The Commons and the Crown

Joshua Paetkau

“Depending heavily on export markets is like saying it is normal and right to be at the mercy of people who are not my friends. Common sense tells me that I shouldn’t put myself at the mercy of anybody who is not my friend.”

Wendell Berry

In the early days of the American Revolution Thomas Paine denounced British rule in America and the monarchical system of government in his famous Common Sense pamphlet. Paine appealed to a logic of justice that invoked the Protestant concern for scripture read through the lens of an egalitarian rationale. Unique among the American Founding Fathers as an advocate of radical democracy Paine is almost more reminiscent of the French Revolution, in which he also took part, than the American. At any rate, Paine is an important figure in the libertarian strain of American political thought, a tradition to which Wendell Berry, a farmer/poet/essayist from Kentucky, is heir in many ways.

The appeal these authors make to common sense as a foundation for political and economic action is not incidental. The concept of common sense is an integral and basic part of the American, and indeed North American, philosophical and political traditions. The danger in this appeal is the frequent reduction of common sense to individual intuition or to a degraded populist apprehension of more sophisticated forms of thought. That this need not be the case I hope to make clear first through a distinction between Berry’s and Paine’s usage of the term. Berry, invoking friendship rather than nationality as the primary stage on which common sense plays out, draws on philosophical resources which far predate the birth of the American nation. Within this philosophical tradition we will see common sense take its part in the human drama as a dynamic communicative sensitivity. It is this sensitivity, this imaginative sensibility of common being, that allows us to hope and work for a better world.

In the end what distinguishes Berry from Paine is a commitment to communally embodied practices and local forms of knowledge. Thus while there is continuity with the ways both of these authors use the concept of common sense there are also significant differences. Paine, in the tradition of classical liberalism, envisions common sense as moral foundation inherent in every individual. It is my contention that this notion is untenable as it does not allow for the dynamic character of human existence within the complex systems that form our world. Implicit in Berry’s work is a deep philosophical resonance that echoes Aristotle’s understanding of human beings as simultaneously part of and distinct from external nature.1 The integralist character this anthropology implies means that humans are communal beings in a political, rather than simply organic, sense. We are, as Aristotle succinctly puts it, political animals. Common sense, therefore, is not a natural phenomenon.  At the other extreme we find accounts of common sense which play upon the degraded sense of the word common, that is, common sense is merely the dregs of more sophisticated philosophical and scientific forms of knowledge. Against this conception it is my aim to recast common sense within a fuller resonance of its philosophical and historical heritage, thereby reclaiming it as an integral movement in philosophy. This in turn means that philosophy is not the luxurious and isolated pursuit of the elite but a pragmatic endeavor that forms a way of living and in turn creates a world. Common sense, simply put, must form a resonance with a series of thoughtful practices which foster reflexivity, commonwealth, and communion.

This resonance necessarily bears weight upon various forms of human communities including the city, the nation-state, the church, and rural community. For the purposes of space and time I cannot treat the particulars of these various forms of community. Yet it is impossible to treat them as generic. The organization of cultural, political, and economic space impacts tremendously how the inhabitants of that space formulate their perceptions and actions. Paine’s Common Sense appealed to the spirit of bourgeois nationalism, a sensibility formed around a doctrine of the nation-state as the most legitimate aggregate of human individuals. Berry, as seen in the quote above, stresses a more active local participation in and expression of community, which at the same time requires a greater awareness of how locality is embedded in global structures.

The key consideration to be developed from the contrast between these two figures is how the capacity for local sensitivity cannot be treated separately from its theoretical unfolding. This does not mean, merely, that we ought to repeat the clichéd “think globally, act locally.” As much as that slogan has been repeated we still find ourselves within the administrative bind of politics as the task of managing people. If we allow our understanding of the global to be determined by the logic of capital and consumption our local communities, churches for example, will continue to die since the consumption of the material world is insufficient sustenance for the human spirit. Humanity does not live by bread alone, nor do we by our divine power transmogrify stones.  Common sense is not business sense. It is rather an integral element of the political communion between thinking beings in a sensible world.

