By George Weigel, IRD
In his acute analysis of the character and institutions of the United States, “Democracy in America,” Alexis de Tocqueville, a 19th-century French liberal, stressed the importance of what we call “civil society.” American democracy, Tocqueville understood, wasn’t just a matter of the state, here, and the individual, there. “Between” the state (or government) and the people there were the many free, voluntary associations that formed the sinews and musculature of America. Those free associations also performed many essential social functions: they educated the young, served the poor and cared for the sick.
Writing a century and a half after Tocqueville, Pope John Paul II also highlighted the importance of voluntary associations for the free and virtuous society. Those associations, the pope argued, shape the human personality of a political community—what John Paul called, in his philosopher’s vocabulary, the “subjectivity of society.” Thus, in a democracy—a way of self-government that depends on the character of a people—the institutions of civil society are schools of freedom: the elementary schools of democracy.
Think about it this way: Every 2-year-old is a natural-born tyrant, a beautiful bundle of willfulness and self-absorption who demands (sometimes winsomely and often loudly) that he or she get what he or she wants—now. Who, or what, turns all those 2-year-old tyrants into democrats: mature men and women capable of being democratic citizens? Where do we learn what Tocqueville called the habits of mind and heart, and what moral philosophers from Aristotle to John Paul II have called the virtues, that are necessary for the machinery of democracy to work well?
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