Miscellany: on community

I think you made some important observations but I would like you to develop your thoughts a bit further. You wrote that the desire for security is what impels individuals to form communities. This was the view of the philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who is among the philosophical patriarchs of the political tradition out of which America was born. You also quoted Aristotle to the effect that man naturally inclines toward community. These conceptions seem to be at odds with one another. After all, the first view holds that human beings seek communities in spite of their essential nature as individual human beings while the second holds that they seek communities because of it. Which of these views is correct? Or if they are both correct, how do you reconcile them?

I also wondered whether the “Hobbesian” view of community that you suggested managed to encompass all of the communities that we encounter. Let’s take our class, for instance. Is it really feasible to trace the formation of our “critical thinking community” to a wish on each of its individual members (i.e. you and I and your classmates) to achieve safety and security? Maybe it is but I would like to hear how you see this.

In respect to your question: briefly, I find it difficult to answer the question as to why communities exist in the way you framed it. It’s not clear that it has a natural answer. Why do numbers exist? Why do tulips exist? At the same time, I think the existence of communities is a basic expression of the fundamental nature of reality. It is hard to express but if you meditate on the meaning of “One” or “one-ness” it will eventually take you close to this. One is not a number like other numbers, but rather it is the origin of them. Imagine all the numbers as fractions of One rather than aggregations of units and perhaps you will see what I am getting at. Are you familiar with John 1:1?

***

I especially appreciated the sentiment that you expressed in your final paragraph about concern over the effects of Corona. I feel the same way and this is largely what encouraged me to place the question of community before us this week. In one sense, the shadow of the Crown is an enemy of community because it severely curtails our ability to enjoy relations of physical proximity with one another. You identified this as an element of community though I do not think it is a sine qua non or an essential element. Given that it is something of a condition we are bound to accept today, I wonder if you have ideas as to how we can foster community in spite of this restriction on physical community. In the end, perhaps we can transform the present situation into a catalyst for spiritual community. Do you know the etymology of diabolical? I think it paints a very expressive picture of what is happening. At the same time, in Goethe’s Faust, the devil says:

Ich bin ein Teil von jener Kraft,/Die stets das Böse will und stets das Gute schafft.

“I am part of that power which/would do forever evil and which does eternal good.”

We see the same in the archetype of Judas: in doing evil, he makes straight the way to the deed of the highest love. “God works in mysterious ways, his wonders to perform,” it has been observed. I will be curious to hear your thoughts on this.

***

Thank you for submitting your reflection. I think you presented the nature of community with exemplary clarity. I especially appreciated your example of the Catholic priest who flouts the essential tenets of his faith. It suggests to me that, of all enemies to community, hypocrisy is perhaps the worst. It makes sense because the hypocrite neglects to orient himself towards the principle or ideal of the community while still professing to do so. If a wall starts to rot, a carpenter can replace the boards. But it termites hollow out the wood from the inside, the whole structure might collapse before the deficiency is observed. I imagine hypocrisy being more deleterious than errant enmity in this respect. 

This connection also helps me articulate something that I had not been able to put my finger on before and perhaps you will find this of interest even if you do not consider yourself a member of the particular community from which this example hails. Jesus is often depicted as very forgiving and compassionate. He develops a reputation of supping with heretics and tax collectors etc. But in one respect he is severe and utterly uncompromising: namely, his repudiation of hypocrites in positions of authority. Some of the harshest invective in the English language comes from the mouth of Jesus. Some of it is positively Shakespearean. Consider Matthew 23:

23Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone. 24Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel.

25Woe unto you, scribes andPharisees, hypocrites! for ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess. 26Thou blind Pharisee, cleanse first that which is within the cup and platter, that the outside of them may be clean also. 

27Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness. 28Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity. 

29Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because ye build the tombs of the prophets, and garnish the sepulchres of the righteous, 30And say, If we had been in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets. 31Wherefore ye be witnesses unto yourselves, that ye are the children of them which killed the prophets. 32Fill ye up then the measure of your fathers. 33Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?

Do you think I am on the right track in identifying hypocrisy as the greatest bane of community?

***

I appreciated your observation that “geography alone doth not community make,” to put quaintly. At the same time, you alluded to the strength of community you experience with your daughter. I take it that you would experience this same intensity of community with her whether or not she were situated in the same geographical location as you. This leads me to my question which I hope can direct your inquiry toward the essence of “community”: what is lacking in the first case and present in the second case? If community is not identical with spatial proximity, what is it?

***

Thank you for submitting your reflection. I think we all understand the concept of “community” well enough to use it in a sentence. But, in the spirit of this class, we are trying to go beyond that by holding understanding to a higher standard. In this vein, I would like you to go deeper into something you wrote:

There is a sense of alignment between individuals in a community. The community itself is bigger than the individuals who make up the community. 

In respect to the first sentence: do you really mean that this sense of alignment exists in a community? Or would you rather say that this alignment exists as a community and in fact it just is the community, and to the degree that this alignment ceases to exist, so too does the community? By analogy, insofar as the points on the circumference of a circle cease to be equidistant from its center, it ceases to be a circle and increasingly becomes something other than a circle. It is not as though this quality of the circle exists in the circle because this quality just is what a circle is. Do you think I am taking this in the right direction?

In respect to the second sentence: I think you are alluding to the phrase “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” I think this connection can offer insight into the nature of community provided that we understand the analogical nature of the words “greater” and “bigger.” They are comparative terms but, evidently, they not referring to a spatial relations as we might naively imagine. In other words, we would not be able to resolve the question through measurement. I would like to hear from you what you take these terms to be referring to. 

