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  • The People and the State
  • Jacques Maritain

I: Nation, Body Politic, and State

There is no more thankless task than trying rationally to distinguish and to circumscribe—in other words, trying to raise to a scientific or philosophical level—common notions that have arisen from the contingent practical needs of human history and are laden with social, cultural, and historical connotations as ambiguous as they are fertile, and which nevertheless envelop a core of intelligible meaning. Such concepts are nomadic, not fixed; they are shifting and fluid. Now they are used synonymously, now in opposition to one another. Everybody is the more at ease in using them as he does not know exactly what they mean. But as soon as one tries to define them and separate them from one another, hosts of problems and difficulties arise. One runs the risk of being switched onto a wrong track while attempting to bring out the truth, and to make analytical and systematic what has been conveyed to him by confused experience and concrete life.

The preceding remarks apply strikingly to the notions of Nation, Body Politic (or Political Society), and State. Yet nothing is more necessary, [End Page 163] for a sound political philosophy, than to try to sort out these three notions, and clearly circumscribe the genuine meaning of each.

Often, when we speak in the current, more or less vague manner, these three concepts are used, and can be legitimately used, as synonymous with one another. But when it comes to their genuine sociological meaning and to political theory, they must be sharply distinguished. The confusion between, or the systematic identification of, Nation and Political Society—or Political Society and State—or Nation and State, has been a woe to modern history. A correct restatement of the three concepts in question is badly needed. The austerity of my analysis may perhaps be excused, therefore, on account of the importance of the principles in political philosophy it may make us aware of.

II: Community and Society

A preliminary distinction must be made—namely between community and society. Of course these two terms may licitly be used synonymously, and I myself have done so many times. But it is also licit—and proper—to assign them to two kinds of social groups which are actually different in nature. This distinction, though it has been misused in the most grievous manner by the theorists of the superiority of "life" over reason, is in itself an established sociological fact. Both community and society are ethico-social and truly human, not mere biological realities. But a community is more of a work of nature and more nearly related to the biological; a society is more of a work of reason, and more nearly related to the intellectual and spiritual properties of man. Their inner social essences and their characteristics, as well as their spheres of realization, do not coincide.1

In order to understand this distinction, we must remember that social life as such brings men together by reason of a certain common object. In social relations there is always an object, either material or spiritual, around which the relations among human persons [End Page 164] are interwoven. In a community, as J. T. Delos2 has rightly pointed out, the object is a fact which precedes the determinations of human intelligence and will, and which acts independently of them to create a common unconscious psyche, common feelings and psychological structures, and common mores. But in a society the object is a task to be done or an end to be aimed at, which depends on the determinations of human intelligence and will and is preceded by the activity—either decision, or, at least, consent—of the reason of individuals; thus, in the case of society the objective and rational element in social life explicitly emerges and takes the leading role. A business firm, a labor union, a scientific association are societies as much as is the body politic. Regional, ethnic, linguistic groups, social classes are communities. The tribe, the clan are communities that pave the way for, and foreshadow the advent of, the political society. The community is a product of instinct and...


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