Chapter 6: Social Relationships

Becoming and Belonging
by Norman Pittenger

Chapter 6: Social Relationships

We have looked at one-to-one relationships with an other and at familial groupings of men and women. Thus, our discussion has included the first two of the concentric circles about which I have spoken. Now we turn to what I am calling the "social" circle. By this I mean the larger community that is part of our human existence and of which we ourselves are necessarily a part by virtue of our belonging in the city. I am using here the word city because Aristotle, the great Greek philosopher, spoke about it in what might be styled the second part of his treatment of ethics. The first part of his discussion in The Nichomachean Ethics has to do with what here we are calling more personal relationships. The second part is known to us as The Politics, and it must be remembered that for Aristotle, as for any Greek of his time, "politics" had to do with much more than the subject we nowadays indicate when we use this term. For a Greek life had its setting in one or other of the small city-states found in the Greek-speaking world. Everybody was a citizen of some "city," or polis. And when a Greek said, as did Aristotle, that "man" (human beings at large) is a zoon politikon (one who lives in a city), he was really saying that to be human is to be a social creature.

Aristotle saw clearly that nobody can or does live entirely by himself or herself, nor does anybody live only within the confines of family or a group of more immediate friends. Each of us is part of a larger and more inclusive group -- an Athenian, a Spartan, a Theban. The Greeks of that period could not think of "individuality" in the narrow sense so often given the word today. For them, the individual was always envisaged in the communal context that made him or her a citizen with inescapable social belonging. Each was understood as being this or that person -- to use the later idiom that we would prefer -- who employed his or her talents and gifts, whatever they might be, to work with others, to share with them in a common enterprise, and to realize his or her potentiality in that manner, even if each one also had a specific family and a home and an affectionate relationship, perhaps of an intimate sort, with a "lover" -- who for the Greek was usually somebody of the same gender.

So much by way of explanation. This emphasis on the wider societal aspect of human existence has often been minimized in recent thinking. During the past several hundred years, and most clearly in the culture that we inherit, we have been indoctrinated with the idea of "individual substances," and in consequence we have neglected our wider social belonging- In his fascinating book The Meeting of East and West, published many years ago, Prof. F. S. Northrop of Yale University showed how the influence of John Locke’s philosophy, with its stress on the notion of individual substance, has had seriously damaging consequences for our Western ways of understanding ourselves and the world. To talk of substance is to suggest (however different may have been the meaning of that word in the classical and medieval period) something that exists in and for and of itself alone, without any necessary dependence upon that which is not itself: while to put the adjective individual before substance is to talk as if this substance could be seen primarily as a particular instance of a more general class. When St. Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century adopted the view, which he got from older classical thought, that each of us is "an individual substance of a rational nature," he also gave the impression that each of us is one of a class who can exist without belonging -- although Thomas was wise enough not to let matters stand like that, for he went on to speak of the dependence of human substances upon the divine substance and, what is more, much preferred to speak of us as persons, with the implication that we share together since we are open to others as they are to us.

Thus, the difficulty has been that in much philosophical thought, with its influence upon other ways of thinking and also upon our ways of acting as humans, there has been a failure to grasp adequately the peril of talk about individuals and equally about substance. Hence, it has taken many years for us to come to understand that, as I said in an earlier chapter, we are in reality a routing of experiences, possessed of some degree of awareness and of self-awareness and marked by a capacity to enter feelingly into the lives of others. Not only may we do this: it is so integral to our very existence as human, and indeed as creatures in a cosmos like ours, that we must do this. Furthermore, the stress on our rationality and on morality, found in Aquinas but much more exaggeratedly stated in Lockeian thought, has overlooked the deeper feeling-tones (or what Northorp called "the aesthetic component") in the world and in our existence as part of that world. The result has been a very artificial and inadequate understanding of what we are, how we act, and the part we play in the creation. We belong, as I have urged again and again; and in our belonging we enter into relationships with others that have about them a "felt-ness" that is much more profound than whatever rationality we may happen to possess. Northorp was concerned to emphasize a more wholistic picture. He pointed out that in the East there has been a keen awareness of the appreciative, evaluational, and even emotional side of experience. If only East and West could have a genuine "meeting," he believed, more would be made in the West of this side of things while the East might come to appreciate that there is also something to be said for rationality and its human functioning.