The political nature of human social forms means that the intuition of the individual can never be a sufficient basis for life together. This, of course, flies in the face of the prevailing (liberal) ideology whose fervour for the private freedom of the individual is matched only by the incompetence of its monolithic regulatory systems. An emphasis on purely negative and abstract freedom has come to dominate what passes for political discourse in our age, leaving both authority figures and communities bereft of personality or depth of character. The ramifications of this depoliticization extend far beyond the narrow confines of administrative politics. They lie at the core of the subjective crisis of the twenty-first century, of which the so-called economic crisis is symptomatic. That we could be so swept up by the mediocre drama of the financial meltdown of corporations that produce no real goods is indicative of the state of common sense. If all our common sense could do is tell us, retroactively, that more government oversight on people commanding vast sums of wealth would have been a good idea we are truly a sensibly impoverished people.2 The belief that the intuitive capacity of individuals is enough for sound judgment has fostered an irresponsible disregard for the state of the material world and the lives of real people and their habitats.

At this point I would like to return to Paine and discuss two distinct, though related elements of his thought which characterize the counter-hegemonic nature of his political project.  First the way Paine appeals to sense of the obvious or intuition to substantiate his political claims. The evils of British imperialism are decried in the name of a simple reflexivity supposed inherent to each individual. The monarchical disease of lust for power coupled with the complex and overbearing nature of the British legal system is judged the culprit for social maladies.3 Second is Paine’s attempt to resolve the tension between authority and freedom by dissolving the particulars of authority embodied in the crown as absurd and proclaiming the self-evident rule of republican forces in society.4

There is much to be admired in Paine’s rhetoric, particularly the righteous indignation with which he confronts abuses of power and his trenchant analysis of Old Testament texts and examples from British history to expose the barbaric and sinful nature of kingship. Certainly Paine is right to speak against injustice in the powers and principalities of this world, and in doing so finds himself a part of the prophetic tradition he so eloquently invokes. However in the ferocity of his attacks on the concentrated locus of governing authority, i.e. the king, Paine remains inattentive to the deeper currents of economic and cultural hegemony. In one instance he writes off the distinction between rich and poor as a quasi-natural one that can be explained “largely without recourse to avarice or oppression.”5 The common sense to which Paine appeals, then, is in reality a bourgeois sense already underwritten by material inequality. Moreover in Paine’s disdain for the crown there is something more than a mere critique of abuses of power. This something more is unease with concretely embodied authority, in keeping with Paine’s preferred religious expression of Deism.

Paine’s refusal to side decisively with either the commons or the crown is indicative of the state of modern political philosophy, particularly in its American form. Whatever the range of political choices may be they do not include either communism6 or the kingdom of God. While there are distinct reasons for why each of these political options are rejected we may be reasonably certain that it stems in part from a fear of embodiment. That is, both require specific ways of living that may endanger our so-called individual rights in the name of something we hold greater than ourselves. They both require us to hold fast to the doctrine that it is not in the confines of our individual souls that we have true being but rather within the community of truth. We should not reject this commitment from the perspective of an alleged common sense, as Thomas Paine eventually does. It is only in common that we can truly make sense of the world; only in communion can we become sensible people.

Yet, by identifying a sense of commonality, even in a reified form that denies human agency to sense-making, Paine has not left us completely stranded. Indeed one could say that Paine’s pamphlet gives body to the notion of common sense as the sphere of obvious knowledge, the everyman’s philosophy. This does, however render common sense as a seriously problematic and deficient form of knowledge. It was along these lines that  Antonio Gramsci, writing in the confines of an Italian prison during World War II, launched what is probably the most famous critique of common sense. He writes,

Every philosophical current leaves behind a sedimentation of ‘common sense’: this is the document of its historical effectiveness. Common sense is not something rigid and immobile, but is continually transforming itself, enriching itself with scientific ideas and with philosophical opinions which have entered ordinary life. ‘Common sense’ is the folklore of philosophy, and is always half-way between folklore properly speaking and the philosophy, science, and economics of the specialists. Common sense creates the folklore of the future, that is as a relatively rigid phase of popular knowledge at a given place and time.7

Gramsci’s critique of common sense is found within a broader discussion of the relationships between philosophy, religion, and politics. Gramsci’s treatment of religion is quite negative as he sees it, particularly Christianity, as necessarily perpetuating the split between the elite purveyors of “real” specialized knowledge and those who only receive it in an obscure and degraded form. This brings up some very key issues faced  by the church today since, I think, Gramsci’s criticism of  Christianity brings us uncomfortably close to the truth. Not only do we have a mere common-sense approach to questions of the church as a social body or political community, as distinct from a thoughtful and engaged one, we no longer even have common sense. In other words we live, far more than Thomas Paine, in a world of abandonment, a world where meaning is unraveling.

