The social question

Thomas C. Kohler writes on the importance of Christian tradition. Specifically, on the importance of Christian tradition in creating the conditions for social solidarity in the modern period:

Among Catholics, sustained and sophisticated reflection on social, economic, and political problems stretches back to the time of the French Revolution, when on the night of August 4, 1789, the National Assembly simply abolished the existing order. François Furet wrote that this night “marks the moment when a juridical and social order, forged over centuries, composed of a hierarchy of separate orders, corps, and communities, and defined by privileges, somehow evaporated, leaving in its place a social world conceived in a new way as a collection of free and equal individuals subject to the universal authority of law.” Those decisions, Furet remarked, amounted to “philosophy’s destruction of a world.”

The nearly overnight creation “of a wholly modern, individualistic society,” Furet points out, posed a new and monumental problem: Just how would these free, sovereign, equal, and wholly autonomous individuals be related to and united with one another? This is the heart of what came to be known as “the social question,” which raises fundamental queries about human nature and the possibilities for pursuing life in common. It addresses political, economic, and legal relationships; the nature of the family, work, and other social relationships; the role of the state; the institutions of civil society; the anthropology of the person; and more. Thinkers as diverse as Karl Marx, John Stuart Mill, Edmund Burke, Alexis de Tocqueville, Herbert Spencer, Max Weber, and the holders of the Chair of Peter, to name but a few, all have addressed the social question in one form or another. It largely defined nineteenth- and twentieth-century politics, with communism and nationalism posing two of the most powerful and dangerous ideological answers. Perhaps more than any other, it remains the most pressing issue of our day as well.

The humanities in general, and philosophy in particular, are consistently given short shrift. Young people are essentially told not to bother with it, or worse, to indulge exposure to it with a wink. These attitudes are totally contrary to my lived experience. My connection to literature, to history, to philosophy, and to faith are what get me up in the morning. They provide context for my life—for my hopes, for my struggles, for my relationships, for everything. For these reasons, I really like the phrase Kohler uses: “philosophy’s destruction of a world.” Because philosophy can do that. It can seem so innocent, of periphery value, until it reshapes an entire order.

I also think there’s a lot to the idea that “the social question” born in 1789 remains “the most pressing issue of our day,” because it’s one we’re litigating every day in global politics, if not philosophy.