The Quest for Community: The Contexts of Individuality


It’s been a slow process of learning and sharing Robert Nisbet’s classic work: “The Quest for Community.”   It has been much harder of a task than I would have thought going in, but has changed my outlook forever.  I hope you have enjoyed it, and have heard good feedback from several readers who care about the future of community in the USA.  

Community health is one of the most important and under-discussed aspects of health in the US.  That’s why I have taken on the project of summarizing and commenting one of the best books on community ever written.  

You can scroll through my blog for the other chapters to catch up, as I’m going chapter by chapter.  If you like what I’m doing here on the blog, pass it along or invite me to speak.  I do conferences and seminars on a variety of health topics – fitness, nutrition, and wellness.  

​Read on and enjoy.  At the end of this series I’m going to put together a downloadable summary of the book. Picture No man is an island, not for long anyway. Chapter 10 – The Contexts of Individuality
Separate man from the primary contexts of normative association, as the nineteenth-century individualist enjoined in effect, and you separate him not only from the basic values of a culture but from the sources of individuality itself. -Robert Nisbet
So far, we’ve covered 9 chapters of Robert Nisbet’s seminal work, The Quest for Community.  We looked at the historical processes which occurred over the past several centuries and which led to the decline in community and the simultaneous growth in “individualism” and social isolation.  We saw how the size of the governments grew, paradoxically, out of a desire for more personal freedom from association.  As communal associations declined, governments grew in size and power.  Historically, people wanted to be “free” but ended up moving out of local associations and into a different but even more authoritarian relationship with a central government.  One type of authority- cultural, familial, political, religious, was replaced by another form of authority- the bureaucratic central government.  
This was a reciprocal relationship, mutually enforcing, with the growth of government causing the collapse of community and the collapse of community causing the collapse of individuality.  The collapse of community and individuality then led to the atomized mass conglomerate of rootless and isolated people we have now, and this only led to the need to the growth of more government.  And the process continues to repeat.   
As people became more seemingly “free” they became less able to fend for themselves and function without a growing central government, and reciprocally, as the central government grows true individuality within a communal context declines.  This process is continuing unabated as we speak.  A fitting example of this is the decline of folk culture, characterized by local arts, regional dialects and regional foods and the decline of high culture , characterized by objectively excellent forms of classical art and music like opera, music, and fine art.  Most culture in the USA is pop culture, better known as mass culture, created by algorithms and computers, and indistinguishable.  And another example of the modern perverted display of “freedom” and “individualism” is evidenced by the growth in mass movements, on the right and left, like those during the massive world wars, and with the ideologies and “woke” ideological crusades of the current age.  
People need to belong to something, and if there is nothing to belong to, they’ll latch on to demagogues and ideologies, and mass movements.  They’ll topple statues, rewrite books, deny history, and violently attack people, just to have something bigger than a deracinated life of atomized consumption.  So this is where we are, a large community of atomized people.  
But let’s take a look at a proper individualism, where individuals thrive in multiple and comprehensive ways.  In previous chapters we talked about how the individualism marketed and sold by modernity is not in fact a sincere and authentic one, it’s one distinguished by a submission to what Roussea called the “General Will” or the participation in the collective identity.  And this again, has only led to more authoritarian government.  But in Western society, the philosophy of the individual has always been the most widely embraced and influential, in everything from Ancient Greece and Rome, to the Christian Church and Christian religion, the Magna Carta, through the arts, the Reformation, and into the modern era in the USA.  In the opening lines of Chapter 10, Nisbet states:
Of all the philosophies of freedom in modern Western society, the most generally accepted and the most influential has been individualism. Whether with respect to economic, religious, or intellectual autonomies, the dominant assumption has been that the roots of these freedoms lie in the individual himself. The philosophy of individualism is based on a belief, Ramsay Muir has written, “in the value of the human personality and a conviction that the source of all progress lies in the free exercise of individual energy.” No fault is to be found with the declared purposes of individualism. As a philosophy it has correctly emphasized the fact that the ultimate criteria of freedom lie in the greater or lesser degrees of autonomy possessed by persons. A conception of freedom that does not center upon the ethical primacy of the person is either naive or malevolent. We have seen how another conception of freedom, the one that finds freedom in conformity to the General Will, in participation in collective identity, is the root of the totalitarian view of freedom and order. Any freedom worthy of the name is indubitably freedom of persons.
Nisbet, Robert. The Quest for Community . Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ORD). Kindle Edition.
Nisbet then does something very crucial to his diagnosis of the problem of community in modern life.  He contrasts the ethical primacy of the individual with the philosophy of individualism, and shows that they’re two different things.  Our culture historically created the idea and ethics of the freedom of the individual, but it was within a communal context, and could be no other.  
Nisbet on the ethical primacy of the individual vs. the modern ideology of individualism:
What we can now see with the advantage of hindsight is that, unconsciously, the founders of liberalism abstracted certain moral and psychological attributes from a social organization and considered these the timeless, natural, qualities of the individual, who was regarded as independent of the influences of any historically developed social organization. Those qualities that, in their entirety, composed the eighteenth-century liberal image of man were qualities actually inhering to a large extent in a set of institutions and groups, all of which were aspects of historical tradition. But, with the model of Newtonian mechanics before them, the moral philosophers insisted on reducing everything to human atoms in motion, to natural individuals driven by impulses and reason deemed to be innate in man. 
Given this image of man as inherently self-sufficing, given the view of institutions and groups as but secondary, as shadows, so to speak, of the solid reality of man, it was inevitable that the strategy of freedom should have been based upon objectives of release and the emancipation of man from his fettering institutions. The philosophy of individualism, in short, began with the Christian-Judaic stress upon the ethical primacy of the person; but from that point it became a rationalist psychology devoted to the ends of the release of man from the old and a sociology based upon the view that groups and institutions are at best mere reflections of the solid and ineffaceable fact of the individual. 
What was born in the eighteenth century and confirmed, as it seemed, by the French Revolution, was carried full-blown into the nineteenth century. Whole systems of economic, religious, and intellectual freedom were founded on the assumption that the essence of human behavior lies in what is within man, not in what exists between man and his institutions. All the basic manifestations of society—altruism, sympathy, economic gain, and the like—were held to be mere unfoldings of certain deeply rooted drives born in man and presided over by his sovereign reason.
Nisbet, Robert. The Quest for Community . Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ORD). Kindle Edition.
Modern life and modern ideology created an isolated person, as the logical outcome of the symbiotic relationship between the ideology of individualism and the growth of the state’s power.  In this new way of thinking freedom was to be found not in association, but in emancipation from it.  Again, the problem with this is that it left only the government in a position of authority and the modern person without a sense of self, other than as a consumer.  Culture acts an anchor, creating stable beliefs and actions.  Without stable beliefs and actions, without social structures, nihilism becomes normative. 
Separate man from the primary contexts of normative association, as the nineteenth-century individualist enjoined in effect, and you separate him not only from the basic values of a culture but from the sources of individuality itself.
Nisbet, Robert. The Quest for Community . Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ORD). Kindle Edition.
This was one of my favorite chapters in the book.  As the title suggests, Nisbet gets into the actual contexts of individuality, in regards to various segments of society or aspects of life:

