The Original Basis of Social Unity

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Start, Plato says, from shelter, clothing, food, and shoes.  Start from these, he says, and I will show you an entire economy.

For to make these things, he observes, you need tools, and raw materials.  But these tools and raw materials themselves need to be produced, and so you need other tools, and other raw materials.  Now trace such reasoning back many steps.  And then the tools, raw materials, and products need to be delivered: you, therefore, need merchants, wholesalers, and retailers.

And some of these enterprises need financing: you need banks.  The various exchanges need to be kept track of: you need bookkeepers or accountants.  But then the system needs supervision, so that the exchanges remain fair: and so you need regulations, sheriffs, and courts.  And you need to protect the whole thing against persons who might attack it from without: you need an army.

Finally, now that a whole has been constituted, i. e., “civil society,” you need someone to oversee the good of this whole thing, which is “civil government.”

This is the classical argument for man’s being by nature a social animal, recounted in Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Bellarmine, and others.  It is also the argument for government’s having God’s authority, since God made nature and made us this way.

Plato asks us to start from shelter, clothing, food and shoes, because living animals need these things, but human beings noticeably do not have them at birth.  (How could someone move about at all on the harsh limestone of Greece without good shoes?)  We speak of the “nuptial meaning” of the body as male and female, but we might equally speak of the “social meaning” of the human body as naked, a meaning that was obvious to the ancients.

When they walked from their stable to their home and saw a swaddled infant child there, they saw nature telling them that we, in contrast, are meant to live cooperatively with one another.  On the flip side, when they walked from their homes to the marketplace, they saw there a natural institution, intended by nature as the original basis of social unity.

On the classical argument, however, although the market and civil society develop at first to remedy those things in which nature had left us destitute, it does not stop there, at what Plato derisively dismisses as a mere “city of pigs.”

Once necessities are stably supplied, then, as Bellarmine points out, we realize that without civil society we would remain “ignorant, and destitute of wisdom and of justice and of many other virtues, although, indeed, we are born for this very purpose, expressly to cultivate our mind and our will.” (De Laicis, I.5)  Civil society is required for both.  Try to invent calculus yourself, devise truth tables to produce logic boards, write an elegant piano sonata (after inventing and making a piano), or compose an accurate book of human anatomy, just for starters.

But what Bellarmine says about cultivation of the will is perhaps most interesting. He is assuming that justice is the cardinal virtue that qualifies the will so as to make it resolute in rendering to each what is due. “It is impossible,” he says, “to exercise justice except in society, since it is the virtue determining equity among many.”


In saying this, he echoes a view that goes back to Aquinas and Aristotle.  The will, rather than mere emotions, they thought, is activated only when we view others “at arm’s length,” so to speak.  Insofar as we view others as part of an extended family or tribe, we do not yet act towards them with the virtue of justice.

Arguably, any form of Marxism, for all its talk of justice, never elicits acts of true justice, but simply class-based tribalism.  With civil society, however, comes the (bourgeois) notion of “impartially related fellow citizen.”

I share with you these views – still largely affirmed within the “liberalism” of the American founding, but part of a lost inheritance now – because they provide a key, I think, for understanding so much of what is going on today.

I’ll give you only a few examples, considered almost at random.

Because we are a rich society, we conceive of the economy as supplying luxuries, not necessities, and for consumption, not contribution.  Thus, only some businesses are “necessary,” we suppose, and to shut down businesses is to place a moratorium on consumption only, not on the fundamental form of human sociability.  When we have shut down this type of sociability for many months, we are surprised by destructive riots.

In shutting down not simply businesses but also schools and all institutions of culture, for the sake of months of longer life for the few – not to mention weddings, funerals, and religious worship – we declare that the economy exists for nothing beyond meeting natural needs: we make ourselves citizens of Plato’s “city of pigs.”

What is called “woke capitalism” is the poisoning of the springs of human cooperation by an essentially tribalistic outlook marked by bullying and silencing of dissent.  It does not recognize “the market,” broadly considered as an independent source of unity, meant to bind us together, as human beings, despite our often sharp religious or ideological differences (as Hayek so perceptively explained in a modern idiom).

The corrupting role of the smartphone cannot be discounted. With a smartphone, a young teenager who has made no contribution to the corporate “cultivation of mind and will,” sometimes called “civilization” – who is, in fact, in no position whatsoever to make any such contribution – nevertheless flatters himself that he is a wondrous “creator” of content, because of how he can edit some transiently entertaining videos (study the rise in importance of Tik Tok).

And then the essentially narcissistic passions enflamed by the smartphone make for quick and strong group bonding, full of anger, an emotion that, notoriously, has always been – perhaps never more so than now – in danger of being mistaken for a sense of justice.


*Image: White Sow with Piglets by Niko Pirosmani, c. 1900 [Georgian National Museum, Tbilisi]

Michael Pakaluk, an Aristotle scholar and Ordinarius of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas, is a professor in the Busch School of Business at the Catholic University of America. He lives in Hyattsville, MD with his wife Catherine, also a professor at the Busch School, and their eight children. His acclaimed book on the Gospel of Mark is The Memoirs of St Peter. His most recent book, Mary's Voice in the Gospel of John: A New Translation with Commentary, is now available. His new book, Be Good Bankers: The Divine Economy in the Gospel of Matthew, is forthcoming from Regnery Gateway in the spring. Prof. Pakaluk was appointed to the Pontifical Academy of St Thomas Aquinas by Pope Benedict XVI.