The Quest for Community: A Study in the Ethics of Order and Freedom, by Robert Nisbet
With this post, I will conclude my examination of Nisbet’s book. After a brief review of the concluding chapters, I will come to the subject hinted at in the title of this post.
The Problem of Liberalism
Nisbet offers that at the same time we prize the gifts (in his view) of liberalism, including…
…equalitarian democracy, moral neutrality, intellectual liberation, secular progress, rationalism, and all the liberating impersonalities of modern industrial and political society.
Admittedly, I do not value all of these as I believe the list corresponds more to today’s liberalism and not classical liberalism. And in this conflation, we find a bit of a missed connection in Nisbet’s work.
On the other we continue to venerate tradition, secure social status, the corporate hierarchies of kinship, religion and community, and close involvement in clear moral contexts.
He offers that present liberal thought is in crisis, as there is “correspondence between the basic liberal values and the prejudgments and social contexts upon which the historical success of liberalism has been predicated.”
The Contexts of Individuality
No fault is to be found with the declared purposes of individualism.
There is a valid ethical aspect of individualism, yet it loses its mooring when divorced from social organization.
These qualities that, in their entirety, composed the eighteenth-century liberal image of man were qualities actually inhering to a large extent in a set of institutions and groups, all of which were aspects of human tradition.
Caught up in Newtonian mechanics, these group qualities were atomized – impulses and reason deemed to be innate in man. As long as the group qualities retained some amount of social functionality, individualism could survive – and in fact did both survive and thrive. But atomization was eventually to do its work to the remnants of these qualities.
Nisbet comments on the book by Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies: Popper sees Athens of the 5th century B.C. and the Renaissance in Western Europe as ages of “individualism.”
These are ages, he argues, recently released from the dead hand of tradition, membership, and tribalism.
Consider the following:
[George] Soros used his fortune to create the Open Society Foundations—a network of foundations, partners, and projects in more than 100 countries. Their name and work reflect the influence on Soros’s thinking of the philosophy of Karl Popper, which Soros first encountered at the London School of Economics. In his book Open Society and Its Enemies, Popper argues that no philosophy or ideology is the final arbiter of truth, and that societies can only flourish when they allow for democratic governance, freedom of expression, and respect for individual rights—an approach at the core of the Open Society Foundations’ work.
Enough said about that.
The Contexts of Democracy
Definitions of democracy are as varied as the interests of persons and generations. …but it is, fundamentally, a theory and structure of political power.
This, as opposed to liberalism which historically was to mean immunity from power. Lincoln’s definition of democracy: government of, by, and for the people “cannot be improved upon.” The problem is…what does one mean by “people”?
Is it a numerical aggregate of individuals (i.e. Soros “Open Society”), or is it something indistinguishable from a culture – inseparable from family, church, professions and traditions? Certainly, Lincoln’s war offered a horrendous example of the former; a glimpse of the difference in these two views can be seen in the run-up to and aftermath of the 2016 US presidential election.
The liberal values of autonomy and freedom of personal choice are indispensable to a genuinely free society, but we shall achieve and maintain these only by vesting them in the conditions in which liberal democracy will thrive – diversity of culture, plurality of association, and division of authority.
I hope by now that the context of Nisbet’s work makes clear what he means by these last few words.
The Missing Link
There is something notably missing from Nisbet’s analysis, and this is captured in one of three “Critical Reviews” published at the end of the book; in this case a piece entitled The Enduring Achievement and Unfinished Work of Robert Nisbet, by Jeanne Heffernan Schindler. I will focus on the “unfinished” part.
At the same time, the prescriptive dimension of Nisbet’s work remains incomplete, needing a more adequate theory of the state, human freedom, and the normative status of social institutions. In this regard, the social ontology and political vision of Catholic social thought offers the resources necessary to correct and complete Nisbet’s already impressive achievement.
There you have it in a nutshell, and regular readers here will need no further comment to understand this meaning – whether in agreement or not. Schindler points directly to the weakness – not specifically of “individualism” and modern liberalism, as Nisbet does, but a weakness with roots that are to be found much in an earlier time:
Without the sturdy roots of an inherited tradition, the lone thinker proved himself a weak reed, easily swayed by the current of popular opinion.
A transcendent tradition, one not created anew with every newly created rationalization….or excuse.
The prescriptive elements in his work are also compelling, but they require fuller development and a more satisfying foundation. To achieve social pluralism requires moving beyond historical description and sociological analysis to social ontology – that is, to philosophical and theological anthropology.
In the West, this is to be found in the tradition of medieval Europe, the combination and blending of Germanic tradition and the Catholic Church.
In what may provide (for me) a glimpse into a path of developing – within libertarian bounds – a proper and legal defense of culture and tradition. From the Second Vatican Council and Gaudium et Spes:
Man’s social nature makes it evident that the progress of the human person and the advance of society itself hinge on one another….Since this social life is not something added on to man….(emphasis added)
If this “social life” is inherent in man, might a forced fracturing of this social life not be considered “aggression”?
Yes, I know. It isn’t physical person or physical property. But is that really so? If it is inherent in man, how is this not physical?