The Quest for Community: A Study in the Ethics of Order and Freedom, by Robert Nisbet
In every age there are certain key words which by their repetitive use and redefinition mark the distinctive channels of faith and thought.
In the nineteenth century, the age of individualism and rationalism, such words as individual, change, progress, reason, and freedom were notable not merely for their wide use as linguistic tools in books, essays, and lectures but for their symbolic value in convictions of immense numbers of men.
The fruits of the Enlightenment, with its roots in the Reformation and Renaissance, were found in two revolutions: the French and the American. The French was a disaster from the beginning; the American offered a glimpse of the theory applied in its most favorable light.
Not ignoring some noticeable deficiencies (most significantly, slavery in the United States), the west – meaning, for this purpose, primarily the United States and Great Britain – offered a few decades of life for the ideas of liberty, equality and freedom.
The “key words” noted by Nisbet gained maximum traction and meaning in the nineteenth century, just at the peak of this experiment; that it all came crashing down so quickly thereafter – in 1861 in America and 1914 in Europe – gave testimony to the frailty of this idea of the concept of individual freedom born of the Enlightenment.
What happened? Why? It is these questions that Nisbet examines.
He begins with the focus on “the discrete individual – autonomous, self-sufficing, and stable…”
Competition, individualism, dislocation of status and custom, impersonality, and moral anonymity were hailed by the rationalist…. Man was the primary and solid fact; relationships were purely derivative.
Libertarianism and the non-aggression principle demands nothing more; in application, the idea saw its peak in law and custom in around 1776, and deteriorated only slowly over roughly the next four score and seven years before it came crashing down. If those who advocate for liberty want to see their advocacy bear fruit, time looking in a mirror is required – because the questions of what happened and why should be even more important to libertarians than they are to Nisbet.
Reason, founded upon natural interest, would replace the wisdom Burke and his fellow conservatives had claimed to find in historical processes of use and wont, of habit and prejudice.
This underlying faith was foundational to both classical liberalism and communism:
Between philosophers as far removed as Spencer and Marx there was a common faith in the organizational power of history and in the self-sufficiency of the individual…. In man and his natural affinities lay the bases of order and freedom.
Keeping in mind that Nisbet wrote this book in the early 1950s, he notes a different set of words have come to dominate the scene: “disorganization, disintegration, decline, insecurity, breakdown, instability….” It is difficult to suggest that the words are less applicable today in the west.
This is at the time after two crushing World Wars (or one continuous thirty-year war, as you like). It was after a devastating economic depression. It came after man declared his reason supreme over all, reaching its most glorious position with the progressive era. Man was let down by his civilization on every front: moral, cultural, and economic. It is no wonder that these new key words came to dominate.
How extraordinary when compared to the optimism of half a century ago, is the present ideology of lament.
“Half a century ago” was before the progressive era took hold. Sociologists note the disintegration of the family and community; religious leaders note that moral decay is consuming the west. Nisbet notes what, on the surface, appears to be a contradiction:
Despite the influence and power of the contemporary State there is a true sense in which the present age is more individualistic than any other in European history.
How does individualism have any meaning in a world of overpowering state power? Yet we see this in an even more exaggerated form in our own time – the state has grown more powerful, and the individual is ever more celebrated (except for white males), and especially for those who cloak themselves with the newest invention of labels.
Maybe it isn’t a contradiction; maybe one requires the other, one gives birth to the other.
The historic triumph of secularism and individualism has presented a set of problems that looms large in contemporary thought.
Man has been released from “traditional ties of class, religion, and kinship.” This has made him free. Instead of resulting in a “creative release,” this has given man a “sense of disenchantment and alienation.”
In Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich and in almost all of Dostoevsky’s novels we learn that the greatest of all vices is to claim spiritual and moral autonomy and to cast off the ties that bind man to his fellows.
But that’s Tolstoy and Dostoevsky; what does this have to do with liberty?
So long as a strong cultural heritage existed, and with it a sense of membership, the modern ethic of individualism was tolerable. [Quoting theologian Paul Tillich] “But when the remnants of a common world broke down, the individual was thrown into complete loneliness and the despair connected with it.”
Paraphrasing Reinhold Niebuhr, the autonomous individual ushers in the age and is then annihilated by it.
Individualism has resulted in masses of normless, unattached, insecure individuals who lose even the capacity for independent, creative living.
What would Nisbet write of today’s condition, more than sixty years after he penned these words?
It seems to me that the peak in individual liberty to be found in the classical liberal era of the nineteenth century may have been achieved by combining the energy of the superficially freed individual with the remnants of community and tradition that remained from earlier times – stretching to the Middle Ages. As these last remnants of tradition were consumed under the religion of individualism, classical liberalism had no defense to offer the liberty minded.
Man’s nature is grounded in culture, tradition, and community. I don’t know how to consider the possibility of a libertarian future for man without considering man’s nature. When searching for a path toward liberty, to consider man’s nature does not weaken libertarian theory, but strengthens it.
It seems to me that libertarians who run away from this may have an agenda other than liberty in mind. It seems to me that libertarians who believe this focus dilutes libertarianism are missing the point of advocating for a philosophy of freedom.
Bentham’s boast that he could legislate wisely for all of India from the recesses of his own study was hardly a piece of personal eccentricity. It sprang from a confidence both in reason and in the ineradicable sameness and stability of individuals everywhere.
To speak of western visions of freedom and liberty as universal demonstrates ignorance; it is a view that will ensure neither freedom for “the other” nor freedom in the west.
There is not freedom possible absent tradition, culture, and community – and these are local. These are not sufficient for freedom, but a necessary framework. Man’s desire for community is inherent; it is a need that will be satisfied one way or another. It can be satisfied naturally, or it will be satisfied by the state – even a tyrannical state.
This is where we will pick up the story next.