  • Politics- A healthy balance between government, associations, and individuals is required for a functioning society.
  • Psychology & Sociology- Both take for granted concrete and given cultural contexts of individuality.  There is no such thing as a pure individual from of either of these fields.
  • Art- The artist is often incorrectly portrayed as rootless and alienated, but Nisbet shows how this isn’t true at all.  Creative minds always arise out of communities of purpose, even if they arise in opposition to them.  Detachment is a better word for the stance artists often take, but art is always created in a communal context.  One example is when an artist critiques a culture, he can do so only because the culture has a concreteness to it that allows him to critique it.  The concrete aspects and communal aspects of culture are what allow an artist to comment upon it, and for that he must at least be somewhat immersed in it.  
  • Economics- For market economies to function, there must be pre-market relationships, because without a society, without law and order and resistance to totalitarianism, market economies can’t operate.  This was one of the most fascinating, brilliant, and well-written sections.  For all of the well-meaning libertarians out there, Nisbet illustrates that without community associations, economic freedom can’t exist for long:

But to weaken, whether from political or individualistic motives, the social structures of family, local community, labor union, cooperative, or industrial community, is to convert a culture into an atomized mass. Such a mass will have neither the will, nor the incentive, nor the ability to combat tendencies toward political collectivism. The transition from free capitalism to forced collectivism is easy and will hardly be noticed when a population has lost the sense of social and moral participation in the former. Everything that separates the individual from this sense of participation pushes him inevitably in the direction of an iron collectivism, which will make a new kind of participation both possible and mandatory. 
Capitalism is either a system of social and moral allegiances, resting securely in institutions and voluntary associations, or it is a sand heap of disconnected particles of humanity. If it is, or is allowed to become, the latter, there is nothing that can prevent the rise of centralized, omnicompetent political power. Lacking a sense of participation in economic society, men will seek it, as Hilaire Belloc told us, in the Servile State.
Nisbet, Robert. The Quest for Community . Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ORD). Kindle Edition.

