Civil Society:

- its potential and its mystery -

by Joel A. Wendt


While the social body itself is  life-filled in its nature (organic), it is moved, just as our human bodies are moved, by the higher (and lower) principles of soul and spirit active within it.    Thus, the emergence, out of the general conditions of modern civilization of Civil Society, is the result of moral/spiritual impulses arising in human hearts.
These have reached a critical mass, in part as a response to the excesses and extremes of our lower nature that have to date seemed to dominate the formation of the global economy.   Even so, there is much more here than meets the eye.


It might help to look at the social world without coloring it with our values, with our likes and dislikes.  We do have this habit of mind that evalutes people, events, history - everything we might call the social world, the world of human beings and their associations and activities.  Now even though we evalute this shared social existence, we don't evaluate Nature in this way.  Nature we accept as a given, transformable yes, but not evil.  A great storm that floods and kills millions in Bangledesh is thought to be an act of chance (or god), and the poor who live on these flood plains often considered fools.

But a war we lay at the feet of human hearts.  Crime is the fault of criminals (or poverty if we are knee-jerk liberals).  Depending on our upbringing and many other factors, we all have our likes and dislikes, our loves and hates, and our assumptions about who is bad and who is good and who should be punished and who should be forgiven.

What is especially odd, if we bother to think about it, is that each individual has a differnent set of such values, and while we tend to join various communities with those who share ours, the fact is that many of the value systems consider the same social phenomena, but do not agree on their rightness or wrongness.  If we follow this out to its real logical conclusion, we will see that the social world, in itself, is not the values, but rather the values arise because of our individual relationship to the world.  Let's restate this, as it is central to the theme.

The social world, in itself, does not have the values by which we color it.   In fact, if we just think about how frequently others misjudge us, and how often we become aware of how others' interpretations of who we are is wrong, then we can see that this is true everywhere.  The valuations come from inside us, but are not implicity on the object (person, community, race, religion) that is being judged.

Now if we remove these colors, these personal values, from how we see the world, how will it look?

Perhaps, if we can learn to do this with the right warmth of heart, we will see that the World is a great and wonderous Play, unfolding in Theme a grand Mystery.

This is not to belittle, by the way, our own vision of the Good, the truth we hold dear when we look at the world and find it wanting, or full, as the case may be.   It is possible, and this I say from experience, to hold both views without contradiction.  In the one view, the one free of our personal sympathies and antipathies, we see a thousand miracles pregnant with life and surging human passion.  This view of the social world shows something apparently unbound, seemingly unfinished, and largely unknown in its most intimate depths.  The other view, the one colored by our values, tells us more about ourselves than about the world.  Think about it, for here is one of the miracles.

Perhaps we pick up the newspaper.  We read of the acts of politicians, criminals, terrorists, businessmen, armed youth in our schools, an endless collection of matters sometimes too terrible to contemplate, served up to us by educated men and women in the name of our right to know the gory details of the darkness in human souls.  Small wonder we are appalled, and spend our days in contemplation of how screwed up the world is and how, if just this or that was done in accord with our personal understanding, then the world would be better, be more light filled, and humane.

Or we go to work, and our bosses make unreasonable demands, while co-workers gossip, and our best friend sneaks out to have an affair with our spouse.   And then we get home, and the house needs cleaning but we are tired until mom calls and says she is coming over and out of guilt we rush about, meanwhile parking the children in front of the TV to watch a video with too much violence.

For truth to tell, we can turn our value seeing eye upon ourselves, and find that we too are wanting, weak, empty of high purpose, and not at all what we planned to be in our dreamy youth.

The Plains Indians of North America called this aspect of the world, the mirror.   The world, when we start to awake to its real nature serves to reflect back to us something of our own.  We value the world, we color it according to our likes and dislikes, our hopes and dreams, our vision of the Good.   That we do so is in no way a wrongness.

