Part of the inspiration for this blog derives from a shared vision to create a space to dialogue in a spirit of mutual respect and charity, as an alternative to the “culture wars“. In light of this, I have been thinking back to a distinction that Jacques Maritain makes in Man and the State between “the Nation, the Body Politic or Political Society, and the State.” The most caustic forms of rhetoric seem to emerge from attempts to control the power of the State, mostly through electoral politics. And, as my wife likes to remind me, I can get quite caught up in and heated up over these kinds of battles. But is there something about focusing on this realm, especially as Christians and/or theologians, that misses the point?
Political Society, required by nature and achieved by reason, is the most perfect of temporal societies. It is a concretely and wholly human reality, tending to a concretely and wholly human good – the common good…Justice is a primary condition for the existence of the body politic, but Friendship is its very life-giving form.
Focusing on Political Society, or “Civil Society,” as the area of culture or society where the virtues of friendship and trust are needed to sustain the collective endeavor to seek a distinctively human, common good has much to recommend it, I believe. Here, we view others as potential allies in building up a just society, rather than as enemies whom we perceive as trying to destroy “our” narrow vision of a just society.
For Maritain, the State is the topmost apparatus of Political Society, charged “with the maintenance of law, the promotion of the common welfare and public order, and the administration of public affairs.” Durable and lasting change in society, even at the level of the state, derives from the health of the Civil Society which supports it and gives it life and consent. As Jonathon Shell notes in his book, The Unconquerable World, most of the successful political revolutions that led to democratic change in the twentieth century were the result of people building up a healthy civil society whose vitality eventually overwhelmed the violent control of repressive state authorities.
Ultimately, this is the power of the people, upon which democratic government is based. Again, Maritain:
the people are the multitude of human persons who, united under just laws, by mutual friendship, and for the common good of their human existence, constitute a political society or a body politic…The people are the very substance, the living and free substance, of the body politic.
We are seeing this principle once again in the twenty-first century, but this time precisely where we have been told (in the West, at least) it would never emerge – in the Arab Middle East and Northern Africa – as vibrant civil societies are putting pressure on their own dictatorial governments to hand over power. Perhaps this is the best place to focus in looking to build up a just society even, or especially, when we encounter those with whom we disagree.