I've been focusing on this because community health has such a big impact on individual health. Just turn on the news if you don't believe me!
In Chapter 4, Nisbet lays out a simple premise, illustrated by the title of the Chapter:
“History as the Decline of Community”
This chapter argues that history can be defined as the “decline of community.” Ironically, this brings us back to square one, and full circle. When I wrote a book several years ago (2015) about exercise and mental health, the questions I was trying to answer for readers were:
- How can an individual pursue of a meaningful life in the context of a broken communal life?
- How can we reassert the primacy of the spiritual in a world beholden to the material?
- How can we who want to be active and take personal responsibility, reassert and free will and conscious thought and action in a culture dominated by pure materialism, scientific determinism, nihilism, and a sense of meaninglessness?
- How can the individual be “free” and healthy, but also live in harmony with creation and with other people?
- How does exercise assert free will, consciousness, and a healthy type of meaning and individualism?
This book I wrote, called “Movement and Meaning: Building Mental Strength and Managing Stress through Exercise” inevitably led to grappling with theology, because theology is the “queen of the sciences” and it weaves the other sciences (psychology, sociology, physiology, anatomy, etc.) together into a cohesive whole. These were difficult questions but what is now fully realized after having lived and learned a lot since writing that book, is that they were essential questions in the bigger picture of mental health.
Our culture does have an unhealthy conception of individualism, and is beholden in an unhealthy way to pure materialism (absence of the soul) and scientific determinism (there is no free will, and humans are just clumps of matter). Forming the backdrop of this shift towards materialism and nihilism is the decline in community. Older and more communal forms of living had as their context a cohesive religious narrative. There was a story in which people lived and belonged. Even in tribal days, life had a coherence that we now lack. That is why some philosophers characterize modern life as the “absence of being.” If the world has not be “founded” in other words, as it has not in secular and materialistic terms, it doesn’t exist.
Nisbet is correct in his initial thesis in this chapter. History from a meta-perspective could be seen simply as the decline of community. In tribal years, before the Greco- Roman cultures emerged, people lived in tribal communities where the individual didn’t exist in the modern sense. In the intermediate years, after the fall of Rome, through Christian European society and into the Reformation, individualism existed but in a limited fashion within a larger community context. But slowly over time community faded quickly as individualism grew. In the modern era, slowly beginning with the Reformation, individualism has been ascendant and in recent decades has begun to turn in on itself, despite the positives it brought about, resulting in a recent increase in suicides, depression, and other mental health issues. Nisbet’s thesis in this chapter is helpful. History can be seen as a decline in community, which would then lead to other problems in society.
The questions then are why, how, and is this is a good or bad thing? That’s what we will look at in summarizing this chapter. Like most complicated historical questions it’s not easy to answer those questions. Take a look at this succinct introduction. Nisbet writes:
“The history of a society can be considered in many aspects. It can be seen in terms of the rise of democracy, the fall of aristocracy, the advance of technology, the recession of religion. It can be conceived, as Tocqueville conceived it, as the work of equality; as Acton considered it, as the work of freedom; or, in Bertrand Russell's terms, as the story of power. There is no limit to the ways of profitably regarding the history of any given society. Each mode of consideration is, as Whitehead has reminded us, “a sort of searchlight elucidating some of the facts, and retreating the remainder into an omitted background.”1
History, the late F. J. Teggart insisted, is plural. It is plural in sequence of event and plural in result. There is no one general statement that can remain meaningful before the diversity of historical materials. For a long time the idea of progress was held capable of assimilating and making intelligible the diverse experiences of man's past. Today it is no longer so held. If there is any single general idea that has replaced it, it is the idea of decline. But the idea of decline is no more, no less, correct than the idea of progress. History is neither progress nor decline alone. It is both. What is determinative in the historian's judgment is simply that aspect of the present he chooses to illuminate.
Thus, if we value the emergence of the individual from ancient confinements of patriarchal kinship, class, guild, and village community, the outcome of modern European history must appear progressive in large degree. For, plainly, the major toll of modern social change has been exacted from such communal entities as these. From the point of view of the individual—the autonomous, rational individual—the whole sequence of events embodied in Renaissance, Reformation, and Revolution must appear as the work of progressive liberation. There is nothing wrong with this appraisal of history. It is undeniably illuminative. But it is inescapably selective.
If, on the other hand, we value coherent moral belief, clear social status, cultural roots, and a strong sense of interdependence with others, the same major events and changes of modern history can be placed in a somewhat different light. The processes that have led to the release of the individual from old customs and solidarities have led also to a loss of moral certainties, a confusion of cultural meanings, and a disruption of established social contexts. We cannot, in sum, deal with the progressive emancipation of individuals without recognizing also the decline of those structures from which the individual has been emancipated. Judgments of progress must always be specific and selective; they cannot be disengaged from opposing judgments of decline and disruption.
A preference for the emancipation of the individual and for the advancement of secularism, mobility, and moral freedom may well be sovereign in our total moral appraisal. We may regard these developments in modern history as worth whatever has been exacted from moral certainty and social interdependence. But such preference, understandable though it be, is no warrant for omitting from consideration the historical facts of decline and disintegration. No approach to history and—to the problems of the present is valid that does not regard the present as the outcome, in varying proportions, of both advancement and decline.”