Help support New Advent and get the full contents of this website as an instant download. Includes the Catholic Encyclopedia, Church Fathers, Summa, Bible and more all for only $19.99...
Society implies fellowship, company, and has always been conceived as signifying a human relation, and not a herding of sheep, a hiving of bees, or a mating of wild animals. The accepted definition of a society is a stable union of a plurality of persons cooperating for a common purpose of benefit to all. The fulness of co-operation involved naturally extends to all the activities of the mind, will, and external faculties, commensurate with the common purpose and the bond of union: this alone presents an adequate, human working-together.
This definition is as old as the Schoolmen, and embodies the historical concept as definitized by cogent reasoning. Under such reasoning it has become the essential idea of society and remains so still, notwithstanding the perversion of philosophical terms consequent upon later confusion of man with beast, stock, and stone. It is a priori only as far as chastened by restrictions put upon it by the necessities of known truth, and is a departure from the inductive method in vogue today only so far as to exclude rigidly the aberrations of uncivilized tribes and degenerate races from the requirements of reason and basic truth. Historical induction taken alone, while investigating efficient causes of society, may yet miss its essential idea, and is in peril of including irrational abuse with rational action and development.
The first obvious requisite in all society is authority. Without this there can be no secure co-ordination of effort nor permanency of co-operation. No secure co-ordination, for men's judgment will differ on the relative value of means for the common purpose, men's choice will vary on means of like value; and unless there is some headship, confusion will result. No permanence of co-operation, for the best of men relax in their initial resolutions, and to hold them at a coordinate task, a tight rein and a steady spur is needed. In fact, reluctant though man is to surrender the smallest tittle of independence and submit in the slightest his freedom to the bidding of another, there never has been in the history of the world a successful, nor even a serious attempt at co-operative effort without authoritative guidance (see CIVIL AUTHORITY). Starting with this definition and requirement, philosophy finds itself confronted with two kinds of society, the artificial or conventional, and the natural; and on pursuing the subject, finds the latter differentiating itself into domestic society, or the family, civil society, or the State, and religious society, or the Church. Each of these has a special treatment under other headings (see FAMILY; STATE AND CHURCH). Here, however, we shall state the philosophic basis of each, and add thereto the theories which have had a vogue for the last three centuries though breaking down now under the strain of modern problems before the bar of calm judgment.
The plurality of persons, the community of aim, the stability of bond, authority, and some co-operation of effort being elements common to every form of society, the differentiation must come from differences in the character of the purpose, in the nature of the bond. Qualifications of authority as well as modifications in details of requisite co-operation will follow on changes in the purpose and the extent of the bond. As many then as there are objects of human desire attainable by common effort (and their name is legion, from the making of money, which is perhaps the commonest today, to the rendering of public worship to our Maker which is surely the most sacred), so manifold are the co-operative associations of men. The character, as well as the existence of most of them, is left in full freedom to human choice. These may be denominated conventional societies. Man is under no precept to establish them, nor in universal need of them. He makes or unmakes them at his pleasure. They serve a passing purpose, and in setting them up men give them the exact character which they judge at present suitable for their purpose, determining as they see fit the limits of authority, the choice of means, the extent of the bond holding them together, as well as their own individual reservations. Everything about such a society is of free election, barring the fact that the essential requisites of a society must be there. We find this type exemplified in a reading circle, a business partnership, or a private charitable organization. Of course, in establishing such a society men are under the Natural Law of right and wrong, and there can be no moral bond, for example, where the common purpose is immoral. They also fall under the restrictions of the civil law, when the existence or action of such an organization comes to have a bearing, whether of promise or of menace, upon the common weal. In such case the State lays down its essential requirements for the formation of such bodies, and so we come to have what is known as a legal society, a society, namely, freely established under the sanction and according to the requirements of the civil law. Such are mercantile corporations and beneficial organizations with civil charter.