What a wonderful thing that we care, for in the heart is the seat of why we value.  We yearn for justice, for wrongs to be righted, for children to be perfect, for love for ourselves and all we know.   It is the heart which feels pain at failure, especially our own.   Sure we may feel guilt, but even more we feel loss, a small kind of death at the difference between what we really are and what we wish we could be.

Let us consider this some more, for it is central to approaching the Mystery of Civil Society.

One way we can see all this is to notice that the social world has an inside and an outside.  The inside seems intimate to us as individuals.  It is a psychological milieux, quite personal in its texture.  In fact so much so that we consider it the most private realm at all, one we have trouble even sharing with our closest friends and companions.

The outside would be the behaviors we observe in others.   Like the inside, this outside is incredibly rich and complex, although in thinking about the behaviors of others we often reduce our understanding of them to the most simple terms.  We see someone act in a way we do not like, and easily it comes to our mind an idea of their motives and reasons.  Yet, this is so odd, for at the same time we know in ourselves that our own behaviors are not at all based on simple motives and reasons.   In fact, we know that often we ourselves are unsure as to why we do what we do, even though we know more about our own inner realm than any other person possible can.

Now it is not the purpose of this essay to investigate this most intimate matter of our inner lives in great detail.  Those aspects I have placed under the section Mysteries of the Mind.  Rather what I want us to do here is sum up these facts, to make wholes out of them for the purpose of a better understanding of the social world.

To make this more concrete, let's consider some examples, both on a micro-level (intimate and personal) and a macro-level (large movements of communities of people).

We have a co-worker.  They are overweight.  We, on the other hand, eat right and work out.  We see this person everyday and there arises in us a reaction to this person, to their shape and form and to their habits of eating (we see them in the lunch room five days a week).  This reaction is not really thought out.  It is just there in our consciousness.   We have a value of a certain kind of health discipline, and someone not demonstrating that value is judged.  Not only that, but we might think to ourselves that this person has no will power, and that if they would just exercise their will, then they too could be healthy and fit.

The fact is, of course, that we walk through the social world constantly evaluating the behaviors of others of our acquaintance, and supposing we have insight into the whys and wherefores behind those behaviors.  It is also a fact that many of us, when they face this process of judging and evaluation directly (moving it from the semi-conscious realms into the conscious realms of our inwardness), exercise a deeper inner behavior.   We notice we have been judging and we alter that view and become more charitible.

On the macro-level, consider the Middle East, the nation of Israel and the Palestinians.  These are large congregations of individuals and we will often have discussions and thoughts where we conceptualize communities of individuals in generalizations.  We might think that Israelies do this and Palestinians do that.  Like the individuals of our acquaintence, we judge and evaluate - we "see" - the world of macro-social events in the light of our likes and dislikes.

Now everyone does this.  Everyone shines the light of their values, their likes and dislikes, upon the world.  Moreover, we tend to form associations in accord with finding others of similar points of view.  We might join a church, a political party, a protest movement - the list is endless of communities of common interest that arise because of shared values and world view.

I realize that this seems all to obvious, but it is in our clear thinking about the obvious that it is possible to find our way to the deepest social truths.

Let's step back a bit from these facts and try to have a more global view.

Imagine we are seeing the world from space.  We see before us a big physical place, upon which very large numbers of human beings live.  These individual human beings are also parts of various kinds of groups - some in accord with matters of language, culture, religion, race and shared values and interests.  Many individuals act toward each other with violence, as do many groups.  We could observe from space, over long periods of time, all sorts of behaviors and movements of associations and communities.  This is the outer social world, a world of moving and changing social forms.

Now imagine we can see into the inside of these human beings.  Here lies a whole other world - one of desires, and the most complex kinds of motives, thoughts and judgments.  No one would question that there is a relationship between these two worlds, the outer world of social form and the inner world of invisible psychological dynamics.

