In “The Social Group in French Thought,” Robert Nisbet explains that social philosophers such as Bodin, Hobbes, and Rousseau undermined and sabotaged private law and intermediary institutions. Their thought culminated in the French Revolution and in its radical and nationalist legislation.

Robert Nisbet’s dissertation began by lamenting that the history of freedom has been written from the standpoint of the individual person rather than from the standpoint of the group—that is, the intermediary institutions of family, church, community, club, union, and voluntary association. Yet, noted Nisbet, rarely do we find in actual reality the individual abstracted from a myriad of groups to which he belongs. Though he did not self-identify this way, Nisbet was writing as a humanist and as a personalist. After all, he wrote, “it was not the individual, asserting his rights and freedom, that constituted a threat to state omnipotence; it was the assemblage of feudal groups, the gilds, corporations, the Church, and even the powerful families, which constituted the real menace.”[1] Taking his cue from the French philosophers whom he so admired, Nisbet took his analysis even further, proclaiming: “Only by his membership in the group does he become a social reality.”[2]

Nisbet, much like his contemporary, Christopher Dawson, argued that medieval Western society was not merely pluralistic, but so much so that one might correctly dismiss the power of large political entities as essentially non-existent. Yet, in a society and era that was, for all intents and purposes, stateless, the individual did not roam freely. Rather, each individual belonged not merely to a plethora of intermediary institutions, but he was also essentially corporate by his very nature of belonging. Thus, “personality identity was expressed in terms of what a man belonged to, not what he was” with medieval life being “nothing so much as a complex of fellowships.”[3] From the Roman republican inheritance of family, the medieval accepted patriarchy and the supremacy—in political and legal matters—of the man. Additionally, it related almost all things in society to kinship, whether that kinship be biological or fictive. “Most of the associations, like the feudal fief, were contractual in origin,” Nisbet argued, “nevertheless in structure and function, as well as aim, they were high suggestive of kinship organization.”[4] Members of the various organizations pledged loyalty to one another, thus binding them to the new as well as to the eternal. Consequently, law was based on customs, norms, mores, and habits. Indeed, “the idea of an absolute monarch as the source of law and as superior to law was wholly alien to medieval civilization,” and, therefore, “law arose out of the social life of the people, out of customs, and especially from the inner order of the associations and groups.”[5] Law represented not sovereignty but responsibility. And, so contrary to our present world, “law was private.”[6] Because authority and society were so pluralistic, the medieval concept of the world rejected both statism and individualism.

From the Roman empire, however, there lingered subversive notions of public law and public sovereignty of the state. A combination of centralizing political authorities as well as financial institutions and industrial concerns—that despised the myriad interconnectedness of private law—aligned to fight the group in the late Medieval period. “It was the revival of Roman law and the rapid acceptance of its tenets during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries that began the process of dissolution through which the social groups were to pass during the succeeding centuries,” Nisbet lamented. The new laws—now public—could bypass and undermine the private laws of kinship and custom. This resulted in the destruction, albeit at varying speeds, of the group as the critical institution. “Between the individual and the state there were to be no competing authorities. Roman law set over against the unitary state an aggregate of free and independent individuals who in their private sphere were separate and discrete,” Frederick Teggart explained, claiming that the private sphere was blatantly emasculated. “The whole body of Roman law was obviously a convenient weapon for the territorial princes anxious to consolidate their realms by eradicating the corporate threats to their sovereignty.”[7] Armed with public and positive law, the state made its relationship with the individual rather than the group. “The state is actually an indispensable adjunct of individualism,” Nisbet concluded. “In its extreme form one presupposes the other.”[8]

Over the following centuries, social philosophers such as Bodin, Hobbes, and Rousseau employed Roman law in their philosophies to undermine and sabotage private law and intermediary institutions. Each was, in his own way, an exponent of statism and of individualism, Nisbet explained. Their thought—but especially Rousseau’s—culminated in the French Revolution and, most particularly, in its radical and nationalist legislation. “It was Rousseau, however, who gave expression in the eighteenth century to the most direct attack upon all forms of the social group, and who exalted to their highest reach the doctrines of the unified state and the sovereign individual,” Nisbet wrote. “It was Rousseau more than any other thinker, who shaped the theory of sovereignty into its present form.”[9] Further, the young man continued,

