The Quest for Community: A Study in the Ethics of Order and Freedom
By Robert Nisbet.
Regnery/ISI Books, 2010 (originally published in 1953).
Paperback, 330 pages, $24.99.

Reviewed by Daniel J. Mahoney.

Robert Nisbet’s The Quest for Community is a book that endures. Written with lucidity and quiet grace, the book continues to speak to a problem that is coextensive with modernity itself: the continual erosion of those humanizing bonds, ties, and “communities of belonging” that provide the substance and context of human lives well lived. The problem has only deepened, and dramatically so, since the book was published in 1953. While the opening chapters of the book reflect the spirit of the time in which it was written, when talk of “alienation,” “disenchantment,” “rootlessness,” and “neurosis” were very much in the air, the book is anything but dated. Its learning is broad and deep, while escaping the pedantry and jargon-filled language characteristic of so much academic writing. Nisbet always wrote for an informed general readership, as well as a more specifically scholarly one. In the age of omnipresent technological gadgetry, vexatious social media, declining liberal learning and ever more frenzied ideological commitments, The Quest for Community stands out as a model of judicious and humane inquiry into how human beings ought to live together.

Throughout Quest, Nisbet speaks poignantly of the devastating human consequences of the “loss of community,” while avoiding undue nostalgia for days gone by. A philosophically minded sociologist, and a remarkably cultivated one at that, his book challenges the monism integral to modern philosophical and political reflection. That monism is tied to the reduction of the human world to the twin poles of the individual and the state, and the accompanying self-conscious evisceration of the “social pluralism” that defined the premodern social and political order. 

The Modern State Versus Social Pluralism

The mainstream of the Enlightenment saw that work of reduction and simplification as a welcome instrument of liberation, one that freed the “individual” from the constraints, at once demeaning and tyrannical, inherent in the patriarchal family, local authorities, the Church, and numerous other authorities and associations that mediated the relationship of the individual to the larger community. In his 1953 book, Nisbet brilliantly challenges the intellectual vulgate that dogmatically identifies liberation from the plural sources of human belonging with moral/political progress and human flourishing. 

To be sure, the old social authorities could be tyrannical and abusive, and a too rigid sense of community could limit opportunities for enterprising individuals to pursue their own paths in life. Family, church, and local community provided social warmth and an ethic of community, no mean things in a world where the isolated individual is bound to be forlorn and dislocated. But one ought not romanticize the old arrangements, since “lords” and “barons”—no less than modern bureaucrats—could abuse power and undermine those liberties essential to a genuinely pluralistic community. 

We tend to forget, Nisbet points out, that the old social groupings carried out vital social functions related to child rearing, marriage, education, economic production and distribution, mutual aid, and civic involvement as well. When the rich array of “intermediate associations” between the state and the individual are largely shorn of their social, civic, and economic functions, an aim and consequence of the establishment of the modern state, they become simulacra of their old selves, half-moribund bodies where a residual emotional investment largely substitutes for true civic and social vitality. 

Nisbet, however, is finally not interested in community as a merely “psychological” problem. His focus is clearly fixed on the permanent need of the social and civic animals that human beings are, to find a richly social context for the exercise of the rights and obligations that allow both democracy and true individuality to thrive. This is true even, or especially, in an individualist society marked by atomization and alienation. Like one of his great inspirations, Alexis de Tocqueville, Nisbet takes aim at the modern pathology of “individualism,” marked by passivity and withdrawal from social and civic life. He does so, however, in order to strengthen individuality which always depends upon a rich and vibrant social context. Individualism divides and weakens human beings; authentic human individuality allows the soul to thrive without losing sight of the common world that gives strength and vitality to noble human endeavors. 

Nisbet freely acknowledges that the modern state, this agent of simultaneous dissolution and reconstruction to which we have already referred, has led to important “humanitarian gains” and that it has “enhanced personal liberties” in Western life and culture. But the undoubted gains are also accompanied by significant losses: “But who can doubt” that the conflict between the modern state with “other associations in society” has given birth to “problems of balance of authority in society and problems of associative and personal freedom which are very nearly overwhelming at the present time?” If Nisbet emphasizes the latter problems rather than the undoubted gains associated with the “revolutionary” activity of the modern state, it is because those gains are widely acknowledged, while the losses are often ignored or drowned out by those who blindly genuflect before the altar of progress. 

Thus, if Nisbet understates the sheer problem of adequate governance in the “pluralistic” Middle Ages, with weak central authority and growing religious divisions, he allows us to much more fully appreciate the communal character of human freedom before the modern state had engaged in its (destructive and constructive) transformational work. The free community in premodern times, whether in medieval towns or villages, was egalitarian and fraternal, even if multiple hierarchies, some symbolic and some functional, largely defined the premodern social structure. In addition, Nisbet fully recognizes the role of conflict in every human society, while exposing the simplistic and reductive Marxian identification of conflict with capitalist “exploitation.” 

