Robert Nisbet’s Quest

by Patrick J. Deneen on June 22, 2009 · 18 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Philosophers & Saints,Region & Place

nisbet

nisbet

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)

Pages: 1 2

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Dan June 22, 2009 at 11:07 am

Very thought provoking.

“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, specifically, 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.”

Couldn’t one say that Jesus Christ had a similar goal in mind with this:

“Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.’ And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’ Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’”

avatar Patrick Deneen June 22, 2009 at 11:13 am

Then there’s 1 Peter 2:17: “Honor everyone; love the brotherhood….” Or, conversely, this verse: “When every one is somebody, then no-one is anybody…” (Gilbert and Sullivan, The Gondoliers).

avatar Al June 22, 2009 at 4:48 pm

Dr. Deneen, this:

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, on 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.

reminded me of this:

MacIntyre’s most concentrated statement of his understanding of action is in “The Intelligibility of Action,” an article written in 1986. Here he argues that essential to our learning to act is that we learn to behave in a way that others can construe our actions as intelligible. In other words, the intelligibility of an action depends on the narrative continuities in an agent’s life. Yet the ability to narrate my life depends on having narratives available that make my peculiar life fit within narratives of a community that direct me toward an end that is not of my own making. The intelligibility of my life, therefore, depends on the stock of descriptions at a particular time, place, and culture. I am, at best, no more than a co-author of my life… The flourishing of the virtues requires and in turn sustains a certain kind of community, necessarily a small-scale community, within which the goods of various practices are ordered, so that, as far as possible, regard for each finds its due place with the lives of each individual, or each household, and in the life of the community at large. Because, implicitly or explicitly, it is always by reference to some conception of the overall and final human good that other goods are ordered, the life of every individual, household or community by its orderings gives expression, wittingly or unwittingly, to some conception of the human good. And it is when goods are ordered in terms of an adequate conception of human good that the virtues genuinely flourish. “Politics” is the Aristotelian name for the set of activities through which goods are ordered in the life of the ­community.

from Stanley Hauerwas’s article on MacIntyre.

avatar Dan June 23, 2009 at 8:04 am

Patrick,

While not meaning to glibly proof-text (Well honestly that is sort of what I meant, but it was wrong, and I’m a bad bad man) there is a larger point. It seems that the logic working itself out throughout the New Testament is a logic of rejecting traditional institutions and prejudices in favor of an ethical stance that is, as they say, not a respecter of persons.

Is this logic wrong or am I wrong in my reading of the New Testament?

avatar PDGM June 23, 2009 at 10:36 am

Regarding Marx requiring what Jesus asked for: sure, but with crucial differences, one being that Jesus did not see the eschaton as arriving via the all-powerful state. Marxism takes Christianity and perverts its ideas and ideals, making the end times part of human history, and a result of human social engineering under the aegis of some historical dialectic.

In contrast, Christians are to act as if all are brothers; but we don’t expect heaven on this earth: “the poor you will have always with you” exists in tension with “whosoever does so to the least of my brethren does so to me,” as well as “the kingdom of heaven is within you.” (Pardon paraphrases, please.)

In fact, Patrick, might you somewhat ignore or at least downplay the central tension in Christianity between the human person and the human collectivity that exists in Christianity? Christians do not believe along with Stalin that “the death of one man is a tragedy; the death of a million a statistic,” but rather that each death is tragic, but each life is a life lived in community, both with other persons and with God. To miss out on either of these experiences of communion is to be less than human. As Aristotle says in the Poetics, a man who does not live in community is either a God or a monster. Marxism makes humans a monster by constituting an all powerful state; Christianity agrees with the Greek view that community exists in a tension between persons and the beyond personal.

I’ve deliberately used person here instead of “individual” because, as Fr. Thomas Hopko (?) said in a Parabola magazine interview in the 1990s, “the individual is an invention of the enlightenment university” or words to that effect. We are persons; but “individuality” with its competing interests, harsh in Hobbes–the state of war before society– and gentler in Locke is not personhood; the two words are not synonymous even if they accidentally overlap.

In Orthodox Christian terms, this complex relationship exists in the different “functions” of the Son and the Spirit: the Son saves all humankind at least potentially; the Spirit makes it real for each person.

