The Quest for Community: A Study in the Ethics of Order and Freedom, by Robert Nisbet
There is not one way to look at history or an event in or era of history. What might be deemed progress when viewed through one lens could appear as decline when viewed through another. This is most certainly true regarding the topic that has occupied a good amount of my reading and writing over the years:
Thus, if we value the emergence of the individual from ancient confinements of patriarchal kinship, class, guild, and village community, the outcome of modern European history must appear progressive in large degree…. From the point of view of the individual – the autonomous, rational individual – the whole sequence of events embodied in the Renaissance, Reformation, and Revolution must appear as the work of progressive liberation.
A valid view of the history, but not a complete view.
If, on the other hand, we value coherent moral belief, clear social status, cultural roots, and a strong sense of interdependence with others, the same major events of modern history can be placed in a somewhat different light.
The changes have brought on moral uncertainty, confusion in cultural meanings, and disruption in social contexts. In other words, changes that seem to move society away from a possibility of freedom.
As you know, it is my view that since man cannot be reduced to a mere economic being, he will find social contact where he can. This has been found in the state, as all other social contacts have been made less and less relevant.
The changes can be summarized in the transition from medieval to modern Europe. Nisbet offers, regardless of one’s view of medieval society, a few characteristics cannot be dismissed: first, the pre-eminence of small social groups such as family, guild, village and monastery; second, the centrality of personal status.
The reality of the separate, autonomous individual was as indistinct as that of centralized political power. Both were subordinated to the immense range of association that lay intermediate to individual and ruler….
The patriarchal family, church, and guild were such intermediating institutions. But if one accepts that someone or something will be in charge around here, which of the two is preferable: centralized political power or decentralized intermediates? And, I guess, if one does not accept that someone or something will be in charge around here, finding examples in history are like finding needles in a haystack.
Medieval law is incomprehensible if one ignores this decentralized reality: property belonged not to the individual but to the family; law could not penetrate the threshold of the family. Even the relatively “freer” air of the towns was a model of corporate association: one can consider guilds (or associations of merchants and tradesmen), for example, as controlling institutions; on the other hand, one can consider guilds as a form of decentralized governance. Those in the guild were expected to live within its customs as sure as the peasant was on the manor.
Law and custom were virtually indistinguishable, and both were hardly more than the inner order of association.
Imagine if the laws of the west were nothing more than generally accepted custom – even our custom of today, distorted and abused by decades and centuries of subsidized destruction. We (libertarians) will often say that most people live in a manner consistent with the non-aggression principle in their daily activities and relationships. This is custom. What if this was also the law?
Although there were both “Pharisees and Protestants in the medieval Church…the ethic of religion and the ethic of community were one.” This unity of ethic came under assault both from decay within and from reformers without.
In Wyclif we find an almost modern devotion to the individuality of conscience and faith and a devotion also to a political environment capable of reducing the powers of the religious and economic institutions in society. He was opposed to ecclesiastical courts, to monasteries, to hierarchy within the Church, to all of those aspects of Christianity that hemmed in, as it seemed, the right of individual judgment.
Ultimately, this “devotion” was used by political leaders to wrest authority from the Church and monopolize authority in themselves – the beginnings of the modern State.
Not without cause has Wyclif been called the morning star of the Reformation.
The modern economy is certainly a contributing factor to this lack of functionality in traditional governance institutions and decentralized authorities, yet Nisbet does not see it as the primary agent in the transformation:
For with all the recognition of the influences of factors, technology, the free market, and the middle class, the operation of each of these has been given force only by a revolutionary system of power and rights that cannot be contained within the philosophy of economic determinism. This system is the political State.
The affinity between extreme religious individualism and allegiance to central national power…is an actual historical affinity.
I think history cannot be ignored on this point. There may be more causation than correlation, given that the rise of individualism and the decline of competing governance institutions are two sides of the same coin.
I think individualism is a nebulous and almost meaningless word, since it has so many meanings.ReplyDelete
Are we talking about atomism, hedonism, libertinism, and the rejection of social group affiliation and hierarchy?
Are we talking about misanthropy, egoism, or rugged self sufficiency?
Are we talking about the recognition of the primacy of the actions of individuals in causal accounts of social phenomena?
Are we talking the recognition that only individuals commit crime or are victims of it, and so the law is only applicable to individuals, equally and not groups?
Or are we simply talking about a philosophy which recognizes the moral worth of the individual?