Doubtless, Northorp was a bit too optimistic in his picture of this meeting and its results. Yet because of greater knowledge by each of us about the world at large, there now is a recognition that we have been the victims of an unfortunate bifurcation and a sense that we are all in need of a much more inclusive grasp of what it really means to be human. Further, there is a more adequate realization of how important is the aesthetic side, as well as growing awareness that what I have called our "sociality" is an inescapable and invaluable part of human existence. All this tells us much about how in the city, or larger human community, we are to express our humanity and find ourselves thereby enriched in our grasp of true selfhood-in-community.

I have already pointed out how we humans are organic to the natural order, emerging from it and belonging to it. It is a dynamic, processive, developing order, in which we share. Hence, older ways of thinking about human existence are in need of a very thorough reconception. We now speak in terms of the becoming and belonging to which I have made such frequent reference, and we also see that our relationship to nature, not to mention our responsibility in it and for it, needs to be given fuller recognition than hitherto has been the case.

Perhaps what has just been said will assist us in coming to a better understanding of the wider social relationships to which the present chapter is devoted. Any healthy development of humankind requires that we see ourselves as existing with others, So we go on to say something about cooperation by each of us with our fellows and also notice the contrasts among men and women, each with distinctive qualities that must be appreciated and valued.

We have our identity in a world where by necessity we live in the city -- in neighborhoods, towns, cities, countries, continents, and, ultimately, in the entire "global village." Many years ago the American statesman Wendell Willkie wrote about "the one world" we all inhabit. He was right in taking this point as of enormous significance for men and women in the future, as it has always been (albeit not consciously appreciated) in the past. Our social situation is simply given. There is nothing we can do by way of extricating ourselves from it. And our right course is to grasp the fact, live in terms of it, and seek to implement to the fullest degree this general belonging that is ours. But it is the combination of community and contrast that is most interesting, since often this is not adequately understood and, therefore, needs a particularly emphatic statement, even today when we are obliged to agree with Willkie and acknowledge that what happens anywhere in the world of human affairs has its affect upon what happens to us, whoever and wherever we may happen to live. Community or cooperation need to be seen for what they are, essential to our healthy existence; on the other hand, contrast of cultures and types, which bring freshness and variety, needs also to be seen for what it is, as the way in which human life is delivered from monotonous sameness and dull repetition of pattern. Taken together, these two -- community and contrast -- are basic to the whole enterprise.

When we think of these two we have a clue to what may go wrong, to what, in fact, has gone wrong, in much of human history -- and not least in our own day. For we now are well aware of the sad truth that all is not well with us in our city, or wider social life. We may have been delivered from some kinds of tyranny, but we have not been saved from the possibilities of an ant hill existence, on the one hand, or a riot of conflicting interest -- local national, international -- on the other hand. In some periods the person has been lost in the community so that the resulting situation is a sheer totalitarianism, in which each person is a depersonalized instrument or agent for some supposed "national spirit," like the yolk about which Hitler liked to talk. In other periods, the opposite may be seen. When a former president of the United States, Herbert Hoover, spoke in favor of what he called "rugged individualism," he was really stressing the particularities of each of us to the exclusion of the belonging, which is proper for all of us. The result of this latter stress is a highly competitive, indeed belligerent, attitude in which devotion is directed to the presumably single person who is to make his or her way in the world without regard for others. In each of these kinds of society the end product is disastrous.

There can be a communalism (and I stress the last three letters of the word to show it to be a perversion of genuine community) that makes nonsense of personal and national characteristics: there can be an individualism with its turning of human life into a battle for supremacy, where the less powerful are beaten down, oppressed, and denied opportunity to express their selfhood while the more powerful secure the place of advantage. There is very little to choose between these two mistaken and, indeed, radically false notions, with their result in actions that promote distortion and end up in destruction. Both are so inadequate to the real facts in the cosmos process that the only sensible attitude toward each of them is to say a vigorous no. This is not some theoretical problem, either. In the present world, with its stark divisions and strongly conflicting interests, it has become a frightening threat to the whole human enterprise.

