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The Enduring Achievement and Unfinished Work of Robert Nisbet

Issue Three

Jeanne Schindler

A longer version of this essay appeared as an appendix to the Intercollegiate Studies Institute's 2010 reprint of The Quest for Community. Material from that essay is used here with permission.

For forty years now, commentators from across the philosophical spectrum have sounded a common alarm: American democracy is in crisis. Observers from Michael Sandel to Robert Putnam to Mary Ann Glendon have voiced a basic concern that our polity is in serious disrepair and that one of its chief ailments is a decline in the institutions of civil society. Though the literature addressing this dimension of “democracy’s discontent,” as Sandel phrases it, has proliferated in recent years, those concerned about the problem would do well to revisit the work of eminent sociologist Robert Nisbet.[1]

His corpus, spanning five decades, constitutes a treasury of insight into social life that repays close examination today. Nisbet is an extraordinary diagnostician of modern social ills, and the acuity of his diagnosis owes much to his knowledge of history and attention to philosophical conflict. At the same time, the prescriptive dimension of his work remains incomplete, needing a more adequate theory of the state, human freedom, and the normative status of social institutions. Here the social ontology and political vision of Catholic social thought can correct and complete Nisbet’s already impressive achievement.

The Loose Individual in a Twilight Age

In his first book, the widely acclaimed Quest for Community (1953), Nisbet identified a strong strand of alienation and cultural unrest amidst the heady affluence, peace, and productivity of postwar America. Below the optimistic surface of the time lay a disturbing change in consciousness.

The culture shapers of the nineteenth century, fervent believers in progress and the power of unassisted reason, had celebrated the independent individual as their ideal. These rationalists held “the essence of society to lie in the solid fact of the discrete individual—autonomous, self-sufficing, and stable—and the essence of history to lie in the progressive emancipation of the individual from the tyrannous and irrational statuses handed down from the past.”[2] Increasingly free from the shackles of tradition and the binding ties of church, kin, guild, and locality, the hearty soul could fashion for himself a life as unique as talent and ingenuity could make it.

A powerfully centralized economy and omnicompetent state had undermined the authority of the township, family, church, university, and other institutions whose significance rests precisely upon the capacity to perform an indispensable function. Thus stripped of importance, the institutions in question no longer compel participation and allegiance, and the social bonds once forged within them wither.

Alexis de Tocqueville—for Nisbet a social observer of the keenest perception—readily identified this independent, if not rebellious, streak in the American mind. The American disposition, Tocqueville observed in the 1830s, was decidedly antitraditional: “The nearer the people are drawn to the common level of an equal and similar condition, the less prone does each man become to place implicit faith in a certain man or certain class of men.” Neither the clergy nor the professoriate retained automatic authority. Democratic equality, free markets, fluid property, and social mobility would be the hallmarks of the new republic.

While their proponents celebrated these changes as liberating, Tocqueville noticed certain baleful effects. Absent binding ties to place, class, and family name, Americans were becoming an ahistorical people, forgetful of the past, heedless of the future. Noting their preoccupation with the present, Tocqueville soberly observed: “The woof of time is every instant broken [here] and the track of generations effaced. Those who went before are soon forgotten; of those who will come after, no one has any idea: the interest of the man is confined to those in close propinquity to himself.”[3] Ironically, the very equality that seemed to render the American independent of others and ostensibly free from intellectual authorities increased “his readiness to believe the multitude.”[4] Without the sturdy roots of an inherited tradition, the lone thinker proved a weak reed, easily swayed by the current of popular opinion.

A century later, Robert Nisbet witnessed these effects in their maturity. It was, he lamented, a grim picture. While the watchwords of the nineteenth century had been progress, reason, freedom, and change, the twentieth century’s lexicon featured alienation, decline, disintegration, and insecurity. Shorn of his social connections, the rugged individual turned anxious, rootless, and prey to the lure of mass movements promising moral certainty and existential purpose. In fact, Nisbet insisted, the appeal of such ideologies as communism and fascism reflected the emergence of a “twilight age” in the West, an age in which “human loyalties, uprooted from accustomed soil, can be seen tumbling across the landscape with no scheme of larger purpose to fix them.” In this context, “[i]ndividualism reveals itself less as achievement and enterprise than as egoism and mere performance. Retreat from the major to the minor, from the noble to the trivial, the communal to the personal, and from the objective to the subjective is commonplace.”[5]

The characteristic personality type of a twilight age is the figure Nisbet dubbed “the loose individual,”[6] the man bound by few constraints or compelling responsibilities, who is alienated from the past, from a sense of place, from meaningful connection to the natural world and its rhythms, and from tangible property. His freedom from the ties of class, religion, and kinship that defined his predecessors is accompanied “not by the sense of creative release but by the sense of disenchantment and alienation.”[7] His is an existence preoccupied by the self, by the disquiet of his inner consciousness.

