Liberated From Community?


Robert Nisbet (The Quest for Community) famously argued that humans possess what one might call a communal imperative–we will belong to communities, one way or another.  Nisbet warned that if we don’t nurture healthy communities that we would produce pathological ones. Was he right?

So much of the success of the liberal West, manifested in various forms in Western Europe and the United States, rests on the most dramatic liberation that humans have ever known.  From the Enlightenment to the present, the liberation of the individual from non-chosen restraints and identities has been progressive and, seemingly, irreversible.  Where in the United States do we find fixed roles based on family, sex, or inherited status?  Where in America does tradition have any sway except where individuals, working in chosen associations, have, with concerted effort, affirmed some discrete set of traditions or customs?

Have we liberated ourselves from community?  Or, to put it more precisely, has the unprecedented cultural success of liberal emancipation from inherited or imposed status, role, and place, made all forms of corporatism impossible in the United States?  And if so, was Nisbet therefore wrong about the human communal imperative?

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Ted McAllister is a native of Oklahoma, now living in Moorpark, California with his wife, Dena, and his two children, Elisa and Luke. He yearns for his own chunk of land and for those bits of nature that please him, but not for farming or for unnecessary drudgery of the sort that involves physical labor.  He is an aesthetic agrarian, not a practicing one. Educated as an Intellectual and Cultural Historian at Vanderbilt University, he now teaches at Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy where he pursues with his students the enduring questions rather than the particular answers.  His book, Revolt Against Modernity:  Leo Strauss, Eric Voegelin, and the Search for a Post-Liberal Order launched him into the study of political philosophy, though his epistemological orientation is much shaped by his training as a historian.  Working presently on Walter Lippmann as well as a US History textbook, he expects soon to write a multi-volume history of the Baby-boomers.


  1. The only place I see these things is in the more stridently ethnic micro-communities (I include in this Amish and other similar groups) and particular Churches. These extremely local communities and their quazi-local appendages such as monasteries seem the last cohesive settings for folks to develop intentional, healthy communities.

    There are many attempts at community building that have success nullified by the very definition of their community boundaries. If the people gathered here don’t have sufficient conditions for bonding to justify the risk and ongoing cost of the community they collapse. Big tents make for dysfunctional communities. In fact, diversity actually aggravates differential interpersonal tensions. People in diverse communities identify themselves in terms of their difference within the community rather than the community identity as diversity increases.

    This leads me to think that the necessity of community in the past (you aren’t welcome here stranger, go back to where you came from) was a source of much of the function where individualism is mitigated by necessity.

    I know everyone hails modern marriage contracts for their more just handling of women previous legal vulnerabilities, but no fault divorce removes one of the strongest ordinary compulsions for working out their marriage with fear and trembling.

  2. David,

    “Community-building” operates in the context of a peculiarly modern obligation placed on individuals to form independent judgments, to make individual choices, and to have their own distinctive “values.” I see no escape from this obligation. Any community formed with this material cannot be corporate in the way that traditional societies are. Local options whereby communities are freed from outside forces to define their own peculiar relationships will not, under prevailing economic and cultural conditions, allow for anything approaching traditional community. This may be a good thing, but even good things come with losses.

    If we must now consciously build communities out of congeries of individuals, each fated to such an array of choices, how should we do this–and toward what end? What kind of community of individualists is healthy?

  3. Native American societies in north America were more individualistic and communitarian than the societies that supplanted them (which were in turn more individualistic and communitarian than our own). In Native societies, people didn’t have any choice but to form strong bonds with each other. People literally couldn’t survive as loners.

    I think these strong bonds were in part what made so many European captives want to stay with their captors rather than return home when they had the chance. (The reverse hardly ever happened, as Ben Franklin famously noted.)

    In modern society, we can survive as individuals without community, because the welfare-police state makes these strong inter-personal bonds less necessary. The wife can survive after the husband dumps her, and the kids will survive somehow, too. And so on, with other communities beyond the nuclear family. We don’t have that strong, absolutely-necessary dependency on each other.

  4. I’ve struggled with this since you and I had our first conversations.

    Yes, there were different forces at work in elder days. I might have been born into my father’s guild, but to assume that there was not a consensual element to this is an over-simplification. There was social change even then, migration, merchant populations, military service, etc. There have always been stories of peasants falling in love with princesses and other fanciful notions of a change in one’s fated station.