Among the elements of this invisible inner world are a wide variety of views as to what it all means.  We have religions and sciences, mysteries and theories.  Then, among all this vast collection of points of view, there might even be some elements of truth.  But the fact that there are all these points of view, which frequently do not agree with each other, this I want us to include in our global picture.  For consider, these views themselves have changed over time, and give no evidence of coming to final rest, in spite of what ultimate truth any current view might claim for itself.  These views of what it all means are just one more aspect of the inner invisible dynamics of the social world.

I urge the reader now to read my essay The Future , if that has not yet been read.  If it has been read, then it might be well to call to mind the pictures contained therein concerning the changes over time of the outer elements (social form) of the social world, and the corresponding inner elements (evolution of consciousness).   Basically as we go forward from this point I want us to remain simply within the most obvious social facts, as we have come to know them in their dynamic movement and complexity.

Clearly what we know of as "civilization" is undergoing dramatic changes in the present.  The social world, of outer form and behavior and inner dynamic psychology, is not static, but rather full of change.  Moreover, these changes give evidence of much order.  Chance hardly seems a word to describe what is actually observed.  But the ultimate conclusion to such a question I will leave with the reader, for there is no place here for a debate on causality.  The existence of order is obvious, its source a bit more mysterious.

Let us now turn to Civil Society, the true theme of this essay.

First, we need to accept that the existence of this social phenomena (civil society) is a matter of debate for many.  To some it does not exist, or if it does it really is only something already described in the social and political sciences.  The fact is this term is just a pair of words, whose meaning we are free to determine.  So for the purposes of this essay, I will use Civil Society to mean a very particular thing, which is only partially grasped by noticing certain outer social form manifestations (for example, the loose collective activity of many NGOs - non-govermental organizations).

As expressed in the essay The Future, our time is an age of individual moral choice.  It is as if a fundamental human power was coming awake, a power in times past more imposed by some authority upon individuals.   In ages past we had commandments, religious, moral systems and teachings, everything but a recognition of the primacy of individual conscience.  But today this is not longer true.  Out of our own striving for selfness has emerged a demand for a free and individual rendering of what it means to do the Good.

Directed by our sense of what is wrong in the world, and in response to our personal values - our likes and dislikes, we form associations to accomplish the Good.  Whether it is a Green Peace or Amnesty International or the Alliance for Democracy - the names make little difference, in each case human beings join into communities to act upon the world out of impulses of the heart.   And, behind these impulses lives our individual moral authority.

Now this in itself would seem nothing new.  But in our time other events have occured, which have made the context, in which this emerging moral freedom arose, have a special flavor.  One of these events is the globalization of the economy.  The second is the arival of the internet.  It is no accident that these elements have come to be at the same time in human history.

Globalization is a natural result of economic forces, which have to grow and combine until a certain limit is reached.  If we really understand "economia" [c.f. Barbara Gardiner's: Aesthetics of Economics and the Scottish Masonic Tradition ], we will realize that a true economy can only include the whole - the world.  Parital (national and regional) economies were only stages of growth, before the true natural scale was reached.  It would be more accurate to see what we have in the past seen as local or national economies to be local conditions in the Global Economy, much the same way we understand our local weather as aspects of the Nature of Climate of the whole world.

As many belive, the global economy is not dominated by moral ideals flowing from our individual sense of the Good.  Rather it is driven largely by fears, mostly fears of death.  Those individuals, who dominate the global economy through their connections to the tyranny of concentrated wealth (the successor to the older aristrocracies), have other gods than the Good.  They serve themselves and as a consequence the values driving the global economy have brought it about the globalization has arrived with few truely human ideals at its center.

In earlier times, the suffering produced by the social domination of the selfish was only known locally.  But with the arrival of the internet and modern media, our awareness of these tragic elements of human existence became more common.  The result of this non-accidental confluence of events (emerging moral individuality, economic globalization and wide spread information access) was the creation of a moral social organ within the world community - Civil Society.  This organ is young, and only somewhat self aware, but it is nevertheless a seed with remarkable potential.