As Nisbet surveyed the social scene at mid-century, he found one of its chief characteristics to be a disturbing decline of the institutions of civil society. These are the relationships that “mediate directly between man and his larger world of economic, moral, and political and religious values.”[8] Traditionally, it is within these groups that man has discovered his sense of self, his moral compass, his status and roles, and a world of symbolism that renders the cosmos intelligible. But by the mid-twentieth century, Nisbet argued, the traditional primary relationships of family, neighborhood, church, trade union, charity, and so forth had lost their functional importance. At one time the household, for instance, had been the site of indispensable economic functions, as the example of the family farm and workshop attests. But this system collapsed under the pressures of industrialization and the centralizing impetus of capitalism. Likewise, Nisbet observed, the neighborhood and town no longer retained serious political significance, with the center of political gravity in America shifted to the federal government.[9]

Yet, the family, the church, and other primary communities were still expected to play important roles in the moral formation and psychological development of their members. As Nisbet recognized, however, once a social institution loses significant functions and a place of status in the larger culture, its capacity to exert authority and evoke allegiance of any kind diminishes. Such institutions “must seem important” in the broader social order, “but to seem important they must be important.”[10]

Nisbet’s reflections on the state of the family are especially relevant today. “The family,” he wrote, “is a major problem in our culture simply because we are attempting to make it perform psychological and symbolic functions within a structure that has become fragile and an institutional importance that is almost totally unrelated to the economic and political realities of our society.”[11] In the modern economy, the family has little productive value and virtually no relevance for the formal category of citizenship and political participation; by and large, it is the individual who is the focal point of law, education, and culture.

Nisbet was not sanguine about the prospects for traditional social institutions. “State and economy alike,” he averred, “have, in effect, bypassed family and community to go straight to the individual, thus leaving him so often precariously exposed to the chilling currents of anonymity and isolation.”[12] A powerfully centralized economy and omnicompetent state had undermined the authority of the township, family, church, university, and other institutions whose significance rests precisely upon the capacity to perform an indispensable function. Thus stripped of importance, the institutions in question no longer compel participation and allegiance, and the social bonds once forged within them wither. A robust civil society gives way to a sea of disconnected individuals.

Nor did he see new associations emerging that could fulfill both the functional and psychological tasks once accomplished by these groups—hence the unsatisfied thirst for communal belonging that struck him as widespread and dangerous.

The acuity and prescience of Nisbet’s observations are remarkable, anticipating by several decades the disturbing findings of social observers like E. J. Dionne, who surveyed political disaffection in Why Americans Hate Politics, and Robert Putnam, who catalogued the collapse of communal organizations in Bowling Alone. Nisbet foresaw an impending social crisis because he perceived widespread alienation from the social order.

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.[13]

The New Laissez Faire

To reverse the trends of state power, social fragmentation, and individualism will require nothing less than a “revolution in ideas,” Nisbet insists. In The Quest for Community he proposes just such an alternative, “a new laissez faire.”[14] Unlike its namesake from classical liberalism, the new laissez faire would privilege the freedom of civil society, not merely the individual. Nisbet argues that a “unitary theory of democracy,” according to which the individual and the state are the central political actors, must be rejected; instead, democracy must foster the functional autonomy of groups and institutions.

In the concluding chapter of The Twilight of Authority (1975), Nisbet expands on this argument, sketching the central elements of the social pluralism he thinks essential for cultural renewal. The first of these is functional autonomy, according to which each significant social institution—from the family to the school to religious bodies to the economy—should enjoy maximum freedom in realizing its own proper ends, thus promoting a rich harmony of social voices rather than the dull monotone of state-imposed uniformity. Functional autonomy requires decentralization—that is, a revival of American federalism—as a close corollary, since the centralization of power enervates the wider social order. But a decentralization of political power is not enough; the scope of “the political” itself must shrink, to counter the state’s appropriation of once-social functions.[15]

Hierarchy and tradition are likewise indispensable elements of social pluralism. Against the equalitarian imperative, Nisbet argues that an appreciation of what is high, exceptional, distinctive, and rare is essential to a civilized culture. Similarly, in a time of stifling legalism and litigiousness, he proposes a return to social life governed as much as possible by informal customs and traditions of interaction so as to promote freedom and social vitality.

