The Magazine

Civil Society Reconsidered

Little platoons are just the beginning.

Apr 23, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 30 • By GERTRUDE HIMMELFARB
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Civil society, then, yes, but a reformed civil society, not one that has been subverted by the very forces it is meant to resist. For some of the major institutions in civil society, the state has become a model and even a collaborator. Philanthropic societies, almost as large and bureaucratic as government agencies, are often little more than conduits of the state for the distribution of private funds, which they are obliged to distribute, moreover, in accord with government requirements. Financial institutions are subject to government regulations so rigorous as to make them quasi-governmental organs. Public schools assume functions once reserved to the family, displacing parents, for example, in the sex education of their children and in the inculcation of sexual mores—again, in accord with Department of Education regulations. So, too, trade unions, professional associations, universities, hospitals, and other ostensibly private institutions are subject to so many public controls as to make them more public than private.

Religion is surely a valuable prop of civil society, creating and sustaining a variety of civic as well as religious institutions. But here too there has been significant erosion. Traditional denominational, neighborhood, family-centered churches are being threatened by two rivals: megachurches, consisting of thousands of people brought together by a single charismatic preacher, which do not survive the death of the preacher; and small, transient, nondenominational churches, some professing to be “spiritual” rather than religious, which are unstable in doctrine as in membership. The effect of both is to undermine the commitment of congregants and the effectiveness of the churches themselves, making religion a less effectual force in civil society. 

Even more ominous is the condition of the family. The most fundamental component of civil society, it has also become the most vulnerable. Civil society is often identified (thanks largely to Tocqueville) with “voluntary associations.” But the traditional family is not, or at least did not used to be, a voluntary association. Indeed, it is important precisely because it is not voluntary, performing the natural, elemental, even biological functions of bearing and rearing children. Today, as a result of divorce, remarriage, cohabitation, single-parent families, and single-sex parenting, the family has become, in a sense, voluntarized. We are sometimes assured that these “alternative lifestyles” are merely variations on the old, serving the same purposes as the “nuclear” or “bourgeois” family. In fact, these families—“broken families,” like “broken windows”—are often literally “dysfunctional,” incapable of performing the natural functions that define the family.

Civil society has been described as an “immune system against cultural disease.” But much of it has been infected by the same virus that produces the disease—a loss of moral integrity and purpose. What is required, then, is not only the revitalization of civil society but its reform and remoralization—the reform of those institutions that parody government agencies, and the remoralization of those that have lost their moral focus.


This is a formidable challenge, inspiring us to recall those to whom we are indebted for the idea of civil society and whom we now cite in support of it. It is to Locke, of course, that we owe the distinctively modern concept of a civil society that mediates between the individual and the state. But it is not quite the individual and the state that figure in Locke’s trinity. It is the “state of nature” and “political society” that are on either side of “civil society.” This is not a trivial semantic point. The “state of nature,” as Locke describes it, is more fearsome than the “individual,” and “political society” less formidable than the “state.” Moreover, in Locke’s account, civil society has a close relationship to political society, almost overlapping with it, as opposed to the state of nature, which is always in sharp contrast to civil society: “Those who are united into one body and have a common established law and judicature to appeal to, with authority to decide controversies between them and punish offenders, are in civil society one with another; but those who have no such common appeal, I mean on earth, are still in the state of nature.”

Similarly, Tocqueville’s “voluntary associations,” which we sometimes equate with civil society, are not as exclusively within the domain of civil society as we might suppose. Tocqueville has the highest regard for these associations which are unique to America—but not unique to civil society. On the contrary, the genius of American democracy is the proliferation of “political associations” as well as “civil associations,” and, more important, the intimate relationship between them, the civil being dependent upon the vitality of the political. “In all countries where political associations are forbidden, civil associations are rare. .  .  . Thus civil associations pave the way for political ones, but on the other hand, the art of political association singularly develops and improves this technique for civil purposes.”

And then there is Burke, whose Reflections on the Revolution in France repeatedly invokes the idea, and the term, civil society, as in the rebuke to the revolutionaries for acting as if they had “never been molded into civil society, and had everything to begin anew.” But it is his “little platoon” that has become the battle cry of civil-society enthusiasts. The first sentence of that passage is frequently quoted: “To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections.” Less often quoted is the following no less memorable sentence: “[The little platoon] is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country and to mankind.” Later in the book, the sentiment is reaffirmed:

We begin our public affections in our families. .  .  . We pass on to our neighborhoods and our habitual provincial connections. These are inns and resting places. .  .  . Perhaps it is a sort of elemental training to those higher and more large regards, by which alone we come to be affected, as with their own concern, in the prosperity of a kingdom so extensive as that of France.

Today, in our anxiety about the excesses of individualism and statism, we may find ourselves looking upon civil society not merely as a corrective to those excesses but as a be-all and end-all, a sanctuary in itself, a sufficient habitat for the human spirit. What our forefathers impress upon us is a more elevated as well as a more dynamic view of civil society, one that exists in a continuum with “political society”—that is, government—just as “civil associations” do with “political associations,” “private affections” with “public affections,” and, most memorably, the “little platoon” with “a love to our country and to mankind.” This is civil society properly understood (as Tocqueville would say), a civil society rooted in all that is most natural and admirable—family, community, religion—and that is also intimately related to those other natural and admirable aspects of life, country and humanity.

Gertrude Himmelfarb is the author of The Moral Imagination and, most recently, The People of the Book: Philosemitism in England from Cromwell to Churchill.

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