In Rousseau’s work the theory of national sovereignty reaches its climax. So also does the theoretical destruction of the social group. All authority is vested in the sovereign will of the state, and the existence of any association between the individual and the sovereign is regarded as a menace to social stability.[10]

Thus, statism and individualism work together in tandem to destroy the traditions of society, the family, community, and the church. Yet, Nisbet cautioned, one should never believe for a moment that any of these thinkers, especially Rousseau, thought much of the individual human person. Instead, the individual that each described existed merely for the sake of argument, theory, and ideology, not for the sake of reality. “Man is envisaged, for theoretical purposes at least, as homo naturalis on one side, and homo politicus on the other.”[11] All, then, that connects one individual to another in the mind of Bodin, Hobbes, and Rousseau was a simple contract.

The French Revolution, though, made the theory reality, and the state became total for the first time in modern history. Many laws, however, especially those passed in 1673 and 1699 in France, had already laid the groundwork for the work of French revolutionaries. Yet, the Revolution took all such ideas to the extreme. As early as 1789 in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of Citizen, the revolutionaries revealed their love of Rousseau’s Social Contract. Article Three stated: “The principle of all sovereignty resides essentially in the nation. No body nor individual may exercise any authority which does not proceed directly from the nation.” Article Six stated:

Law is the expression of the general will. Every citizen has a right to participate personally, or through his representative, in its foundation. It must be the same for all, whether it protects or punishes. All citizens, being equal in the eyes of the law, are equally eligible to all dignities and to all public positions and occupations, according to their abilities, and without distinction except that of their virtues and talents.

Each of these reflected Rousseau’s own conceptions. His theory, he wrote, “all come[s] down to just one, namely the total alienation of each associate with all of his rights [transferred] to the whole community,” and, thus, he continued, “Each of us puts his person and his full power in common under the supreme direction of the general will; and in a body we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole.”[12] Following the Declaration, the French revolutionaries officially confiscated Roman Catholic property, and thus emulating the English monarch, Henry VIII. In March 1791, two years after the Declaration, the French abolished trade unions and corporations, and soon followed this up with the abolition of all mutual aid societies, especially those that provided aid for the poor. It should be noted, Nisbet stressed, the French were not merely abolishing all groups that had come prior to the Revolution but those that were yet to come. In September 1792, the French changed marriage from a covenant to a civil contract. A year later, the state assumed the sole right to educate children. Through these various acts, “The French Revolution marked the triumph of the state over all competing groups,” and consequently introduced totalitarianism to the modern Western world.[13]

All of the above Nisbet stated in just two of the six chapters of the dissertation. Chapters 3-5 examined Bonald, Lamennais, Comte, LePlay, and Durkheim’s reaction to the French Revolution and their attempt—in theory and practice—to revive the intermediary group within French society. In summary, Nisbet wrote:

From Bonald to Durkheim, the theory was associated with a re-assertion of the spiritual and moral aspects of society. It was Bonald’s denial of the right of the state to control the Church, and his insistence that religion is the constituent principle of society, which initiated the theory of the social group. Each of the theorists who followed Bonald, from Lamennais to Durkheim, continued to emphasize the spiritual or moral nature of society.[14]

In their attacks on the motivations and results of the French Revolution, the French conservatives of the nineteenth century attempted to counter the supremacy of the individual and the state, and they recalled fondly medieval decentralization and lack of governance by any single political body. These conservatives sought to re-invigorate personalism and the individual drive for excellence rather than conformity.

This essay is the second in a two-part series on Robert Nisbet’s dissertation. The first may be read here.

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[1] Robert Nisbet, “Preface,” The Social Group in French Thought, ii.

[2] Ibid., v.

[3] Nisbet, The Social Group in French Thought, 4-5.

[4] Ibid., 8.

[5] Ibid., 12-13.

[6] Ibid., 15.

[7] Nisbet, The Social Group in French Thought, 21. “Emasculated” is Nisbet, The Social Group in French Thought, 27.

[8] Nisbet, The Social Group in French Thought, 32.

[9] Ibid., 71.

[10] Ibid., 80.

[11] Ibid., 81.

[12] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract and Other Later Political Writings, ed. by Victor Gourevitch (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 50.

[13] Nisbet, The Social Group in French Thought, 98

[14] Ibid., 241.

The featured image is “Club of Patriotic Women in a Church” (1793) by Chérieux and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.

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