Society and Culture

In “Social Justice,” I say:

A true society or community is one in which persons are bound by more than merely residing in the same nation, state, city, or other geographic entity. A true society is one whose members voluntarily commit acts of kindness and charity toward one another, as part of the social “bargain” that is known as the Golden Rule.

This is but a superficial introduction to the concept of society. Deeper insights, as always, come from Roger Scruton, an English philosopher. I have just finished reading Scruton’s An Intelligent Persons Guide to Modern Culture (a birthday gift from my son), which — as always with Scruton — is densely packed with ideas and insights. Early in the book, Scruton makes these trenchant observations:

[Culture] is the life-blood of a people, the flow of moral energy that holds society intact….

…The ‘common culture’ of a tribe is a sign of its inner cohesion. But tribes are vanishing from the modern world, as are all forms of traditional society. Customs, practices, festivals, rituals an beliefs have acquired a fluid and half-hearted quality which reflects our nomadic and rootless existences…. Despite this … modern city-dwellers are as much social beings as were traditional tribesmen. They are unable to live in peace until furnished with a social identity, an outward garb which, by prepresenting them to others, gives them confidence in themselves. This search for ‘identity’ pervades modern life.  Althought it is a fluid thing, and may change direction several times in a lifetime, or even twice in a year, it has much in common with the tribesman’s attachment to a common culture….

It goes without saying that a common culture binds a society together. But it does so in a special way. The unity of a great society can be achieved by terror, by confronting people with a common danger or an ‘enemy within’ — by variously playing with the threat of death, in the manner of modern dictators. A common culture is an altogether more peaceful method, which unites the present members by dedicating them to the past and future of the community. Death is not a terror, but the benign catalyst of the social order, the transition which ensures that all of us, in time, will join the community of ancestors and become sacred and transfigured as they are….

…Modern people long for membership, but membership exists only among people who do not long for it, who have no real conception of it, who are so utterly immersed in it that they find it inscribed on the face of nature itself. Such people have immediate access, through common culture, to the ethical vision of man.

If you have to proclaim that a nation or other geopolitical entity is a “society,” then it isn’t one.