In a healthy personal-social life, men and women find their setting for a growth toward the actualization of their potentiality. But, as I have said before, this actualization involves all of us in a common enterprise in which a basic shared good is being sought. Therefore, we need to inquire what is the goal or aim and how it may best be achieved. The ethical enters here, but much more basic to the situation is what I have styled the aesthetic -- that is, social harmony in its richness and variety.

For this reason, I must now say something more about that word aesthetic. The usual understanding of the word relates it to some art form, but often this can degenerate into "prettiness." Further, an "aesthetic person" or (vulgarly) an "aesthete" is often taken to be what is sometimes styled "arty," a term that has become pejorative in significance. But all these ideas rest upon a misinterpretation of the proper sense of the word aesthesis in Greek and also in a good deal of careful contemporary study and discussion. What aesthetic really means is harmonious, beautiful, rightly patterned, attractive to sensitive observation or hearing. Indeed, I should wish to urge that it is a way of getting at what the Greeks intended when they spoke also of something or someone as kalagathon or kalagathos. In Greek, kalos means "beautiful" and agathos means good," and when the two are brought together in a compound word the sense is precisely "harmony" or "right patterning" or even what in the best old English usage would have been styled "lovely." And the opposite of this would be in English "ugly," which points to a person or object as unattractive, unlovely, badly patterned, and, hence, offensive.

When I remark, therefore, that a rightly ordered society is marked by harmony and, hence, is an aesthetic reality, I am saying that such a society is so patterned or so functions that it is, indeed, a lovely or beautiful affair. And any society that pays little or no attention to the aesthetic in this sense is likely to become an ugly society in a number of different but distressing ways. For example, we are familiar enough with the ugliness of totalitarian architecture, of which the buildings put up under Hitler in Germany and Mussolini in Italy are appalling instances to any sensitive observer, however massive and imposing they may be. We are also familiar enough with the unlovely bourgeois self assertion in architecture where all that seems to matter is obvious usefulness or functional efficiency. Both of these are manifestations of ugliness in the society that erects them; both of them have no regard for such important contexts as a neighborhood may provide and no regard for what suitability in that particular place would demand. Lewis Mumford has served us well in drawing our attention to the way in which such architecture reflects vulgarity in social life, a lack of sensitivity in human awareness, a willful assertion of cheap attitudes, and contempt for those who must be exposed to such building and have their feelings offended and their taste degraded.

Our present concern, however, is not with this obvious and distressing manifestation of disharmony in social life but with the disharmony itself -- that is, the failure on the part of men and women to discern that true community and sound relationships within it can be found only as each of us has his or her place in a wider grouping of humans, where there is vivid contrast because each is valued as being precisely this or that person while the community as a whole has goals or ends (what used to be called "ideals") that are worthy, upbuilding, and enriching. The enduring goal of such a sound society is to hold community in balance with diversity. Life in that community is made interesting by striking contrast but without hateful conflict. Thus, communalism is ruled out; so also is stark individualism, one again italicizing the last three letters of each word to indicate that a perversion of true community and of true "personeity" (which, as I have said, I prefer to the talk about "individual") is intended. Such a good society is harmonious; it is an ordering in which the aesthetic has been given proper attention by those who represent and act for the membership at large.