***

I would like to encourage you to think about the meaning of “community” more intensively and attempt to grasp the essence of it. You can use the example that you gave as a doorway into this essence. I think you will begin to perceive connections between the example you gave and other things in the world that without having thought intensively about this concept, might escape you. For instance, can you see how your own body is a community in just the way that you described your hometown? In both cases, one can discover something like an “espirit de corps” that united all of the discreet and diverse members in a common bond.

***

I appreciated your observation that “community” implies an outside just as much as it implies an inside. I think that recognizing this as a basic and logically ineluctable fact, and establishing a healthy relationship with it, will be a defining challenge of the next decade. Very generally, the political Left seems to entertain the chimerical notion of a community with no outside and thus “Inclusiveness” and “Diversity” are regarded as secular gods. As you suggested, this is one-sided and it ultimately destroys the very community it is attempting to foster. It also subverts the same ideals that it professes to champion. An “all cows are grey at night” approach pits inclusiveness against diversity. Inclusiveness depends on difference as much as on similarity and the same could be said of diversity. The Right, by contrast, tends towards a fundamentalism in respect to the inside and outside of a given community and this leads to chauvinism and an inability to deal with the margin in a healthy way. I think this issue will be very difficult to grapple with because both sides seem to regard the other as the enemy and this prevents them from recognizing their own one-sidedness. I wonder if you have any thoughts on this.

***

Thank you for offering your reflection. I know that the pandemic has presented a challenge for everyone but it sounds like you have born the brunt of it.

You wrote that “the first thing I think of” when I hear the word “community” is a shared spatial location. In the spirit of this class, I encourage you to go beyond the first thing that you think of. The first thing that comes to mind can serve as a departure point for critical thinking but it is generally not adequate as the conclusion of it. If the first thing were already adequate, then no critical thinking would have been necessary. I have something described critical thinking as “taking a second look” or “thinking twice” about something with which we imagined we were already familiar.

Let’s try to undertake this starting with your beginning. Suppose that we affirm that “community” means “spatial proximity.” This would mean that, in the olden days, when two armies went into battle against one another, every time the opposing regiments mingled, they became part of the same community. This seems to stretch the meaning of that word beyond recognition because a condition for the armies to be at war with one another in the first place is that they not pertain to the same community. It suggests that there should be a different way of understanding this term. In a similar vein, we have attempted to foster a community in our class despite that—under the shadow of Corona—we have never shared the same spatial location and some of your classmates are even participating from outside of the state. How do these observations transform your understanding of “community”? 

*** 

You stumbled on a difficulty in respect to homogeneity of a community and its relationship to that community’s strength. I think there are a number of ways to look at this. One is by analogy. Imagine the community that is composed by the incorporation of all of your body’s members. It will be immediately evident that if all of the members were identical, there could be no body to speak of. In fact, diversity is a sine qua non for the community to exist as such. I think a similar situation could be observed in respect to a political community. I think the essential element to grasp is that diversity tends to foster strength in a community provided that its members remain united in their orientation towards the specific ideal(s) that constitute the community in the first place. If “diversity” begins to encroach on the very spirit of the community itself, this is a form of “cancer.” More abstractly, the community ceases to exist to the same degree that its members become heterogenous in their fundamental orientation just as a circle ceases to exist to the degree that points on its circumference cease to share the property of equidistance from its center. Do you see what I am getting at here?

***

I think you managed to illuminate a number of essential elements in respect to the relationship between individuals and communities. I was especially interested in your observation about the contingency of the community on the individuals that make it up. Your way of putting it made perfect sense to me but it also left me wondering if it is really so unilateral. I wonder if there is a problem of equivocation with the word individual. In one case, we mean “individual irrespective of community” and in the other we mean “individual as member of a community.” It is clear that the first meaning of individual is not dependent for its existence on any community, at least in the abstract (i.e. any concrete actual person would not survive without social bonds), the second is correlative of a community and not independent of it. Do you see where I am going with this? The community of humankind, for instance, gives us our identities as human beings just as much as it receives its composition from us. I would be interested to hear any further reflections you may have on this once you have thought it over.

***

I think you managed to illuminate the essence of community. I had one question about something you wrote, and I wish to clarify your meaning. You spoke of pressures that may strain communities and listed a number of examples. This struck me as instances in which a given individual is magnetized by the ideals of two different communities that are in conflict with one another. Is this correct? Thinking of it in this way helps me to appreciate your assertion that “a community is only as strong as the individuals who create and uphold it”  because it is clear in a case like this that the individual will be tasked with reconciling these competing interests and to the degree that he does not manage this himself, this conflict will spill out into the communities that he participates in. Have I followed your line of thinking here?

***

I was interested in the relation between (a) the elements of commonality that establish a community and (b) the elements of discord that you indicated would strain and even destroy it. It occurs to me that, in the final measure, perhaps the community is only as strong as the orientation of each of its individual members toward the presiding principle of commonality that establishes the community in the first place. In other words, any disagreement can be weathered except the one that severs this connection of the community’s members to its principle. By analogy, our own bodies are like this: a wound will heal as long as the member retains its incorporation in the body. Perhaps this can give us insight into the great community as the universal “Church” or “the body of Christ” in which we are all invited to partake. What do you think of this? You quoted St. Paul’s letter to the Church of Ephesus in your first response. Do you think he had a similar idea in mind in 1 Corinthians 12? And in Colossians 1:18: “And he is the head of the body, the church…”.

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