Community and Political Thought Today

By Peter Augustine Lawler; Dale McConkey | Go to book overview

Introduction

Human beings are mixtures of diverse qualities and possibilities. They are social and political beings, and a vital social and political order is at the foundation of all human flourishing. But they are also individuals, capable of distinguishing one's own good from the common good. They are to some extent alienated from society and political life, not to mention from the rest of nature or the cosmos, by their natures. A political order that does justice to the mixture that is huma2n nature is some sort of mixed regime. That mixture, like human existence itself, is inherently rather unstable. It is always in need of thoughtful and practical attention.

Today, the particular concern of most political thinkers is the erosion of social and political life, the decline of community. Community is threatened by individuals who are excessively self-conscious, who relate to others too exclusively in terms of egoistic calculation. The source of that preoccupation with calculating selfishness is early liberal political thought. Liberal thinkers, such as Hobbes and Locke, wanted to free the individual from excessive absorption in patriarchal, theocratic, tyrannical community. Today's "communitarians," whatever their differences, are united by the perception that the liberation of personal selfishness has been too successful. People have become too concerned with rights, or their claims against others, and not concerned enough with their duties, or what is required of them as social and political beings.

The communitarian criticism of individualism begins with a moral revulsion against aggressive selfishness. But it continues with the observation that the liberated individual may be in constant pursuit of happiness but is too rarely actually happy. Alexis de Tocqueville, in Democracy in America, describes the

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