Philosophical History of the Idea of Civil Society


Rory O'Brien

February 1999


The following is a short overview of the thoughts of some influential philosophers who, down through the ages, pondered on how people could best meet their individual needs while also achieving collective ends. It is supposed that this happens best when people in a society treat each other in a "civil" manner.


The Classical Period



Over two thousand years ago, classical philosophers were grappling with the concepts surrounding communal life in the polis, the Greek city-state. How could people obtain the ‘good life’ given the inherent conflicts between their needs as individuals and the needs of their society? Socrates, according to Plato, advocated that issues be resolved via public argument using the dialectic, a form of rational dialogue in which the arguers test propositions against other propositions in order to uncover the truth, that is, until they achieve a reasoning that cannot be refuted.



Plato described a person’s soul, or personality, as having three parts: an appetite, which seeks physical satisfactions; a spirit, which seeks social approval; and reason, which seeks truth. A just person is one in whom reason, aided by a strong spirit, constrains the demands of the appetite. A just society is one in which people dedicate themselves to the common good, practice civic virtues of wisdom, courage, moderation and justice, and perform the occupational role to which they are best suited. Plato’s ideal state is ruled by philosopher-kings, who make decisions based solely on the common good.



For Aristotle, the best state is a polity which is ruled by the middle class, who are more likely to be moderate in their individual aspirations, and more likely to strive for equality, than either the rich or the poor. But since a small middle class can rarely stand up to the passions of the rich or poor it tends to become either an oligopoly (rule by the rich minority) or a democracy (rule by the poor majority).

A democracy is preferable to an oligopoly, he said, and it highlights two aspects of liberty. The first is that individuals should have the opportunity to participate in ruling through taking part in public office. Laws should be the result of public deliberation among average citizens rather than experts, since people through discourse enhance their collective practical intelligence and ensure optimal satisfaction of all parties in the society. The second is that, subject to obeying rightly constituted laws, people should be able to live as they like, free from interference from the state. In this, people are to be treated as equals.

Aristotle separated scientific knowledge, in which predictions about natural things are made on the basis of theory, from practical intelligence, which is concerned with the morality and rationality of human action. Unlike the constancy of nature, human activity is inherently unpredictable, and can only be understood through experience rather than theoretical deductions. Thus, society cannot be revised through a comprehensive theory, like the ideal of Plato’s Republic, but only through building upon the rational characteristics that are already part of existing experience.



The Middle Ages


Saint Augustine

A century after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, Saint Augustine wrote his City of God, in which he subordinated belief in a natural law of society based on reason, to one based on faith in God. Submission to the will of God, as elucidated by the fear-inducing institutions of Church and State, was required to lessen the pain and suffering of humans forever tainted by original sin. This thought formed the basis of law and order during the subsequent centuries of the feudal era.


Thomas Aquinas

In the thirteenth century, based on the rediscovered writings of Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas reconciled reason with faith by positing that correct human conduct can be rationally ascertained through study of the laws of nature, but only in accordance with the divine laws ordained by God. Scripture provides the moral values which guide people in their interpretations of natural law principles in their formulation of specific human laws. The Bible’s admonishment to "love thy neighbour" thus provides a guideline to recognizing that people get along best when their mutual rights are respected, leading to laws that treat all citizens alike.


Martin Luther and John Calvin

Martin Luther and John Calvin founded the Protestant religion at the beginning of the Renaissance period as a protest against the authority of the Roman Catholic Church, which they viewed as being corrupt. Their main contribution to the idea of civil society was not that the State should be similarly replaced, but rather that people should be free to choose their own religious commitments while demonstrating charity and service to their neighbours.



The Age of Reasoning


Thomas Hobbes

Thomas Hobbes lived at the time of the English civil war of 1642 to 1651, which pitted the King and his supporters, fighting for traditional government in Church and State, against the supporters of Parliament, who sought radical changes in religion and a greater share of power at the national level. Hobbes believed that in their original ‘state of nature’, people regarded themselves as equal to all others and, in competing for scarce resources, lived in a society of "all against all". Consequently, life was "solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short". Upon realizing that such a state of constant struggle for individual power limits social developments and common wealth, people would seek a new basis for society in which civic virtues are derived from natural laws, the first of which is that all persons ought to seek peace. The second, derived from the Bible’s Golden Rule, is that one should respect the rights of others in order to safeguard one’s own rights.

Reflecting the growth in economic transactions in society, Hobbes stated that social relations are to be based on equality and mutual trust, and each person must "performe their covenants made", which is to say they must live up to their agreements and contracts. But since people are sometimes fallible, a state must be created under the consent of the people to safeguard the peace and ensure contracts were upheld. In order to secure the rights of all citizens, the state must be impartial, so as not to unfairly promote the interests of one person or group over another. The state or commonwealth, which Hobbes termed Leviathan (after a Biblical sea monster), once created by popular consent, would allow no threat to the general peace, including that of political dissent. All lawmaking, judicial powers and executive powers are to be exercised in a single body. This body, be it a parliament or, ideally, a monarch, is to have authority even over religious doctrines and beliefs.


