‘Nations stumble upon establishments, which are indeed the result of human action,
but not the execution of any human design.’
Adam Ferguson, An Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767)

20 February 2009

Society, Our Natural Route to the Common Good

In the mistaken dichotomy imposed upon the individual and society, modern liberal politics will often assume a choice exists—a core leitmotif—between the autonomous person free from the obligations imposed by society, and the dependent person who is embedded in a myriad interplay of relationships, beginning with the family and expanding to society's wider associations. Were it necessary to characterise these positions, their extreme manifestations may be termed respectively as individualism and communitarianism (with apologies to those who believe their viewpoint slighted or caricatured).

Such a scenario was raised by Sunder Katwala’s ‘Letwin’s curious confusion between his Fabian and neo-con critics (Next Left, 5 February)’, as he addresses an issue touched on by Oliver Letwin at the launch of the Progressive Conservatism Project—that ‘being communitarian must be illiberal.’ For Katwala, this is a straw-man debate: the left ‘does not reify liberal individualism to the extent that the Hayekian right does’; rather, the question is if being liberal must be anti-communitarian, since for the right ‘less state equals more freedom’. Of course, this sets the stage for a greater, possibly more antagonistic argument about equating the state with society. Forswearing that parsing of the body politic for another time, I return to the opening gambit, the individual versus society.

The topic is rich and complex, defies easy summary and offers tempting expatiation; suffice instead a few remarks on the natural law quality of society, its necessity for the achievement of individual fulfilment, and the relationship to the common good.

With respect to framing the context of individuals and society, the either-or starkness would be incomprehensible (or, at the very least, highly unorthodox) to thinkers in the formative centuries of Western Civilisation, a world-view that lost its ascendency in the early 1500s with the rise of liberalism in the Enlightenment era. Incomprehensible for earlier epochs where, if you will, to speak of the individual and society was commonplace without the inclination of distinguishing between the two; where, of the two, the atomised individual was a fata morgana. One such metaphysical interpretation of humanity’s part-whole nature has become known as personalism.

Personalism, conceived by mediaeval philosophers and theologians, has as one model the Divine Trinity: the Godhead of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost—three in one—otherwise known as the trinitarian anthropology. Writes J.W. Koterski, ‘Boethius devised what has become the classical definition of “person” as “an individual substance of a rational nature” in order to include within a single term divine and angelic as well as human beings.’ Yet personalism also has a political dimension, as Koterski notes in referring to Jacques Maritain:

In reaction to excessive claims in the name of individualism and equal excesses in the service of collectivism, Maritain’s The Person and the Common Good (1947) attempts to make the necessary distinctions between the inalienable rights inherent in every human being as person and the duties intrinsic to membership in civil society.

Aristotle’s Politics hinted at these duties when he wrote that gravid phrase, ‘man is by nature a political animal (i, 2).’ ‘By nature’ means that sociability is inherent in man, teleologically, as required for the satisfaction of his temporal ends; that is why Aristotle spoke of the polis—and care must be taken when identifying the Greek idea of the city-state with the modern nation-state—as the ‘most sovereign and inclusive association (i, 1)’ that ‘may be said to have reached the height of full self-sufficiency; or rather we may say that while it comes into existence for the sake of mere life, it exists for the sake of a good life. For this reason every city exists by nature, just as did the earlier associations (i, 2).’

This need for sociability—as an aim of our nature, an aim which leads to perfection—is common to all, and is an application of natural law. To be otherwise, for sociability to be an aberration or mere choice, is to be either unnatural or supernatural:

The man who is isolated, who is unable to share in the benefits of political association, or has no need to share because he is already self-sufficient, is no part of the city, and must therefore be either a beast or a god. There is therefore a natural impulse in all men towards an association of this sort (i, 2).

For Thomas Aquinas, society is integral ‘since every part is ordained to the whole, as imperfect to perfect; and since one man is a part of the perfect community (Summa Theologiae, I-II.90.2, c)’. Pius XI, in the encyclical Divini Redemptoris, explains the social environment in which a person attains completeness:

God has likewise destined man for civil society according to the dictates of his very nature. In the plan of the Creator, society is a natural means which man can and must use to reach his destined end. Society is for man and not vice versa. This must not be understood in the sense of liberalistic individualism, which subordinates society to the selfish use of the individual; but only in the sense that by means of an organic union with society and by mutual collaboration the attainment of earthly happiness is placed within the reach of all. In a further sense, it is society which affords the opportunities for the development of all the individual and social gifts bestowed on human nature. These natural gifts have a value surpassing the immediate interests of the moment, for in society they reflect the divine perfection, which would not be true were man to live alone. But on final analysis, even in this latter function, society is made for man, that he may recognise this reflection of God’s perfection, and refer it in praise and adoration to the Creator. Only man, the human person, and not society in any form is endowed with reason and a morally free will (§29).

This passage from Pius XI reinforces three political considerations of man as a social animal: (i) ‘mutual collaboration’ is part of his nature; (ii) society is the means whereby ‘imperfect’ man realises his ends; and (iii) even as a member in the social fabric, man remains free, rational, and absolute.

This co-existing dimension is at the heart of Thomistic personalism, of being in society while at the same time being above it:

For in the person there are some things—and they are the most important and sacred ones—which transcend political society and draw man in his entirety above political society—the very same whole man who, by reason of another category of things, is a part of political society. By reason of certain relations to the common life which concern our whole being, we are a part of the state; but by reason of other relations (likewise of interest to our whole being) to things more important than the common life, there are goods and values in us which are neither by nor for the state, which are outside of the state (Maritain, Person & Common Good).

A true understanding of the common good becomes manifest when read by the personalist principle: though most often spoken of in the language of utilitarianism, of the greatest good of the greatest number, the common good is rather more full and comprehensive: it is the good common to all in respect of their nature, a good that benefits them both as persons (as one) and as individuals in society (as community). Peace, for instance, is a good that is enjoyed by one and all; it is not a private good, nor is it a good that does not affect each one personally. ‘Since then every man is a part of the state, it is impossible that a man be good, unless he be well proportionate to the common good,’ wrote Aquinas; ‘nor can the whole be well consistent unless its parts be proportionate to it (ST, I-II.92.1, ad 3).’

An analytical-linguistic response to the individual-society dichotomy has been described as a form of category mistake. Gilbert Ryle popularised the term in his book The Concept of Mind, where his classic example was showing Oxford’s various colleges, chapels, and quads to a visitor who then asks to see the famous university. In like fashion, it is a category mistake to think of a collection of individuals without them naturally forming a society, or of imagining civil society in action without conceiving of the autonomous individuals that comprise it. (Maritain emphasised a similar mistake when referring to an individual as a ‘part in the whole (society)’ and a person as ‘a whole in the whole’: ‘There is not in men one reality, called my individual, and another reality, called my person. One and the same reality is, in a certain sense an individual, and, in another sense, a person (Person & Common Good).’)

Personalism, under its sacred guise, asks us to accept the unfathomable, ineffable mysteries of the Trinity on faith; it is more readily apprehended in our profane political discourse, with its reasoned, natural role for man, not as congeries, but as ordered part and whole. ‘He is a true “microcosm,” as the ancients said, a world in miniature, with a value far surpassing that of the vast inanimate cosmos (Divini Redemptoris, §27).’

Organic Tory Annals: In the upcoming days TOT will be remembering two extraordinary Britons: John Henry Cardinal Newman, theologian and driving spirit of the Oxford Movement, was born in London on 21 February 1801; and Georg Friedrich Händel born in Halle, Saxony on 23 February 1685, whose music was the glory of his adopted homeland.

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