I’d appreciate it if anyone could comment on this “tension” (though tension seems vaguely Lockean, and a little inaccurate); my apologies for going on at such length.

PDGM

avatar Dan June 23, 2009 at 10:49 am

PDGM,

Good thoughts. I believe you are right when you say that Christians are to act as if all are brothers but what do we then make of this,

“By contrast, Nisbet noted, achievement of any such national – or, increasingly, supra-national or even global “community” – is “unnatural” to us.”

Even if it is “unnatural”, it seems like the right thing to do.

avatar PDGM June 23, 2009 at 11:09 am

First of all, you have to take Christ’s words in the context he spoke them: of temple Judaism, with its tribalism and legalism. Christianity expands the chosen race, expands it (through Paul) to the whole world. Christianity thus becomes more than a reform Jewish movement. But Christ’s words are about the ritual legalism of uncleanness in the parable about the Samaritan; they don’t make sense–or at least a lot less sense– w/o this context.

Does this mean that Christ means that we are to treat all as we’d treat our neighbor or family? Probably not, except insofar as we have charity towards all.

One of the more moving prayers I’ve heard was when, much younger, I used to go to a Ukranian monastery in Northern Calif. for retreat. The monks would pray “for those who love us, and those who hate us.” This we have to do; but this universal love does not preclude other more basic forms of love.

Also: Christianity is making a supernatural appeal; perhaps Nisbet is writing of more natural forms of life. And again, Christianity has a tension between the natural and the supernatural that’s meant to be fruitful, not destructive.

avatar D.W. Sabin June 23, 2009 at 3:01 pm

This is an interesting explanation of the flummoxed nature of the so called “conservative ” cause and our wobbly surrender to the blandishments of “Centrism”. Conservatives have demonstrated a pervasive ability to be dragged into a conflict with the so called “Liberals” who then set the rules of engagement and after invariably winning as a result of, among other reasons, their ability to craft solutions that are “all things for all people” (funded by reserve currency status) , the conservatives then occupy the remains of the battlefield and set immediately to work defending the recently vacated “Liberal” position from ‘Liberals” who have moved on to a higher degree of Omnivorous Statism. Consensus is the mad object, a boiled down high proof liquor of suspended belief. As a result, the prize vintage becomes that roaring bit of tomfoolery gone hilariously goony known as “Big Government Conservatism” or, in it’s Karl Rove Bait and Switch “be nice fer appearances” version: “Compassionate Conservatism”. No wonder we arrive at candidates devoid of anything more than the thinnest veneer of conservative principles , let alone any form of erudite discrimination. To drink a beer or wink sardonically with them is enough to build a platform.

In this kinder gentler Fascism of the Corporate-State combine with its constant peddling of fear and want, Clans or guilds have been replaced by branding and through this branding, whether it be in the form of sports team support or fashion or food or whatever other kind of packaged good we consume, the human urge to clan affiliation is sated with a high carb, low protein diet that leaves little muscle and a lot of flab. It is inexorably a moveable feast, changing with the season. The individual is glorified in the pitch as the dignity of the soul…the temple of the individual… is pick-pocketed in the distraction. We then have neither individual nor group, we have only consumer or focus group masquerading as individual in a collective of half-truth discount house idolatry. A reverence for life is replaced by reveries in the vicarious agora. Knowledge becomes illusion.

Individualism has been turned on its head to mean the freest expression of the brand of the moment.
In Cognitive Dissonance We Trust.

This explains, of course, why the Conservatives remain unable to reverse the crippling descent into profligate and dehumanizing statism. The chance to do so weakened in the 50′s and vanished under George W. Bush. Conservatives will continue to self-contradict themselves into objects of ridicule while the Liberals….with only the best of intentions….will drive the national family in search of a picnic only to spread the blanket in a bankrupt factory while informing any remaining skeptics that rust in their hotdog is good for the “people”. This is why Conservation is now a “liberal” position. It is why infanticide is a “reproductive right” and why armed, tax and legislative protection of corporate freebooters as the local economies of scale rot in an accelerating manner is considered “Free Market Protection”.

