Commons

 

 

...if we were strong enough to listen without
Divisions of desire and terror
To the storm of the sick nations, the rage of the hunger smitten cities,
Those voices also would be found
Clean as a child's; or like some girl's breathing who dances alone
By the ocean-shore, dreaming of lovers.
- Robinson Jeffers

 

Imagine an ethical philosophy that extends its scope of rights to include the natural world. Such an ethos is hardly new, even for western culture. Athenian Democracy recognized the need for the occasional subordination of private interests on behalf of the common good. They believed that citizens had rights and obligations established not only to protect their personal interests but also to promote the general welfare.

The Romans were inspired by this notion when they later distinguished between three types of property: res privatæ, res publicæ, and res communes. The first consisted of individual possessions, the second of public buildings, works, and roads; and the third of the natural and common heirlooms and resources of the earth.

In 1215, the Magna Carta established forests and fisheries as res communes, and through the darkness of the Middle Ages, the enlightened idea of the Commons persisted in the shared lands reserved for common use by all those known as "Commoners".

The authors of the American constitution were later inspired by this same insight when they urged citizens to "promote of the general welfare" as a means to acheiving a more perfect union. In this spirit "Commonwealths" were established in early America, and many in towns "The Commons", was a space kept free of commerce and reserved exclusively for cultural celebration and public demonstration.

Today the spirit of the Commons must live in the power of our civic imagination. For it reflects a time before private ownership became the touchstone of human affairs- a time before commodification turned us all from “citizens” into “consumers”. Like the natural world itself, the idea of the Commons is a fragile inheritance. It survives only as long as there exist the shared values and practices necessary for its cultivation. Only if we cultivate the idea of the Commons can we expect to enjoy the fruits of our liberty.