Standing apart from the foregoing in a class by themselves are the family, the State, and the Church. That these differ from all other societies in purpose and means, is clear and universally admitted. That they have a general application to the whole human race, history declares. That there is a difference between the bond holding them in existence and the bond of union in every other society, has been disputed — with more enthusiasm and imagination, however, than logical force. The logical view of the matter brings us to the concept of a natural society, a society, that is to say, which men are in general under a mandate of the natural law to establish, a society by consequence whose essential requisites are firmly fixed by the same natural law. To get at this is simple enough, if the philosophical problems are taken up in due order. Ethics may not be divided from psychology and theodicy, any more than from deductive logic. With the proper premisals then from one and the other here assumed, we say that the Creator could not have given man a fixed nature, as He has, without willing man to work out the purpose for which that nature is framed. He cannot act idly and without purpose, cannot form His creature discordantly with the purpose of His will. He cannot multiply men on the face of the earth without a plan for working out the destiny of mankind at large. This plan must contain all the elements necessary to His purpose, and these necessary details He must have willed man freely to accomplish, that is to say, He must have put upon man a strict obligation thereunto. Other details may be alternatives, or helpful but not necessary, and these He has left to man's free choice; though where one of these elements would of its nature be far more helpful than another, God's counsel to man will be in favour of the former. God's will directing man through his nature to his share in the full purpose of the cosmic plan, we know as the natural law, containing precept, permission, and counsel, according to the necessity, helpfulness, or extraordinary value of an action to the achievement of the Divine purpose. We recognize these in the concrete by a rational study of the essential characteristics of human nature and its relations with the rest of the universe. If we find a natural aptitude in man for an action, not at variance with the general purpose of things, we recognize also the licence of the natural law to that action. If we find a more urgent natural propensity to it, we recognize further the counsel of the law. If we find the use of a natural faculty, the following up of a natural propensity, inseparable from the rational fulfilment of the ultimate destiny of the individual or of the human race, we know that thereon lies a mandate of the natural law, obliging the conscience of man. We must not, however, miss the difference, that if the need of the action or effort is for the individual natural destiny, the mandate lies on each human being severally: but if the need be for the natural destiny of the race, the precept does not descend to this or that particular individual, so long as the necessary bulk of men accomplish the detail so intended in the plan for the natural destiny of the race. This is abstract reasoning, but necessary for the understanding of a natural society in the fulness of its idea.
A society, then, is natural by mandate, when the law of nature sets the precept upon mankind to establish that society. The precept is recognized by the natural aptitude, propensity, and need in men for the establishment of such a union. From this point of view the gift of speech alone is sufficient to show man's aptitude for fellowship with his kind. It is emphasized by his manifold perfectibility through contact with others and through their permanent companionship. Furthermore his normal shrinking from solitude, from working out the problems of life alone is evidence of a social propensity to which mankind has always yielded. If again we consider his dependence for existence and comfort on the multiplied products of co-ordinate human effort; and his dependence for the development of his physical, intellectual, and moral perfectibility on complex intercourse with others, we see a need, in view of man's ultimate destiny, that makes the actualization of man's capacity of organized social co-operation a stringent law upon mankind. Taking then the kinds of social organization universally existent among men, it is plain not only that they are the result of natural propensities, but that, as analysis shows, they are a human need and hence are prescribed in the code of the Natural Law.
Furthermore, as we understand a legal contract to be one which, because of its abutment on common interests, the civil law hedges round with restrictions and reservations for their protection, similarly on examination we shall find that all agreements by which men enter into stable social union are fenced in with limitations set by the natural law guarding the essential interests of the good of mankind. When, moreover, we come to social unions prescribed for mankind by mandate of that law, we expect to find the purpose of the union set by the law (otherwise the law would not have prescribed the union), all the details morally necessary for the rational attainment of that purpose fixed by the law, and all obstacles threatening sure defeat to that purpose, proscribed by the same. A natural society, then, besides being natural by mandate, will also be natural in all its essentials, for as much as these too shall be determined and ordained by the law.
