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The Image of Community

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Picture Following certain bands, or DJs, or in this case EDM (electronica) is one way modern people find a type or “image” of community. *This is 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.  

Chapter 2: The Image of Community

            In Chapter 2, Nisbet dives a little deeper into what he calls the “image” of community.  By this he means something that we visualize and aspire towards as a way for us to live beyond, and for, something besides ourselves.  He gives us several instances of ways “images” of community are produced or found by modern people.  By “images” he suggests that these may not be the best or most sustainable forms of community, not altogether the best forms of community, or the healthiest, but simply ways that modern people do find a semblance of belonging. 
 
            Before giving us the various ways an “image” of community is formed, he teaches us that Western culture’s search for community began primarily in response to the French Revolution.  If you aren’t familiar, the French Revolution was the most radical of all the revolutions which swept across Europe in the 1700 and 1800s, and sought to do away with practically everything that had come before- churches, families, private property, and traditional legal forms, among many other things.  This was not a gradual reform, it was a radical revolution.  Nisbet points out that since then Western culture has been influenced by the harm done and has also sought to find a way to keep any good things about France’s revolution, while repairing the damage done to community by it. He summarizes Edmund Burke’s thoughts on the French Revolution:
 
“The family, religious association, and local community—these, the conservatives insisted, cannot be regarded as the external products of man’s thought and behavior; they are essentially prior to the individual and are the indispensable supports of belief and conduct. Release man from the contexts of community and you get not freedom and rights but intolerable aloneness and subjection to demonic fears and passions. Society, Burke wrote in a celebrated line, is a partnership of the dead, the living, and the unborn. Mutilate the roots of society and tradition, and the result must inevitably be the isolation of a generation from its heritage, the isolation of individuals from their fellow men, and the creation of the sprawling, faceless masses.”
 
Some other key point he makes in this chapter are:

  • A slow effort towards ecumenism in religion, and a trickle towards orthodoxy.
  • Nostalgia in literature and entertainment, the growth and popularity of the cult of the celebrity, therapy and therapeutic forms of religion, quasi-religious cults, and the idealization of romance.  

 
“Our own, however, is directed not to the ancient desire of man for higher virtue but to the obsessive craving of men for tranquillity and belonging. For an ever-increasing number of people the conditions now prevailing in Western society would appear to have a great deal in common with the unforgettable picture Sir Samuel Dill has given us of the last centuries of the Roman Empire: of enlarging masses of individuals detached from any sense of community, status, or function, turning with a kind of organized desperation to exotic escapes, to every sort of spokesman for salvation on earth, and to ready-made techniques of relief from nervous exhaustion. In our own time we are confronted by the spectacle of innumerable individuals seeking escape from the very processes of individualism and impersonality which the nineteenth-century rationalist hailed as the very condition of progress.”
 
Increasingly, individuals seek escape from the freedom of impersonality, secularism, and individualism. They look for community in marriage, thus putting, often, an intolerable strain upon a tie already grown institutionally fragile. They look for it in easy religion, which leads frequently to a vulgarization of Christianity the like of which the world has not seen before. They look for it in the psychiatrist’s office, in the cult, in functionless ritualizations of the past, and in all the other avocations of relief from nervous exhaustion. There is a growing appeal of pseudo-intimacy with others, a kind of pathetic dependence on the superficial symbols of friendship and association. If Hollywood provides us, both in its own life and in its pictures, with the most familiar examples of this pseudo-intimacy, they are assuredly not lacking in other areas of our mass culture. The craving for affection and tangible evidences of accord, which psychiatrists have declared to be so central in contemporary neurotic behavior, has a broad base in popular behavior.

  • Intensification of politics in the forms of Nazism, Marxism, and Progressivism offering a form of belonging.  
  • Mass war and the militarization of society as both appalling and oddly attractive to large numbers of people at the same time.  

 
“This community-making property of war cannot be separated from certain tangible benefits of a social and economic nature. It is a commonplace that nationalism is nourished by the emotions of organized war. We are less likely to notice that many of the historic goals of secular humanitarianism are similarly nourished. More than one historian has observed that it is in time of war that many of the reforms, first advocated by socialists, have been accepted by capitalist governments and made parts of the structures of their societies. Equalization of wealth, progressive taxation, nationalization of industries, the raising of wages and improvements in working conditions, worker-management councils, housing ventures, death taxes, unemployment insurance plans, pension systems, and the enfranchisement of formerly voteless elements of the population have all been, in one country or another, achieved or advanced under the impress of war. The tremendous urge toward unity and the resolution of group differences, which is a part of modern war, carries with it certain leveling and humanitarian measures not to be omitted from the full history of modern warfare. For all the horrors of contemporary war and the genuine abhorrence of war which still exists among populations, its incidental benefits in the realm of social reform cannot be overlooked.”
 
Nisbet wraps up Chapter 2 by giving us a fine example of how historical and undeniable the quest for community is.  He quotes the renowned Russian writer Dostoevsky from his book “The Brothers Karamazov.”  If we don’t find community naturally, most of us will go looking for it.  
 
“In the burning words of the Grand Inquisitor, Dostoevsky has given us insight into the appeal of the absolute community. “So long as man remains free he strives for nothing so incessantly and painfully as to find someone to worship. But man seeks to worship what is established beyond dispute, so that all men will agree at once to worship it. For these pitiful creatures are concerned not only to find what one or the other can worship, but find something that all will believe in and worship; what is essential is that all may be together in it. This craving for community of worship is the chief misery of every man individually and of all humanity from the beginning of time.”
 
Nisbet, Robert. The Quest for Community . Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ORD). Kindle Edition.
 
            This chapter really challenged me to think about modern quests for community, even though it was written in the 1950s.  We can see today how many of these trends only intensify over the decades.  Western society is still searching for healthy ways to build community.  As I consider these “images” Nisbet suggests, I can see how we all are tempted by them.  Every night a TV is available for us to commune with a celebrity.  Every afternoon we can be “friends” with Oprah.  We can latch on to a cult-like lifestyle with veganism, Yoga, dog – adoption, or perhaps a political group.  On the religious side of things, we could become religious radicals, or we could work ourselves up into a frenzy about the latest debate on “rights.”  We could began a rabid sports fan.  We could join a victim group, or maybe follow a certain band, like the hippies and others have done with The Grateful Dead.  If we’re more prone to military regimentation, we might decide to go that route, and then live that life and lobby for war.  Or we could buy a Harley and join a motorcycle club, or follow a guru like Deepok Chopra or Tony Robbins.  We all do at least a little of these types of things in modern life. 
 
            But I believe Nisbet offers us a clue as to the direction he favors when he mentions Edmund Burke and what he called “prior forms” of community. Burke was an Englishman, and they did not abolish their crown, their religion, and their older society, they reformed it, and arguably things turned out better for them, although like much of Western culture the British are still struggling with what community means in the modern sense.  The UK recently leaving the European Union is a fitting example of this slow and difficult return to community, in this example the nation-state’s sovereignty.         
            
             We have free will and we have choices, but all of life and existence is not a choice, and we will be bound in some ways if we want to belong.  In reality, we are all born and live in a certain place, have certain parents, and work at a specific place doing a specific job.  We are bound to those around us, fellow citizens, family members, and neighbors.  We did choose this, we did not even choose to be born, but we were, and we were born into some kind of community. As imperfect as it is, community is always there and available in some form, and done right it offers us status, agency, and belonging, even the least among us.   
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