Saintly Thoughts

What Then is Necessary?

In light of all the well documented hand wringing concerning the extreme divisiveness in American society, I find myself asking the question what is necessary for people to live in a society together?  I must admit at the outset, that there is likely not one simple answer to this question.  Presumably before we ask the question, what is necessary, we must first ask the question, what is society.  Or perhaps a better question, what kind of society?  For example, one could imagine a society made up of two groups who actively hate one another to the point where each side will gladly kill members of the other side if they are able to do so with impunity (and if you think this an unlikely state of affairs, just consider Florence in the age of Dante).  It would seem that society is impossible in such an instance, however, we might concede that such an order could exist if there was a professionalized, aggressive, and intrusive police force powerful enough to keep the two forces at bay.  A society which can only exist under the thumb of such a class of guardians is not very sociable, but it might well have other virtues such as an efficient and ebullient economic system.  So this begs the question, is society something that exists solely for the sake of something else (i.e. safety, economics, the rights of the individual person) or is there a good inherent in society qua society?  For a long time I have tended to subscribe to a more or less libertarian answer to this question--that society existed solely as a means whereby individual persons could, with as little friction as possible, attain the personal ends that they so desire.  Whether those ends be sacred or profane was irrelevant from the question of society as such, just so long as the means these persons employed and the ends they sought did not actively prohibit those others who sought other ends.  While I still think there is merit in a certain understanding of this individualistic construct, if there is a good inherent in sociability, and if certain human goods require sociability, then a perception of society as a neutral space wherein individuals meet to accomplish goals separate from the social order appears somewhat myopic.  For Aristotle declared that man is a political animal, and attains the fullness of his manishness (to borrow a term from Chesterton) only insofar as he is able and willing to engage with his fellow creatures in a joint political project.  Politics, by this understanding, becomes the means and determination of the correct bounds of order whereby sociability can flourish, for man can only be political by being sociable and would not need politics if he did not also require society.  

Now, certainly, in setting up society and sociability as a proper end in and of itself we can go too far.  Society may, properly understood, serve as an end, but it is surely not the only end.  Perhaps the myopic modern consideration only (or primarily) of the good of the autonomous individual leads to a certain sort of atomized dystopia.  But surely a dystopia characterized by the overweening ennui and anxiety of a disconnected humanity is far preferable to a dystopia characterized by firing squads and concentration camps to which collectivized fantasies tend?  This is very true, insofar as it goes.  And if I had to choose the one or the other, I would surely choose the former.  However, to paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, when the desire for freedom destroys security, the desire for security will destroy freedom.  In this context, if our preference for the individualist dystopia is allowed to develop too far, I wish to suggest that it will end up in the same place as the collectivist hellscape.  For, as individuals cede more and more of their "social capital" (i.e. those bonds of family, community, and sociability necessary for constant unmediated contact between individuals to be possible) in an attempt to be left alone to their own unresponsive and irresponsible freedom, the state (or some other corporate collectivized force) will be required to grow ever larger and more intrusive.  In an attempt to make the autonomous individual ascendant, the end game is merely to empower the engines of the state.  Once this bureaucratic monstrosity reaches a certain critical mass, it will internalize the logic of individual emancipation, and re-mold its concepts of limitless personal freedom to its own ends--ends which are unlikely to look anything like freedom (unless the desires of the individual have been pre-formed to fit the mandate of the corporatized collective--the freedom of the natural slave).   

And so, as with so many things, we find that the (partial) answer to our original question of what then is necessary requires a balancing of various considerations.  A balance between the legitimate needs of personal freedom and group sociability.  If correctly balanced, these goods need not be placed in opposition to one another.  However, if we use as our defining rubric of individualism the abstract concept of unmediated individual rights, we are bound to fall into the unbalanced myopia which characterizes our current societal moment.  What might be a rubric whereby the freedoms of the individual are more correctly balanced with the duties owed to sociability?  This is the difficult question of our time.