasis as nature precedes power and power precedes activity.

Man, like all creatures, has ecstatic power (Dionysius refers to it as eros), because he is made to the image of the all-powerful God whose generous love creates, conserves, and governs the world. The God who does not stand outside Himself because He is everywhere, held by nothing, is the Lover whose effects are the most ecstatic, for He creates by love the very beings from which He then entices the extasis of a responding love. In His superabundant goodness whereby He remains in Himself, He effects a world of beings which, to greater and lesser extent, stand outside themselves, imitating Him.[4]

God has made creatures to be not merely recipients of good, but also sources of it. Ens creatum, created being, has not only the negative side of poverty, which provokes appetite for the absent good, but the positive side of wealth, which promotes the diffusion of the good to others. As Norris Clarke explains:

The real beings of our universe go out of themselves in action for two reasons: one, because they are poor, in that as limited and imperfect they are seeking completion of themselves from other beings; two, because they are rich, in that they actually exist and so possess some degree of actual perfection and have an intrinsic tendency to share this in some way with others.[5]

As the axiom has it: bonum est diffusivum sui, the good is diffusive of itself.[6]  The nobler a good is, the more being it has, and the more it can be loved not only in itself but also as something sharable, diffusible, participable. The infinite divine good is infinitely sharable, and hence it is most fitting that the divine love which is identical with this good should freely share it by bringing into being recipients of the same good. Because the created recipient mirrors its uncreated source and imitates His activity—because, in short, created being is mimetic ecstasy towards God—it is naturally apt to communicate itself to others in the way this is possible, viz., by efficiently causing in another a likeness of its own actuality, thus sharing its good. On such an account it is natural for all things not only to obtain and preserve their own good, but also to share it with others. All things, according to their ability, naturally love some others[7] and work for their good. The sparrow feeding its newly-hatched offspring is doing in its nest something analogous to what God is doing in the universe: giving something good to a dependent, not for the giver’s benefit, but for the dependent’s. Perhaps the best expression of this truth is found in the Summa contra gentiles:

The more perfect a thing’s power, and the higher its degree of goodness, the more universal is its desire for good, and the greater the range of goodness to which its appetite and operation extend. For imperfect things extend no further than their own individual good; but perfect things extend to the good of the species; more perfect things, to the good of the genus; and God who is most perfect in goodness, to the good of all being. Wherefore it is said by some, not without reason, that good, as such, is diffusive of itself, because the better a thing is, the further does the outpouring of its goodness extend. And since, in every genus, that which is most perfect is the exemplar and measure of all that belongs to that genus, it follows that God, who is most perfect in goodness, and pours forth His goodness most universally, is in His outpouring the exemplar of all things that pour forth goodness. Now one thing becomes a cause of another by pouring forth its own goodness into that other. And so it is again evident that whatever tends to be the cause of something else, tends to a divine likeness, and yet tends to its own good.[8]

The higher the creature, the more of itself it gives, for it has more of a self at the origin of the giving. “The word ‘friendship,’” says Saint Thomas, “is properly applied to a love that spreads itself out to others.”[9]

Nature is Not Inherently Selfish

Here is the root of Saint Thomas’s forceful disagreement with an axiom traceable to earlier scholastics and, further back, to Saint Bernard: natura semper in se curva est, or natura est recurva in seipsa.[10]  A dramatic statement of it is found in Saint Albert: “The love of concupiscence belongs to nature, which is always curved into itself; and whatever it loves it twists back into itself, that is, to its proper, private good; and unless it is freely made to be elevated above itself by grace, everything that it loves it twists back to its proper good, and loves on account of itself.”[11]

What disturbs Saint Thomas is not the idea that some love can be self-recursive, but that natural love as such deserves to be so defined. For if natural love is necessarily self-directed, then any kind of love for others, any extasis, is not only exclusively a result of grace but is also contrary to nature, destructive of the order of appetite. We have seen that for Thomas appetite is built along ecstatic lines, and even in the clearest cases of self-recursive appetite, such as an electron’s leap for a more stable place, an animal’s hunger for food, or a plant’s leaning into sunlight, the creature is, without knowing or intending it, striving for assimilation to God, consolidating its divine likeness. This process, however, is not isolated and introspective; it is communal and extroverted. Spontaneously and naturally, a creature is no less inclined to share its good than to preserve it and enhance it. In Thomas’s words: “Natural things have an inclination not only with respect to the proper good—to acquire it when it is not had, to rest in it when had—but also to pour forth good into others so far as it is possible.”[12]

Love always involves ecstatic transcendence, whether it be the total oblation of creature to Creator, the hierarchically proportioned reverence of any inferior to its superior, the mutual affection and help of equals joined in friendship, or the gracious condescension of a superior to the inferior dependent upon the superior for being or well-being. Love and ecstasy are therefore not companions of chance, but the latter is the infallible mark of the species, quality, and intensity of the former. If a man may be known by the company he keeps, love may be known by the ecstasy it provokes. Love’s participation in personal, spiritual reality is determined by the presence of ecstatic commitment and gift. Love of things as instruments or accidental perfections generates a quasi-ecstatic love that journeys outward only to return inward, bearing gifts for the master subject. Love of persons for their own sake generates a truly ecstatic love, bearing the self as gift to another subject, in the form of sharing a common life that aspires most of all to common goods. In one love alone is the ecstasy towards the other all-encompassing, all-consuming: the unconditional love of man or angel for his divine Lord, in whom all good is found, to whom all worship is owed. As David Gallagher explains:

