History as the Decline of Community


If you’re new to my blog, then welcome and I’m glad you’re here. I write about all sorts of health issues- fitness, nutrition and wellness.  This post is part of a series of long-form essays summarizing the classic work by Robert Nisbet, “The Quest for Community”, please see previous posts for the prior essays.  

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!
Picture History could be seen from a meta-perspective as a decline of community “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.” – Robert Nisbet 
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.”

At this point, as is characteristic of this probing and exhaustive book as a whole, Nisbet gives us several contrasting and cooperative ways in which historical developments have contributed to a loss of community.  

  • The shift from medieval Christian communities towards bourgeoise individualism.  The self- conception of people changed slowly from primarily being members of families towards individual economic units. 


  • The decline of medieval “membership and status” orientation in the “great chain of being” from God to man to an atomized person alone.    The ethic of religion and the ethic of community were once one thing, which is difficult for modern people to understand.  Contracts as we know them, were more communal, less individual.  People did not perceive of themselves as being outside of a community, which is even harder for us to comprehend.  Medieval society was seen as a “chain” of creation from God, to man, to animals and plant life and all of creation.  

“All who are included in a community,” wrote Aquinas, “stand in relation to that community as parts to the whole.” The immense influence of the whole philosophy of organism and that of the related doctrine of the great chain of being, which saw every element as an infinitesimal gradation of ascent to God, supported and gave reason for the deeply held philosophy of community. Whether it was the divine Kingdom itself or some component mundane association like the family or guild, the whole weight of medieval learning was placed in support of the reality of social wholes, of communities. To be sure there were sharp challenges to this metaphysical realism, from William of Occam on, and one of the most fascinating aspects of the development of modern philosophy is the succession of metaphysical and epistemological disengagements of the individual and his will from the organismic unities of medieval thought. But, in general, the philosophy of community was dominant in medieval thought. 
The centrality of community was much more than a philosophical principle however. Whether we are dealing with the family, the village, or the guild, we are in the presence of systems of authority and allegiance which were widely held to precede the individual in both origin and right. “It was a distinctive trait of medieval doctrine,” Otto von Gierke writes in his great study of medieval groups, “that within every human group it decisively recognized an aboriginal and active right of the group taken as a whole.” As many an institutional historian has discovered, medieval economy and law are simply unintelligible if we try to proceed from modern conceptions of individualism and contract. The group was primary; it was the irreducible unit of the social system at large. 
The family, patriarchal and corporate in essence, was more than a set of interpersonal relations. It was a fixed institutional system within which innumerable, indispensable functions were performed. Upon it, rather than upon the individual, were levied taxes and fines; to it, rather than the individual, went the honors of achievement. In its corporate solidarity lay the ground of almost all decision affecting the individual—his occupation, welfare, marriage, and the rearing of his children. Property belonged to the family, not the individual, and it could not easily be alienated from the family. Law began with the inviolable rights of the family over its members, and public law, such as it was, could not generally cross the threshold of the family. Beyond the immediate, conjugal family stretched the extended family numbering sometimes hundreds of persons in close association, tightly knit together by custom and function. And beyond the domain of tangible kinship, the immense immense symbolic influence of the family reached into scores of organizations which adopted the nomenclature and spirit of kinship.”
Nisbet makes another point about the nature of this type of community.  He states that in effect, contrary to popular belief, there was very little central power or central state govt. to involve themselves in people’s daily lives.  There was very little organization at a high enough level to operate in that way. Community was a smaller concept, and crucially it was prior to, and more foundational, the state:
            “Two points only are in need of stress here. The first is the derivation of group solidarity from the core of the indispensable functions each group performed in the lives of its members. The larger philosophy of community unquestionably had its influence, but the major reason for the profound hold of the family and the local community and guild upon human lives was simply the fact that, apart from membership in these and other groups, life was impossible for the vast majority of human beings. The second point to stress is that the solidarity of each functional group was possible only in an environment of authority where central power was weak and fluctuating. As Ernest Barker has written, the medieval State “abounded in groups and in the practice of what we may call communal self-help because it was not yet itself a fully organized group. When it became such it asserted itself and curtailed the rights of groups with no little vigor.”14 It is indeed this curtailment of group rights by the rising power of the central political government that forms one of the most revolutionary movements of modern history.”
You can see where Nisbet is heading.  Historically, because there was no “big brother” or central state with an outsized amount of power, community existed for “self-help” and mutual support.  When governments became more centralized, communities declined. Which leads us to his next major point about the historical decline of community.  

  • Institutional change and the creation of conflicts.  

