Modern liberal political philosophy has tended to take among its central questions: what is the proper relationship between the individual and the state? What rights does the individual have against the state, how do we select which individuals make decisions for the state? These are the central questions explored by John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Likewise the famous frontispiece of Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan, produced by Abraham Bosse in collaboration with Hobbes, depicts a giant man (the monarch) who is made up of hundreds of smaller people – the state and the individuals.
These are, I submit, the wrong questions for political philosophy to ask. A key problem with the Hobbes-Locke-Rousseau approach is it doesn’t think enough about what individuals are and why they would need a state. “Protection from violence” is the usual answer to the latter question, and it’s a venerable one – the idea that a state is established to protect its people is found in the Aggañña Sutta, in a passage that modern treatises on Buddhism quote all over the place (though it’s a blink-and-you-miss-it passage in the original). But individuals need much more than protection from violence!
Humans have always been social creatures, since before we evolved from chimps. One can argue whether there was such a thing as a state of nature in which human beings actually lived, and perhaps about whether that state would have been poor, nasty, brutish and short. But contra Hobbes, we know for sure that any natural state has never been solitary!
Rather, as I discussed last time, human goods have always involved a largely shared component. This is true whether the goods we seek are basic survival, creative self-actualization, or anything in between. We need some protection from other people to achieve the goods of our lives, but more than that we need the support and community of other people. This is a point realized well by Aristotle (Hobbes’s major foe) when he begins the Politics with the concept of koinonia – a partnership, association, community, which seeks a common good. The polis, “the state”, is merely one special kind of koinonia – the highest kind, in Aristotle’s view, but still a kind, not set apart from the others.
We all spend our lives enmeshed in many such communities and institutions. They include families, workplaces, schools, professional organizations like the APA and AAR, condominium associations, monastic institutions, and more. Before he discusses the state, Aristotle begins with the management of the household – oikonomia, the root of the modern word “economics”. Śāntideva’s attitude to participation in the state is always negative – kings should give their kingdoms away – and despite his strong altruism he sings the praises of isolation in the forest as a way to cultivate one’s mind. But even for Śāntideva there is at least one koinonia to which that negative attitude does not apply, and that is the monastic institution, the saṅgha; in chapter 3 of the Śikṣā Samuccaya he spends several pages discussing how one should behave toward this institution (such as not using its property for individual purposes).
Where modern Western political philosophy has gone wrong, I think, is in its focus on governments at the expense of other communities and institutions. This emphasis is in some ways puzzling. We often have far less ability to affect governments – especially national or provincial governments – than other institutions like our families, workplaces and houses of worship. I think the Confucian Great Learning (Daxue, 大學) is wise to advise, in Charles Muller’s translation: “The ancients who wanted to manifest their bright virtue to all in the world first governed well their own states. Wanting to govern well their states, they first harmonized their own clans. Wanting to harmonize their own clan, they first cultivated themselves.” (The word rendered “clan” is jia 家, which also means “family” or “household”.) Much philosophizing about the state is idle talk about how we wish things would be, in ways we are powerless to affect. Often its greatest practical relevance is metaphorical. That is not true when we are thinking (as adults) about our households.
If there is anything that the Great Learning misses, it is other institutions outside the family yet smaller than the state. Hegel notices these, and groups them under the name bürgerliche Gesellschaft, “civil society” (or “bourgeois society”) – which he takes to be a characteristically modern phenomenon. I think he his wrong about that, for the premodern world too was made up of more than families and states – for one thing, there were clearly monasteries and churches, which had their own independent existence. Still, it is true that capitalist modernity sees a proliferation of other institutions – especially the bureaucracies of our workplaces, whether nonprofit (like a private university) or capitalist. Management theory – the theory of how to run such an organization – seems to me its own kind of political theory, though I think it rarely considers itself such.
In all of these communities and institutions – families, workplaces, monasteries – we come together as human beings to pursue the shared goods that are essential to our well-being. The state is one such kind of institution, but one that we have precious little ability to affect beyond the local level. It seems to me that political philosophy impoverishes itself by focusing on it. Better to cast one’s net wider on the proper functioning of communities and institutions in general, with the state as only one such institution.