When we speak of a "culture" we are pointing to a pattern of harmony or disharmony that marks a given period or historical sequence in the life of the wider group. A culture is the ordering of the society’s ways according to patterns that are generally accepted by those who belong to it, even if these are not always vividly in the forefront of their consciousness. It has to do with such agreed purposes and such accepted goals, with such agreed values as are taken to be important and even essential. So soon as there is widespread dissatisfaction with or disregard of these purposes or goals, expressed either in actual revolt or in an inchoate sense that they are inadequate or false, the culture begins to break up. This has happened again and again in history; often it has been called "the collapse of a civilization. Of course, to use the last word suggests a relationship. if not an identity, between "culture" and "civilization." Often enough this seems to have been the fact, although scholars usually prefer to make a distinction between them, using the former (culture) to describe an almost unconscious, yet very real, series of assumptions about life and its meaning and the latter (civilization) to indicate a specific arrangement of life in outward and visible ways. For our present concern, however, we need not worry about this distinction, valid as it may be,

What we are pleased to call Western civilization -- and most of the time those who use the phrase intend the culture with which we are familiar, with its ideas and "ideals" of "the good life in community" -- seems now to be in an advanced state of disintegration. We live willy-nilly "among the ruins," as somebody has put it. Many are in outright revolt, especially thoughtful and sensitive younger people; many are terrified by what we are experiencing; some acquiesce in what they would call "the loss of all standards"; many are trying to fight against these things and return to (or, as they would probably prefer to say, maintain) the earlier state of affairs. Of course, some think that this situation is not new in history. They assume that this is just the way things have always gone and how they must always go: for them, disintegration is the normal state of affairs.

All these attitudes seem to me to be mistaken, to the point of being highly dangerous to human integrity and to the communal expression of it. But there can be little doubt about the confusion and bewilderment that millions of thoughtful men and women feel today. The consequence is their inability to see that the truth of the matter is that Western civilization, about which we talk glibly and in defense of which we assume that we have fought a major war and have taken part in minor conflicts as well, no longer really exists.

W.B. Yeats wrote in a famous poem about how "the center" no longer "holds," about how "the good" lack "passionate intensity" while evil men and women have just such zeal, and how in the result things are "breaking up" wherever one looks. Vast numbers of people today, sometimes with a vivid feeling but more often with a vague sense of unhappiness, feel that as a society we in the West are drifting heaven-knows-where. They do not know what to do about this. They cannot readily adapt themselves to a social pattern that is in such a condition of disintegration. Nor do they know how they can usefully make a contribution that would effect the emergence of a new pattern or culture, in which our inherited past will not be dismissed or discarded as now entirely meaningless. Neither can they return, even if that were possible, to that same past if it is taken to be the only conceivable way of ordering social life. Here is disharmony with a vengeance, as so many today seem to experience it. They cannot join with those vociferous persons, often associated with conservative religious groups, who seek to go back to what are often styled "the good old days": on the other hand, they do not have much sympathy for the wildly radical people who assume that there must be a total destruction of our inheritance, in the naive confidence that surely "something" will then appear that is entirely good and sound and right. Both of these seem highly unrealistic. Also, for what it is worth, their tactics and their activities are often blatantly offensive to countless numbers of men and women who are caught between the two movements.

I believe that harmony is the goal any society worth preserving must manifest, and I am also convinced that such harmony, with its aesthetic appeal, is the result of holding in proper balance the two factors of genuine community and genuine contrast. But we must recognize two possible kinds of social harmony. The French philosopher Henri Bergson called these two the closed society and the open society. We must now say something about these two.

The closed society is one in which novelty is not welcomed, and, hence, an attempt is made to preserve unaltered the modes of thought and behavior that have come to us from the past. Any change in these, any alteration of perspective and in ways of looking at human existence and its difficulties, is regarded as treason to that past and a guarantee of loss of significant meaning. This closed society is the kind of harmony for which reactionaries yearn. It is the explanation of talk about "the good old days," the nostalgic "look back," and the yearning for obedience to all the accepted and hitherto conventional ideas and practices that are to be so completely respected that nobody is ever threatened by novelty. In such a society, life would be without risk. In recent years, as I have said, this approach to things is represented especially by what some call the New Right or the Moral Majority. But for many of us, this kind of closed society and the sort of "harmony" that it provides are lacking in any genuine possibility of creative advance. It can be deadly in its impact and sometimes seems to be nothing more or less than the condition of death itself. It is like a carefully preserved corpse, and whatever vitality it may seem to possess resembles the galvanic movement of a corpse before complete rigidity sets in. Those who take this position have forgotten. if they have ever known, that all existence, including human personal and social existence, is a becoming. Hence, they are doing what Whitehead once described as "fighting the grain of the universe."