Working along these lines upon the data given by experience, personal as well as through the proxy of history, the philosopher finds in man's nature, considered physiologically and psychologically, the aptitude, propensity, and, both as a general thing and for mankind at large, the need of the matrimonial relation. Seeing the natural and needful purpose to which this relation shapes itself to be in full the mutually perfecting compensation of common life between man and woman, as well as the procreation and education of the child, and keeping in mind that Nature's Lawgiver has in view the rational development of the race (or human nature at large) as well as of the individual, we conclude not only to abiding rational love as its distinguishing characteristic, but to monogamy and a stability that is exclusive of absolute divorce. This gives us the essential requisites of domestic society, a stable union of man and wife bound together to work for a fixed common good to themselves and humanity. When this company is filled out with children and its incidental complement of household servants, we have domestic society in its fullness. It is created under mandate of the natural law, for though this or that individual may safely eschew matrimony for some good purpose, mankind may not. The individual in exception need not be concerned about the purpose of the Lawgiver, as human nature is so constituted that mankind will not fail of its fulfilment. The efficient cause of this domestic union in the concrete instance is the free consent of the initial couple, but the character of the juridical bond which they thus freely accept is determined for them by the natural law according to Nature's full purpose. Husband and wife may see to their personal benefit in choosing to establish a domestic community, but the interests of the child and of the future race are safeguarded by the law. The essential purpose of this society we have stated above. The essential requisite of authority takes on a divided character of partnership, because of the separate functions of husband and wife requiring authority as well as calling for harmonious agreement upon details of common interest: but the headship of final decision is put by the law, as a matter of ordinary course, in the man, as is shown by his natural characteristics marking him for the preference. The essential limitations forbid plural marriage, race-suicide, sexual excess, unnecessary separation, and absolute divorce.
On the same principle of human aptitude, propensity, and need for the individual and the race, we find the larger social unit of civil society manifested to us as part of the Divine set purpose with regard to human nature, and so under precept of the natural law. Again, the exceptional individual may take to solitude for some ennobling purpose; but he is an exception, and the bulk of mankind will not hesitate to fulfil Nature's bidding and accomplish Nature's purpose. In the concrete instance civil society, though morally incumbent on man to establish, still comes into existence by the exercise of his free activity. We have seen the same of domestic society, which begins by the mutual free consent of man and woman to the acceptance of the bond involving all the natural rights and duties of the permanent matrimonial relation. The beginning of civil society as an historical fact has taken on divers colours, far different at different times and places. It has arisen by peaceful expansion of a family into a widespread kindred eventually linked together in a civil union. It has sprung from the multiplication of independent families in the colonizing of undeveloped lands. It has come into being under the strong hand of conquest enforcing law, order, and civil organization, not always justly, upon a people. There have been rare instances of its birth through the tutoring efforts of the gentler type of civilizers, who came to spread the Gospel. But the juridical origin is not obviously identical with this. History alone exhibits only the manifold confluent causes which moved men into an organized civil unit. The juridical cause is quite another matter. This is the cause which of its character under the natural law puts the actual moral bond of civil union upon the many in the concrete, imposes the concrete obligation involving all the rights, duties, and powers native to a State, even as the mutual consent of the contracting parties creates the mutual bond of initial domestic society. This determinant has been under dispute among Catholic teachers.
The common view of Scholastic philosophy, so ably developed by Francis Francisco Suárez, S.J., sets it in the consent of the constituent members, whether given explicitly in the acceptance of a constitution, or tacitly by submitting to an organization of another's making, even if this consent be not given by immediate surrender, but by gradual process of slow and often reluctant acquiescence in the stability of a common union for the essential civil purpose. In the early fifties of the nineteenth century Luigi Taparelli, S.J., borrowing an idea from C. de Haller of Berne, brilliantly developed a theory of the juridical origin of civil government, which has dominated in the Italian Catholic schools even to the present day, as well as in Catholic schools in Europe, whose professors of ethics have been of Italian training. In this theory civil society has grown into being from the natural multiplication of cognate families, and the gradual extension of parental power. The patriarchal State is the primitive form, the normal type, though by accident of circumstance States may begin here or there from occupation of the same wide territory under feudal ownership; by organization consequent upon conquest; or in rarer instances by the common consent of independent colonial freeholders. These two Catholic views part company also in declaring the primitive juridical determinant of the concrete subject of supreme authority (see CIVIL AUTHORITY). Today the Catholic schools are divided between these two positions. We shall subjoin below other theories of the juridical origin of the State, which have no place in Catholic thought for the simple reason that they exclude the natural character of civil society and throw to the winds the principles logically inseparable from the existing natural law.