“In the orthodox rationalist tradition little attention was paid to periods and spheres of crisis in society and to persistent conflicts of values among coterminous institutions. The gospel of homogeneity and adjustment held the field. Attention was fixed on what was believed to be the natural provision of nature for the smooth and orderly change of society as a whole. That a plurality of institutions could exert upon individuals powerful and possibly irreconcilable conflicts of allegiance was seldom considered by the progressive rationalist. 
Nevertheless the conflict is there, and it is a fact of the highest significance in history. Sometimes this conflict is passive, awakening only vague sensations of tension. Elements of persistence and conformity in the individual may reduce the effects of the conflict on his allegiances. At other times it may be fierce and overt, reflected in widespread mass upheaval and in the central problems of the major social theorists. Such conflicts, small and large, do not, as the progressive rationalist has thought, resolve themselves inevitably into systems of new coherence and order—either in the individual consciousness or in the overt relationships of the major institutions. Where they are matters of crucial allegiance—as with respect to family, church, and State—they may remain for centuries, now relatively passive, now evocative and fiercely antagonistic. 
If we are more commonly struck by these conflicts in some of the dramatic revolutions of modern Europe—1789, 1848, 1917—the fact re mains that they are revealed throughout the course of modern political and social history. Whether in the writings of Luther and Calvin, in the pages of the French Encyclopedia, the economic essays of Hume or Smith, or in the works of Rousseau, Marx, and Mazzini, we cannot miss the implied conflicts of allegiance and authority. They are the very stuff of both intellectual and institutional history.”

  • The shift towards a more individualized protestant religion and away from a more communal catholic one.  

“In Protestantism there has been a persistent belief that to externalize religion is to degrade it. Only in the privacy of the individual soul can religion remain pure. There has been little sympathy for the communal, sacramental, and disciplinary aspects of religion. Protestant condemnation of the monasteries and ecclesiastical courts sprang from a temper of mind that could also look with favor on the separation of marriage from the Church, that could prohibit ecclesiastical celibacy, reduce the number of feast days, and ban relics, scapularies, images, and holy pictures. The guilds were suspect, and even the bonds of wider kinship could often be regarded with disfavor on the ground that they represented a distraction from the direct relation of the individual to God. Works, liturgy, sacrament, and polity might be desirable, but only individual faith was crucial. Three principal elements of Christianity were left in Protestant theology: the lone individual, an omnipotent, distant God, and divine grace. All else was expunged by reformers whose distaste for Roman corruption led by imperceptible degrees to a forswearance of all those institutional and ceremonial aspects regarded as the channels of corruption. 
What the literary historian, Edward Dowden, has written of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress is illuminating as a description of Protestantism. “All that is best and most characteristic in Bunyan proceeds from that inward drama in which the actors were three—God, Satan, and solitary human soul. If external influences from events or men affected his spirit, they came as nuncios or messengers from God or the Evil One. Institutions, Churches, ordinances, rites, ceremonies, could help him little or not at all. The journey from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City must be undertaken on a special summons by each man for himself alone; if a companion join him on the way, it lightens the trials of the road; but, of the companions, each one is an individual pilgrim, who has started on a great personal adventure, and who, as he enters the dark river, must undergo his particular experiences of hope or fear.”16 
At times, to be sure, as in the Geneva of Calvin, the organizational side of the new religion could be almost as stiff as, and perhaps more tyrannical than, anything in the Roman Church. There is indeed a frequent tendency among historians to overlook the sociological side of early Protestantism, manifested in the solidarity of many of its sects and movements. Yet, from almost the beginning, the spread of Protestantism is to be seen in terms of the revolt against, and the emancipation from, those strongly hierarchical and sacramental aspects of religion which reinforced the idea of religion as community. This is an aspect of religious history which, as we observed earlier, has come to plague the minds of many contemporary Protestant theologians, leading in the present day to a renewed interest in the communal properties of religion. The drive toward individualism and the attack upon corporatism remains the most luminous aspect of the religious revolution that began in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
“The difference,” Tawney has written, “between loving men as a result of first loving God and learning to love God through a growing love for men may not at first sight seem profound. To Luther it seemed an abyss, and Luther was right. It was, in a sense, nothing less than the Reformation itself. For, carried, as it was not carried by Luther, to its logical result, the argument made not only good works, but sacraments and the Church itself unnecessary.”17
Nisbet then offers up another simple reason for the historical decline of community:

  • The growth of capitalism and the impersonal and rational framework of the free market.  