    Every child had the rational choice to not do as he was burdened by fate to do, yet the forces of society around him were equally opposed to such an action as they are promoting it now. Many of the ancient stories surround the devastating consequences of attempting to thwart such fate. Such stories had a function precisely because at some point many of the people in those societies considered the consensual limits of their birth.

    Just because modern society’s predisposition is to encourage individualism, doesn’t mean that the act of surrendering that is only available as a manifestation of that individualism.

    Take the Church. If I come to accept the Orthodox Church is the Church I do not consent to join, but more accurately I submit to its authority. This is not a willful choice on my part, but a disposal of my will.

    I can, to a lesser extent, accept the community of my workplace (which is not precisely the workplace itself, but co-exists with it) and thereby submit my will again.

    This submission, kenosis (if you want to be precise), is the only exit from your philosophical trap of individualism’s inherent extremism. I must disinherit my rights of volition regarding the community I join. These communities cannot properly be democratic in nature (though they may contain familiar elements to some degree or another within certain functional parts).

    In both of these cases, my participation is not voluntary, or at least it is not fully voluntary in the sense that endangers the construction of a community. Perhaps it is the addition of cyphers against volition that make community possible.

    Vows for example are critical in monastic communities. They remove a portion of volition creating a platform for greater community function. The military has its methods and mechanisms as well, which serve the same purpose. Sports teams have lesser, but effective traditions.

    Lately I’ve been studying the problem of “the will and the good” in classical Christian thought. There are two popular positions which state that if you want God to be good, you must crush free will and the contrapositive. But this assumes that the goodness of God is singular. Christ shows us that is not the case in the scriptures, for He asks that the cup pass from him (Christ certainly did not will an evil here) but voluntarily submitted (emptied Himself of his equality) to the Father.

    This is critical. Christ willed something different, but that difference did not constitute opposition. This frustrated the early Greek Christians until they realized that the One wasn’t simple, but infinite. That is there are limitless goods in God which all His images fulfill (this is why Orthodox Christians are synergists).

    This too is how healthy communities can function. That each member might retain his will for the good of the community, but submit that will to harmony. We need not solve the problem of individuality with absolute oppression (just as we do not need to solve the problem of salvation through Monergism).

    I do not accept that there are two alternatives, oppressive preexistent authority and chaotic unfettered individualism. It is possible to have cooperation through voluntary submission.

  5. David,

    Did you take me to claim that there are two alternatives only? In point of fact, I suggested that one of these alternatives is not an option. I don’t know what kind of arrangements might open up in the near future, but I suspect that one way of approaching this issue is to reflect on the kinds of community and more basically the kind of relationships taht are really fool’s gold. By refusing to accept ersatz relationships and communities (like those communities presumed to exist in cyberspace), we might understand something about deep human needs in the context of humans who have no choice but to choose.

  6. “I think these strong bonds were in part what made so many European captives want to stay with their captors rather than return home when they had the chance. (The reverse hardly ever happened, as Ben Franklin famously noted.) ”

    How many adult men were really taken captive?

  7. Now that I think about it some more, the two historical examples I had in mind don’t work. One of the men escaped captivity, and (after looking it up) I see that the other was captured as a boy. So I’m left with zero examples that I can think of. For adult males, we have to go to stories other than captivity stories to learn about the relative attractions of the two societies in drawing people away from each other.

  8. Forgive me for mischaracterizing your false monopoly as a false dichotomy.

    I don’t buy that these relationships are replacements, but they certainly have their deficiencies which I am acutely aware as I have experimented with them for 20 years now. But their deficiency does not render them disposable refuse. Whatever the extent to which they are replacements, it is because the cost of fostering a richer communion under current conditions is punishing.

    I think fools gold–presumably worthless–is too great a stretch. This is merely silver or useful but not precious bronze. I suppose you might argue that they are distractions (which is perhaps more of what you intend).

    We take what we can get because our experience has told us that nothing else more is available at a price we can afford. A BMW might be an ultimate driving machine, but I cannot even afford a replacement for my currently deficient vehicle should it fail at the side of the road.

    Perhaps I should ask what community shall we meditate on? And if one exists for us to admire it’s great virtue, how then shall we not despair at its remoteness? Shall I come to despise my home because it has no hearth?

    I mentioned monastic communities. I have known a couple in passing and one I know very well. It might be such a virtuous community, such that humans visiting it are visibly effected by it. Yet when you speak to its members they are strangely ignorant of the very medicine they are awash in. They know their deficiencies. So perhaps visitors have a delusional experience, I cannot say whether knowing the holiness of a place is a delusion if one does not equally know its folly.