With regard to the essential elements in civil society fixed by the natural law, it is first to be noted that the normal unit is the family: for not only has the family come historically before the commonwealth, but the natural needs of man lead him first to that social combination, in pursuit of a natural result only to be obtained thereby; and it is logically only subsequent that the purpose of civil society comes into human life. Of course this does not mean that individuals actually outside of the surroundings of family life cannot be constituent members of civil society with full civic rights and duties, but they are not the primary unit; they are in the nature of things the exception, however numerous they may be, and beyond the family limit of perfectibility it is in the interest of complementary development that civil activity is exercised. The State cannot eliminate the family; neither can it rob it of its inalienable rights, nor bar the fulfilment of its inseparable duties, though it may restrict the exercise of certain family activities so as to co-ordinate them to the benefit of the body politic.
Secondly, the natural object pursued by man in his ultimate social activity is perfect temporal happiness, the satisfaction, to wit, of his natural faculties to the full power of their development within his capacity, on his way, of course, to eternal felicity beyond earth. Man's happiness cannot be handed over to him, or thrust upon him by another here on earth; for his nature supposes that his possession of it, and so too in large measure his achievement of it, shall be by the exercise of his native faculties. Hence, civil society is destined by the natural law to give him his opportunity, i.e. to give it to all who share its citizenship. This shows the proximate natural purpose of the State to be: first, to establish and preserve social order, a condition, namely, wherein every man, as far as may be, is secured in the possession and free exercise of all his rights, natural and legal, and is held up to the fulfilment of his duties as far as they bear upon the common weal; secondly, to put within reasonable reach of all citizens a fair allowance of the means of temporal happiness. This is what is known as external peace and prosperity, prosperity being also denominated the relatively perfect sufficiency of life. There are misconceptions enough about the generic purpose native to all civil society. De Haller thought that there is none such; that civil purposes are all specific, peculiar to each specific State. Kant limited it to external peace. The Manchester School did the same, leaving the citizen to work out his subsistence and development as best he may. The Evolutionist consistently makes it the survival of the fittest, on the way to developing a better type. The modern peril is to treat the citizen merely as an industrial unit, mistaking national material progress for the goal of civic energy; or as a military unit, looking to self-preservation as the nation's first if not only aim. Neither material progress nor martial power, nor merely intellectual civilization, can fill the requirements of existing and expanding human nature. The State, while protecting a man's rights, must put him in the way of opportunity for developing his entire nature, physical, mental, and moral.
Thirdly, the accomplishment of this calls for an authority which the Lawgiver of Nature, because he has ordained this society, has put within the competency of the State, and which, because of its reach, extending as it does to life and death, to reluctant subjects and to the posterity of its citizenship, surpasses the capacity of its citizenship to create out of any mere conventional surrender of natural rights. The question of the origin of civil power and its concentration in this or that subject is like the origin of society itself, a topic of debate. Catholic philosophy is agreed that it is conferred by Nature's Lawgiver directly upon the social depositary thereof, as parental supremacy is upon the father of a family. But the determination of the depositary is another matter. The doctrine of Francisco Suárez makes the community itself the depositary, immediately and naturally consequent upon its establishment of civil society, to be disposed of then by their consent, overt or tacit, at once or by degrees, according as they determine for themselves a form of government. This is the only true philosophical sense of the dictum that "governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed". The Taparelli school makes the primitive determinant out of an existing prior right of another character, which passes naturally into this power. Primitively this is parental supremacy grown to patriarchal dimensions and resulting at the last in supreme civil power. Secondarily, it may arise from other rights, showing natural aptitude preferentially in one subject or another, as that of feudal ownership of the territory of the community, capacity to extricate order out of chaos in moments of civic confusion, military ability and success in case of just conquest, and, finally, in remote instances by the consent of the governed.
