Wednesday, June 29, 2016

State vs. Commonwealth

I have many times regretted, since necessity demanded a move from Virginia (the place that I still consider my home), that I no longer live there.  Beer and wine readily available in the grocery store, a rational attitude towards the possession of firearms, an excellent diocese in the northern regions—there are many reasons to consider the move unfortunate.

The latest reason is born of a more abstract but no less real consideration: the fact that Virginia calls herself (when she is being properly official and patriotic and all that) not a state, but a commonwealth.  I have no objection to—and indeed frequently indulge in—the slangy American habit of referring to “the fifty states,” though it is perhaps something of a malapropism.  But the fact is that commonwealth or commonweal (as Quentin Skinner has just been reminding me) is a translation of res publica, the common things—the things citizens share with one another, which makes their enterprise a united one.  It is a name which, however glancingly, refers to that hard-to-define but imperative concept of the common good.

In contrast, “state,” from the Latin status, originally referred simply to the condition of things—it was and is an essentially value-neutral term, and was indeed adopted about the time (the tail end of the sixteenth century and the bulk of the seventeenth) when a value-free, contract-based notion of government was evolving.  Locke tells a story that sounds superficially like the Aristotelian/Ciceronian story of how political unities come into being, but the emphasis is no longer on shared life but on agreement, no longer on friendship but on convenience.  We are not talking about the well-being of the commonality anymore, but about their “state”; and how we are to measure that … is anyone’s guess.

I have no idea how much of this was in the minds of those who first dubbed Virginia a commonwealth.  But it was certainly a fortuitous—if not an intentional—decision on their part to make reference not to their common “state” but to their common “wealth,” as if they meant their association to be something more than a merely legal matter.

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