But to really appreciate this we have to expand our understanding of the world social organism, so that we can see the real relationships between it and Civil Society.  To do this we have to become familiar with an Idea, in this case it is called: the threefold social organism .  First introduced by the philosopher and seer Rudolf Steiner, this idea is essential to our understanding of modern social conditions. 

In general on this website, I have been trying to point out that the social body of humanity has qualities of an organic nature.  These are not the only qualities, but this organic aspect cannot be denied, given that the social organism is made up entirely of living beings.   There is nothing theoretical or abstract about this situation.  It is a quite simple and observable fact.

This social organism can appear to our seeing-thinking if we take proper care to observe how organization appears in our social arrangements.  This organizational aspect can be seen in certain functional relationships, which are essentially polaric in nature.  This fact requires that we first understand the idea of polarity, which is something quite different from the idea of mere opposites.

In the pure mathematics of projective geometry , the idea of polarity comes to full expression in the various relationships of point, line and plane.  In this sense, point and plane are the twin poles, while the line is the middle or mediating element.

In the human form, the head organization is one pole, while the limb organization is the other.  For those unfamiliar with this way of thinking, this will appear quite strange.  However, if you follow this out carefully enough, the true nature of what is being discussed can be apprehended.  The head is soft inwardly, while the bony part is on the outside.  The limbs, on the other hand (pole), have the bony parts on the inside, while the soft parts are on the surface.  It is this relationship between the two that unveils the polaric aspect.  In polaric systems, one pole is related to the other almost as if they were inside-out versions of each other.  In the human form, the middle (the trunk organization) is upwardly bony on the outside (rib cage and sternum), while as we descend in the form, the lower trunk is all soft, with the lowest parts of the spine being on the inside.  This polaric relationship of the human form is true in all details, and a deep and wonderful discussion of it can be found in the book Man and Mammals, by Wolfgang Schad.

Moreover, while the form is polaric, this is due to the non-physical inwardness also being polaric.  That is, the head carries out certain functions (form follows function) of a sensing and contemplative nature, for which it needs to be at rest, while the limbs propel us through space according to our spirit and soul's will and direction.  I have here, of necessity, only been able to hint at the details, the full expression of which would take us too far afield.

[In the following I am going to be referring to certain "ideals".  To understand the importance of this, there is a detailed consideration in the essay: Basic Conceptions: fundamentals of a new social view .]

What Rudolf Steiner pointed out, in his book Towards Social Renewal, is that human activities can basically all be described in such a way that it is clear that a certain kind of form or organization arises in the social order, from the inside out - form follows function.  For example, inwardly we have certain impulses of freedom, and these efforts to express this ideal appear most dominately in what Steiner called the Cultural Sphere, in which he included science, art, religion and education.  Thus, in the main, the impulse to freedom is most realized in Cultural Life.

At the opposite pole, is the ideal of brotherhood.  Freedom is very much an individual expression - we do it out of ourselves.  But the ideal of brotherhood requires that we join together.  It is the Earth we share together, and thus, at the root of Economic Life is the ideal of brotherhood.   In the present, of course, we do much in our social life that deconstructs this naturally appearing order.  For example, many assert freedom in the realm of Economics, they want wealth only for themselves or their associates.  Yet, there is only one Earth, and only so much wealth, and the ideal which seeks to emerge in Economic Life remains brotherhood - the sharing of what is available among all.

In between these two poles, the individual pole of the ideal of freedom and its polaric counterpart, the sharing pole of the ideal of brotherhood, lies a middle realm.  This is the Political-legal Sphere, or the Rights Life.  Its ideal is equity, or equality.  In law we balance the apparent competition between the impulses to freedom and the necessity of brotherhood.  Through political processes we determine what rules apply to all - or, how we are equal to each other and in what circumstances.

