From Reformation to Improvement: Public Welfare in Early Modern England

By Paul P. Slack | Go to book overview

7
CIVIL SOCIETIES

Current interest in the concept and reality of 'civil society' springs largely from political events at the end of the twentieth century. It has been prompted on the one hand by the collapse of communist regimes in central and eastern Europe and the consequent interest in what can and should fill the vacuum and, on the other, by arguments in the West about the proper limits of state activity and the costs of an ever-expanding public sector (not least in the realm of social welfare). For a variety of reasons attention has been directed to forms of association below and outside the apparatus of the state: to the 'little platoons', from churches to families, which fill the muchcontested gap between public and private spheres and which seem vital to social cohesion. The stronger and more active these building-blocks, it is argued, the healthier the desirable end, a civil society.1

Though currently particularly fashionable, the theme and the term have, of course, a history. When Sir Thomas Smith referred to a 'society civil', he appears to have meant one ordered by government and law, equivalent to a 'common wealth'; and to the extent that a 'common wealth' involved, as we saw in the first chapter, normative connotations to do with well-being and (to some extent) participation, the theme as well as the term may be thought to go back, in embryo, at least as far as the sixteenth century. By the early eighteenth century Mandeville and at least one of his critics were using 'civil society' in much the same sense: it was the entity which, properly governed, might -- or might not -- benefit from public and private virtue.2 It is only in the later eighteenth century, however, that discussion of the relationship between civil society and the state in something like their modern senses can

____________________
1
R. Dahrendorf, "Prosperity, Civility and Liberty", Proceedings of the British Academy, 90 ( 1996), 234; D. Winch, Riches and Poverty: An Intellectual History of Political Economy in Britain, 1750-1834 ( Cambridge, 1996), 11-12. For introductions to an expanding literature see J. L. Cohen and A. Arato, Civil Society and Political Theory ( Cambridge, Mass., 1992); J. Hall (ed.). Civil Society: Theory, History, Comparison ( Cambridge, 1995).
2
N. Wood, "Foundations of Political Economy: The New Moral Philosophy of Sir Thomas Smith", in P. A. Fideler and T. F. Mayer (eds.), Political Thought and the Tudor Commonwealth ( 1992), 159; above, pp. 6, 12-13; H. Monro, The Ambivalence of Bernard Mandeville ( Oxford, 1975), 188-9; Bernard Mandeville, The Fable of the Bees, ed. F. B. Kaye ( 2 vols, Oxford, 1924), i. 3, 347-9; ii, title-page opp. p. 392; Robert Burrow, Civil Society and Government vindicated . . . in a Sermon ( 1723), 1-11.

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