Sunday, March 06, 2016

Societal Analyses: the Atoms of Civilization

Philosophers have considered the enormous complexity of human society and sought the basic building-blocks of that structure. With surprising uniformity, separated by thousands of miles and several centuries, thinkers as diverse as Aristotle and Confucius reach similar conclusions.

Both of them see several basic human relationships as foundational to society. Recursively combining and rearranging these relationships leads to the complexity.

For Aristotle, there were three primary relationships: parent-child, husband-wife, and employer-employee. To those, Confucius adds two more: friend-friend and sibling-sibling.

These three or five simple valences still form a powerful conceptual framework in sociology.

Dietrich von Horn, however, proposes a different lens through which to view human civilization. Rather than asking about the primary relationships, he asks about the primary occupations.

What are the foundational core tasks which humans perform? These vocations - the tasks to which people are ‘called’ - will yield, again by recursive combinations and arrangements, the many other roles and functions which people have in society.

Just as atoms constitute molecules and physical objects, so these essential trades are ‘atomic’ vis-a-vis society.

Identifying four atomic callings - clergy, farmer, physician, teacher - Dietrich von Horn writes:

Eigentlich gibt es doch nur vier richtige Berufe auf der Welt: Das sind der Pastor, der Bauer, der Arzt und der Lehrer. Nur sie müssen sich mit den wirklichen Dingen des Lebens auseinandersetzen: Wie finde ich mein Seelenheil, wer versorgt mich mit Nahrung, wer heilt mich und wer gibt mir die Bildung, die ich brauche, um im späteren Leben zurechtzukommen? Im Idealfall sollte das funktionieren, aber leider kommt einem immer das Leben dazwischen, also die Unvollkommenheit der Menschen.

Dietrich von Horn’s insight lies in his anticipation of the effects of fallenness in the world. Ideally, these four foundational callings, together with the universe of other callings which arise from them, would lead to a smoothly-functioning society.

But no analysis, and no corresponding plan, for society achieves that utopian result, because people are imperfect. Whether we follow Aristotle, Confucius, or Dietrich von Horn, we are confronted by the inescapable conclusion that every human being is flawed, which entails that every society will be flawed.

This does not mean that we should give up hope for the human race. Rather, a sober realism reveals the importance of forgiveness.

If perfection is expected, disappointment will result. If imperfection is anticipated, forgiveness is easier to extend, and constructive activity more quickly resumed.