Finally, the means by which the commonwealth will work toward its ideal condition of the largest measure of peace and prosperity attainable are embraced in the just exercise, under direction of civil authority, of the physical, mental, and moral activities of the members of the community: and here the field of human endeavour is wide and expansive. However, the calls upon the individual by the governmental power are necessarily limited by the scope of the natural purpose of the State and by the inalienable prior rights and inseparable duties conferred or imposed upon the individual by the Natural Law.
lf we analyze the moral development of man, we find looming large his obligation to worship his Creator, not only privately, but publicly, not only as an individual, but in social union. This opens up another kind of society ordered by the natural law, to wit, religious society. An examination of this in the natural order and by force of reason alone would seem to show that man, though morally obliged to social worship, was morally free to establish a parallel organization for such worship or to merge its functions with those of the State, giving a double character to the enlarged society, namely, civil and religious. Historically, among those who knew not Divine revelation, men would seem to have been inclined more to the latter; but not always so. Of course, the purpose and means of this religious social duty are so related to those of a merely civil society that considerable care would have to be exercised in adjusting the balance of intersecting rights and duties, to define the relative domains of religious and civil authority, and, finally, to adjudicate supremacy in case of direct apparent conflict. The development of all this has been given an entirely different turn through the intervention of the Creator in His creation by positive law revealed to man, changing the natural status into a higher one, eliminating natural religious society, and at the last establishing through the mission of our Lord Jesus Christ an universal and unfailing religious society in the Church. This is a supernatural religious society. (See CHURCH.)
Thomas Hobbes, starting from the assumption which Calvin had propagated that human nature is itself perverse and man essentially inept for consorting with his fellows, made the natural state of man to be one of universal and continuous warfare. This, of course, excludes the Maker of man from having destined him originally to society, since he would in Hobbes's view have given him a nature exactly the reverse of a proportioned means. Hobbes thought that he found in man such selfish rivalry, weak cowardice, and greed of self-glorification as to make him naturally prey upon his fellows and subdue them, if he could, to his wants, making might to be the only source of right. However, finding life intolerable (if not impossible) under such conditions, he resorted to a social pact with other men for the establishment of peace, and, as that was a prudent thing to do, man, adds Hobbes, was thus following the dictates of reason and in that sense the law of nature. On this basis Hobbes could and did make civil authority consist in nothing more than the sum of the physical might of the people massed in a chosen centre of force. This theory was developed in the "Leviathan" of Hobbes to account for the existence of civil authority and civil society, but its author left his reader to apply the same perversity of nature and exercise of physical force for the taking of a wife or wives and establishing domestic society.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, though borrowing largely from Hobbes and fearlessly carrying some of his principles to their most extreme issue, had a view in part his own. As for the family, he was content to leave it as a natural institution, with a stability, however, commensurate only with the need of putting the offspring within reach of self-preservation. Not so for the State. Man naturally, he contended, was sylvan and solitary, a fine type of indolent animal, mating with his like and living in the pleasant ease of shady retreats by running waters. He was virtuous, sufficient to himself for his own needs, essentially free, leaving others alone in their freedom, and desirous of being left alone in his. His life was not to be disturbed by the fever of ambitious desires, the burden of ideas, or the restriction of moral laws. Unfortunately, he had a capacity and an itch for self-improvement, and his inventive genius, creating new conveniences, started new deeds, and to meet these more readily, he entered into transitory agreements with other men. Then came differences, fraud, and quarrels, and so ended the tranquil ease and innocence of his native condition. Through sheer necessity of self-defence, as in the theory of Hobbes, he took to the establishment of civil society. To do so without loss of personal freedom, there was but one way, namely, that all the members should agree to merge all their rights, wills, and personalities in a unit moral person and will, leaving the subject member the satisfaction that he was obeying but his own will thus merged, and so in possession still of full liberty in every act. Thus civil authority was but the merger of all rights and wills in the one supreme right and will of the community. The merging agreement was Rousseau's "Social Contract". Unfortunately for its author, as he himself confessed, the condition of perfect, self-sufficient, lawless man was never seen on land or sea; and his social contract had no precedent in all the centuries of the history of man. His dream ignored man's inalienable rights, took no account of coercing wills that would not agree, nor of the unauthorized merging of the wills of posterity, and drained all the vitality as well out of authority as out of obedience. He left authority a power shorn of the requisites essential for the purpose of civil security.
