Earlier this month, I participated in the First Things Intellectual Retreat on Solidarity. The retreat—seminars, lectures, and panels complemented by good food and wine with friends—led us to greater clarity about the nature of solidarity and how we might grow in that virtue. We are in great need of solidarity at this moment in our efforts to repair our fraying social fabric.
What is solidarity? Though often difficult to define and describe, there is—among classical and contemporary authors—some agreement.
According to the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, “Solidarity is seen therefore under two complementary aspects: that of a social principle and that of a moral virtue.” As a moral virtue, it is “not a ‘feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far. On the contrary, it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good. That is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all.’”
One of the early terms for what we now call solidarity was “social friendship”—the extension of friendship to larger social groups, or an enduring commitment to just relations between the members of society and to their common good. This natural virtue can also be transformed and transfigured by grace to become a supernatural virtue.
As a moral virtue, solidarity is something we can consciously cultivate in our souls and in our institutions in the same way we cultivate justice and courage. At the retreat, we discussed how this virtue is to be particularly directed toward the “societies” in which we live, including what Russell Hittinger has called “the three necessary societies”: domestic society, polity, and Church. Drawing on Cicero, we discussed our hierarchy of obligations in these societies: We are especially called to cultivate solidarity with those nearest to us—in the given nation we belong to, but also within our immediate families, extended families, and among our friends.
When transfigured by grace, solidarity transforms what nature requires. Supernaturally informed solidarity summons us to divine charity and self-sacrifice. Consider the sacrifice of martyrs such as Maximilian Kolbe, who volunteered to die in place of a stranger at Auschwitz. For Christians, solidarity is animated by the life of the Trinity and the communion of saints.
As Aristotle knew, we can better understand a virtue by considering its correlative vices. What are the vices that oppose solidarity? On the one hand there is the vice that we might call “isolating individualism.” Tocqueville described how individualism—particularly in its American form—separates us not only geographically but also temporally (i.e., it separates us from those who come before us and those who will follow us). Isolating individualism cuts us off from those to whom we should be naturally linked.
Another vice opposed to solidarity might be called “false solidarity.” False solidarity is solidarity disconnected from truth. In this case good intentions become utopian visions—such as the dystopian “solidarity” of the communist party, which, as Roger Scruton argued, depends on the demonization of an “other.” Today, we often see false solidarity established on resentment or feelings of victimization.
Like the cardinal virtues of courage and justice, solidarity can only be itself when fully realized in action. So how might we acquire and live out the virtue of solidarity in our own age?
From Cicero and other authors in the classical tradition, we can learn to cultivate the natural virtue ordered to building up the common good. But to cultivate supernatural solidarity, we might take up the spiritual disciplines, deepening the channels of grace in our lives so that we can strengthen natural bonds with our neighbors while also reaching out to strangers. Perhaps—as Fr. Zossima in Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov suggests—we could begin by asking for forgiveness or extending hospitality to those who least expect it.
Solidarity in its natural form makes us more fully human and in its supernatural form, can make us more than human. The timing of the retreat could not have been better, as our need for solidarity today could not be greater.
George Harne is executive dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at the University of St. Thomas in Houston.
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