Nisbet’s Unfinished Work

From The Quest for Community to The Present Age, Nisbet’s chronicle of the decline of the social order, the rise of the military Leviathan, and the consequent widespread experience of alienation is illuminating and persuasive. It reflects a capacious intelligence capable of synthesizing material from a host of disciplines and sources. Nisbet’s powers of description are extraordinary. The prescriptive elements in his work are also compelling, but they require fuller development and a more satisfying foundation. To achieve social pluralism requires moving beyond historical description and sociological analysis to social ontology—that is, to philosophical and theological anthropology. The vision of man, society, and politics found in Catholic social thought provides the resources needed to establish the pluralism Nisbet desires.

From the perspective of Catholic social thought, one of the cardinal strengths of Nisbet’s approach is its resolute rejection of reductionism on the one hand and determinism on the other. In his magisterial introduction to the study of sociology The Social Bond, Nisbet warns against “the reductionist fallacy” of explaining higher levels of reality by exclusive appeal to the operation of lower levels.[16] Moreover, he insists that social life has a substantial reality that cannot be reduced to the behavior of individuals: “We do not really see ‘individuals’ in the sense of discrete, elemental human particles in the world around us.” Rather, we see “human beings only in the roles, statuses, and modes of social interaction which are the stuff of human society. And these roles, statuses, and modes of interaction are social—that is, they belong to an order of reality that is every bit as solid and differentiable as are the atoms dealt with by physicists, the molecules and substances by chemists, and the tissues and organs by biologists.”[17]

True to his principles, Nisbet examines the highest reaches of human experience, including man’s experience and symbolization of the sacred. Unlike some of his determinist colleagues who would view religion as mere epiphenomenon, Nisbet views the sacred as “the historical and continuing core of culture.”[18] Our religious symbols and norms testify to human freedom; we are more than atomic clusters, we are more than the sum of material processes of any kind—biological, physiological, or economic.

Still, Nisbet is reluctant to address the question of religious truth per se. This is a significant lacuna in his work, because he himself acknowledges that ideas matter and does not hesitate to offer stringent normative judgments on a range of disputed questions. “Everything vital in history reduces itself ultimately to ideas, which are the motive forces.”[19] If this is true, then our ideas about God and the nature and destiny of man must matter especially. But if this is true, then it will not suffice to appeal to the importance of “the sacred” or “traditions” or “customs” generically understood. For as both history and contemporary experience attest, conceptions of the sacred and the ways of life to which they give rise differ dramatically, and not all will sustain the vision of a free social order that Nisbet proposes.

Here is where a Catholic anthropology is especially pertinent. To protect human freedom from a degrading determinism or the predations of political power, one must demonstrate that there is something sacred and inviolable about each human being. Christianity has a singular capacity to do this, for it affirms the transcendent origin and destiny of every person. As Pope John Paul II expressed it in Evangelium Vitae, “Man is called to a fullness of life which far exceeds the dimensions of his earthly existence, because it consists in sharing the very life of God. The loftiness of this supernatural vocation reveals the greatness and the inestimable value of human life even in its temporal phase.”

The dignity of the individual affirmed here does not imply the individualism Nisbet fears. To the contrary, created in the image of a Trinitarian God, man is intrinsically social, precisely designed for community. It is only in and through community that man realizes his fundamental vocation to love. As the Second Vatican Council put it in Gaudium et spes, God “willed that all men should constitute one family and treat one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” This fraternal spirit is expressed first in the intimate life of the family and moves to “intermediate communities” that give rise to “specific networks of solidarity,” within which the human person develops his gifts morally, intellectually, and spiritually.[20]

This description dovetails with Nisbet’s celebration of intermediate groups, voluntary associations, and the like. But an important difference emerges in The Quest for Community. In the Preface to the 1970 edition, Nisbet strenuously objects to the idea that he is nostalgic for an earlier way of life or old forms of community. “Only the archaist,” he insists, “would say that these specific bonds are necessary”—hence Nisbet’s plea for new groups and associations independent from, and as a curb upon, the overweening modern state. The problem with this formulation is that it does not recognize the possibility that some social institutions both perform an essential function and do not admit of significant alteration.

