Robert Nisbet’s Quest

By Patrick J. Deneen for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC


Seattle, WA Robert Nisbet’s 1953 book The Quest for Community has rightfully achieved that rare and estimable status of “classic.”     What Nisbet saw more clearly than most of his contemporaries  – or ours – is that one of the deepest flaws of the modern era was its hostility to the reality of groups.  Modern liberalism (developed, among others by Thomas Hobbes, and later John Locke – and, at its root, Nisbet argued, in developments of Protestant theology) was broadly conceived in the backdrop of a hostility to organizations, institutions, communities and groups by which people defined their fundamental identities.   In the opening section of his book he describes the result of developments in the history of political thought to explain the condition in which we now reside:  shaped now by a worldview that regards all “intermediary” or “mediating” associations and communities as mere artifice and even as impositions upon our natural individual freedom (such as that condition described by Hobbes and Locke), modern humanity is nevertheless left with a deep longing and even void.

As naturally “political” or “social” creatures, we long for thick and rich set of constitutive bonds that necessarily shape a fully-formed human being.  Shorn of the deepest ties to (extended) family, place, community, region, religion, and culture – and deeply shaped to believe that these forms of association are limits upon our autonomy – we seek membership and belonging, and a form of extended self-definition, through the only legitimate form of organization available to liberal man – the State.  Nisbet saw the modern rise of Fascism and Communism as the predictable consequence of the early-modern liberal attack upon smaller associations and communities – shorn of those memberships, modern liberal man sought belonging through distant and abstract State entities.  In turn, those political entities offered a new form of belonging by adopting the evocations and imagery of those memberships that they had displaced, above all by offering a new form of quasi-religious belonging, now in the Church of the State itself.  Our “community” was now to be a membership of countless fellow humans who held in common an abstract allegiance to a political entity that would assuage all of our loneliness, alienation and isolation.  It would provide for our wants and ; all that was asked in return was sole allegiance to the State and partial and incomplete allegiance to any other intermediary entity.  To provide for a mass public, more power to the central authority was asked and granted.  Thus Nisbet concludes – following a basic insight of Alexis de Tocqueville:  “It is impossible to understand the massive concentrations of political power in the twentieth-century, appearing so paradoxically, or it has seemed, right after a century and a half of individualism in economics and morals, unless we see the close relationship that prevailed all through the nineteenth century between individualism and State power and between both of these together and the general weakening  of the area of association that lies intermediate to man and the State.”

Nisbet understood that a radical disjuncture had been introduced by modern theories of “social belonging” that seemed to resemble some aspects of older Aristotelianism, but which in fact were fundamentally distinct.   Aristotle, and Aristotelians like Aquinas, insisted that such any conception of a good and flourishing human community required a basis in familiarity with a particular people and one that had continuity over time.  Theirs was an argument about human scale:   our ability to comprehend a common good, and our willingness to act on its behalf – to feel a sense of obligation and indebtedness to our inheritance from the past and a sense of duty born of gratitude toward the future – requires a fairly intimate scale, in which we can have some sensory connection of our actions upon others and theirs upon us, and a setting in which memory plays a large role.  Such a community has an enlarged sense of humanity’s temporal dimension, one that expands beyond merely one lifetime instead to include a strong sense of generational gratitude and obligation.  Only in such a setting can we intuitively understand that without our forbears, we would not have achieved our own humanity, and thus that we are obligated to give as good as possible to future generations.

By contrast, Nisbet noted, achievement of any such national – or, increasingly, supra-national or even global “community” – is “unnatural” to us.  Exceeding the capacities of our senses or the reality of actual experience or memory, it was expected by some of the key philosophers discussed by Nisbet – such as Rousseau or Marx – that what was needful – and thus to be expected – was a change in human nature, specificially, an enlargement of our consciousness.  To put it in Marxist terms, what was needed was our intuitive knowledge of our “species being,” our immediate sense of our mutual obligation to every and all human beings, regardless of limits of space and time.  However, thinkers like Rousseau and Marx recognized that humans are not so apt to have such equal regard for all humans, but in fact prefer some humans over all humans.  Thus, Marx argued, the elimination of family, church, and even nation was a prerequisite for the achievement of this “cosmic consciousness.”  Before our automatic and instinctual love of all humans could be realized, the power of a centralized authority was needed to eliminate all partial loyalties that otherwise stood in the way of the achievement of such universal identification.  The love of all required first the enlargement of the State and its active elimination of partial loyalties.  First we would be forcefully separated – rendered into monistic individuals – then we would be universally united.  It’s fairly easy to see the radical difference between ancient Aristotelian understandings of common good from the abstract and incorporeal expressions of modern liberalism.

We should also be clear about the development that Nisbet describes:  the conceptual and political individualism that originated in the early-modern liberal thought of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke precedes and lends itself to the Statist and collectivist liberalism of Rousseau and Marx.  It’s due to the very alienation and longing for more intimate and constitutive forms of community that makes the denizens of individualist liberal societies susceptible to the temptation of belonging that is proffered by a collectivizing State.  Here Nisbet quite radically confronts one of the deepest assumptions not only of most modern people, but in particular an article of faith among conservatives:  he argues that the very form of individualistic liberalism – derived from the likes of John Locke and to a degree enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the American Constitutional order – is a necessary and even inevitable precursor to radical forms of modern Statism.  Far from being its opposite – as is commonly held to be the case –  the liberalism of Hobbes and Locke – by attacking and weakening the intermediary ties of community, church, and even family – establishes the conditions for centralization and State-sponsored collectivism.

Nisbet explains why America has better (though certainly imperfectly) withstood the tendency to Statism and collectivism:  namely, the residual strength of a pre-liberal inheritance.  He notes that under the liberal social and economic order, that pre-modern inheritance provided a counterweight, but was ultimately subject to demolition.  “First, the nucleated village, and the landed estate underwent destruction.  For a long time, however, the family, local community, tangible property, and class remained as powerful, though external, supports of the economic system which the rationalists saw merely as the outcome of man’s fixed instincts and reason.  But, in more recent decades …, even these associations have become steadily weaker as centers of security and allegiance.  Modern rationalization and impersonalization of the [social and] economic world are but the other side of the process which [one author] called the ‘decline of custom’ and which we may see as the dislocation of certain types of social membership.”

Nisbet recognized that then-contemporary trends ran against the preservation or renewal of those partial inheritances from a pre-modern era:  modern trajectories suggested that it would be increasingly difficult to defend pre- or non-liberal institutions such as families, churches, communities, and the like, from the universal solvent of philosophical liberalism.  Where possible, he argued, there was a need to fortify those inheritances where they persisted, or, if necessary, to refurbish them anew where they were too fully attenuated.  While he called for strenuous defenses of such inheritances in a number of areas of life, there are three areas of concern in particular that, it seems to me, were deeply prescient and remain profoundly pressing.

(For the second half, click on “Page 2”, below)

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