This then is how the threefold social organism tries to appear in human societies.  Profound Ideals seek to emerge, through human activity.  This functional process then forms our social order.  We should keep in mind, however, that this process of the forming of the threefold social organism is something that is occuring over vast periods of historical time.  It develops according to rules, and depends upon our slow maturation as human beings.  As we mature, more and more the social organism will acquire this form. Globalization and Civil Society are interim phenomena appearing in the history of the development of this threefold organism - natural stages in long term processes, whose eventual full realization will require our conscious participation.

Let me give a very brief sketch.  The older social structures, such as the ancient Egyptian, were theocratic in nature.  The kings were also priests.  Even in modern times, remnants of this way have continued, for example, up until the Chinese invaded Tibet, it was a functioning theocracy.  In this sense, something out of Cultural existence dominated societies.  Yet, this form of social organization was incomplete.  It only really was valid for the particular stage of the evolution of consciousness applicable to that time.  Today, a theocracy is a dam to the real needs of any people (witness Islamic Fundamentalism).

The theocratic approach to social organization eventually gives way to some kind of idea of the political State.  With the early Greeks and Romans, we have the emergence of the first iteration of the Political-legal life in the formation of the State and the recognition of the Citizen.  So, now (or then actually) we have a Cultural Life and a Rights Life simultaneously.  The threefolding process is still immature, while yet being appropriate for humanity's inner condition.

Now we come to more modern times.  Human individuality is flowering.  The Economic Life has reached a kind of youthful climax with Globalization.  The Rights Life has matured, and in the latent ideal of citizen governance a seed planted at America's founding begins to grow into the light.  In the Cultural Life, human freedom in the realm of science, art, religion (as in choice thereof) and education (think about the real issues underlying current struggles) is exhibiting tremendous power.

More and more we are determined to think what we want to think (our society, family, education, religion, science be damned), especially about the moral, the nature of the good, and what is right to do in any circumstances of life.

If I may make a personal note, my life spans an interesting period of time, having begun in 1940.  As a youth I was taught to do what was expected, something that was thrown over in a quite revolutionary way in the 1960's.  This insistence on freedom of moral choice has since matured (although between the generations there is a lot of misunderstanding).  Even so, out of this emerging moral freedom is forming a new social power in the form of Civil Society.    That which lives in the moral center of individuals is slowly finding various forms of community, and these communities themselves are gathering together in the secure knowledge of their common moral strength.   At the time of this writing (early March, 2003) this community opposes the efforts of the sitting government of the United States (the 2nd Bush Administration) to start a war against Iraq.  A new power awakes in the world, refusing any long to let elites of wealth or blood maintain their historical dominance and self serving rule.

If we step back a little from this situation, we can come to see the World itself threefolding, with a global economy on the one hand, an emerging cultural-spiritual force in the moral  power of Civil Society on the other, while inbetween, whether in the United Nations, or the Internation Court in the Hague, a mediating world life of Rights also surges forth from the inwardness of many human beings.

We need to look at this again.

Less than a hundred years ago, when the various European nations that brought us World War I were busy doing what nations do when they get ready to kill a lot of people, the ordinary people of the world basically had to stand by, passive guests to the machinations of powerful elites.  That is no longer the case.

Now the ordinary people of the world are beginning to know and experience their moral power as a group.  They no longer stand by passively, nor do they accept their own government's choices. Everywhere, people resist the excesses of those obsessed with power, and it is now clear that sitting governments are near the end time of that mischief they can cause the ordinary and once powerless gentle folk to whom this planet really belongs.

Where once, ages ago, hierarchical castes ruled the ordinary human being, such as the Pharaohs of Egypt or the Caesars of Rome, this time has passed.  A new ordering principle awakes in the world, rising from inside the individual human being as a heart directed moral impulse, forming from there into communities of action, determined to impose its collective will on world social order.

This will can not be expected to achieve all that it might wish to overnight.  But no one - no one - should any longer fail to see its active presence in the unfolding of the future.

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