    I recall my failures at establishing meaningful relationships with members of the opposite sex in my youth. Many were the pearls I threw before swine. And again with so many friendships at college and in my professional career. Even my attempts at wrestling within churches of my former tradition. All abject failures, and worse, the price tore deeply at my flesh and the flesh of my loved ones. Once I had married, my wife and children paid the price for my obsession for greater communion with my fellow man.

    I am scarred, but not bitter. I am not a wounded animal in the corner, teeth bare. But I am tired. I have come to accept that I must take the day God has given me and live within it and dispose of my conceptions of better days.

    You see it does not matter whether or not I ever chance to participate in such a great community, either here or there I am called to love my neighbor better than my brother and pray for my enemies. These tasks don’t change with circumstance or environment. This sacrificial love is the fulfillment of life, theosis not civics. Civics should service its purpose to foster this virtue, but with or without help the virtue is the goal.

    I think this is what Bonhoeffer understood. Bringing any expectation to the community is to subjugate it and eventually destroy it. We must love its members as they are for what they are. This is the only hope of real community.

    I fear I have done again what I have always done when we talk. Not quite talked about what you intend. You have my apology, though I expect it is not the last time I will fail on this point. I make efforts to talk on point in our times together, but whether your point is too fine or my hands too clumsy it never seems to work out.

  9. I’ve come to believe that previous forms of community relied on self-segregation and self-definition by religion or ethnicity. Both categories are now subject to anti-discrimination laws, so one can’t casually establish near-homogeneity in the workplace or in one’s neighborhood by advertising for those who are like oneself.

    Thus some of the only corporatism that survives is the for-profit “meritocratic” corporation.

    Nisbet is right to think there is a communal imperative, but that imperative has often been suppressed from the outside. Some of us didn’t liberate ourselves, we were liberated by force.

    In that sense, our liberal identity is non-chosen. What monsters has that self-contradiction spawned?

  10. I think this is what Bonhoeffer understood. Bringing any expectation to the community is to subjugate it and eventually destroy it. We must love its members as they are for what they are. This is the only hope of real community.

    Bonhoeffer said that? That’s a fascinating observation, with many potential applications. What is the context in which he said it, and where do we find it?

  11. This is a very precious passage for me. It represents one of the few times in my life where I actually noticed the scales falling off my eyes. He, of course, says it better than my mere reflection on his words.

    From “Life Together” forgive me for offering several quotes, but I do not think I would do you ill if I should republish the entire first chapter (though I’ll refrain from that excess):

    “One who wants more than what Christ has established does not want Christian brotherhood. He is looking for some extraordinary social experience which he has not found elsewhere; he is bringing muddled and impure desires into Christian brotherhood. Just at this point Christian brotherhood is threatened most often at the very start by the greatest danger of all, the danger of being poisoned at its root, the danger of confusing Christian brotherhood with some wishful idea of religious fellowship, of confounding the natural desire of the devout heart for community with the spiritual reality of Christian brotherhood.”

    “Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung up from a wish dream. The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community, is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and to try to realize it. But God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams. Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves.”

    “Every human wish dream that is injected into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be banished if genuine community is to survive. He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.”

    “God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself. He enters the community of Christains with his demands, sets up his own law, and judges the brethren and God Himself accordingly. He stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of brethren. He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community, as if his dream binds men together. When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure. When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to smash. So he becomes, first and accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself.”

    Sounds right out of the mouth of a FPRer (and if you’ll forgive the plug) Orthodox Christianity, particularly the monastic tradition. This book, along with GKC’s Orthodoxy snapped my head straight when simply nothing else would have and set me on the road that would lead me for the rest of my life.

  12. Is the West successful? I think the West has remarkably avoided total social and cultural collapse but it is hardly “successful” and only a step a way from collapse, though it has remained perched there for a long time without falling in, or so it seems to me. Nisbet was right and in fact he showed the reasons we lack community today and find it hard to create them and the outcomes. Nisbet also was right that a little of the flexibility that modern times brought was good, it is simply that we have gone far, far beyond that.

  13. Wessexman, you’ve got me thinking darkly this evening.

    The West’s supreme potency lies in it’s utilitarian obsession. When you can feed, cloth and build mansions for everyone you can get away with all manner of deficiencies. There is abundance in excess beyond all reason and this makes biting the hand that feeds you terribly unpalatable.

    In fact, so efficient is the efficiency that inefficient islands of anachronism are not only tolerated, but celebrated as is fashionable.

