Skip to main content

Mere Orthodoxy exists to create media for Christian renewal. Support this mission today.

What is a society?

September 10th, 2019 | 8 min read

By Jake Meador

On Facebook my friend Scott Pryor rightly notes that if Dr. Miller failed to define ‘justice’ in his essay at Providence, my post suffers from the lack of a definition of “society.” So here is a stab at answering that question.

In the medieval world, you had a hierarchical, tiered society divided into three parts: those who work, those who fight, and those who pray. All three together combine to form a ‘society’ but within society each class has a quite distinct role to play. Those who work were often serfs who raised the crops. Those who fought were the nobles and knights who defended the society. Those who prayed were the clergy who saw to the spiritual health of society. So a ‘society’ is a complete human community in which our material and spiritual needs are protected and, in as much as they can be by one’s fellow man, helped and advanced.

The Reformation undermined this structure at several points, though Luther himself did not desire that to happen, himself being a deeply conservative political thinker. By the time the dust settles, you have an understanding of ‘society’ that is less defined by rigid and unyielding ‘roles’, like the distinct portions of a stacked column in a bar chart, and more in terms of nested memberships.

If you read Althusius, for example, he sees human symbiosis, which for him is the entire point of political life, occurring on three distinct levels. (By the way: Susannah’s piece on Althusius for Fare Forward is excellent.) Note that while the tripartite distinction is maintained, for Althusius the same person exists in all three arenas. The first community Althusius recognizes is the family. For Althusius this is where our political life begins because we enter the world as a contingent being dependent on the nurture and care of our parents. Indeed, by the time we enter the world we have already (literally) been wrapped in the love of our mother for nearly a year.

For Althusius, the family is “natural” in a way that other communities are not. This is because other communities must be formed via a process of deliberation, negotiation, and, ultimately, covenant-making. But families naturally form themselves in the world as people reproduce and organically create bonds to insure the safety and care of the child. So all human symbiosis begins with the family.

The second level is what Althusius calls collegia. The collegia are a broad and eclectic mix of communities. All are still “natural” in the sense that human beings are naturally gregarious, naturally form communities, and these collegia arise out of that fact. But they are not natural in the same way that the family is natural. Relatively little is required for a collegia to exist—you need three people (because two people do not have a tie-breaking vote when they disagree) and an agreement to partner in a shared endeavor.

What is intriguing is what Althusius includes in the collegia.

The types of collegia vary according to the circumstance of persons, crafts and functions. Today there are collegia of bakers, tailors, builders, merchants, coiners of money, as well as philosophers, theologians, government officials, and others that every city needs for the proper functioning of its social life. Some of these collegia are ecclesiastical and sacred, instituted for the sake of divine things; others are secular and profane, instituted for the sake of human things. The first are collegia of theologians and philosophers. The second are collegia of magistrates and judges, and of various craftsmen, merchants, and rural folk. The collegia of magistrates are of particular importance because by their public power they set bounds for each and every other collegium.

Note that there are a variety of distinct collegia that include both obvious communities, such as a business, but that he also includes ‘ecclesiastical and sacred’ communities here as well as ‘magistrates.’

The third level on which human community exists is the ‘city.’ Cities can take a variety of shapes—and he develops this at some length—but the key principle here is that the city is the collection of collegia, which is to say it is the collective of people who all live in a place together and organize their lives together via families and collegia.

In this sense, Althusius foreshadows later thinkers who would argue that the right to govern is derived via the consent of the people. Indeed, you can read Althusius saying something very similar in his writing on collegia, which he sees as being formed on the basis of consent:

The common right of the collegium or the colleagues, which is customarily described in the corporate books, is either received from and maintained by the common consent of the colleagues, or is conceded and granted to them by special privilege of the superior magistrate.

Moreover, he argues that the magisterial body, what we would now refer to as ‘the government,’ does itself derive its power from the consent of the city:

The senate is a collegium of wise and honest select men to whom is entrusted the care and administration of the affairs of the city. This collegium, when legitimately convoked, represents the entire people and the whole city. It does not, however, have as much power, authority, and jurisdiction as the community, unless it is given such by law or covenant.

Do note, however, that this understanding of political power as being intimately tied to the consent of the people is still not quite the Enlightenment vision. This is because Althusius begins with the naturalness of human community and a fairly robust discussion of rights and duties. So while consent plays a role in his thinking, he would not say that states are purely a creation of the human will in the way that a revolutionary political theory would. Political authority is natural. The form it takes is, in most ways, prudentially determined via the consent of the people. This is less Enlightenment, then, and more Classical Protestant.

Significantly, I think one can easily argue that in defining society in this way Althusius is merely developing the thought of Calvin. Calvin used the two kingdoms distinction in much of his work to make fine-grained points about the nature of church authority amongst other things. For Calvin, the visible, institutional church is what Althusius would call a collegia, it is a human institution that people participate in as part of their religious life.

Certainly, there are ways in which the visible church is distinct amongst the collegia. It does, one might say, brush up against what the reformers called “the invisible kingdom,” by which they meant the domain in which the individual encounters God, either seeing him and loving him (thanks to the grace of God made available to the person through the death and resurrection of Christ) or seeing him and hating him, as with the unregenerate. But the church does this not by any power that it itself possesses, but through the proclamation of the Gospel, which is to say through the teaching of Scripture. Moreover, the visible church is entrusted with the administering of the sacraments, which are a means through which God identifies his people and works for their salvation.

All that being said, for the Reformed the visible, institutional church is not necessarily preeminent amongst the collegia nor does it possess any unique teaching authority save the authority it possesses through the proclamation of the word of God. I raise this point primarily because I see it as the main point of departure from both the Roman approach to political theology and the variations on radicalism, whether those held by the Bruderhof or those taught by someone like Jonathan Leeman. (Steven Wedgeworth and Peter Escalante have done much of the heavy lifting on Calvin’s approach to these matters over at the Calvinist International and they know Calvin’s work on these matters better than I do.)

Anyway, all of this is necessary background for understanding how we ought to define ‘society.’ I am using ‘society’ in the same way Althusius uses ‘city.’ A society is the net collection of the various human communities that people form as part of their shared life together in a particular place. By “communities,” I mean what Althusius meant by collegia, which is to say human groups voluntarily formed to aid in the pursuit of a particular common good that is valued by the members of the group.

So: As it pertains to the initial post, I think the failure of Dr. Miller’s essay is that in its attempt to preserve impartiality he unwittingly empties the concept of ‘justice’ of all moral content, such that we lose the ability to actually relate our laws to something outside the human will or, more accurately, the collective will of an empowered group. To make this move as a Christian political theorist is to give the game away entirely.

Of course, once we make this move—the “#actually Christendom is good,” move one could call it—then we need to do the hard work of defining what a Christian society would be. If utilitarianism is wrong, then what is our alternative?

That’s a long discussion (and I’ll have something more on that soon).

Enjoy the article? Pay the writer.

Personal Info

Donation Total: $1

Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).