I'm not certain what Nisbet is talking about when he says religious individualism. Is he using "religious" as a synonym for devoted or fanatical? Does he mean "devotion to the individuality of conscience and faith?"
I know 'individualism' was a favorite target of Nisbet's on his quest for community, but though I am an individualist of sorts, I tend to find much to agree with in Nisbet's work. My conception of individualism, which I did not invent, is perfectly compatible with community, family and religious hierarchy.
Here's a question for you drawing from a prior discussion we've had on this topic: if communism is really individualism, then what is collectivism?
“I'm not certain what Nisbet is talking about when he says religious individualism.”
When I read this word in this context, I take it to mean religion without the necessity of community. I read it in its social meaning for life on earth. I take no (public) position regarding eternal salvation.
“…if communism is really individualism, then what is collectivism?”
Collectivism: a multitude of individuals with no mediating institutions or groups between them and the state. In other words, absolute and pure individualism.
"... The patriarchal family, church, and guild were such intermediating institutions. But if one accepts that someone or something will be in charge around here, which of the two is preferable: centralized political power or decentralized intermediates?... "ReplyDelete
I believe you are close to the crux of our issue here. Conflict arises in any society. And when conflicts arise, who mediates or leads, and how will they be chosen? And, if such an institution is established, how are silver-tongued, power-hungry sociopaths to be kept from seizing power?
I believe that libertarian resistance nearly always arises when evil men are in power. In spite of what Mr Rothbard and others may think, I believe that the Constitution was an effort to slow down the encroachment of such men on seats of power. Unfortunately, the central government thus created continually labored against its Constitutional restraints until, in 1865, it broke free and grew until we have our current intolerable situation. Nowadays, we purposely elect idiots and sociopaths and idiot sociopaths to office because few honest and intelligent men would want such a position and it is often speculated that good people in positions of power must continue in the path of financial and societal destruction or face assassination.
Any solution to this problem must address this unrelenting issue while striking a balance between liberty and control, political impotence and political action. Certainly decentralization is part of the key here and in this I believe the American Founders did the best that they were able. But, if everyone is doing their own thing, how do we confront someone with the ability to convince millions and how do we prevent them from convincing our own?
Education and society must play a crucial part in all of this. But societal rules without real meaning or importance are subject to reevaluation by every generation. Nobody in secular history has come up with a satisfactory and lasting answer to any of this - yet, this is our daunting task. We can draw from history but we mustn’t repeat it.
I just got an email from Liberty.Me and included was this article. I believe it contains additional insights into the dilemma: https://ombreolivier.liberty.me/why-government-doesnt-scale/?utm_source=libertydotme&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=active
To your first comment and the objectives behind those who wrote the Constitution...have you read Merrill Jensen's "The New Nation: A History of the United States During the Confederation 1781 – 1789"?
I have written several posts based on this book, which can be found in the bibliography section. All touch on the intent of the founders. Most to the point, you might appreciate this one:
Sagunto/Richard from Amsterdam here.
"I'm not certain what Nisbet is talking about when he says religious individualism."
He's talking about the Reformation. It's obvious in the book and in the quotes provided by BM.
Thanks Sagunto. For such a sharp guy you can be awful blunt!Delete
I've never heard Protestantism defined as religious individualism, but I suppose it kinda makes sense. On the other hand, I don't see why individualism should be associated only with Protestantism.
Does Catholicism not believe in individual salvation? Or individual free will? Does God, as Catholics believe, judge a community or a nation of its sins? Or does he judge the individual for his own sins? Does each individual have to accept Christ's message in order to gain entry into Heaven, or is it sufficient that his community does so on his behalf?
It seems to me that it was Progressive Protestantism in the late 19th and early 20th century that provided the collectivist moral backing for expansive and aggressive American empire in the name of forging a Kingdom of God the world over in preparation for Jesus' return.
Perhaps my experience is anecdotal but I've found that Catholics are more likely to advocate voluntary individual giving to the needy whereas Protestants are more likely to advocate collective giving to the needy through the state. Maybe Catholics are more individualistic then Protestants.
I can sense that I've committed the logical sin of equivocation above, but this is the trouble with the word individualism. It is very slippery!