The evolutionist, who has left the twisted turn of all his theories in much of the common language of the day, even after the theories themselves have died to all serious scientific acceptance, wished to make ethics a department of materialistic biology and have the aggregate of human entities assemble by the same physical laws that mass cells into a living being. Man's native tendency to persist, pure egoism, made him shrink from the danger of destruction or injury at the hands of other individuals, and this timidity became a moving force driving him to compound with his peers into a unit source of strength without which he could not persist. From common life in this unit man's egoism began to take on a bit of altruism, and men acquired at the last a sense of the common good, which replaced their original timidity as the spring of merging activity. Later mutual sympathy put forth its tendrils, a sense of unity sprang up, and man had a civil society. Herein was latent the capacity for expressing the general will, which when developed became civil authority. This evolutionary process is still in motion toward the last stand foreseen by the theorist, a universal democracy clad in a federation of the world. All this has been seriously and solemnly presented to our consideration with a naive absence of all sense of humour, with no suspicion that the human mind naturally refuses to confound the unchanging action of material attraction and repulsion with human choice; or to mistake the fruit of intellectual planning and execution for the fortuitous results of blind force. We are not cowards all, and have not fled to society from the sole promptings of fear, but from the natural desire we have of human development. Authority for mankind is not viewed as the necessary resultant of the necessary influx of all men's wills to one goal, but is recognized to be a power to loose and to bind in a moral sense the wills of innumerable freemen.
The neo-pagan theory, renewing the error of Plato and in a measure of Aristotle also, has made the individual and the family mere creatures and chattels of the State, and, pushing the error further, wishes to orientate all moral good and evil, all right and duty from the authority of the State, whose good as a national unit is paramount. This theory sets up the State as an idol for human worship and eventually, if the theory were acted upon, though its authors dream it not, for human destruction.
The historical school mistaking what men have done for what men should do and, while often missing the full induction of the past, scornfully rejecting as empty apriorism deductive reasoning from the nature of man, presents a materialistic, evolutionary, and positivistic view of human society, which in no way appeals to sane reason. No more does the theory of Kant, as applied to society in the Hegelian development of it; though, owing to its intellectual character and appearance of ultimate analysis, it has found favour with those who seek philosophic principles from sources of so-called pure metaphysics. It would be idle to present here with Kant an analysis of the assumption of the development of all human right from the conditions of the use of liberty consistent with the general law of universal liberty, and the creation of civil government as an embodiment of universal liberty in the unified will of all the constituents of the State.
SUAREZ, De Opere Sex Dierum, V. vii; IDEM, Defensio Fidei, III, ii, iii; IDEM, De Legibus, III, ii, iii, iv; COSTA-ROSETTI, Philosophia Moralis (Innsbruck, 1886); DE HALLER, Restauration de la Science Politique; TAPARELLI, Dritto Naturale (Rome, 1855); MEYER, Institutiones Juris Naturalis (Freiburg, 1900); HOBBES, Leviathan (Cambridge University Press); ROUSSEAU, Du Contrat Social (Paris, 1896), The Social Contract, tr. TOZER (London, 1909); SPENCER, The Study of Sociology (London); COMTE, Les Principes du Positivisme; SCHAFFLE, Structure et La Vie du Corps Social; BLUNTSCHLI, The Theory of the State (Oxford translation, Clarendon Press, 1901); STERRETT, The Ethics of Hegel (Boston, 1893); WOODROW WILSON, The Stale (Boston, 1909).
APA citation. (1912). Society. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/14074a.htm
MLA citation. "Society." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 14. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/14074a.htm>.
Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Douglas J. Potter. Dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ.
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. July 1, 1912. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.
Contact information. The editor of New Advent is Kevin Knight. My email address is webmaster at newadvent.org. Regrettably, I can't reply to every letter, but I greatly appreciate your feedback — especially notifications about typographical errors and inappropriate ads.