Catholic social thought, by contrast, recognizes that not only do human beings enjoy a nature with distinctive ends and prerogatives, but that social institutions do too. As Russell Hittinger has argued, the Church understands that social institutions, like marriage, the family, the church, and the state, are vested with authority to carry out an irreplaceable mission.[21] And in the case of certain of these, such as marriage and the church, the precise form of the institution is indispensable: the family, rooted in heterosexual, monogamous marriage, and a hierarchical church are designed by God with a structure uniquely suited to their purposes.

Nisbet might resist this contention, for he tends to assign an instrumental value to institutions and traditions, hence his assertion that “there is no single type of family, anymore than there is a single type of religion, that is essential to personal security and collective prosperity.”[22] At times it seems that Nisbet is more concerned with what works than with what is. In a similar vein, he claims that a strong connection to the past is important “if only for its functional necessity to revolt.” “How can there be a creative spirit of youthful revolt,” he asks, “when there is nothing for revolt to feed upon but itself?”[23] Indeed, Nisbet thinks that the disenchantment of the age “would be no misfortune were it set in an atmosphere of confident attack upon the old and search for the new.” But Nisbet offers little analysis, let alone normative appraisal, of the ideas, institutions, and traditions that are the objects of said revolt. In certain places his work suffers from a corresponding inattention to qualitative differences, which leads him to make such breezy and dubious comparisons as between the hierarchy of the Catholic Church and the modern “political clerisy” devoted to centralized power; the operations of both groups, he casually remarks, lead to a stifling homogeneity, uniformity, and monism of power.[24]

The lack of subtlety in this kind of comparison ill befits a mind as searching and powerful as Nisbet’s. Perhaps his training and enculturation in sociology is to blame; philosophical and theological waters are deep and formidable. Or perhaps Nisbet’s exquisite sensitivity to the liberty of the individual primed him for an allergic reaction to any aggregation of authority. After all, there are distinctly libertarian notes in his conception of freedom, which, he stresses, “lies in the interstices of authority” and is safeguarded only to the extent that one has the possibility of release from any given authority.[25] Ironically, this formulation of freedom threatens to undermine the very institutions of civil society Nisbet considers valuable, for it implies that every social tie is tentative and every authoritative claim defeasible. It is difficult to see how crucially important social institutions such as marriage and the church, which depend upon irrevocable vows and obedience—to say nothing of institutions like the family, in which obligations precede an act of the will—could retain their meaning given such an understanding of freedom.

Nisbet is, of course, especially concerned about freedom from state power. Rather than limiting itself to what it does best—“maintain order”—the modern state routinely impinges upon the liberty of its citizens; the scope of its law virtually limitless, the tentacles of Leviathan invade every quarter.[26]

While Nisbet’s basic instinct regarding the state’s undue accumulation of power is unobjectionable, it needs refining in light of a more adequate conception of freedom and political authority. According to Catholic social thought, freedom is the fulfillment of our nature, a kind of flourishing achieved only through the cultivation of virtue. But cultivating virtue is a social enterprise, resting not only on the initiative of the individual but also, crucially, the aid of many other agents, from the family to friends to the church and school to the neighborhood and even the state. In accord with the principle of subsidiarity, the latter shouldn’t usurp the proper authority and functions of any other unit, but by the same token it enjoys its own sphere of competence. And that sphere includes not only the minimalist liberal task of maintaining order but more importantly the promotion of the common good, which includes the moral health of the citizenry.

So, from a Catholic perspective, legal restrictions in a range of areas Nisbet deems “private” (for instance, pornography and sexual relations) would not in principle violate individual liberty properly understood. In fact, they may be critical to achieving virtue—the sine qua non of freedom. Further, such laws might be indispensable to maintaining the kinds of institutions, associations, and traditions that comprise civil society.[27]

Nisbet’s vision of social pluralism is a rich and appealing one. His essential insight that “neither moral values, nor fellowship, nor freedom can easily flourish apart from the existence of diverse communities each capable of enlisting the loyalties of its members,” coupled with his warnings about how state power erodes our primary associations, merits long and careful consideration.[28] To do so in light of a Christian anthropology and the insights of the Catholic social tradition promises to enrich this consideration, since the subject of the social order takes on ontological depth and transcendent meaning.