Yes about the bluntness thing.. that's been said about the Dutch many times, especially by Americans. Must be some national trait. We call it honesty ;)
To Wycliffe religious individualism just meant you should be able to read the Bible for yourself and not have to swallow Catholic doctrine whole. The medieval church before the Reformation was a place of Biblical ignorance, political power, appointment by nepotism, corruption, and violence towards those who dissented. The individual had to be freed from that so that each person could read the Scriptures on their own and formulate their own ideas, in another community of faith.ReplyDelete
The Reformation didn't create atomistic individuals. It created new churches where community existed. Those communities many times developed their own national identity. I don't think individualism had a corrosive effect at that point. The point it began to be corrosive was once people started to shun religious community many times due to leaving the faith completely.
"To Wycliffe religious individualism just meant you should be able to read the Bible for yourself and not have to swallow Catholic doctrine whole. The medieval church before the Reformation was a place of Biblical ignorance, political power, appointment by nepotism, corruption, and violence towards those who dissented. The individual had to be freed from that so that each person could read the Scriptures on their own and formulate their own ideas, in another community of faith."
This is my understanding/belief, as well. Full disclosure: I am neither a Catholic, nor a Protestant.
The medieval Church was these things, but it was also many other things.Delete
The Reformation brought forward a religion without a mediating authority between man and God; this coincides with a polity without a mediating authority between man and the state.
I say nothing about the theology; I only note the social structure and ramifications: individuals, naked and alone before the almighty.
The medieval Church was these things in far less measure than popularly depicted. Certainly in far less measure than the "individualist" sects that presumed to take her place.Delete
Wycliffe individualism posits a false dichotomy. The Church certified the Scriptures. To read the Bible for yourself, against the backdrop of tradition and patristic teaching, leaves one no choice but to embrace Catholic doctrine whole.
Full disclosure: I am a card-carrying member of the Whore of Babylon. I'm not entirely happy about it. I'd just as soon practice happy-go-lucky paganism.
But there comes a time to put away childish things. To paraphrase John Henry Newman, "To be deep in history is to renounce Wycliffe religious individualism."
"The Reformation brought forward a religion without a mediating authority between man and God." I would instead say that it rightfully returned the authority back to Jesus Only (Solus Christus) instead of Him sharing a place with all the other co-mediators that did and would eventually evolve over time (Mary, the Magisterium, etc.). Yes, theological...but that impacts the social structure and ramifications.Delete
Typical Protestant apologist. I like it. Haven't heard this kind of historical backwardness re: the so-called "Reformation" in a long time. Orthodox Protestants in the Netherlands still advocated this nonsense back in the fifties but now there's only a few of them left, which is a pity, since what passes for Protestantism these days is some vague, self-congratulatory humanism compounded by US imported multiculturalism and Climate hysteria. So thank you for your refreshing blast from the past. Sag.Delete
“Yes, theological...but that impacts the social structure and ramifications.”
Precisely, and thank you for stating succinctly what I have labored to work through for these many months. No mediating institutions in religion equals no mediating institutions in governance. Man, standing naked and alone before God equals man standing naked and alone before the state.
We will not debate theology (as I strongly discourage such debates at this blog in any case); we can only look at the historical reality to see the corresponding change in social structure.
I'm not interested in debating theology, either. But when people keep parroting Black Legends as if they're vanilla history, I have to respond.Delete
Tony, I was not replying to you nor do I read in your earlier comment anything theological. As to your point "The medieval Church was these things in far less measure than popularly depicted," all of my reading on the history supports this reality.Delete
I second and applaud your last comment. I also felt the need to respond, but you did a far better job.
Certa bonum certamen and
Cheers from Amsterdam, Sagunto
Tony and Sag,Delete
We would probably go around in circles (and not agree) were we to continue the discussion as there is much to say and work through. But I'll respect bionic mosquito's rule to not debate theology and only consider the historical realities.
bionic mosquito, you wrote: "No mediating institutions in religion equals no mediating institutions in governance."
I do not see them equating. There may be some similarity depending on your exact meaning, but they do not equate. Governance is not religion, and religion is not governance. I do believe strongly in family, church, community, law (good and old) and all rightly in their place. If that is what you mean by mediating institutions, then we will find much agreement. I was simply responding to your quote about the Reformation and mediating authority. I would say the Reformation did speak much to the mediating institutions and authorities, but it did so in light of the Mediator. But again, I won't go deeply into the theological in this reply.
bionic mosquito, you also wrote: "Man, standing naked and alone before God equals man standing naked and alone before the state."
