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Summum Bonum

Whose "highest good"?

by Everett Wilson
March 17, 2007

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Summum Bonum
The first time I heard the expression "summum bonum" was from a college history professor. He used it to take a cheap shot at a neighboring state college that had begun its history as a "normal school" for the training of teachers, then was upgraded to a college, and is now—what else, in our inflated generation?—a university.   But in our pure, church-related liberal arts college, we still thought of it as a teachers' college.    So the professor said,     "At _______, the summum bonum is to become superintendent of schools at Beaver Crossing."

 [DISCLAIMER: To residents of Beaver Crossing who may be reading this column, it was obvious to the class that the slur was not directed toward their fine community. I believe it was chosen because "beaver" is often perceived as a comic word in and of itself, quite apart from disrespect either for the noble beast or the communities, creeks, dams, etc. that bear its name.    Beaver Crossing was a large enough community for the position of superintendent to be a  challenging goal, even for students of our school.   The slur was directed at the institution, which was in athletic competition with ours, thus  fair game for satire and abuse.]

Since I didn't remember how the professor pronounced  "summum bonum," when quoting  him I used to substitute  Calvin's "chief end of man" as almost as scholarly, though not quite a synonym for "highest good." . Since our school was Presbyterian, my substitution was more in keeping with our identity. The professor who said "summum bonum"   was himself a Lutheran, and a medievalist at that, who referred to his Presbyterian employers as "hot gospellers."

 [Disclaimer 2: He went on to a distinguished career, and is now emeritus at a Big 12 institution, so he was not penalized for his disrespect].

 I still don't know how to say it, but at least I can spell it.

Is there such a thing as a highest good, universally attainable by human beings? If there is, it cannot, in the present  intellectual and spiritual environment,  be universally regarded as such. Believers cannot accept a highest good that does not proceed from God, and unbelievers cannot accept a highest good that does; in their minds, such a good is impossible.   For these reasons alone  we do not await an "aha" moment followed by an earth-encompassing shout of "That's it!"

It is nowhere written that everybody has to agree; but if it is the highest good and you disagree, the highest good doesn't become bad just for you.  Since we cannot agree on First Things, we must get used to the obvious consequence when we face the Last Things:   somebody, maybe lots of people,  is going to be Wrong.  

 

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