John Locke

John Locke, writing only a few decades later, argued that the power of the state should be limited so as not to threaten the basic rights of the citizens. He suggested that the state be constrained by dividing its powers into three functional components, carried out by two separate branches. The legislative branch is concerned with law creation, while the executive branch has responsibility for the functions of enforcing the law and conducting foreign policy. He based his ideas on the doctrine of a God-given Natural Law, which posits that individual citizens have certain natural rights as humans that no one can take away from them, such as the preservation of life, liberty, and property. He promoted the civic virtue of toleration for the beliefs and actions of others, provided they do not impinge on people’s rights. Thus, he advocated that individuals be allowed to meet together, form associations, and enter into relations of their choice. Particularly in reference to churches, he said the state had no authority to set religious doctrines.

[At this point it is useful to digress a moment to describe some of the changes taking place in society in the eighteenth century. It was the Age of Enlightenment, in which philosophers developed their social and political ideas under the influence of an advancing rationalism in the mathematical and physical sciences. It was also a time of social upheaval and the Industrial Revolution, in which advances in science and technology improved manufacturing, transportation and communication. In turn, this created an expansion of national and international trade, with a concommitant elaboration of financial systems, and a rise in the fortunes and power of the merchant class. These helped fuel a growth in the population of cities, an increasing division of labour, and social inequalities, resulting in abyssmal living and working conditions for the urban poor.]



The Age of Enlightenment


Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the mid 1700s attempted to persuade people that Locke and Hobbes had placed too much importance on the rights of individuals, leading to a pursuit for individual material gain in a laissez-faire economy at the expense of the pursuit of civic virtues associated with the common good. He felt that a growing division of labour exacerbated natural inequalities and culminated in the establishment of a powerful mercantile and propertied class that dominated the rest of society. To avoid the jeopardy of civil war, this class sought to appease the anger of the poor by instituting a new social order, a civil society that would provide equality and freedom for all. But this was just a trick, said Rousseau, that allowed the wealthy to maintain inequalities of power and privilege by postulating an equal freedom to acquire such advantages. And because of the consent given by the poor to such a form of governance, they were unlikely to rebel.

Rousseau devised the idea of the social contract as a means whereby citizens would make the common good their highest priority. This is accomplished by each person subjugating their right for the individual pursuit of happiness to that of their community’s right for collective well-being. The state is the arena for defining the nature of the common good, and civil liberty emerges when all people are willing to abide by the general will. Since common people are to be the law-makers, they will promulgate laws that result in moderating accumulation of individual wealth and thereby promote equality and trust.

It was the thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment, notably David Hume, Adam Ferguson and Adam Smith, that laid the philosophical premises for capitalist mercantilism.


David Hume

David Hume, in his Treatise on Human Nature, argued that there was no unity between Reason and Morality, and that people set their goals on the basis of Morality, but use Reason in achieving them. His three fundamental rules of conduct - the stability of possessions, their transfer by consent, and the performance of promises - are human conventions, and not based in any ‘natural law’. The implications of this thought were profound, leading to the notion that people, in using their reason to follow their self-interests, eventually achieve the interests of society as a whole. People establish and follow the laws of the land, not so as to serve some universal good, but to maximize their self-interests in an enlightened manner.


Adam Ferguson and Adam Smith

Ferguson and Smith both held that the binding principle of civil society was a private morality predicated on public recognition by one’s peers, joined through bonds of moral sentiment. This philosophical stance did not preclude Adam Smith from asserting that, because an individual’s identity and power rested on their perceived value within an arena of exchange, the whole of society would be better off if marketplace exchanges were unconstrained by the state.


Immanuel Kant

Immanuel Kant’s main principle regarding civil society was that people should treat other people as ends in themselves rather than means to the ends of others. In other words, we must consider how others would benefit themselves from our actions, rather than how we might use them only for our own benefit, and we must ensure that whatever means we use to pursue our own self-interests does not interfere with others’ rights to pursue theirs. And while Kant echoed Hume in his relegation of ethics and morals to the private sphere, he advocated a public arena of rational, critical discourse concerning the ‘ends’ posed by the state. In this regard, he was the first to suggest that a functional civil society should be seen as distinct from the state.



The Nineteenth Century


G.W.F. Hegel

G.W.F. Hegel at the beginning of the nineteenth century traced the evolution of the idea of civil society within historical contexts, and affirmed its basis as a human creation and not as a metaphysical reality with prior existence in a natural order. He, too, envisioned civil society as a separate sphere from the state, one in which people were both workers as well as consumers of other people’s work. As consumers, people strive to be equal to others, yet to satisfy a need for recognition they must consume distinctive goods. Thus, needs proliferate, the variety of goods proliferate, and different kinds of work proliferate. People, in their division of labour, are mutually dependent on one another. They become skilled and their value increases, but this promotes technological developments that reduce production costs by replacing workers with machines. For Hegel, social relations existed within a class structure consisting of an agricultural class, consisting of landowning farmers, a business class, consisting of workers, craftsmen, and businessmen, and a class of civil servants, who were educated, middle-class bureaucrats that were presumed to be dedicated to the welfare of all.