Again, I do not see these as equating. The state does not equal God, and God does not equal state. There have been Catholic statists, there have also been Protestant statists. There have been atheistic statists, there have been Muslim statists, etc. All statists. All wrong to differing degrees. Man before God is spiritual, theological. Man before the state is a whole different subject. Oppression is the first word that comes to mind.
A quote from Francis Schaeffer in "A Christian Manifesto" comes to mind. He wrote: "We must realize that the Reformation worldview leads in the direction of government freedom. But the humanist worldview with certainty leads in the direction of statism. This is so because humanists, having no God, must put something at the center, and it is inevitably society, government, or the state."
Perhaps we are typing past each other? I see in your new post you have written more, I will move on to there next.
-M, my point is...in neither case is there a "body" in any social sense. It is the individual and the sovereign.Delete
Was it merely coincidence that the rise of the State corresponded with the rise of Protestant thought? (Yes, I understand also other factors were in play.)
Both evolved simultaneously; relationships were changed - not just religious relationships and not just political relationships. Both changed, and both in the same direction.
In my opinion, this line of discussion is impossible to reconcile without getting into theology. Either we "go there" and really discuss your assertion, or it dies here. I believe that a proper understanding of the singular, true doctrine disagrees with your assertion. Of course, I will respect your wish to not "go there".
bionic mosquito, you wrote: "my point is...in neither case is there a "body" in any social sense. It is the individual and the sovereign."Delete
Does a Protestant not believe in family in the social sense? Does a Protestant not believe in the church in the social sense? Or law or guild or university or others on your list?
Let's take Charles Spurgeon as an example. Protestant. Reformed. Baptist. Even a voluntaryist/proto-libertarian in some senses as he was a supporter of the Liberation Society, previously named the British Anti-State Church Association and also The Society for the Liberation of Religion from State Patronage and Control.
He started a University. Started orphanages. And schools. Spoke to many social and political aspects throughout his ministry. This is only the start of the "body" and "mediating institutions" that this one Protestant was responsible for in London in the 1800s. And he is only one example.
I think your broad brush against all Protestants and Protestantism is a bit too broad.
"Perhaps we are typing past each other?"Delete
I think I should have left it at this.
1 Timothy 2 "5 For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, 6 who gave Himself as a ransom for all, the testimony given at the proper time."Delete
This is why Protestants organize differently than Catholics. However, there is still an organization and some hierarchy. For Protestants today there are Conventions, Councils, Denominational Organizations, etc. I don't see how that means that Protestantism has caused individuals to stand naked before the State. This neither comes from Protestant theology or organization nor does it follow logically that State=God as some have said already.
Even in the US today. Do we really stand naked before the State? There are no churches, no social associations, no private business or industrial conferences? I guess I don't see the same things.
Rhesa, you say there are Protestants today. Which Protestants? To which of the 1000 sects do you refer? To which institution do they all conform? Do they represent a unified (or even decentralized) voice against monopoly governance?Delete
"Even in the US today. Do we really stand naked before the State? There are no churches, no social associations, no private business or industrial conferences?"
Please, Rhesa. Name any of these that can stand before the State in defense of your life and property.
In Federal court, the conviction rate is something approaching 99%. How is this possible unless either a) the Department of Justice is the ONLY Federal department that is really good at what they do (laughable), or b) we stand naked before the State.
There are many Protestants. I refer to all the different sects. They don't conform to 1 institution they are decentralized but have their own individual institutions. Like secession. Of course they aren't unified against central government. Was Catholicism ever? Not to my understanding of history.Delete
I agree with the point of your question. I didn't understand "stand naked before the State" to equal "stand before the State in defense of your life and property". I just meant organizations exist and do offer support and community.
My following question back would be, has any church organization ever stood before its congregants to protect them militarily? My understanding of history is that military protection even when described as Catholic or Protestant was performed by noblemen and lords that associated with one religious group or the other. Maybe I am wrong.
The best of the medieval tradition was when neither Church nor king was sovereign, but the law was sovereign. One always had a competing authority to which he could appeal if he felt aggrieved in justice.Delete
At the top of the page is a "Bibliography" tab. There are many posts that are based on this medieval tradition. Start by reading every post based on the author "Fritz Kern."
Nisbet wrote in a retrospective piece (”Still Questing for Community”) that a prime source of his thought was Otto von Gierke’s work on medieval associations. For those interested, this work is available on the Internet Archive:ReplyDelete
I haven't gotten to it yet myself, but it is on my list.