Sewing Together the Social Fabric

Modern freedom often mistakenly points to radical individualism as its highest achievement. However, it is through the family and community that the ability to protect individual freedom comes. Robert Nisbet refers to Edmund Burke concerning what happens when man is removed from society: “Mutilate the roots of society and tradition, and the result must inevitably be the isolation of a generation from its heritage, the isolation of individuals from their fellow men, and the creation of the sprawling, faceless masses.”[1]  Man is neither a radical individual nor just a part of a collective – he is a person with a nature that necessitates community. While politics are undoubtedly important, nothing can beat the family, the fraternity, or the old local softball teams full of plumbers and doctors to sew together a torn social fabric.

Robert Nisbet’s great work, The Quest for Community, was originally published in 1953, for which the New York Times called him “one of our most original social thinkers.” He was prophetic in seeing what individualism was doomed to cause. In it, he argues that the growth of the “centralized territorial state” has inadvertently, or perhaps revolutionarily, removed many of the intermediate associations that offer a real sense of community – the empowering collections of people who worship together, build together, and play together. Given the easily identifiable epidemic of loneliness today, especially among men, it seems Nisbet was a prophet. However, in that same book, another thesis is that we are entering an age of pessimism. Much like the ancient Athenians after the disastrous Peloponnesian Wars suffering from “a failure of nerve,”[2] our age is “amorphous, distracted multitudes and of solitary, inward-turning individuals.”[3] The West has lost its confidence in cultural rehabilitation and faith in the human person’s ability to rise above disillusionment through goodness, truth, and beauty. This forfeiture partially results from the loss of communal verve passed down through the very associations the State has replaced.

Interestingly, Nisbet goes on to ask how much of this “failure of nerve” is a result of the preoccupations of intellectuals. “It may be argued,” Nisbet states, “that in such themes of estrangement we are dealing with rootless shadowy apprehensions of the intellectual rather than with the empirical realities of the world around us.”[4] He continues, “Extreme and habitual intellectualism may, it is sometimes said, produce tendencies of a somewhat morbid nature – inner tendencies that the intellectual is too frequently unable to resist endowing with external reality.”[5] In other words, how much has the intellectual class, often removed from daily life’s realities, influenced the modern world? How much of their ideas have given a reality to suit some “rootless shadowy” abstraction? Reminiscent of The Laputians of Gulliver’s Travels, a race living on a floating island whose heads are always leaning one way or the other and whose eyes are turned inward or upward but never on the reality right in front of them.

Granted, as a society, we should desire a sort of aristocracy in which a certain number of people get to practice the best of philosophy, theology, politics, and the like. As Nisbet states, “From this detachment may come illuminative imagination and insight.” However, he also warns that “from this same detachment may come also an unrepresentative sense of aloneness, of alienation.”[6] Think here of many of the latest “underrepresented” classes whose flags have replaced the nation’s on particular days of neo-religious celebrations. It can hardly be argued that they are truly alone when every secular school, large corporation, and sports league has given into the demands to propagandize for their cause. However, it does not mean that there is no real loneliness amongst them, just that they might not be looking at the world around them – and this is not just a problem amongst certain classes; it is a widely felt belief that has seeped into every level of Western society. The loss of intermediate associations and relativistic intellectualism has given rise to a pessimistic age of T.S. Eliot’s hollow men. One might add that in a cynical, hollow state, ideology can seep its way in as a false hope, and as Russell Kirks states, “ideology is inimical to real intellectual attainment.”[7]

Numerous conservatives in the same circle as Nisbet were similarly concerned about the loss of realism in the wake of intellectualism. Rather than experiencing the natural world through family, church, and guild, the lonely intellectual is left with abstractions of what might be a perfect society. However, the problem is that the denizens of progressive hope often focus primarily on economic or political change as the source of optimism. So long as society achieves higher levels of material comfort and technological development, they believe mankind will evolve morally and lessen current anxieties. Nisbet continues,

But with the satisfaction of the prime, material needs, those of a social and spiritual nature become ever more pressing and ever more decisive in the total scheme of things. Desires for cultural participation, social belonging, and personal status become irresistible and their frustrations galling. Material improvement that is unaccompanied by a sense of personal belonging may actually intensify social dislocation and personal frustration.[8]

Despite what many might argue, economic viability and political cohesiveness can never replace a spiritual sense of belonging. Rootedness does not come from fancier toys, bigger bank accounts, and political perfection. It comes from family, tribe, and association. The intermediate associations supporting healthy family life and inspiring community are now more critical than ever.

One such organization accomplishing the task is Heroic Fraternities, founded by Dr. Anthony Bradley at The King’s College. Bradley’s work has pointed out that although fraternities have gained a bad reputation from the actions of several horrible cases, the idea and benefits of fraternities ought not to be forgotten. They ought to be celebrated and supported. “What makes a fraternity great is the character of each man in a chapter committed to self-improvement and dedicated to the pursuit of honor, virtue, and excellence.”[9] Doing the work necessary to grow associations built around community and virtue might be one of the great acts of our time. Through brotherhoods like these, the torn social fabric of our time can begin the mending process. The same goes for sororities and other organizations calling people to something beyond the merely materialistic. If our time is one of pessimism, it is because we are stuck in our heads and have no place to generate our God-given zeal for greatness – most often found in families and social institutions.

Another place fostering a community of hope-filled confidence in cultural rehabilitation is Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas. I will admit to some bias, but in the short time that I have been here, the looks on the students’ faces, the conversations about achieving the highest ends, and not to mention the grand strategic plan to transform culture in America, the air is ripe with the optimism of what the human person is and what he can achieve. Conservatives are often falsely interpreted as pessimists, but a true conservative knows the depths and the heights of what is within man.

Western society has become far too transactional in its idea of relationships. From sex to money, from votes to work, the conception is that persons are only as good as they are to what the individual wants from them. Instead, an integrated culture with a clear social fabric focuses on the human person’s highest nature and how those are upheld in society. “The family, religious association, and local community,” Nisbet states, “cannot be regarded as the external products of man’s thought and behavior; they are essentially prior to the individual and are the indispensable supports of belief and conduct. Release man from the contexts of community, and you get not freedom and rights but intolerable aloneness and subjection to demonic fears and passions.”[10] Those fears and passions are ripe for a tyrannical force to take advantage of and use to their ends. To bring society back together, we must celebrate simple relationships with neighbors, friends, and family and realize that God’s work is often done through small acts of love.

[1] Robert Nisbet, The Quest for Community (New York: Galaxy Books, 1953), 25.

[2] Ibid., 19.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid, 20.

[7] Russell Kirk, Academic Freedom: An Essay in Definition (Washington, D.C: Regnery Publishing, 1955), 370.

[8] Nisbet, 21.

[9] Anthony Bradley, Heroic Fraternities: How College Men Can Save Universities and America (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2023), 3-4.

[10] Nisbet, 25.

Jared Zimmerer

Dr. Jared Zimmerer

Jared Zimmerer is the Content Marketing Director and Great Books adjunct professor for Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas. The former Senior Director of the Word on Fire Institute and the Dean of Pastoral Fellows. He holds a PhD in Humanities from Faulkner University and a master’s degree in Theology from Holy Apostles College. He and his wife Jessica live in Atchison, Kansas, with their six children. He is an author, speaker, and holds a bachelor’s degree in Kinesiology.