All of these things presuppose a civil society that stood in opposition to the state, one in which a plethora of interests competed with one another, generally without consideration of the common good. To ensure that certain interests do not predominate over others, Hegel refuted Hume and Kant’s separation between public reasoning and private morality, and divised the notion of the Corporation as the meeting place of both the will of the individual and the universal will of society, such will uniting practical and ethical elements into a single form of reasoning. The Corporation allows for communal life, through mutual recognition of its members’ needs and contributions, and it mediates between the particular interests of its members and the universal interests of the state. The Corporation then, in its mediation role, has the duty to practice as well as teach civic virtue as a means of promoting the common good, but it is the State that is the ultimate arbiter of morality, and, as such, gives civil society its necessary moral directions.


Alexis de Toqueville

Alexis de Toqueville was a French sociologist and politician who provided a contemporary analysis of American society from the beginning of the democratic state. He felt that Americans based their actions on two primary concepts, individualism and equality. While de Toqueville felt that too much emphasis on individualism would lead to widespread egoism and a breakdown in civic virtue, he acknowledged that Americans had a saving grace in their promotion of equality. It is through a feeling of being equal to others that allows people the mutual respect needed to encourage successful public participation in political life. This manifested itself in the penchant for the citizenry to form groups and voluntary associations. Only as part of a group can individuals realize their self-interest is best served by considering the needs of others as well. A great deal of the success of the American political system rested on its reliance on a multitude of local governments, which allowed for more public involvement in issues pertinent to all. He feared, however, that the American predeliction for material gain would cause them to lose interest in public affairs, and he was also apprehensive of the potential social rifts caused by the increasing wealth and power of the owner class over the worker class.


Karl Marx

Karl Marx was also concerned about the growing power of the owning class. Although he believed that a democracy was the best type of state, he felt that Hegel incorrectly idealized the state, erroneously assuming it could set the moral tone of the society and ensure the common good among competing interests. Marx felt that the private dimension of civil society overpowered the public aspect, which, in a market-oriented society, resulted in an overemphasis on the rights of the individual to pursue self-interest and a corresponding de-emphasis on the rights of the citizen to pursue communal interests.

People, he thought, in a society characterized primarily of a system of production and consumption, became alienated insofar as they were prohibited from developing their full talents and powers as human beings. Being atomized and estranged from others, they also are less likely to cultivate civic virtues, and more likely to treat others as means, not ends. In a capitalist market economy, in which the quest for money is encouraged, avarice is a common value. One’s feeling of self-worth and identity rests less on traditional virtues, and more on one’s occupation, income and possessions.

Under capitalism, wealthy owners of the means of production treat workers as a commodity, using them as machine tenders in increasingly sophisticated technologically-based systems of goods manufacture. They expropriate the surplus value of their labour, and use this capital both to enrich themselves and to further expand and develop their business. As these enterprises grew, they became increasingly important to the national interests in a highly competitive international arena. This, said Marx, meant that the state was even more likely to protect their interests against the interests of the workers. This domination of one class over another is inevitable under capitalism and would continue until a revolution occured, instilling a classless society in which a true civil society would flourish.



The Twentieth Century


John Rawls

John Rawls is one of the foremost political thinkers of this century. His main contribution to the concept of civil society is his theory of justice. To set a common standard viewpoint by which to judge the various means of allocating what Rawls calls primary goods, such as rights, powers, opportunities, income, wealth, and the bases for self-respect, he postulates a "veil of ignorance" that assumes that one’s position and situation in life is not known. This makes it likely that decisions regarding distribution of primary goods will be made on the basis of providing a decent life for those in the worst possible situations, since the decision-makers may find that, upon lifting the veil, that is the position they themselves are in.

In addition to a principle of equal liberty, which includes the right of all people to vote and hold public office, freedom of speech, conscience, thought, association, the right to private property, and due process of law, he adds a second principle of equal opportunity to compete for any position in society. These principles underscore Rawls’ idea of ‘political liberalism’, in which he differentiates between a political realm, consisting of public institutions and social structures, and a nonpublic cultural realm, in which people interact with others in a diversity of associations according to shared moral doctrines. No single morality arising from a non-public setting should be allowed to become the basis of justice, lest the state become a repressive regime.

To ensure the values of a constitutional democracy, which Rawls feels is the best kind of government since it allows for pluralism as well as stability, a constitutional consensus must be achieved through equal rights, a public discourse on political matters, and a willingness to compromise.



DeLue, Steven M., Political Thinking, Political Theory, and Civil Society, Allyn and Bacon, Boston, 1997

Seligman, Adam B., The Idea of Civil Society, Macmillan Inc., New York, 1992


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