The Critical History of an Idea
Publication Year: 1999
In the absence of noble public goals, admired leaders, and compelling issues, many warn of a dangerous erosion of civil society. Are they right? What are the roots and implications of their insistent alarm? How can public life be enriched in a period marked by fraying communities, widespread apathy, and unprecedented levels of contempt for politics? How should we be thinking about civil society?
Civil Society examines the historical, political, and theoretical evolution of how civil society has been understood for the past two and a half millennia. From Aristotle and the Enlightenment philosophers to Colin Powell's Volunteers for America, Ehrenberg provides an indispensable analysis of the possibilities-and limits-of what this increasingly important idea can offer to contemporary political affairs.
Civil Society is the winner of the Michael J. Harrington Award from the Caucus for a New Political Science of APSA for the best book published during 1999.
Published by: NYU Press
Title Page, Copyright Page
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This book would never have seen the light of day if my wife Kathleen hadn’t urged me to write something “relevant.” This is often difficult for political theorists, but my students’ desire to navigate a complex world also provided early motivation and continuous support. I have also...
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For three days toward the end of April 1997, the President’s Summit for America’s Future focused national attention on a succession of speeches, workshops, and exhibits in Philadelphia. President Clinton gathered George Bush, Jimmy Carter, Nancy Reagan, Colin Powell, thirty governors, dozens of corporate...
Part I: The Origins of Civil Society
1: Civil Society and the Classical Heritage
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The classical understanding of civil society as a politically organized commonwealth received its first coherent formulation in the cities of ancient Greece. It also revolved around the understanding that men and women lived their lives in separate spheres, and Greek theory considered a...
2: Civil Society and the Christian Commonwealth
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The collapse of Roman civilization, which Edward Gibbon attributed to the triumph of barbarism and Christianity, weakened the classical understanding of civil society as a politically organized community. Its disintegration introduced a dualism into Western thought that made it impossible for hundreds...
3: Civil Society and the Transition to Modernity
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Transitional periods are never easy, and the passage to modernity was no exception. The disintegration of medieval religious, political, and economic life produced such chaos and instability that it became impossible to conceptualize a coherent theory of civil society. The old categories were plainly...
Part II: Civil Society and Modernity
4: The Rise of “Economic Man”
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Niccolò Machiavelli broke with the Middle Ages when he subordinated faith to the interests of the prince and the civic republic. Martin Luther’s emphasis on the freedom of individual conscience reserved considerable power to political authorities, who were responsible for organizing civil society...
5: Civil Society and the State
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Classical notions of civil society recognized that social life was carried on in separate spheres, but theorists did not organize their thinking around individual interests. For the most part, the Greeks and Romans situated private strivings in broader notions of citizenship. As the ancient world...
6: Civil Society and Intermediate Organizations
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When premodern theorists of civil society considered economic affairs, they almost always treated them as threats to civil society. Considered by themselves, commerce and trade were thought to be destructive of the bonds that held social life together. Only when markets began to organize civil society was it possible to...
Part III: Civil Society in Contemporary Life
7: Civil Society and Communism
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The roots of the contemporary interest in civil society lie in the 1980s contention of some Eastern European intellectuals that the accelerating crisis of communism was “the revolt of civil society against the state.” Deeply hostile to the claims of self-described vanguard parties and to their...
8: Civil Society and Capitalism
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The Eastern European dissidents who deployed the language of civil society in their attack on the socialist state might be excused their failure to appreciate the looming danger of the capitalist market. Whatever combination of naivet�, desperation, and irresponsibility was at work, they...
9: Civil Society and Democratic Politics
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Contemporary American thinking about civil society is thoroughly dominated by categories drawn from Tocqueville. Individual theorists may differ about where the family belongs or whether the Enlightenment has run its course, but almost all agree that a healthy democracy requires many...
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About the Author
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John Ehrenberg grew up in the Bronx and attended DeWitt Clinton High School, Dartmouth College, and Stanford University. Active in the civil rights, antiwar, and other movements of the late 1960s and 1970s, he has been teaching political science at the Brooklyn Campus of...
Page Count: 288
Publication Year: 1999