    However, obsession ultimately consumes, just as sin ultimately ends in death. Nothing satisfies addictions. A utilitarian, standing and watching it all burn might still say to themselves that for a few generations we got as close to paradise as we could, and well… after all, we’ll get it right next time.

    You cannot communicate meaningfully with such delusional people.

    It doesn’t matter whether it’s good for as long as it lasts, or that the pessimist in us live long enough to be satisfied that the end of it all is just. I don’t need to know that a strung out addict is slowly killing themselves in front of me. They have already begun when they take the first dose.

    The urge itself, the damage done with the first step is enough. I’m glad they all tolerate me (I amuse them… as is fashionable). But we may be nearer a time of wild dogs than we know. I don’t wish it on anyone, even them that brought their disease with them.

    For I know I am ill as well.

    St John tells us not to pray for them that commit the sin that is unto death. Why does he do this? Because relief will not help these lost souls who’s only hope for repentance is the calamity of consequence.

  14. Very interesting commentary David.

    One of the interesting factors such debates toss up, at least from my perspective, is over doomsayers and the position of society today. For centuries conservatives and others have been talking about decline and social breakdown. They often have been right about the general drift. Society and culture have rarely been so fragmented and in decline as they are today and it has been the inexorable process of centuries. But the interesting thing is society hasn’t broken up, the bleakest predictions of the doomsayers(like myself.) have not yet come true despite the seemingly constant social and cultural(not to mention spiritual.) decline. Society in the West limps, will it fall anytime soon or continue in this almost zombie like state. I think this in itself is a fascinating topic.

  15. Wessexman,

    I have often wondered why gang-bangers and street thugs stop at red lights.

    To what extent is the overwhelming anti-culture, such as it is, still effective at keeping basic social order? All the doomsayers may yet be right, but it is fascinating to see that billions of people are still interdependent on each other and on some level understand that if they don’t play along at least marginally, they don’t eat.

    However, sustenance isn’t life. We’ve simply enslaved ourselves to our passions and productively redirected those passions as best we can. When will the slaves revolt, I wonder?

  16. Indeed Dave, I wouldn’t for a second suggest that the liberal optimists and atomists are correct. In fact the doomsayers are more correct, society is as fragmented as it has been since the late Roman empire, at least. Socially, psychologically and at the lower levels of culture, let alone spiritually and at the higher levels of culture, there are massive problems; Durkheim pointed out the increasing rates of suicide and mental health problems amongst moderns over a century ago and things have not get better just to mention one problem area. But not only does society muddle on it still manages to materially supply itself and keep the bare bones of social and cultural order. This fascinates me. Will it continue? Will society decline further and if so will it be with a bang or a whimper?

  17. Seems to me that Nisbet was right in the sense that “community will out.” If true community is squelched it will rise somewhere else in, as Ted said above, some ersatz manifestation — even something like a rock group’s fan club or the ‘spirit’ evidenced at a Jimmy Buffett concert or a sporting event.

    In our culture community, like beauty, is in a certain sense hard to find; it doesn’t appear naturally and organically anymore, therefore one has to search it out. If the average person then is satisfied with a shallow, sentimental “beauty” (Thomas Kinkade, anyone?), we shouldn’t be too surprised when he’s also satisfied with a shallow, sentimental manifestation of community.

  18. Wow David – the quotes from “Life Together” hit a little bit too close to home (no, they are a direct hit…). Thanks so much for opening up my eyes to something that I clearly need to see.

  19. “We must love its members as they are for what they are. This is the only hope of real community.”

    We must bear with each other’s failings, but for there to be real community, must not there be be a common morality that isupheld and professed, if not always adhered to?

    Sometimes I think FPR is hindered too much by its “ecumenial” approach, even if many of its writers write from a Christian perspective. One can talk about how our the good of our social nature is not being met by contemporary living arrangements (as other “left-leaning” websites do), but if there is no agreement on what it is to live well together, can there be community?

  20. No, T. Chan, there cannot be community without an ordering principle, an understanding held in common (and thereby made into “common sense”) about how to live well together. All other arrangements of people cannot constitute community, however laudable they may otherwise be.

  21. Ted is correct, but thankfully the opposite is also true. Where an ordering principle exists, there is genuine community as well. Bonhoeffer calls divine love the highest order principle. But less debatable than that assertion, is that community exists regardless of our satisfaction with it. And Bonhoeffer’s advice rings true across many lower order communities.

    Certainly some communities are less fulfilling because of their limitations, but we know about limits here at FPR, right?

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