Best intentions are only as good as the wisdom supporting them. Wisdom, in this glib age is passe….something for the “close-minded” to hold onto like an anchor descending into a deep sea of confusion. The nation can only succeed if her individuals and their localities are vibrant and full of opportunity….while cognizant of their obligations within a polity and respectful of the poetry of labor. Mysteries should be loved rather than pulverized. This was once a conservative philosophy and the zero sum game that presents its carcass to us now would have been an abhorrent anathema to it.

Deneen, you hit a homer here.

avatar Patrick Ford June 23, 2009 at 3:04 pm

Dan,

Perhaps you might clarify for us the tension you see here; and perhaps a couple questions might help you organize your thoughts:

How, precisely, does Nisbet’s emphasis on communities of scale exist in tension with the Christian obligations of charity? E.g., how does a recognition that I, as a human being, am limited in important ways by time and space, prevent me from relating in full Christian charity to those who are not necessarily part of my community/ies?

To ask the converse question, how does Christ’s exhortation to extend God’s love to all, regardless of community membership, necessitate a rejection of traditional institutions in favor of increasingly globalized economic and political bureaucracies to which most people have little or no real connection?

It would be helpful if you explained the process you used to translate this ethical commandment into political practice.

avatar B N Lundell June 23, 2009 at 3:41 pm

Dr. Deneen, I’ve been in politics all my adult life on the moderate-left and it is pieces like this that I find extremely instructive in trying to understand the forces that define how we got to where we are.

I have read very little of Nisbet (but will be reading more I assure you), but one thing about the work you cite is that it appears to have been written before the explosion of suburbia beyond the post-World War II first-tier bedroom communities that were in close proximity to urban cores and whose residents worked in the urban core.

In my work (government affairs work for public school districts), I find that there is little sense of community in the newer suburbs that have been spawned by sprawl and they are almost centerless in that there is no real local economy. Often times associations are fleeting and found through the school system (where consumers of the system bond for 13 or so years) and churches, which are often of a non-denominational flavor in these areas (at least in Minnesota). Little wonder that there is this sense of “soft” anomie, anxiety, and amorphousness in many of these communities.

Thanks again for the insightful piece. I’m smarter for having read it, but I’m sure a lot of the conservatives here believe I have a ways to go.

avatar Thaddeus Kozinski June 23, 2009 at 11:45 pm

Great article. Thank you.

Catherine Pickstock takes MacIntyrean and Nisbetian localism to task, though, in its potential lack of macrocosmic, architectonic political ambition and extension. Nisbet and you are exactly right in the path that goes from from atomism to collectivism, but what about the real tension between localism and universalism? As it seems to me, the local and immanent must somehow be, almost sacramentally, transparent to and an embodiment of the universal and transcendent, and, as Claes Ryn points out, pace Strauss, that the universal and transcendent are only encountered by us “culture-dependent rational animals” in the local and immanent.

Pickstock, in this remarkably insightful passage, illuminates how the political ideal of local tradition-constituted communities, as well as any political program aiming at merely local social and political embodiment and authority, can serve to sustain a liberal, contractual social order:

“There are unresolved problems about the pure communitarian celebration of the resistance exercised by the local organic community. First, how does one distinguish it from a kind of liberalism to a higher power in which the freely choosing subjects are not individuals but organic collectivities? Secondly, while these organic localities may be characterized by practices oriented towards substantive value-laded goals, it is difficult to see how this will be true for a confederation of such groups. Will not their collectively agreed-upon goals be extremely minimal and, indeed, given the degree of divergence, will not the only binding glue be pragmatist and contractualist in character? One may say that that if one is applying the principle of subsidiarity, that this does not matter, but if the only common language is after all liberal, then the universalism intrinsic to liberalism will tend to reassert itself, and press once more towards centralization, even if this remains concealed. The spaces of communitarian association in the local societies will tend, therefore, to become more carnivalesque spaces, where people can “play” at having substantive creative and pre-modern freedoms.”

avatar Dan June 24, 2009 at 8:46 am

Patrick,

“How, precisely, does Nisbet’s emphasis on communities of scale exist in tension with the Christian obligations of charity? E.g., how does a recognition that I, as a human being, am limited in important ways by time and space, prevent me from relating in full Christian charity to those who are not necessarily part of my community/ies?”

