Terrifying Drivel

Image by Prawny from Pixabay

In 1933, Josef Pieper, assistant in a sociological research institute, published a brief treatise, “formulated in the requisite scientific jargon,” patiently identifying and correcting major blind spots of eminent experts in the field.

Very soon, Pieper was to leave behind the jargon, and the field itself. Many decades later, however, he was inspired to revisit his youthful opus, and even to restate the argument in plain language for his by then wide general readership.

What possessed Pieper to rewrite his (still obscure) Rules of the Game in Social Relationships? Max Frisch, whose non-ideological approach to literature and philosophy Pieper highly esteemed, was speaking in 1976 about “the possibility of peace” in a nuclear age. He concluded with the sentiment that this noble goal demanded nothing less than “the restructuring of society into a community.”

What to many of us might sound like commonplace rhetorical drivel struck Pieper as a “terrifying oversimplification.” His book proceeds to explain, with reference to misleading but influential sociological theories, what Frisch’s statement means, why it is oversimplified, and why its implications are indeed terrifying.

Sociology is the study of how human beings relate to one another. Sifting through the cumbersome and imprecise writings of its pioneering lights, Pieper is able to identify three forms of social relationship, corresponding to three aspects of human personhood.

Every human being shares certain qualities common to persons as such. Though our humanity is universal, however, it is realized separately in each person. And each person realizes his humanity in a unique manner, giving him a special set of strengths and abilities.

Though we do not always use the terms in this way, Pieper finds it useful to distinguish between three forms of society. A community exists to affirm what is universal in its members. A society treats its members as autonomous individuals. And an organization regards its members as varied parts serving specific functions within a larger enterprise.

Rhetorically and politically, we often favor one of these modes of association over the others, condemning the evils of one and treating another as the source of every good.

Since each social form is rooted in a truth about persons, however, it is vital to see that human beings cannot achieve happiness without the assistance of all three social forms, so that allowing any of them to obliterate the others is a recipe for disaster.

Though religion is primarily a form of community, for example, Pieper suggests that a faith community failing to respect the personal dignity of its adherents is more of a “cult” than a “church.”

On the other hand, an “enlightened” proclivity for reducing all relationships to contractual arrangements threatens to dissolve the bonds of family and faith, without which no one could possess the skills necessary to thrive in a free society.

Although absolutizing any of the three forms can pose significant threats, the modern obsession with achieving limitless control of our environment makes us particularly vulnerable to overgrowth in the spheres of economic, technological, and political organization.

The gravest danger we face today is that our individuality and even our humanity itself may be swallowed up in “a totalitarian organization of all social life.”

May the study of sound sociology preserve us from this terrifying prospect!

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