Man’s social nature is an integral part of what it means to be human. But at the same time, the instinct has been responsible for many of the great evils in human history. When the natural tendency to care for those closest to one’s self becomes a hard line between us and them, the virtues of tenderness, courage, and generosity toward the in-group fuse with their mirror vices of hate and disdain toward out-groups.
It is true, psychological studies show how frighteningly easy it is for an authority figure to negate an individual’s will, and history shows that the effect can easily scale up to an entire society when large groups are successfully “other”-ized. The usual platitude, that group instinct must be held “in tension” with individual initiative, offers no practical guidance. The difference between a harmful and a healthy expression of the social instinct can be elaborated more usefully as a difference in maturity pertaining to identity.
The social instinct is animated by more than simply the material benefit of living among others under the division of labor. More importantly, man desires colloquy with others in an expressive sense: he desires to be known and appreciated for who he is. This desire is the point at which the pressure of social norms operates. Shame is the conflict between the desires for expression and for appreciation, when expression would lead to opprobrium. These pressures set soft boundaries within which respectable choices can be made. They can be broken, but at a cost. Naturally, self-respect is often more important psychologically than the appreciation of others, hence the value of a strong individual conscience.
But the values of various men vary too widely for anyone to please them all. Men therefore form groups around shared values, within which friendships are formed upon mutual appreciation of those values.1 And as individuals identify themselves with those values, that comes to much the same thing as appreciation of one friend for the other, for in a very real sense the self is constituted by what it values. This is phileo; the love between friends.
As a general rule, the strongest friendships are formed around the most specific values.2 Indeed, groups shade imperceptibly into friendships as the uniting value becomes more specific and the group accordingly smaller. A group therefore is helpful as an initial ground for friendship, but it is neither necessary (serendipitous friendships are not uncommon) nor sufficient (one cannot be friends with everyone in a large group). The less exclusive the group, the less fraternal it will necessarily be. A trade association animated by love of craft may be a fertile ground for friendship, but one which jockeys for mere economic advantage will find that value to be barren soil. A plumber may enjoy the company of another plumber, but what man ever found another who loved comfort and said, “You too?!”
One would expect, then, forces of civil society analogous to those operating on firms to create a distribution of group sizes centered around some optimum.3 But these forces are distorted by the democratic process, whose majoritarian requirement exerts its own upward force on the size of groups in the political realm. Groups like the NRA or the ACLU, among whose members only the most active ever have social interactions in the group’s context, are of little use for the nurture of deep friendships in which men come to know and appreciate one another, for their purpose as pressure groups requires them to be as large as they can. This entails minimal engagement, but also nullifies any fraternal capacity.
Nevertheless, these groups command a visceral fidelity from their members not less than a more fraternal group: attack the NRA and its member will feel personally affronted, just as if you had slandered his church or nationality.
Groups like these satisfy the need for belonging and identity, but not the need for friendship, much as Cheetos might satisfy hunger, but have little nutritive value. In both cases the deeper need is obscured by the fulfillment of the more pressing need. Unfulfilled by friendship, the need for expression is redirected outward: rather than coalescing around shared values, a flag is planted. The member shouts to the world, “Appreciate me!” And as the unsatisfied desire becomes more and more vexing, the specific character of the group becomes less and less relevant. The member’s allegiance is no longer to what the group stands for – as if he might leave if the group should drift in its aims – but to the group itself. Rather than establishing his identity within the group, he outsources it to the group. One would wonder how there remained any loyal Republicans by the end of Bush’s reign, or now loyal Democrats at the end of Obama’s, if the parties were anything more than expressive. Why else would nationalism fester most virulently in countries with the least to be proud of? Germany, for example, did not fall into nationalist fervor until their country was in economic and cultural ruin.4 Outraged pride is the most common expression of stifled phileo.
Needless to say, the triumph of expression is the death of shame. If I am not appreciated, the problem is with them. They can’t accept me because they’re too puritanical (or bourgeoise, or boorish, or…). Suddenly the opponent becomes “other”, and dialogue becomes impossible.5 Hence the preoccupation with affirmation and identity among those who reject either element of heterosexual monogamy, and hence also the victim complex among cultural conservatives. Expressive flag-waving is a hallmark of immaturity, whether a gay pride or the Gadsden. Deep friendship according to shared values both requires and brings about maturity, which is that establishment of individual identity; the development of conscience. It is a deeply personal and informal endeavor.6 C.S. Lewis wrote that rather few, probably, ever experience such friendship. Without it, the expressive desire never moves past self-indulgence.
This is the danger of any regime where “private interests” are regarded with suspicion and sublimated into the “public square”: those “private interests” are precisely those through which the individual matures. And what’s more, the expansion of the political realm molds more and more groups after the barren model of the pressure group, emaciating an entire people’s capacity for real friendship.
C.S. Lewis in The Four Loves says that friendship “is a relation between men at their highest level of individuality. It withdraws men from collective ‘togetherness’ as surely as solitude itself could do; and more dangerously, for it withdraws them by twos and threes.” Wherever friendship finds root, let tyrants and bureaucrats beware. Wherever it does not, let the people beware.