Hooker opens Book V with a challenge to those harboring “weak capacities” and those who would “rather seek quietly their own, and wish that the world may go well, so it be not long of them, than with pain and hazard make themselves advisers for the common good” (.1). Much easier, Hooker seems to say, to create safe and pure enclaves rather than engage the difficult questions of our nature as politic animals. It is because we are political animals that we cannot so easily dispense with the questions of right ordered polity and the common good.
Hooker is well aware that arriving at the common good, or orienting a polity in its direction, is always a matter of debate. It might even be said that one of Hooker’s main points in chapter one, however implicitly presented, is to show the difficulty of navigating the common good. Rather than the luxury of “private ease,” we are given the difficult work of referring “events to the gracious providence of Almighty God” (.1).
Concretely, the root of the common good is religion, such that politics requires good religion. “For if the course of politic affairs cannot in any good sort go forward without fit instruments, and that which fitteth them be their virtues, let Polity acknowledge itself indebted to Religion; godliness being the chiefest top and wellspring of all true virtues, even as God is of all good things” (.2), writes Hooker. This notion ‘works’ for Hooker because religion is an analog of virtue. In fact, “so natural is the union of Religion with Justice, that we may boldly deem there is neither, where both are not” (.2). Like Augustine’s The City of God, Hooker holds that true politics is true doxology, the right ordered worship of the final cause. Once the object of our love is in order, all other goods will fall into place, and in the absence of the common good “is common misery” (.2).
Of course this puts Hooker in an interesting position in that he has to contend with the reality of virtuous non-Christian polities, especially those that did administer justice and created peaceful existence. That they were able to do so at all, however, points to the reality of God’s natural law for Hooker. Seeing this common thread running throughout history then, Hooker concludes, “we have reason to think that all true virtues are to honor true religion as their parent, and all well-ordered commonweals to love her as their chiefest stay” (.5).
Hooker’s vision can’t help but appear as drastically outdated. We know, for instance, that the mixing of religion and politics delivers anything but justice. But this is to misread what he means by religion. Hooker is rather pushing for a rational religion, one that rejects outright a fidesitic account of faith. Religion must work, tirelessly at times, to discern how historical events align with God’s providence (.1). This is not to say that the task is simply to read off from nature signs of God’s presence given here and there, but how the whole of nature tells us something about God’s being or Trinitarian economy. In other words, I wonder if we might see Hooker as engaging in a bit of speculative thinking, albeit tinged with a healthy dose of Neo-Platonism. How can the absolute serve to order our politics – and not as simply standing over and against us, but as mediated through history in the form of tradition – especially when we are ever tempted to retreat into a private citadel?
Finally, Hooker helpfully reminds us that some form of religion or another guides and orders all polities. Today our religion is capitalism; our common good is that there is no common good beyond individual striving. As Walter Benjamin writes, “A religion may be discerned in capitalism — that is to say, capitalism serves essentially to allay the same anxieties, torments, and disturbances to which the so-called religions offered answers” (“Capitalism as Religion”).