Self-Limitation, Liberty, and Civil Society
Observing the United States in the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville was impressed by the way in which Americans made use of associations in civil life. He writes,
Americans of all ages, of all conditions, of all minds, constantly unite. Not only do they have commercial and industrial associations in which they all take part, but also they have a thousand other kinds: religious, moral, [intellectual,] serious ones, useless ones, very general and very particular ones, immense and very small ones; Americans associate to celebrate holidays, establish seminaries, build inns, erect churches, distribute books, send missionaries to the Antipodes; in this way they create hospitals, prisons, schools. If, finally, it is a matter of bringing a truth to light or of developing a sentiment with the support of a good example, they associate. Wherever, at the head of a new undertaking, you see in France the government, and in England, a great lord, count on seeing in the United States, an association.
On our celebration of Independence Day in the United States, when many Americans ceremoniously gather together for barbeques, parades, and fireworks displays, I think it is timely to reflect on the importance of civil society — that vast array of non-market, non-government associations — as a check to the power of the state to preserve political liberty, if sometimes only accidentally so, as in the case of poker nights or book clubs.
Unfortunately, according to Robert Putnam, these associations have been in decline in the United States for decades now. As he remarked in his 2000 book Bowling Alone,
For the first two-thirds of the twentieth century a powerful tide bore Americans into ever deeper engagement in the life of their communities, but a few decades ago — silently, without warning — that tide reversed and we were overtaken by a treacherous rip current. Without at first noticing, we have been pulled apart from one another and from our communities over the last third of the century.
This decline poses the problem: once they have been lost, how do we regain these associations that play so vital a role in civic life? While I cannot claim to have found the perfect panacea for this ill (or even an all-encompassing diagnosis), there is at least one important factor that I would like to highlight: the role of self-limitation through asceticism.
According to Lord Acton, a great admirer of the American experiment, liberty is “the delicate fruit of a mature civilization.” He elsewhere says that it “is not the power of doing what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought.” To Acton, real, practical, political liberty was a fairly recent achievement in the history of human civilization and one always under threat. True liberty is essentially a moral achievement; it is not only freedom from external oppression but inner temptation. And the former is connected to the latter.
Acton’s conception of liberty calls to mind the observation of Edmund Burke: “Society cannot exist, unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere; and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without.” Both Acton and Burke, like Tocqueville, emphasize the importance of civil society as a necessary check against the unnatural growth of state power. When the associations of civil society work to cultivate the common good, they embody the concrete ways in which people who have cultivated an inner “controlling power upon will and appetite” limit the need for external restraint and regulation by the state.
Yet if these associations and their societal benefit are in decline, how can we prevent that “soft despotism” Tocqueville so vividly and presciently described? He writes,
I see an innumerable crowd of similar and equal men who spin around restlessly, in order to gain small and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls. Each one of them, withdrawn apart, is like a stranger to the destiny of all the others; his children and his particular friends form for him the entire human species; as for the remainder of his fellow citizens, he is next to them, but he does not see them; he touches them without feeling them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone, and if he still has a family, you can say that at least he no longer has a country.
While Tocqueville goes on to describe the “immense and tutelary power [i.e. the state] that alone takes charge of assuring their enjoyment and of looking after their fate,” it is worth noting that the atomization of society he describes is firstly a deterioration of culture by a common passion for “small and vulgar pleasures.”
The society he imagines, though it may know nothing of extreme want, also knows nothing of fasting and, by consequence, of true freedom in the sense described by Acton. It reflects the heart of a people that actually wants a government to “remove entirely from them the trouble to think and the difficulty of living.” And as Burke has said, external restraints of the state must multiply when inner restraints of the soul diminish. To the extent that we are on our way to Tocqueville’s dystopian democracy and civil society in the United States is in decline — Putnam’s study was not uncontested, and at thirteen years old now it is a little dated — we can assume, at least, an accompanying decline in the way of life that values self-restraint and virtue over “small and vulgar pleasures.”
Yet I am at least cautiously hopeful that, in small ways, things have begun to change for the better since Bowling Alone. Certainly among Christians there is now no shortage of books on spiritual discipline, even among those who would forswear the term asceticism out of a still-lingering, knee-jerk reaction to certain isolated extremes of sixteenth century piety in the West. And if quantity of Facebook “likes” tells us anything meaningful, it would seem that a significant number of Christians sympathized with Michael Hannon’s recent diatribe against the sort of cheesy piety that reduces religion to little more than a cheap knock-off of the “small and vulgar pleasures” many are so busy ensuring by political means today. It seems that a growing segment of American Christians have had enough of the “cheap grace” of previous generations. A form of fasting and simplicity have even seen a resurgence in American culture more broadly … so long as people can still afford to buy organic and don’t have to let go of their iPhones, that is. This, at least in my estimation, is a positive trend.
Perhaps civil society is truly in decline, but if we are really seeing a renewed interest in asceticism, however unlikely that may have seemed only twenty years ago, maybe there is hope that more people will again join the PTA, NAACP, bridge clubs, or any other perhaps new and unforeseen association as well. One of the great things about self-discipline, and the reason why I think it is so important to civil society, is that it helps one to think less about oneself and more about other people. Maybe this positive trend of asceticism signals the possibility that more people will once again ask themselves, in the face of any given social challenge, “Couldn’t we just do that ourselves?” or better, “Shouldn’t we do that ourselves?” If so, it would signal a renewed appreciation for liberty as freedom from — rather than for — passion, and a revival of authentic community in our too often fractured and atomized culture. If only for this Independence Day, I have hope that this indeed could be the case.
But I’m not going to hold my breath.