Nisbet’s analysis of communities of scale is unproblematic in and of itself, it’s the suspicion of the authenticity and utility of any community apart from/in addition to it which is problematic from a Christian prospective. When Christ uses the language of neighbor in a way that is emphatically not linked to the sort of community of scale Nisbet is discussing this seems problematic. When St. Paul says,

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

,Does this not speak to a being and community outside of such limited communities of scale? The Church itself seems to be such a project. The question then is not how is the expression of Christian charity thwarted but how can it even be cultivated apart from what is beyond the mere sense community of scale Nisbet is discussing if we are to take the entire concept of the church and the friendship of God seriously.

“To ask the converse question, how does Christ’s exhortation to extend God’s love to all, regardless of community membership, necessitate a rejection of traditional institutions in favor of increasingly globalized economic and political bureaucracies to which most people have little or no real connection?”

It does not. There is no reason that Christ compels you to buy a BMW or like the DMV. That however is not the point. Christ’s exhortation to extend God’s love to all does seem to at least sometimes require the rejection of traditional institutions for His sake and the sake of the church,

Jesus said, ‘Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.’

avatar Patrick Ford June 24, 2009 at 1:46 pm

Dan,

Thanks for those clarifications. I am in total agreement that there do exist authentic communities beyond the local. Your example of the Church was already the one foremost in my mind, and I agree that Christ reveals that human beings are–by sharing a common nature and thus, at some important level, a common relationship to God–members of a singular community. If Nisbet rejects this possibility, I would depart from him at that point. I’m not sure he does, though.

Once we can agree on this important point, the next question is the one you asked: “[H]ow can [Christian charity] even be cultivated apart from what is beyond the mere sense community of scale Nisbet is discussing…?”

Given your positive acknowledgment of Nisbet’s communities of scale, part of the answer must be that we cultivate it best within those communities. The simple recognition that I am limited by time and space suggests that I will cultivate Christian charity most effectively within my own parish, community, etc.–amongst those human beings I am actually in contact with. That does not mean that I don’t wish the same sort of cultivation to take place in other communities, and if I see ways of helping that along without creating other serious problems, I have an obligation to pursue them (like the disciples sending money back to the church in Jerusalem, perhaps?).

And, fortunately (fortune actually having nothing to do with it), the Church is a genuine community that defies the normal limits of space and time, so that it can cultivate Christian charity on a wider scale than is possible for smaller communities. But it still does that mostly through its smaller units–parishes, dioceses, congregations, etc. This presents a worthwhile analogy. We might think of the situation Nisbet laments as one similar to what would obtain if, for instance, the Vatican started taking over the management and execution of ever larger sections of the Catholic church’s activities, rather than leaving dioceses and parishes the freedom to do things in ways that best suit their more localized needs, talents, etc. Christians can do what you want to do–cultivate Christian charity widely–precisely because larger organizing church bodies have respected and maintained the health of the smaller institutions/associations within them. I don’t really think I’m saying anything you’d disagree with.

That Christ’s reinterpretation of the command to love one’s neighbor as oneself requires the rejection of some traditional institutions is true when applied to certain situations–such as those in which the community of God’s people is interpreted as being open only to some human beings and not others, or in other situations in which inherent injustice is perpetuated. I’m not sure it requires the Italian Club down the street to grant me, an Anglo-Teuton, full membership. This may be the point to which you want to bring the discussion–a point which you have hammered on before here on the Porch, and which I don’t think was ever resolved satisfactorily: how do “traditional conservatives” or “communitarians” deal with the existence of communities founded or perpetuated in injustice? I think there is an answer to that, maybe even a simple one, but I’m not sure I’m the one to give it.

Interpreting your last citation of Christ’s rather cryptic words strictly literally is not helpful, either, though I realize you’re just being lightly provocative. I don’t think Christ’s commands require, in any literal sense, that I “reject” or abandon my wife, or son, or parents, or local parish–and I suspect you don’t think so, either (though a sort of “rejection” of certain behaviors, attitudes, etc., might be required).

