Nothing can survive in a vacuum
No one can exist all alone
- Turn the Page, Rush
The Quest for Community: A Study in the Ethics of Order and Freedom, by Robert Nisbet
You might think from the title of Nisbet’s book and the title of this post that I have reached the end of Nisbet’s analysis. Wrong. This post will cover chapter two.
Out of intimations of dissolution and insecurity has emerged an interest in the properties and values of community.
Remember, this book was published in the early 1950s; you might think, in reading this line, that it is a more modern analysis – something akin to the backlash of the right in both Europe and the United States. In any case – as I imply by my title, that community was “found,” – you might be curious: is this nothing more than an ode to the storybook version of the Eisenhower years?
Let’s give Nisbet more credit than this.
It is in the conservative philosophers that the desire for community is both examined and understood. Nisbet finds the roots of this in the conservative reaction to the French Revolution, where the greatest crimes “were those not committed against individuals but against institutions, groups, and personal statuses.”
It is not an easy idea for one so grounded in valuing the individual to get my mind around; it seems that the idea is something along the lines: it is bad enough that people were killed by the tens of thousands; even worse, the institutions that helped to form community were killed off for untold generations.
These philosophers saw in the Terror no merely fortuitous consequence of war and tyranny but the inevitable culmination of ideas contained in the rationalistic individualism of the Enlightenment.
This theme keeps coming up in Nisbet’s work – the connection of the Enlightenment to many of the horrors that came after. I believe the roots can be traced even further back in European history, but I agree with this line of thinking.
…the Revolution had opened the gates for forces which, if unchecked, would in time disorganize the whole moral order of Christian Europe and lead to control by the masses and despotic power without precedent.
It is these institutions – family, community, religious association; or, as Burke wrote, a partnership of the dead, the living, and the unborn – that support man’s freedom:
Release man from the contexts of community and you get not freedom and rights but intolerable aloneness and subjection to demonic fears and passions.
Nisbet saw in his time a revolt against this individual rationalism – a desire for identification with race, culture, religion and family. He saw Protestant leaders showing respect to traditional doctrines that bear the mark of Catholic or Jewish orthodoxy. It took me some time to understand where he was and where he was headed; let’s see if my understanding makes any sense to others.
The key to unlocking this puzzle is to understand: in what institutions is man turning to for community? It is not in the traditional, relatively voluntary organizations, but in the institution that has assumed the role of all other institutions:
It is hard to overlook the fact that the State and politics have become suffused by qualities formerly inherent in the family or the church.
Destroy all other hierarchies and all that is left is the State. This should not be a difficult concept to grasp. It takes little more than opening one’s eyes to our daily existence.
Where during the Middle Ages the quest for community might lead one to the Church, today the journey often ends in the political party. Eventually, when man feels he has lost all control of his destiny, he willingly turns to the totalitarian state.
Nisbet makes a very interesting observation about Marxism, one that points to (and, perhaps, predicts) the success of the Frankfurt School and Cultural Marxists:
If we wish to understand the appeal of Marxism we should do well to pay less attention to its purely intellectual qualities [and, I will add, its economics] than to the social and moral values that inhere in it. To a large number of human beings, Marxism offers status, belonging, membership, and a coherent moral perspective.
What we see playing out today is this very radical “moral perspective” of the radical left.
Until we see that communism offers today, for many people, something of the inspired mixture of community and assertive individuality offered two thousand years ago, in the cities of the Roman Empire, by the tiny but potent Christian communities, we shall be powerless to combat it.
But how do the words “communism” and “individual” end up conjoined? Citing an unnamed author, Nisbet offers:
“It is easy – only too easy – to say that these people have sacrificed their individuality and become units in an undifferentiated and soulless mass…. A truer psychology may suggest that what has happened is the exact contrary and that for the primitive millions it has seemed rather an assertion than a denial of individuality.”
Picture a dozen screamers at any SJW event – you have all seen the videos, if not witnessed it firsthand. All are certainly part of a group, yet each one’s individuality on full display in costume, hair, sexual orientation, and piercings. Nisbet doesn’t put it this way, but he seems to have foreseen our age. Individual misfits – for that is certainly an apt description – finally fit in to a group.
But the road to community is not only found leading to the State or communism; it is found in a matter very well-known to individuals who believe that they live in the land of the free and the home of the brave:
So, too, in the changing moral character and growing spiritual influence of mass war can we observe the contemporary image of community. It is hard not to conclude that modern populations depend increasingly on the symbolism of war for relief from civil conflicts and frustrations.
War creates a sense of moral meaning; war is sold as a moral crusade; this moral crusade brings together the nation in community.
One of the most impressive aspects of contemporary war is the intoxicating atmosphere of spiritual unity that arises out of the common consciousness of participating in a moral crusade.
And this was written four or five decades before military flyovers became part of the pre-game ritual at every major and many minor sporting events.
War is sold aspirationally: we fight for freedom, self-determination, democracy, justice. Society demonstrates maximum community in times of war. This in “contrast to the instability and the sense of meaninglessness of modern industrial and political life.”
Citing Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor:
“So long as man remains free he strives for nothing so incessantly and painfully as to find someone to worship. But man seeks to worship what is established beyond dispute, so that all men will agree at once to worship it. For these pitiful creatures are concerned not only to find what one or the other can worship, but find something that all will believe in and worship; what is essential is that all may be together in it. This craving for community of worship is the chief misery of every man individually and of all humanity from the beginning of time.”
I know, I know… “I am an individual; I am strong; I am a libertarian.” OK, so pretend Dostoevsky isn’t writing about you. Instead, just look at the 50,000 others cheering wildly for the troops next time you are at the ballpark.
Just who is the one who doesn’t fit Dostoevsky’s description? Who is the oddball?