There is another sort of social harmony, however; it is what Bergson called the open society. Here there is a genuine welcome of novelty, an awareness of the challenges presented by our different circumstances and conditions, and a willing readiness to experiment. At the same time there can be a deep respect for the past; indeed, the inheritance that is ours is to be honored and esteemed, not as a straitjacket but as providing the firm ground for further development. That inheritance does not demand that new possibilities be rejected; rather, it gives us a position from which further development, exploration, and change may be welcomed. In other words, it is not reactionary in attempting to live in the past, nor revolutionary in setting out to destroy the past, but realistic in recognizing the causal efficacy of that past and then going on to new possibilities. It might even be called "radical," if by this we intend what the word itself indicates: that is, a getting at the roots of our tradition and then a seeking to discover ways in which these may be adapted to and used in a new age with its own particular questions and its own novel opportunities.

My contention is that when the city is healthy, it will find itself in the second category, as an open society. It will be dynamic and not static. This is not likely to make human existence in society an entirely easy and uncomplicated affair; on the contrary, it will give rise to continued struggle. It will require a spirit of adventure and an element of risk: it will demand bold planning and courageous action. Its dominant quality will be zest. And we may recall here how Whitehead, in his discussion of civilization in Adventures of Ideas, insisted that any civilization that lacks such zest -- vitality, vividness, even some awareness of "chanciness" -- is likely to be moribund, if not already dead. In fact, the open society is going with "the grain of the universe" in implementing the reality of becoming and belonging, taken in their genuine unity.

Here we have the challenge of our time. Are we to seek, and work earnestly for, a reactionary return to former ways? Or are we to seek, and give ourselves zealously to, a possible future that will be different from that past yet the beneficiary of what it has to give? Are we to spend our days regretting the loss of old patterns with which we have long been familiar? Or are we to be bold in our quest for new patterns that, despite their unfamiliarity to many of us, may yet enable life to be lived with zest by men and women of this and the coming age? To put it in another way, are we to rest content with the goods that we believe have been already achieved, when even now they seem to have become a little stale, or are we to strive in the novel circumstances that are ours today for other and perhaps more inclusive goods? Are we ready to see that more and more people in more and more places in our global village are looking for just that opportunity and have no wish to remain comfortably (although that seems really impossible nowadays) in what the stolid majority seems to take for granted?

Something like this is the basic issue thoughtful men and women confront today. It is the choice between a fearful rejection of the new with a pathetic clinging to the familiar and a brave consideration of new openings, certainly with the grateful use of many of our inherited guidelines but with no desire simply to conform and no pattern simply to be imposed upon everybody with or without consent and whoever or wherever he or she may be. Doubtless none of us, of ourselves alone, can be very effective in establishing this second sort of harmony and the society that can embody it. None the less, the contribution of each person has its considerable importance. Above all, each of us can have a part (however small) in whatever concerted effort is required for the establishment of a dynamic type of harmonious social existence. This is a good to which each of us may lend support.

A social pattern like this will offer a common life in which each member has his or her place and to which each can make some real contribution. The concern will be for the best and fullest development toward self-realization within the commonweal. It will resemble a healthy organism, where each part has its appointed share in the social enterprise. "the building up of itself in love." That is a Pauline expression for the Church, to be sure, but it can have a broader application as well.