Thanks, by the way, for bringing things back to theology so regularly. Keep it up.

avatar Patrick Ford June 24, 2009 at 1:53 pm

Addendum:

Dan, in my antepenultimate paragraph, I was clearly assuming that you were a particular Dan who had discussed earlier the issue I associated with you–i.e., traditional conservatives vs. communities of injustice. If you are not said Dan, forgive my presumption.

avatar Dan June 25, 2009 at 8:32 am

Patrick,

A great comment and you are right in saying that there is nothing in it to which I would take much exception.

“Given your positive acknowledgment of Nisbet’s communities of scale, part of the answer must be that we cultivate it best within those communities.”

This is of course a truism which I don’t think anyone could reasonably disagree. The question is what kind of political philosophy one can build off of merely this. It’s a great insight of conservatism/traditionalism but hardly a justification for them.

“And, fortunately (fortune actually having nothing to do with it), the Church is a genuine community that defies the normal limits of space and time, so that it can cultivate Christian charity on a wider scale than is possible for smaller communities. But it still does that mostly through its smaller units–parishes, dioceses, congregations, etc.”

I can’t blame Nisbet, as a sociologist for not delving into these matters but the truth of the matter is every Christian believes in the sort of “species being” that is critiqued by him in the form of the church. The church, at is most base level is merely abstract, but I don’t think a single Christian doesn’t think that it is very real at the same time. I am never merely a member of a community but also always a member of the Church and a friend of God. This tells me something about myself, others, and justice (among many other things)
that are simultaneously mediated through the small scale community (Nisbet Community) and by the Grace of God (The “species being” which transforms me and animates my being in a very abstract/real way).

I guess the question I’m asking is should Jesus Christ have anything to do with our political theory? In a broader way the question falls under the rubric of what does Jerusalem have to do with Athens.

Thanks for the kind comments and you were correct. I am that same Dan, for lo I am with you always…

avatar Harry J Krebs, Jr June 28, 2009 at 2:08 pm

Unfortunately, Marx is strapped with the fatal error of “eliminating” the undesireable elements of humankind via the same methods employed by the very system that he desires to “eliminate”. The result would be the same as well, tyranny.

avatar Wessexman March 22, 2010 at 5:49 pm

Dan you are confusing Intellect(in the Platonic sense.), faith and Agape with the more mundane human faculties. Certainly we have great resources in our being but most people do not use them to their full effect, most aren’t Saints, and they do not usually stretch to mundane political, economic and social levels(and those like Buddha who can stretch it this far would not wish to use it in such a way anyway.).

avatar Peter June 15, 2010 at 11:40 am

While struck by MacIntyre’s localism in the ’90′s — in fact, more convinced of it all the time — I came across a professor from Rome’s Salesianum University who pointed out that MacIntyre’s original proposal in “After Virtue” was not, after all “Thomist” yet. I.e., Thomas took the Holy Roman Empire for granted: the unifying glue of Christendom. In his article “Natural Law as Subversive,” MacIntyre later showed us that Aquinas was a localist as well. I think the point my friend Thaddaeus is making is that the ideal would be for local communities to embody universal ideals; and, as an ideal, I definitely agree. At the same time, localism is localism. While I’m not ready to follow Peter Simpson back to the Articles of Confederation — or any version of neo-Confederacy for that matter — the point of legislating certain moral issues at the national level, beyond the 14th-16th Amendements, perplexes me with some frequency.

As to Pickstock, while inclined to suspect it’s Fabian welfarism and not Redy Toryism she’s defending, she, too, has a point. In “Dependent Rational Animals,” MacIntyre admitted that modern nation-states may have their place — so long as they’re not repositories of ultimate values. Let’s face it: if anyone one of us were elected President, we’d be obliged to inherit the Washington Consensus and “deal” with macroeconomic big picture stuff realting to national national employment, affecting those most vulnerable among us — who don’t teach for a living. Academics run the risk of being mesmerized by a single ruling Idea, and not grounded; that’s our potential Achilles heel. That said, our “big picture” could be much aided by the likes of neo-Aristotelian Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen; Thomist Burkean developmental economist Grace Goodell; and “human capital” Nobel Prize winning economist Gary Becker (who serves on the Pontifical Council of Peace and justice or something); I’d even thrown a word for a de-centralized banking gold standard — after all: Aquinas thought those debasing the currency should be liable to execution. (Inflation destroys the bread of the poor…)

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: