Origin of Civil Society Ancient Period-Part 1 – Telegraph Nepal

Dev Raj Dahal, Kathmandu, Nepal

The German concept Bürgerlicher Gessellschaft, (bourgeois society) is commonly interpreted in English as civil society, a concept connected with the freedom to speak and associate without fear.

The ancient Greek thinkers–Socrates, Plato and Aristotle— have intimately fused society and the state into a political community, polis.

Freedom for them meant freedom to participate in the polis, to speak the truth to power, form political opinion, breed self-confidence, live in dignity in opposition to the conformity perpetrated by the regime and endorse a commonweal.

Socrates believed that good life could be achieved though rational debate about divergent views on individual and social needs rather than a cycle of deadly conflict.

The culture of dialogue, free of domination, constituted the bedrock of democratic practice.

Pursuit of a good polity helped to define the civic responsibilities of citizens in the political conception of civil society. Greek democracy was, however, bourgeois in nature.

It excluded women and slaves from the public sphere.

There is, however, a historically specific great tradition of political thinking from Socrates to Jurgen Habermas and the roots of civil society could be detected in this tradition.

The Roman orator, Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC) had discussed about civilis societas, to refer to civil society.

He argued that civilis societas should guide political affairs through philosophical persuasion rather than violence and defended the rational autonomy of citizens.

He asserts, “Justice is one; it binds all society, and is based on one law.”

The Romans were mainly interested in defining peace as the absence of armed conflict against external enemies.

In the Middle Ages, Saint Augustine (345-430 A. D.) and Thomas Aquinas regarded civil society as a natural part of human life. They spoke clearly about virtutes civiles, civic virtues of citizens, the role of the state and the church to relieve the hardships of people, nourish a common sense of justice, serve citizens equally in a civil manner regardless of their rank, religion and birth and preserve peace.

Martin Luther and John Calvin equally contributed to the idea of civil society. Critical of the feudal domination of society based on class, rank and status they argued that citizens should be free to choose their own religion while extending charity and service to the community.

Centralized civil rule was developed in Europe since 16th century. From this century onward, the reformation movement began to fuse the legalistic culture of Romans and the Greek instinct for freedom.

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) started off the age of reason, absolutist state and freedom from superstition.

This helped to erode traditional immunities and privileges given to certain groups of society and marked a shift of society based on inherited status to renewable social contracts.

Hobbes claimed that in the state of nature, citizens considered themselves equal to all others and, in competing for scarce resources, lived in a society of eternal fear, insecurity and conflict.

He believed that life without an effective state to preserve public order would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”

To achieve peace and the right to life he suggested a social contract whereby citizens would seek a new basis for state in which civic virtues derived from natural laws would be sufficient to curb excessive opportunistic behaviors and lethal ways of expressing grievances.

The state, which Hobbes called the Leviathan, once created by popular consent, would allow no threat to the peace of society but link individuals to each other by way of their relation to a common authority.

The Peace of Westphalia codified in 1648 ended religious wars, granted sovereignty to the state and moderated the norms of an anarchical international system.

John Locke is the prime mover of representative democracy that conferred the legitimacy to the natural equality of men, equal subjection to law and majority rule and believed that civil society exists in a condition when all members of society are governed by a constitution.

His theory of social contract has set limits to the state’s power by giving basic constitutional rights (liberty and property) to the citizens and through distribution of the state powers.

Locke defended individuals’ rights to assemble, establish associations, enter into relations of their choice in religious matters and rational pursuit of self-interest but excluded the poor and women from the rights of citizenship.

He, however, perceived the need for an international social contract to overcome essentially anarchistic system of competing states, war and tyranny where statesmen are driven to promote national security.

Enlightenment Period:

A more specific narration on civil society emerged at the beginning of the development of liberal democracy in the eighteenth century.

It opposed absolutism, articulated modernity and tried to set well defined links of citizens with the state.

The philosophical discourse was on political life, informed and rational communication, contestation about particular histories of diverse societies and general interest of the nation-state.

Civil society grew out of intellectual efforts to occupy a public space within which modern and traditional types of associations could engage the rational public in the formation of public opinion without any recourse to violent conflict.

The emergence of the public sphere symbolized for many as an ethical social order that mediated the transition from feudalism to capitalism and individual interest to social good and contributed to a value of democratic political culture, such as self-discipline, toleration and a passion for compromise.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau inaugurated the age of Enlightenment in the mid 1700s and tried to create a new social order where civil society would provide a condition of equality and freedom for all regardless of position, wealth and power.

“The passing from the state of nature to the civil society produces a remarkable change in man; it puts justice as a rule of conduct in the place of instinct, and gives actions the moral quality they previously lacked” (Rousseau, 2000:45).

If citizens would make the common good their top priority, the social contract can make mutual protection and peace possible.

He sought a balance between individual pursuit of happiness and the community’s right for collective well-being and believed that the state is the arena for defining the nature of the common good.

He saw the civil society emerging when all citizens were willing to abide by the general will.

Rousseau’s book The Social Contract became a source of inspiration for the American and French revolutions as it popularized liberty, equality and fraternity as inalienable and universal rights of human beings and sought to transform arbitrary authority into rational authority subject to the general will of citizens.

These elements questioned the ideology of ruling class in the name of mankind as a whole and defined the core values of the modern civil society.

The 18th century Scottish Enlightenment thinkers– David Hume, Thomas Paine, Adam Ferguson and Adam Smith— analyzed the realities of their period, such as expansion of property rights, science and communication, industrial development, freedom of commerce, education and demand of the bourgeoisie for public space against the sovereignty of the state.

Growth of formal institutions, constitutionalism, impersonal bonds of self-interest, unfettered rationality, secular ideology and economic and legal interdependence contributed to a new powerful social formation that we call the civil society.

This civil society was different from the pre-modern tribal society glued by family values, kin, blood, lineage, tradition and ritualized ideology as it shared political power with the state on policy matters.

Enlightenment thinkers made a clear analytical distinction between the state and civil society and thought that power of segmentary, ritual-based tribal society to generate large association for political action is weak because it is usually based on a strategic balance of exclusion, inequality and conflict.

They, therefore, stretched out the boundaries of civil society beyond the state to capture the emerging internalization of economy, technology and ideas and minimized the potential for conflict.

Adam Smith believed that moral sentiment and sympathy rather than self-interest united individuals to act together under the institutional arrangements and provided the real basis for the well being of all.

Smith believed in the bourgeois wisdom and virtues of honesty, industriousness and prudence and felt that this social shorthand was the most efficient way of preserving “the peace and order of society” (1966:332).

Enlightened reason is the basis of Immanuel Kant’s civil union or civil society.

He believes that civil society is the representative symbol of a cosmopolitan citizenry, the membership of which is determined by their free wills.

Kant’s version of civil society overrides state sovereignty based on rigid bureaucratic organization of industrial society.

His vision for perpetual peace (1795) entails a world parliament of free states, bound together 9 by a covenant renouncing wars and through which citizens and states would negotiate to co-exist non-violently, create democracy, economic interdependence and their pacifying effect on inter-state relations.

He argues, “The civil constitution of every state shall be republican, and war shall not be declared except by a plebiscite of all the citizens.”

Hence Kant conceptualized the notion of “democratic peace,” as a condition to bring harmony among human beings, the state and the international system.

Georg Hegel conceives civil society as a sphere between the family and the state.

The nature of this sphere is self-constituted, self-defined and self-sustained by the citizens and, therefore, exists independently of the state. Industrial production, expanding commerce and social capacity for wealth enable the formation of identity.

His narration of civil society is dualistic in nature: as the isolation of citizens from one another into competing business, religious groups, clubs, work groups and institutions and as a space where the tradition and ethics of a society are produced and reshaped.

The statist propensity in Hegel’s analysis is unequivocal. He argues that civil society must subsume the ultimate demands of the state because it mediates the competing interests and claims of civil society and prevents violent conflicts.

French sociologist Alexis de Toqueville’s Democracy in America (1835-40) offered a modern analysis of American society and argued that Americans based their actions on two prime concepts: individualism and equality. Individualism is important to nourish creativity while equality is a tool for negotiating social differences and challenge hereditary privileges.

# Thanks the distinguished author Mr. Dev Raj Dahal: Upadhyaya N. P
The Second part shall be published soon.
#Our contact email address is: [email protected]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *