In his analysis of alienation in the modern world, Robert Nisbet recognized an important truth about the human person, which makes “The Quest for Community” timely even today: The individual cannot be understood except in relationship to other individuals in time and space. The abstract, autonomous individual does not exist nor can he ever exist.

When American sociologist Robert Nisbet wrote The Quest for Community in 1953, it was a success. The book quickly made Nisbet an icon of the conservative movement, and even in the year 2020, thinking conservatives and even libertarians consider this work a classic.

The main thesis of The Quest for Community is that the rise of individualism in the modern world was paralleled by the rise of unprecedented statism. Specifically, in the aftermath of the French Revolution, it was the goal of modern man to free himself from the shackles of “intermediate institutions”—such as parishes, monasteries, manors, villages, gilds, families, and other local bonds. But the consequences of this freedom from intermediate institutions was devastating. Alone and stripped from virtually all sources of human community, man was compelled to join the only community still available: the mythical “national community” offered by the central state.

It was shocking to many observers in the early twentieth century that the liberation of the individual had, in the end, coincided with the bloodiest and most brutal decades in the history of mankind. To be sure, the individual was freed from the shackles of traditional intermediate institutions, but all he got instead was the shackles of work camps, gulags, and atomic bombs. Take your pick, I guess.

I first encountered Robert Nisbet when I was an undergraduate and, upon learning about him, quickly picked up a copy of his conservative classic from my college library. I was fascinated by his central thesis about the two-fold rise of individualism and the central state in the modern world. Recently, I decided to pick up Nisbet again, purchasing for myself the new edition with a forward by Ross Douthat. This time, however, I noticed a related aspect of his argument found in an old preface.

In the preface to the 1970 edition of his book, Nisbet said that he made virtually no changes to the original text. Yet this does not mean that he would not make changes if rewriting the book again. “I do not mean to suggest that there are not changes I would make were I writing the book today,” said Nisbet. Indeed, factors such as time, circumstances, and development in Nisbet’s own thinking would contribute to some changes if rewriting the book again.

One such change that Nisbet would make if rewriting the book was his treatment of alienation in the modern world. Although the theme of alienation was certainly present in the original edition of The Quest for Community, Nisbet regretted that it did not receive greater emphasis. This is because he could not help but notice that alienation was becoming the prevailing reality of modern life, especially among youth. As the individual frees himself from intermediary institutions, he also grows more alienated. Nisbet wrote:

By alienation I mean the state of mind that can find a social order remote, incomprehensible, or fraudulent; beyond real hope or desire; inviting apathy, boredom, or even hostility. The individual not only does not feel a part of the social order; he has lost interest in being a part of it. For a constantly enlarging number of persons, including, significantly, young persons of high school and college age, this state of alienation has become profoundly influential in both behavior and thought. Not all the manufactured symbols of togetherness, the ever-ready programs of human relations, patio festivals in suburbia, and our quadrennial crusades for presidential candidates, hide the fact that for millions of persons such institutions as state, political party, business, church, labor union, and even family have become remote and increasingly difficult to give any part of one’s self to.[1]

Indeed, modern man finds himself in a social order that is remote, incomprehensible, and fraudulent. He has no religious roots, no connection to the past, and no people or place to call his own. Stripped of the traditional religious and social identities that gave meaning in past ages, modern man finds himself alone. Although Nisbet does not put it this way, we might say that modern man senses that something is wrong with the way things are, but he does not know what. He is proud of his autonomy and always seeks more of it, but at the same time he feels disconnected and lonely. He is torn in two by contradictory impulses.

According to Nisbet, there are three main types of alienation. The first is alienation from the past. The human person is a time-bound creature and needs a sense of the past in order to know his present identity. Hyper-individualism, however, wrenches man from his past, leaving him with no inherited wisdom or identity. And so, in the world today, if the lone individual wishes to have an identity, then he must create one for himself.

Nisbet then describes alienation from place. Since the Neolithic Revolution, man was born into a particular place where he grew and planted his roots. Today, however, for better or worse, man has unprecedented mobility. He is born in one place and then moves to another place for college or work—and then another, and then another, etc. As Nisbet concisely put it, “given the slow erosion of regions and localities in present-day mass culture, under the twin impact of nationalism and economism, it doesn’t really matter where one comes from.”[2] A man might have fond memories of his place of birth and upbringing, but these fond memories matter little to the practical realities of his life.

Nisbet does not cite Edmund Burke within the context of his discussion on alienation from past and place, but it is well-known that Nisbet is deeply influenced by Burke’s thought. Indeed, it was Edmund Burke who envisioned the “eternal society” of the dead, living, and unborn within a particular place. As Burke writes in Reflections on the Revolution in France:

As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born. Each contract of each particular state is but a clause in the great primeval contract of eternal society, linking the lower with the higher nature, connecting the visible and invisible world, according to a fixed compact sanctioned by the inviolable oath which holds all physical and all moral natures, each in their appointed place.[3]

Again, Nisbet taught that the rise of hyper-individualism, which wrenches man from traditional sources of community, makes way for the rise of an increasingly powerful central state. Yet this is not the only problem with hyper-individualism. At the same time, it also leaves man alienated, lonely, and utterly wrenched from past and place. It leaves him without a human community to call his own. Yet it is human nature to desire community, to be a part of something bigger than oneself. And so, as hyper-individualism marches onward, so too will alienation along with it. Nisbet put it in the following way:

The historic triumph of secularism and individualism has presented a set of problems that loom large in contemporary thought. The modern release of the individual from traditional ties of class, religion, and kinship has made him free; but on the testimony of innumerable works in our age, this freedom is accomplished not by the sense of creative release but by the sense of disenchantment and alienation. The alienation of man from historic moral certitudes has been followed by the sense of man’s alienation from his fellow man.[4]

This leads us to the third type of alienation. This is, according to Nisbet, alienation from “thing.” In ages past, man was attached to hard property, the kind that can be touched and identified with. But today, man has shares and equities in something distant and impersonal. What Nisbet calls “impersonal abstractions” (think of credit cards and stocks, for instance) certainly have their benefit, believed Nisbet, but they have contributed to a desire for some form of tangible property.

Nisbet noticed that young people of a high school and college age are especially impacted by alienation. Alienated especially from past and place, young people are forced to create for themselves their own identities. Without any clear tie to the preceding generations and deprived of a heritage into which they can be initiated, young people have no clear image of adulthood provided to them. “These are ties which have become, like many others, weak and rootless in the present day,” wrote Nisbet. “And this, I suggest, is why alienation from the past so obviously affects youth, and helps make the problem of coming to adulthood so widely painful and baffling. How, apart from stable ties with preceding generations, can the image of adulthood be kept clear in a society?”[5] If Nisbet is correct, then it is no wonder that “coming of age” is so painful and confusing.

Alienation today is seen in the breakdown of the family. Armies of divorced fathers, single mothers, and confused children are found throughout America. It is worth noting that Nisbet predicted the coming demise of the traditional family and sexual revolution in 1953. “We are attempting to make [the family] perform psychological and symbol functions with a structure that has become fragile and an institutional importance that is almost totally unrelated to the economic and political realities of our society.”[6] Within a couple decades of the 1953 publication of The Quest for Community, divorce rates skyrocketed and the family structure as we know it eroded.

Evidence for Nisbet’s thesis seems to be everywhere. Many Americans—alienated from time, place, and thing—have a growing distrust of American history, symbols, and institutions. Rioting has become a new norm in recent months, and political movements have become increasingly ideological and authoritarian. The word “freedom” today is not understood in the classical sense of the term, but instead in the sense of a French Revolutionary. To ideologues, freedom means freedom from intermediate institutions. It is no wonder, then, that as the individual gains more “freedom” in modern America, government seems to get bigger and more centralized. And at the same time, in accordance with Nisbet’s thesis, alienation grows.

Readers of The Imaginative Conservative should find Nisbet’s book of interest. This is because the truly imaginative conservative knows that God created human beings to be in voluntary community. A conservative in the mold of Robert Nisbet knows that the human heart is today marked by two contradictory desires. On the one hand, modern man wants to be left alone, but on the other hand he suffers from isolation and wants to overcome his loneliness. Modern man wants autonomy, to be sure, but he also yearns for a community that he does not have.

Ultimately, in his analysis of alienation in the modern world, Robert Nisbet recognized an important truth about the human person, which makes The Quest for Community timely even today. That is, the individual cannot be understood except in relationship to other individuals in time and space. The abstract, autonomous individual does not exist, Nisbet understood, nor can he ever exist.

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[1] Robert Nisbet, The Quest for Community: A Study in the Ethics of Order and Freedom (1953; repr., Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books, 2019), xxiii.

[2] Ibid., xxiv.

[3] Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France and on the Proceedings in Certain Societies in London Relative to that Event (1790; repr. Whithorn, Scotland: Anodos Books, 2019), 41.

[4] Nisbet, The Quest for Community, 4.

[5] Ibid., xxv-xxvi.

[6] Ibid., 54.

The featured image is a detail from “Village Feast” by David Teniers the Younger (1610–1690) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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