Modern Monism

While Nisbet recovers a conception of the “social” which is varied, pluralistic and resistant to reductive explanations, he also provides a brilliant account of the multiple ways in which a modern notion of “political community” crowds out such pluralism in the name of a “rationalism” that only acknowledges the moral legitimacy of the state and individual. The French politique Jean Bodin, who wished to reduce destructive religious strife in sixteenth-century France and whose conception of “sovereignty” is in many ways “monistic” or absolutist, plays a role here, but as a theoretical and practical halfway house. He still remained attached to the social authority of the family in ways that were in tension with his understanding of political sovereignty. 

It was Hobbes who fully limned the new disposition. Nisbet provides a brilliant account of Hobbes’s disdain for all those authorities and social groups between the individual and the state which cause political division and get in the way of the “absolute power of the state” and, for the individual, the fulfillment of a broad array of individual rights that the modern state makes possible. Hobbes’s authoritarianism was, Nisbet rightly argues, at the service of what later came to be called liberalism, of “removing barriers to individual autonomy.” Nisbet speaks critically of this Hobbesian project, while avoiding invective against Hobbes himself.

The same cannot be said of what he sees as the entirely destructive project of the eighteenth-century Genevan political philosopher and moralist Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau is truly Nisbet’s bête noir and not without good reasons. But Nisbet overlooks the subtleties that accompany Rousseau’s political reflection. Rousseau was a half-classical thinker who could not imagine true republican liberty or human flourishing outside of the circumscribed city-state. He attacked the very idea of political representation and would have abhorred the Jacobin effort to impose the “General Will” on a community of twenty-three million people who could hardly be active or reflective citizens. 

We know from the Letters Written from the Mountain that Rousseau did not want a revolution in France. He foresaw that it would be nothing less than a calamity. All that said, Nisbet accurately and amply describes what the vulgarization of Rousseau’s thought wrought in revolutionary France. Pity and sentimentality, given pride of place in the new moral dispensation of revolutionary France, in fact led to acts of grotesque political cruelty. The republican virtue lauded in The Social Contract was given terrorist expression by the Rousseau-inspired Robespierre, much against Rousseau’s own intent. The final chapter of The Social Contract (4,8), entitled “On Civil Religion,” was used to suppress the ancient Catholic faith of the French people and to encourage a “cult of the Supreme Being” which gave rise to absurdity after absurdity, from blasphemy and bizarre new religious rituals to the desecration of Notre Dame itself. Nisbet is right that Rousseau wanted to get rid of sources of unjust partiality in the compact republican political community of his dreams; this desire itself was of course fraught with danger. But to apply the same project—and logic—to a large representative nation-state, as the French revolutionaries did, was to inaugurate a new kind of despotism that was in important respects totalitarian. With the French Revolution, totalitarian democracy enters the world and Rousseau is in some respects complicit in this development. 

It should be added that Nisbet’s remarkably rich reflection on multiple ways of renewing the “associative art” as Tocqueville called it, serves the dual purpose of renewing the communal foundations of human freedom and flourishing and of keeping totalitarianism at bay. As the book demonstrates, Nisbet thought long and incisively about both the soft and hard variants of totalitarianism. In doing so, he turned to fundamental questions of political philosophy. In a later series of works from the 1970s (such as The Social Philosophers and Twilight of Authority), he gave his defense of “sociological pluralism” (which also entailed a renewal of an older conservative wisdom) a more expressly political or civic expression. In the final fifty pages of The Twilight of Authority, for example, Nisbet renewed his defense of pluralism by drawing on the insights of such varied thinkers as Althusius, Bodin, Burke, Tocqueville, anarchists such as Proudhon and Kropotkin, and the Hegel of The Philosophy of Right. He defended a conception of citizenship that self-consciously avoided stultifying centralization. 

Likewise, in outlining this renewed conception of citizenship that could overcome social anomie and restore authority to genuinely authoritative institutions, Nisbet returned repeatedly to Aristotle’s account of the body politic as a heterogenous whole in Book II of the Politics (Aristotle had made no appearance in The Quest for Community). Drawing on Aristotle’s criticisms of the communism sketched in Plato’s Republic, Nisbet argues that a western democratic world in crisis needs above all “harmony,” but a harmony that resists the temptation to settle for a unanimity or unison that is the counterfeit of true harmony. This is the great task of contemporary politics for Nisbet and for us: combining civic and social harmony with a political unity that respects pluralism as such. This means that pluralism is not enough. Our great institutions, public and private, must relearn how to speak and act authoritatively again, imbued a genuine sense of public purpose. In that all-important effort, Nisbet’s political sociology points us to political thinkers such as Burke, Tocqueville, and Aristotle who can guide us in this all-important task of civic and social renewal. 

Daniel J. Mahoney is Professor Emeritus at Assumption University, Senior Fellow at the Claremont Institute, and Senior Writer at Law and Liberty. His most recent book is Recovering Politics, Civilization, and the Soul: Essays on Pierre Manent and Roger Scruton (St. Augustine’s Press, 2022).

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