Dr. Jeanne Schindler is a Fellow of the John Paul II Institute. Until 2013 she was an associate professor at Villanova University. Dr. Schindler’s intellectual interests are interdisciplinary, integrating philosophy, theology, and political science. She has lectured and published in a variety of areas, including Catholic social thought and democratic theory. She edited Christianity and Civil Society: Catholic and Neo-Calvinist Perspectives (2008) and co-edited with her husband, D.C. Schindler, A Robert Spaemann Reader (Oxford University Press, 2015). Dr. Schindler is a homeschooling mother of three children.


[1] For Sandel, “democracy’s discontent” manifests itself in two primary anxieties: “One is the fear that, individually and collectively, we are losing control of the forces that govern our lives. The other is the sense that, from family to neighborhood to nation, the moral fabric of community is unraveling around us” (Democracy’s Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy [Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1996], 3). Arguably, both stem from the decline of civil society noted by Nisbet.

[2] Robert Nisbet, The Quest for Community (Oxford University Press, 1970; reprinted with new Preface 1973), 4.

[3] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, vol. 2 (New York: Vintage Classics, 1990), 99. Nisbet is similarly concerned about the loss of a sense of history, as he explains: “Man, it is said, is a time-binding creature; past and future are as important to his natural sense of identity as the present. Destroy his sense of the past, and you cut his spiritual roots, leaving momentary febrility but no viable prospect of the future” (Quest for Community, x).

[4] Tocqueville, vol. 2, 10.

[5] Robert Nisbet, The Twilight of Authority (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000), xi.

[6] Nisbet’s designation follows Dr. Johnson’s evocative description of the man who “hung loose upon society” (Robert Nisbet, The Present Age: Progress and Anarchy in Modern America [Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1988], 87).

[7] Nisbet, The Quest for Community, 10.

[8] Nisbet, The Quest for Community, 49.

[9] Ibid., 54.

[10] Nisbet, The Twilight of Authority, 76.

[11] Nisbet, The Quest for Community, 62.

[12] Nisbet, The Twilight of Authority, 76.

[13] Nisbet, The Quest for Community, ix.

[14] Nisbet, The Quest for Community, 278; The Present Age, 139; The Twilight of Authority, 252.

[15] Nisbet, The Quest for Community, 104.

[16] Robert Nisbet, The Social Bond: An Introduction to the Study of Society (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1970), 46–47.

[17] Ibid., 45–46.

[18] Nisbet, The Present Age, 112.

[19] Nisbet, The Twilight of Authority, 213.

[20] Centesimus Annus, §49 in The Social Agenda: A Collection of Magisterial Texts, eds. Robert A. Sirico and Maciej Zieba (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2000), 31.

[21] Hittinger helpfully identifies a development in Catholic social thought beginning with the Pian encyclicals according to which institutions possess “social munera” (missions or vocations) akin to the threefold mission of priest, prophet, and king (the triplex munera Christi) that every baptized Christian is called to respond to. See his “Social Pluralism and Subsidiarity in Catholic Social Doctrine,” in Christianity and Civil Society: Catholic and Neo-Calvinist Perspectives, ed. Jeanne Heffernan Schindler (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books), 11–29.

[22] In this instrumentalist mode, Nisbet states even more clearly that with reference to the social goods of cohesion and prosperity, “religion is not indispensable so long as there is some other pattern of meanings and purposes which will do the same thing” (“Moral Values and Community” in Tradition and Revolt: Historical and Sociological Essays [New York: Random House, 1968], 136).

[23] Nisbet, The Quest for Community, x.

[24] Nisbet, The Twilight of Authority, 259.

[25] Nisbet, The Quest for Community, 270.

[26] Nisbet, The Twilight of Authority, 221.

[27] A concrete example of this can be found in Michael Sandel’s illuminating discussion of obscenity jurisprudence. In what would spark fierce constitutional controversy, the city of Renton, Washington, passed an ordinance restricting the location of pornographic theaters, and it did so precisely on the grounds that such establishments would damage civil society. As Sandel recounts, the city council argued that the presence of “adult” theaters “‘gives an impression of legitimacy to, and causes a loss of sensitivity to the adverse effect of pornography upon children, established family relations, respect for marital relationship and for the sanctity of marriage relations of others,’ and that locating such entertainment in close proximity to homes, churches, parks, and schools ‘will cause a degradation of the community standard of morality’” (Democracy’s Discontent, 78). One can find a similar rationale in laws designed to discourage sexual vice, such as the statute overturned in Eisenstadt v. Baird (1972), which prohibited the distribution of contraceptives to unmarried persons.

[28] “Moral Values and Community,” 141.

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