He doesn’t necessarily criticize the free market per se, rather he points out its effects on community.  He also believes that its growth was highly related to the emergence of protestant belief and practice, which focused on individualism and self-improvement.  
“In the history of modern capitalism we can see essentially the same diminution of communal conceptions of effort and the same tendency toward the release of increasing numbers of individuals from the confinements of guild and village community. As Protestantism sought to re-assimilate men in the invisible community of God, capitalism sought to re-assimilate them in the impersonal and rational framework of the free market. As in Protestantism, the individual, rather than the group, becomes the central unit. But instead of pure faith, individual profit becomes the mainspring of activity. In both spheres there is a manifest decline of custom and tradition and a general disengagement of purpose from the contexts of community. 
It is impossible to miss the similarity between Calvin’s man of God, supported only by inner faith and conscience, and the economists’ man of industry—economic man—supported assertedly by innate drives toward self-gain and competitive endeavor. Both of these personages have been truly revolutionary elements in the modern world, and they must be seen as centers of new systems of authority and right. The rise of economic man, like the rise of the Protestant, must be seen in the context of struggles for assertion of initiative, but also in the context of conflicts in systems of authority.”
Later on in the chapter he illustrates with examples the influence that capitalism and the other factors had on the decline of community, but doesn’t believe economics was the primary or sole cause of the decline. As the primary cause, he concludes by asserting that it’s the growth of the size and power of the centralized state. 
“The impersonality of capitalism was rooted in the same exclusion of ritual, ceremony, and community from the new factory that characterized so many of the Protestant declarations of religious purpose. As Ostrogorski has written,  capitalism was an isolating and separating process that stripped off the historically grown layers of custom and social membership, leaving only leveled masses of individuals. Having aided in the destruction of the older unities, it strove to found a new kind of subordination and a new hierarchy to replace the older forms. It is capitalism, above all other movements in modern history, that is most generally charged with responsibility for the modern leveling and proletarianization of cultures, for the creation of atomized masses of insecure individuals. 
Capitalism, it is said, has substituted quantity for quality, process for function, bigness for smallness, impersonality for personality, competitive tensions for the psychological harmonies of cooperation. It has transformed intense communities of purpose into the sprawling relationships of the market place. Yet with all respect to the influence of capitalism, I do not think it can be called the primary agent in the transmutation of social groups and communities.
I do not question the economic context in which many of the specific manifestations of social dislocation and transfer of allegiances took place in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. What I question is the ascription of either logical or historical primacy to the economic facts of the pursuit of wealth and the development of technology and the so-called middle class. That incentives to wealth and financial gain are operative in virtually every area or sphere of life is beside the point here. It is the structure or context of these incentives that is of crucial importance.
The economic determinist has argued that the basic influences in modern history have been those exerted, first, by changes in technology, and, second, by the rise and expansion of a middle class that set to work consciously or unconsciously to redesign the fabric of society in accord with its residual economic interests. From these interests, it is said, have come the tendencies of rationalization, impersonality, mechanism, and leveling which have so powerfully affected the cultural and social nature of modern European society.
It is this proposition that I find untenable. For, with all recognition of the influences of factory, technology, the free market, and the middle class, the operation of each of these has been given force only by a revolutionary system of power and rights that cannot be contained within the philosophy of economic determinism. This system is the political State.”
To conclude, Nisbet sees that history’s unfolding can be viewed as a decline in community and a rise in individualism, and the dialectic between the two.  These are important issues today, as many decry borders and a sense of national belonging as “xenophobic” and yearn for an unhinged and atomized globalist hegemony of both extreme license and extreme control.  
This historical decline of community had both positive and negative effects on society.  Since we in 2020 are witnessing extreme excesses of individualism, we are ironically also witnessing unparalleled growth of the state.  The question is, which came first? This could be characterized as a “chicken and egg” question:
Did a) the growth and power of the state lead to a decline in community? Or b) did a decline in community lead to a growth of the state? Or c) is it a some of both, a decline in community and a growth of the state feeding each other?   According to the narrative that Nisbet is telling, as the state started to grow, the need for community, authority, the sense of membership and status, and the identification with family were crowded out.  The following chapters will dive further into this development.  

I couldn’t help but think about some other recent developments in culture in regards to this chapter.  Historically speaking, we have arrived at a point where our highest legal authorities like Justice Anthony Kennedy have designated:
“At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”
This does not bode well for the future health of our society. A culture can no longer sustain itself when every single person within it has the right to define and re-define everything.  Ultimately, language and communication is no longer possible in that world, the debates are over, and words become meaningless, even more than actions.   After the debates are over, only the raw will of power remains.  

SOURCE: Nisbet, Robert. The Quest for Community . Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ORD). Kindle Edition.

And remember…there’s never been a better day than TODAY to make it happen!
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