Religion & Liberty Online

Nisbet and Dalrymple on community, authority, function and tattoos

In his must-read book, The Quest for Community, Robert Nisbet discusses the relationship of community and authority.

Communities provide human connection and sense of belonging, but they also come with limitations. They make demands up us to do certain things, to hold fast to certain beliefs. You can’t simply do whatever you want and still remain part of a community.
 Community without authority is not real community.

This is of course one of the tensions of contemporary life.  We all want community, but we don’t want any limitations.  We want friendship, meaning, and deep relationships without the moral demands of family, religion, or tradition. This the false promise of modern liberation: all the freedom you want apart from any tradition and all at the low price of no cost.

But there is a cost and it includes among other things anxiety, isolation, loneliness, broken families, and social disorder.  (You may have noticed that many of the elites who peddle this liberation don’t actually practice what they preach.)

The loss of community doesn’t simply affect our personal lives.  It has political import. When people lack authentic community and authority from traditional sources like the family, civil associations, and religion, they go looking for it somewhere else.  Sometimes in banal togetherness of buddies or some shared interest.  Even tattoos are now considered a community.  As Theodore Dalrymple writes

In an increasingly atomised society (such that flats are now commonly constructed in which there is nowhere for people to eat together), any commonality between people—such as having a tattoo—is said to create a “community”.  A butterfly on a buttock gives one something important in common with someone who has a skull tattooed on his shoulder. By this standard of community, I am a member of the anchovy-on-toast community, among many other communities.

Yet often it is more pernicious. This is one of the appeals of nationalism, tribalism and identity politics.  We are social beings who can’t live long in a vacuum of individualism.


Community Requires Function

Nisbet explains that real community is not simply companionship or a shared hobby, whether it be a tattoo or anchovies on toast. Community, the family included, requires a function.    Nisbet explains:

We are told by certain psychologists and sociologists that, with its loss of economic and legal functions, the family has been freed of all that is basically irrelevant to its “real’ nature; that the true function of the family— the cultivation of affection, the shaping of personality, above all, the manufacture of ‘adjustment’— is now in a position to flourish illimitably, to the greater glory of man and society. In a highly popular statement, we are told that the family has progressed from institution to companionship.

But, as Ortega y Gasset has written, people do not live together merely to be together. They live together to do something together.’ To suppose that the present family, or any other group, can perpetually vitalize itself through some indwelling affectional tie, in the absence of concrete, perceived functions, is like supposing that the comradely ties of mutual aid which grow up incidentally in a military unit will long outlast a condition in which war is plainly and irrevocably banished.

Applied to the family, the argument suggests that affection and personality cultivation can somehow exist in a social vacuum, unsupported by the determining goals and ideals of economic and political society. But in hard fact no social group will long survive the disappearance of its chief reasons for being, and these reasons are not, primarily, biological but institutional. Unless new institutional functions are performed by a group—family, trade union, or church— its psychological influence will become minimal.

No amount of veneration for the psychological functions of a social group, for the capacity of the group to gratify cravings for security and recognition, will offset the fact that, however important these functions may be in any given individual’s life, he does not join the group essentially for them. He joins the group if and when its larger institutional or intellectual functions have relevance both to his own life organization and to what he can see- of the group’s relation to the larger society. The individual may indeed derive vast psychic support and integration from the pure fact of group membership, but he will not long derive this when he becomes in some way aware of the gulf between the moral claims of a group and its actual institutional importance in the social order.


We can talk about community all we want, but calling something community does not make it so. And more important, it doesn’t provide the real, and long-term sense of belonging that promotes human flourishing. The promise radical liberation and political progressivism that we could find full flourishing in the political community apart from any of the traditional attachments of families and religion with their limitations and inhibitions has fallen flat.  What we got instead is loneliness, anxiety, broken families, pseudo-communities, and increasing attraction to tribalism and identity politics.  Nisbet’s reflections on the important role of function and community are well  worth considering.



Michael Matheson Miller

Michael Matheson Miller is a Senior Research Fellow at the Acton Institute