Me and It

I have proposed a time or two that we ponder the profound difference between the classical view of the place of citizens in the political state and the modern, and postmodern view of that relationship. From the responses I have read, it appears that many have a problem ridding themselves of the more modern view of the primacy of rights over responsibilities and taking seriously the ancient notion that without the political state humans could not possibly ever achieve their human potential. This is the key notion; we find it in both Aristotle and Plato: the state is prior to the individual because without political states humans could never learn what it means to become fully human. I ask only that we consider the ramifications of this altered view in order to understand, not to take a position.

Beginning in about the seventeenth century the classical view started to change radically as thinkers became more and more intrigued by the notion that the individual was all-important and rights have precedence over responsibilities. Borrowing the notion of the “social contract” from Thomas Hobbes, John Locke in his Second Treatise on Civil Government insisted that this contract implies that if the state reneges on its obligations to the individual the latter no longer has any responsibilities toward the state: he or she can ignore the contract, because the state has broken its word. This thinking formed the backbone of the Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson who was fully aware that he was stealing a page from John Locke whom he greatly admired. In any event, the tables had turned, as it were, and the individual and his or her rights took center stage. Though there was still considerable talk about the “common good” and “civic virtue,” the political state had become an artifact; it was no longer regarded as organic, as essential to human life.

Today the view of the political state as an artifact is predominant as very few take seriously the notion that without the protections and possibilities offered by political states individuals could never become fully human. That notion seems an anachronism, a dated notion that simply will no longer fly. This is especially so in the case of those who insist upon recognition of the rights of specific groups of individuals, such as women or African-Americans.

I drew the ire of some folks, a few of whom I admire immensely, when I quoted George Eliot’s comment about the place of women in society. I repeat that comment again knowing that it will disturb the quiet waters of civil discourse (!) and I run the risk of being tarred and feathered. How on earth, some would ask, could a brilliant woman such as George Eliot, surely one of the very brightest people who has ever lived, say such a thing as the following?

“While the zoological evolution has given women the worse share in existence, moral evolution has endowed them with an art which does not amend nature. That art is love. It is the function of love in the largest sense to mitigate the harshness of all frailties. And in the thorough recognition of that worse share, I think there is a basis for a sublimer resignation in woman and a more regenerate tenderness in man.”

This was written at the time when John Stuart Mill was attempting to get support for woman’s rights in England, insisting that women be included among those who could vote to determine who would lead the polity. Eliot disagreed with Mill as did several other prominent women, such as  Charlotte Bronte, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Florence Nightingale. In any event, Eliot’s view was not considered heresy at the time and was, in fact, little more than a recollection of the classical view that without the political state the human could not become fully human and that in each state each citizen has a role to play. As far as the political state is concerned, women play a role in society that no one else can play and the preservation of not only the state itself but, indeed, civilization, rests upon citizens playing the roles they are best suited to play.

Why would anyone hold such a view, one may well ask? The answer hinges on the notion that is so foreign to all of us today, the notion, again, that political bodies exist in order to make it possible for humans to live together amicably and to become fully human, the original meaning of “civilization.” If you start from the premiss that political bodies make possible such things as law, order, and education which are necessary conditions for the humanization of citizens, then it follows that the state is clearly prior to the individual; responsibilities are primary, rights are secondary — we have civil rights only if we acknowledge our civic duties. Thus, the claims of individuals cannot take precedence over the claims of the common good. This is where Eliot and others who think like her are coming from.

It is generally regarded these days as beyond debate that folks like George Eliot are all wet; the individual comes first. Women, for example, ought to be accorded the respect they well deserve and not be kept as unpaid slaves in the home raising screaming kids. But if we allow that George Eliot may have a point, we must ask if mothers do not raise their children at least until they are of school age who will? How are those children to become not only active participants in civil society, but fully realized human beings capable of thought as well as passion? And without thoughtful and committed citizens who are capable of responding to their civic duties what happens to civil society and, indeed, civilization itself? If rights are the end-all of political associations, what becomes of the polity itself?

These questions are worth pondering if for no other reason than the fact that we tend to give them no thought whatever.