In accord with this doctrine of participation, Thomas maintains that the perfections of all creatures, including rational beings, are found more perfectly in the unparticipated source than in the participating subjects. It is precisely this point that serves to explain the love of God for his own sake (amor amicitiae) even more than self. The very good that one loves in oneself is found more perfectly in the uncreated source of that good. . . . Thus we are more pleased by (i.e., have more complacentia in) our good as it exists in God than as it exists in ourselves, and accordingly we love God even more than ourselves. One might express it as follows: the complete good of the whole that is God is more my good than the particular and partial good that I as a particular subsisting being possess. God, as the pure source of all good, is more lovable than any particular good, even oneself.[13]

We began by saying that the human self is not sealed off from others in its fulfillment, and here we have the most direct way of stating why: the creature is inclined to love the common good, which is more like the God who is naturally loved, than its private good, which imitates Him less and is therefore less the creature’s good and less beloved. If natural love were not already to some extent ecstatic, amor amicitiae, friendship-love, would be impossible, grace or no grace. One might put it this way: selfishness, the exaltation of the private over the common, is only a corruption and is never natural.[14]

The entire moral life—possibly the whole of created being—is suffused with a new light: except for the merely logical relation of self to self, all relationships are governed by the law of ecstatic communication, varying in potency as the relatives vary in weight of being, in dignity of subsistence.


[1] The doctrine of the extasis amoris is developed by Saint Thomas in a number of texts throughout his career. For texts and analysis, see Peter Kwasniewski, “St. Thomas, Extasis, and Union with the Beloved,” The Thomist 61.4 (1997): 587–603; idem, “The Ecstasy of Love in Aquinas’s Commentary on the Sentences,Angelicum 83 (2006): 51–93.

[2] Connected to this is the contemporary “cult of the body” which takes many and various forms ranging from relatively harmless to spiritually poisonous, e.g., preoccupation with television and magazine images, the health and fitness obsession, capitalist pampering products, increasingly costly and invasive medical technology, tattoos and piercing, pornography. What all these have in common is the error of taking the body or the sensible as if it were the self—the locus of attention, cultivation, and finality.

[3] See David Gallagher, “Gewirth, Sterba, and the Justification of Morality,” in Gewirth: Critical Essays on Action, Rationality, and Community, ed. Michal Boylan (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999): 183–89.

[4] In God alone is the lack of extasis pure positivity, for there is no finitude that He must transcend in order to be Himself, as we must transcend our limits if we will enter fully into what we are to be.

[5] W. Norris Clarke, The One and the Many: A Contemporary Thomistic Metaphysics (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2001), 33.

[6] Texts in which Saint Thomas invokes this axiom: Scriptum super libros Sententiarum [Sent.] I.34.2.1 ad 4; Summa contra gentiles [SCG] I.37 and III.24; Summa theologiae [ST] I.5.4 and 27.5 ad 2; ST I-II.1.4 ad 1; ST II-II.117.6 obj. 2 et ad 2; Quaestiones disputatae De veritate 21.1 ad 4. On the related principle bonum se communicat, see Sent. I.2.1.4 sc; Sent. I.10.1.5 obj. 3 et ad 3; ST I.19.2 and 106.4; ST III.1.1; Compendium theologiae I.124.

[7] The principle of likeness will be important, for “every animal loves its like, and every man his neighbor” (Sir. 13:15).

[8] Thomas Aquinas, SCG III.24 (Leon. 14:63, Ex quo).

[9] Aquinas, Sent. III.28.6 (913, §57).

[10] See Aquinas, Quaestiones quodlibetales 1.4.3; ST I.60.5; I-II.109.3; II-II.26.3; Sent. III.29.1.3; cf. Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange, The Love of God and the Cross of Jesus, trans. Jeanne Marie (St. Louis: Herder, 1947), 1:89 et seq.

[11] Albertus Magnus, Summae theologiae, corp., in Opera omnia, vol. 32 (Paris: Vivès, 1895).

[12] Aquinas, ST I.19.2.

[13] David Gallagher, “Desire for Beatitude and Love of Friendship in Thomas Aquinas,” Medieval Studies 58 (1996): 1–47; here, 37.

[14] Sin is not only rejection of grace; at the deepest level it is denial of nature. Sin is the privation or diminishment of mode, species, and order (see ST I-II.85.4). Love of God above self is natural for integral nature; it is no longer natural for fallen nature (ST I-II.109.3). In the fallen order, an ecstatic, generously self-diffusive love is possible only by the infusion of grace, actual or habitual, which empowers a person to love God above all and in all, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself.

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