The Idea of Civil Society
by adam seligman
free press, 220 pages, $24.95
Adam Seligman’s book, while primarily a theoretical, historical, and social inquiry into the notion of civil society, is motivated by a contemporary concern: namely, the felt need for a new representation of society in post-Communist Eastern Europe. Writing from Budapest, Seligman discusses whether the Western European—more precisely, Anglo- American—concept of civil society has relevance to the Eastern situation. In addition, he also means to contribute to the ongoing debate in America about the renewal of the public realm. By focusing on the history of the idea as well as the original social setting in which it took root, Seligman shows that civil society, whether as a description or as a norm, is not easily transportable.
Seligman begins by tracing both the origins and the metamorphoses of the concept of civil society, pointing out that the late medieval breakdown of Catholic universitas required, at least among Protestants, a new symbolic representation of the nature of society, i.e., communitas. Locke is the pivotal thinker here. For Locke, society can no longer be seen as part and parcel of the eternal, divinely ordered nature of things. Rather, it comes to be seen as a human product, brought into being through choice and action. Furthermore, it is arrived at through the free consent of morally autonomous individuals. Arising out of a process of differentiation from transcendent order, the idea of society stands, from the very moment of its birth, in a dialectical tension with the concept of the individual. The problem then becomes how to reconcile a philosophical anthropology of individualism with the mutuality and interrelatedness of society, and the concept of civil society is that synthesis by which these theses have been bridged.
For Locke, individuals are compelled to consent to community by natural law. Lockean natural law, still anchored in theism, regulates both individual conscience and society. Thus the concept of civil society is one born out of a peculiar blend of reason and revelation.
This still-medieval link between communitas and universitas did not last. Civil society was to undergo a growing immanentization in the thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment. Ferguson, for example, locates the individual’s will to community in natural affection, thereby severing the link with transcendence. Individuals can, in this view, identify their own private good with the common good because nature has constituted them to enjoy the approbation of their peers. That is what a shared, moral reason teaches. But with Hume, even this anthropological basis in reason retreats and we are left with passional individuals pursuing their own good in a utilitarian way. Seligman traces the further transformation of the concept of civil society in Smith and Kant, the latter of whom tries to rescue it from Hume, and in Hegel and Marx, who resolve this inherently unstable concept in statist and utopian directions.
Seligman’s view, then, the concept of civil society is a product of secularization. It is the attempt to provide a moral self-representation of society absent a transcendent, or at least a theistic, reference that is more than peripheral. Seligman, a Weberian-oriented sociologist, simply assumes a straight-line secularization theory and focuses on the internal problem of the “civil society tradition,” namely, once society is held to derive from the choice of individual moral agents, sociality per se is secondary, epiphenomenal. Autonomy and solidarity as ideals are mutually exclusive.
Seligman explores this problem in a most insightful way. He asks why individuals should trust in or sacrifice for their society. In what ways do we reconcile our private interests with the demands of social existence? Many of the distinctive problems of modern societies, he tells us, e.g., the expansion of welfare state entitlements versus traditional free market liberalism, reflect this fundamental tension between a desire for a common good and the profound individualism of our culture.
But returning to Seligman’s main methodological premise, the question arises as to whether he has too quickly excluded religion from any significant role in the support of civil society as an ideal or, even more important, as reality. Not that he is inattentive to the role of religion. As he moves from pure history of ideas to historical sociology, his method is thoroughly Weberian. In his second chapter, he concentrates on “ascetic Protestantism” (i.e., American Puritanism) as the movement that gave the most explicit and enduring historical shape to civil society. Puritanism’s doctrine of grace supported the highly developed individualism that gave credence to the representation of early American society as a voluntary community of the consenting elect. For it was such a society, when secularized, that became the model for civil society. Thus the saints’ experience of enabling the participation of the unregenerate through the halfway covenant serves as a model for the formal right of political participation in society.
But with every turn of Seligman’s argument, as with Weber’s, religion is held to be a powerful force only in ages past. Indeed, Seligman is pessimistic about the future usefulness of civil society as a normative construct in part because of the persistence of the religious identities of primordial groups. In Eastern Europe, for example, the pole of individuality is insufficiently developed. People are too embedded in ethnicity or in religion. The same is true in Israel, where a civil society that could embrace both Arabs and Jews is all but negated by strong tribal loyalties. Primordial groups, like publically consequential religiosity, are incompatible, in Seligman’s view, with the autonomous individualism the civil society tradition has required.
America, on the other hand, a strong tradition of respect for individuals as morally autonomous beings frustrates contemporary attempts to provide social solidarity and hence a socially informed sense of identity. Seligman dismisses philosophical communitarianism as a more or less doomed attempt in some degree to preserve, yet simultaneously to overcome, the individualist pole of the tradition. Similarly, Jurgen Habermas’ effort to salvage Enlightenment reason-by means of what Habermas calls discourse ethics-provides too thin a reed to support common values, public trust, and civic virtue. Seligman considers whether, in a time of atomized anomie, new social movements such as feminism or gay rights might provide an incipient civil society for their adherents. He is, however, quite pessimistic about this possibility. Movements like gay rights in his view thrive on the “destructuring” of the public realm, that is, on the blurring of the distinction of public and private, and lead to a subsequent destructuring of the private realm. To be real as private, a phenomenon must become present as public. This blurring of distinctions, a philosophical pillar of postmodernism, is antithetical to civil society.
Thus, in the author’s view, civil society seems to be a trope that has run its course. It developed prior to the Enlightenment, but was always dependent on an anthropology that stressed a universalized Reason. Because society was rational, individuals could associate their own good with a social good and thereby have grounds of trust in their institutions. Absent that universal and the confidence that goes with it, society can no longer represent itself as “civil.”
But what follows from this? The birth of the idea of civil society in dissenting Protestantism with its notions of covenanting and “federal liberty,” while historically irretrievable, ought to caution us against dismissing the significance of religion to civil society. Seligman admits a continuing salience in the form of American civil religion, but he sees this as vestigial (as it well may be). Nonetheless, between some fundamentalists’ dreams of cultural hegemony and the anomie of secular postmodernism, it is credible to believe that religion will play a role wherever free societies believe in themselves enough to remain free. Seligman seems completely unaware of the work of thinkers such as Reinhold Niebuhr and John Courtney Murray. Without such a trans-secular alternative, the iron cage of Weber that is here invoked by Seligman may well be our common, if uncivil, future.
Alan L. Mittleman teaches in the Department of Religion at Muhlenberg College.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?