  • Religion- To put it bluntly, Protestant religion, despite its positives, with its emphasis on individual grace and individual interpretation, and individual belief, practice and dogma, has a greater susceptibility to the growth of totalitarianism because of its focus on individualism at the expense of community.  This was proven in the years leading up to WWII when the German people, with the lack of a strong communal religion fell under the sway of Hitler.  And in Russia, the revolutionaries had to do away with the Russian Orthodox Church before they could make full revolt with totalitarian communism.  This section was also fascinating and would make an excellent read all by itself.  
  • Despotism- Nisbet offers an interesting historical example from Rome, about how despotism, the exercise of absolute state power in a cruel way, took root in an era of supposed “individualism”:

Only because, during the century preceding the triumph of Augustus, the basic social unities of the Roman community had become weakened under the harsh impact of war and economic distress was it possible for this political invasion of the household to take place. The entrenchment of Imperator Caesar divi filius Augustan, in the privacy of individual consciousness is a fact understandable only in light of the creation of masses of socially “free” individuals. Despite our admiration for the cultural effects of the emergence of the individual during the Augustan age of letters, we cannot help but see the relation between this growing intellectual and moral individualism and the incessant centralization of political power. 
Nor can we help but see the same fatal combination of individualism and political power in the modern era. The inadequacy of individualism as a theory of freedom lies plainly written in the conditions we see spreading in the Western world today: on the one hand, enlarging masses of socially “free,” insecure, individuals; on the other, the constant increase in the custodial powers of a State that looms ever larger as the only significant refuge for individuals who insist upon escaping from the moral consequences of individualism. The value of the dignity of man is perhaps more vocal today than it has ever been, but the plain fact is that the means of reinforcing this value seem ever more remote. As a philosophy of means, individualism is now not merely theoretically inadequate; it has become tragically irrelevant, even intolerable.
Nisbet, Robert. The Quest for Community . Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ORD). Kindle Edition.

  • Privacy-  This also was one of the most surprising parts of the book.  Nisbet argues that privacy is the last stand of true and lasting individualism.  This is particularly interesting considering he was writing in the 1950s, before the ubiquitous privacy-sacrificing technologies called “smartphones” that we all carry around with us all the time.  Eventually, after giving individualism its due, and standing up for rights to privacy, Nisbet returns to the issue of authority and power.  Without social groups that protect individualism and power, the state will be unchecked:

It would be calamitous, however, if the creative, liberal purposes of individualism were to be lost because their social contexts and psychological requirements are incapable of renewal. The individualist has been right in his insistence that genuine freedom has nothing to do with the nervous exhilaration that comes from participation in the crusading mass, nothing to do with acquiescence before a General Will. He has been right in his contention that real freedom is bound up with the existence of autonomies of personal choice among clear cultural alternatives. Above all, the individualist has been right in his stress upon human privacy. 
“All freedom,” wrote Lord Acton, “consists in radice in the preservation of an inner sphere exempt from State power.” The political mystic may boggle at this, but the proposition is, when amended to include any type of power, political or other, irrefutable. Both freedom and the desire for freedom are nourished within the realization of spiritual privacy and among privileges of personal decision. Apart from these, any structure of authority becomes almost limitless in its scope. 
But to recognize the role of privacy and the importance of autonomies of choice is to be forced to recognize also the crucial problem of the contexts of privacy and personal choice. For man does not, cannot, live alone. His freedom is a social, not biologically derived, process. We are forced to consider, as I have argued in this chapter, the indispensable role of the small social groups in society. It is the intimacy and security of each of these groups that provide the psychological context of individuality and the reinforcement of personal integrity. And it is the diversity of such groups that creates the possibility of the numerous cultural alternatives in a society. 
In dealing, however, with the role of the small social group in society, we are inevitably brought face to face with the problem of the distribution of power in society.
Nisbet, Robert. The Quest for Community . Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ORD). Kindle Edition.

This is a tough topic, but one worth learning about.

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Fitness- What we do, how we train, etc.
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