Building on Gramsci’s work the Marxist literary critic Raymond Williams notes that the hegemonic structuring of our society pervades “to such a depth that the pressures and limits of what can ultimately be seen as a specific economic, political, and cultural system seem to most of us the pressures and limits of simple experience and common sense.”8 Common sense, then, is a particular manifestation of a tradition composed of a selection of meanings and practices. Williams, however, does not take this as a necessary indictment of either common sense or tradition. He is aware that human life and meaning is composed of these traditions, these selections of meanings and practices. The degree of activity and awareness in how these traditions come to life depends  largely on its participants.

We will not, then, indict common sense as merely an impoverished form of knowing but actively engage its life and processes as a component of the sense-making that unfolds the human drama. In part this may be seen through by touching on some particular expressions and movements of the concept itself that it might resound more deeply in our own time. A truly common sense, one that is both made and held in common is a sense that leads us to the contemplation of beauty in our world, our friendships, and our memories, collective as well as personal. I do not, therefore, intend to engage in a systematic or exhaustive historical analysis of the use of the word/concept of common sense. Part of what a sensibility of communion entails is an understanding of the dynamic and resonant character of the senses, which is to say that being, in its very contingency, is an embodiment of and participation in the life of the divine.

The idea of embodiment and participation is certainly evident in the  life and work of Wendell Berry. For our purposes we will constrain ourselves to the quote at the beginning of this article.  By placing common sense in the realm of friendship Berry names it as a sensibility that is precisely concerned with sensory experience, that is, with commonly held material experience in a particular time and place. Casting this expression of the local within the context of global trade Berry recognizes the place this sensibility of friendship holds within the economic, political, and cultural system or systems in which it participates. He thus inverts the standard rendering of common sense in our time, that is, the nebulous and obfuscated representation of global capitalism as the symbolic network which secures and produces all meaning. Berry instead sets forth a bold manifesto of a way of living in which real embodied friendships take precedence over financial hegemony and the supremacy of an ethereal economy. To put it in theological terms we might say that Berry confronts the heresies of Gnosticism with the proclamation of the full humanity of Jesus Christ. We will return again to this theological phrasing, which, I believe, provides a way out of the impasse between authority and freedom, those focal points wherein political philosophy constantly oscillates.

In order to proceed, however, it is necessary for us to step further back in order to encompass some of the historical depth of human sense-making. Only in this way will all the nuances of what we might mean by common sense become clear, and in this way we will strive to understand how to overcome its pitfalls. In a particular the way, identified by Gramsci, certain values reflecting the interest of the dominant class take on the guise of “common sense” or “natural” values thereby perpetuating unjust and unsustainable social forms . So we must begin again at the beginning which, for the purpose of clarity, will be with Aristotle and the inauguration of common sense to the philosophical lexicon.

In his De Anima, generally translated in English as On the Soul, Aristotle outlines the necessity for an inner unified sensibility that binds the five senses of touch, smell, taste, sight, and hearing together in a way that allows awareness of contemporaneous qualities in a singular object. That this is the case Aristotle deduces from our ability to perceive unified objects rather than merely disparate sensations. Aristotle goes on to clarify that this unified experience of sensations cannot be attributed to a separate sense organ for “common sensibles,” his example is movement, since we would then experience movement in a parallel way to how we experience sweetness as a sensation of taste. An additional problem to appealing to a sense organ as the location of the unity of the senses is that it would mean that we would need to be in immediate contact with an object in order to perceive it.9 In sum the common sense, for Aristotle, is the integration of sense data to form a picture of the world in the mind.

Aristotle’s outline of common sense, the point of departure for all further reflection on the topic, in itself marks a radical shift in how the world is perceived. We should bear in mind that the discourse on common sense takes places within the broader inquiry into the nature and workings of the soul. This very inquiry would have been unthinkable for Plato not for any lack of belief in the soul but because the soul was always to be conceived of in an analogous and dynamic relationship with the city. Hence where Aristotle writes On the Soul Plato composes The Republic. The analytical rigour which Aristotle is able to bring to questions of the human soul and mind is to be commended. His doctrine of common sense is beautiful in its simplicity and straightforwardness. Nevertheless we should be alert to an implicit danger contained in Aristotle’s decision to propose the soul as a field of study rather than speaking of the soul within the dynamic movement of the life of the city and the conversation of her thinkers. The danger is that Aristotle threatens to make the soul the subject of proprietary knowledge in which common sense evokes no commonly held reality and makes no demand on knowledge being a communal endeavor. This is not to say that Aristotle walks the path of treachery, since he produces a work that thoughtfully draws out the soul as a politically embodied reality. The crucial dynamics of communicativity and sensitivity are kept at play.

