The Common Good of Communities and the Need for Forgiveness: A View from Classical Greek Philosophy

A community is a single, whole entity, with a common purpose, made up of persons, each of whom is a single, whole entity (Maritain, 1994).  A community is not simply the sum total of the individuals in the community (a nominalist view).  Think of a symphonic community of musicians. There is a harmony of persons performing different activities and with different talents in the orchestra.  The group transcends any given part of the group (Wild, 1948).  A symphony orchestra is more than the violin section only.  Communities differ in their norms, beliefs, and actions (what Aristotle calls accidents).

Aristotelian realist philosophy states that communities have a common good (Aristotle, 1999/340 B.C.).  A common good is defined by Plato (2015/330 B.C.) in The Republic as persons growing in the Cardinal Virtues of justice, courage, wisdom, and temperance with these emphasized within the group. These four virtues, in Plato’s view, are not generated by opinion or feelings, but they naturally apply to all persons and all communities. These are understood by reason and chosen by the free will of each person.  In other words, the Cardinal Virtues are not forced upon us.

Let us, then, define these Cardinal Virtues: 1) Justice is offering one’s best to others and the community.  Kreeft (1992, p. 60) describes Platonic justice through the poetic image of music: one strives to be in harmony with others as all cooperate and play a beautiful societal tune. This is the central virtue according to Plato in The Republic.
2) Courage
is going ahead despite fear so that one can do one’s best even when it is difficult to do so.  3) Wisdom is knowing the right response at the right time without having a rule-book nearby.  4) Temperance is balance, avoiding too much or too little in all we do, including practicing the virtues, in pleasure seeking, and work.  In Book IV of his Republic, Plato (2015/330 B.C.) defends the view that all four of these Cardinal Virtues, together, help to mature individuals and to have a well-functioning community in which the greater good then benefits all. 

 As Wild (1948, p. 185) clarifies, the goal of the common good is human perfection for all in the community.  The common good of the community, which includes the good of each person, is considered higher than the individual good.  In other words, individuals can be in service to one another for the good of the other person and the good of the group. 

Now, and importantly for how forgiveness fits into the common good of the community, when people are treated unjustly by others, anger can ensue, which can develop into irritability (Stringaris, Vidal-Ribas, Brotman, & Leibenluft, 2017) and even to hatred.  Forgiving those who are unjust, then, can first reduce the anger, which in turn can reduce the desire for excessive recompense (in the case of justice), and the desire for reckless bravado (in the case of courage).  Without hatred, temperance can be restored, and the clear, rational thinking of wisdom can once again be present. If the common good is to be just, to work in harmony with others, then forgiveness can keep justice in balance, by first reducing toxic anger, and thus preserving the central Cardinal Virtue (justice) in communities. If this is true, then forgiveness needs to play a central part in the common good of communities.

If this is true, then forgiveness needs to be fostered in individuals, families, schools, workplaces, and places of worship……now.


  • Aristotle. (1999/340 B.C.). Nicomachean ethics. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Kreeft, P. (1992). Back to virtue. San Francisco: Ignatius Press.
  • Maritan, J. (1994). The person and the common good. South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.
  • Plato, translated by B. Jowett (2015/approximately 330 BC). The complete works of Plato/ the republic. Hastings, East Sussex, United Kingdom: Delphi Classics.
  • Stringaris, A., Vidal-Ribas, P., Brotman, M.A., & Leibenluft, E. (2017). Practitioner review: Definition, recognition, and treatment challenges of irritability in young people. Journal of Child Psychology, 59, 721-739.
  • Wild, J. (1948). Introduction to realistic philosophy. New York: Harper & Row.
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