Already much has been done along these lines. I happen to live in Britain where the welfare state, despite its obvious failings and inadequacies (to which reactionaries are always calling attention), has had and still does have as its chief concern the provision to everyone of those absolute necessities that are required if the citizens are to lead better, healthier, and more satisfying lives because they have been delivered from nagging fears and worries about illness and old age and much else that can be so dreadfully threatening to them. Again, in the field of education in many countries there is a renewed recognition that mere accumulation of facts is not sufficient to give young people a good life: they need to be helped to grow in appreciation, to delight in sharing, and to learn to love what is truly beautiful and enriching. They need to know about the past that is their inheritance but also about the challenges of the present and the possibilities in the future. Still another example is the field of social medicine, where more is done than simply care for those already ill. Here the intention is to further whatever will prevent illness in the first place and seek to promote health of mind and spirit as much as health of body. In all these it is recognized more and more that in our human existence we are really becoming and belonging creatures, and in some quarters there is even a recognition that religious faith has a large part to play in achieving these aims.

Harmony is the goal, and as I have urged, that is an aesthetic concept. What can be said about the ethical dimension whose importance must also have recognition? Often enough this has been taken to mean obedience to imposed moral rules, given as it were from "on high." But in the perspective that we have taken in this book, the ethical dimension is a matter of the human realization of possibility and accountability, with men and women in their social belonging and in the light of the one absolute ethical principle -- which is nothing other than love-in-action. If that is true, then there can be no sentimentality nor easy tolerance, on the one hand, nor inhibiting conformity to accepted conventional norms, on the other, For love is a giving and receiving a mutuality, a willingness to seek for the true good of others, and that may entail hardness, firmness, and genuine demand. In other words, what will be found most valuable is "the permissive society."

I am aware that for many this is a horrifying idea. But we should grasp the obvious truth that in a society where what is supposed to be good and right is imposed either by some supposed divine fiat or by required conformity to "what the Joneses do," there is, in fact, no possibility of genuine moral principles involving both human freedom and human accountability. Instead, we look at others as only automata or robots. Morality cannot really be legislated, although, of course, there must be regulations that prevent dangerous abuses of the common good. Morality certainly is not simply "doing what present-day society approves"; that is only a kind of coercion in which the person is regarded as an object with no real freedom of choice. The principle of love-in-act can never be forced upon people: it must be evoked from them and made attractive to them. About this I have already said enough in our previous discussion. Here I would only add that the ethical dimension, at its best, is grounded in a conviction about how the cosmos "runs" in its deepest reaches -- which is to say that sound morality and sound religious faith are intimately related. In simple words, human love-in-act, human concern for justice, human relief of oppression, and sound human ways of relationship are all properly to be taken as creaturely reflections of and creaturely agencies for the divine Love that is God, the primal cause and the final affect.

We should ask ourselves whether or not the city in which we now live or the city that we hope to build -- whether this is in our immediate neighborhood, our town or village, the nation, or the whole world of humankind -- can measure up to the criteria that I have argued are basic. What changes are needed, what specific programs are indicated, what tasks are demanded, what sacrifices are required, if this is what the city is all about? Here there are no ready-made answers: in any event, struggle will be demanded and often pain will be experienced if and when we strive to act resolutely and responsibly in these matters.

A society that safeguards both community and contrast needs some vision that will serve as a lure, that will be a goad to action, and that will offer a goal that is worth achieving. Here the religious dimension of human existence is of primary importance. "Where there is no vision, the people perish": so runs an Old Testament text. The religious vision at its best tells us what God is "up to" in the world, disclosed in various intuitions or insight into the divine activity. At the heart of this religious interpretation of existence, cosmic and human, are some things that cannot be denied. Self-centeredness, arrogance, possessiveness, desire and action to control or coerce, hatred, jealously, injustice, oppression, claims to utter self-sufficiency, and neglect of others and their needs are bound to lead to destruction. It has been said that "the mills of God grind slowly, but they grind exceeding small." This is the adamant quality of the divine working; it is why it is indeed "a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the loving God" -- and notice that I have changed the biblical phrase from "living God" to "loving God," although both are equally true.

Once we come to some such religious vision, however, those who share in a profound faith such as the great religions make possible (and in our own part of the world, that means the Christian faith) can have a deep confidence that from the ruination of existence, which is the result of those evils just mentioned, the cosmic Love can extract genuine and abiding good. All is not lost, no matter how bad the times may be. There is always room for hope, even in the darkest days, because God can, and God does, "make all things new."