It is, in a sense, communicability and sensibility that are always at stake. Each life, each participation in the world requires some capacity for sensing the world, sensing what is other to ourselves. Yet this sensing is always bound up within a framework of communicability formed around a sense of the commons. Not only are we creatures who inhabit the world of language, but the world of music, of images, tastes, smell, and touch. Yet we inhabit them in a particular way, we select and compose preferences and meanings which inform how we perceive and how we act.

This is our authority, our crown. It is not absolute for even as we select certain things for emphasis we compose and therefore constrain ourselves. We contribute to the composition and constraints of other lives, the joys and oppressions of other peoples. It is this oppression, this debased use of authority that Thomas Paine objected to in British imperialism. Yet in the radical separation and opposition between crown and commons both have become debased. The commons because we have stripped them of their dignity as commons and caused them to fragment and fall apart. The notion of the negative freedom of the individual has been used as a violent weapon against all attempts of collective organization. The reduction of authority to the formless movement of capital has occurred coterminously, with the devastating result of increasingly irresponsible, careless, and character-less leadership.

So it is that we must call for a return, which is to say a way forward. A return to politics because we are political animals, communicative creatures in a sensible world. A return to philosophy because our political engagement, our being in community, is moved by our reflexive distance. Finally a return to theology because we are both thinking and embodied beings. In the person of Jesus Christ we find these resonances to be strong and dignified. It is in life of one who would give up his life for his friends, for those with whom he made common cause and with whom he communed that we find true authority and true community: the symphonic truth of the commons and the crown.

Joshua Paetkau works as a support worker for adults with disabilities in Winnipeg, Manitoba.  He recently graduated from Canadian Mennonite University with a bachelor of arts in theology and social science, and is a member of St. Margaret’s Anglican Church.  He is a co-editor of Catholic Commons.


1 Patrick J Deneen, “Wendell Berry and the Alternative Tradition in American Political Thought,” in Wendell Berry: Life and Work ed.  Jason  Peters (Lexington, Kentucky: University of  Kentucky Press, 2007), 304.  Deneen spells out in great detail the ways in which Berry’s work is sympathetic to an Aristotelian framework.

2 See Leo Panitch and Martin Konings “Myths of Neoliberal Deregulation” in New Left Review 57 (2009): 67-83 for an excellent analysis of the active part government regulation played in creating the financial crisis. Panitch and Konings take on the “new common sense” which calls for government regulation as the panacea for economic problems.

3 Thomas Paine, Common Sense  accessed online @

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid, Ch. 2.

6 The use of the term communism here is deliberate. While we in North America may be quite comfortable with associative forms of social engagement and even with collective agencies with overtly social agendas there is something about the idea of a collective political force that frightens us. The spectre of communism continues, it seems, to haunt North America as  well as Europe – perhaps the whole world. What we know from scripture is that ghosts might turn out to be resurrected bodies.

7 Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, trans. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith (New York: International Publishers, 1971), 326 footnote 5. An example of this can be seen in the rapid induction of technical psychoanalytic concepts in popular speech and imagination in a very confused and misleading manner. Or to use a more current example the popular dissemination of the environmental sciences into a “green is good” mentality which effectively inoculates people against a conscientious, reflexive, and seriously informed appreciation of the specific relationships human beings are involved in vis-à-vis the natural world. That the “green, “organic”, and “fair trade” campaigns constitute as enormous a marketing force as they do should trouble us because it means that we have once again entrusted our own ethical responsibilities to vast corporate structures whose principal actors are constrained, ultimately, by the considerations of corporate profit and not by a concern for furthering the common good.

8 Raymond Williams Marxism and Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press:1977), 110.

9 Aristotle De Anima Book III Part 2 accessed online @


One thought on “The Commons and the Crown

  1. Pingback: » Josh Paetkau’s fruitful studies at A Rocha - Inspiring Change. Caring for Creation.

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