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Quotables: Robert Nisbet

“Robert Nisbet was never a friend of centralization, militarism, and absolutism, whether royalist or democratic.
Joseph R. Stromberg

In The Quest for Community, Robert Nisbet (1913-1996) pursued the idea of decentralized, natural social orders as an antidote to the isolation and despair engendered by the modern (and often abstract) nation-state. Only within the context of natural community can the individual exercise discernment and informed judgment. Beginning as a political liberal (in the progressive as opposed to classical sense) he gave expression to a mythos that contrasted sharply with the prevailing notion of progress, or what Trotsky called the “locomotive of history,” evolving into a champion of Burkean conservative pluralism.

Here are a few of Nisbet’s writings worth contemplating:

  • “Marxism, like all other totalitarian movements in our century, must be seen as kind of secular pattern of redemption , designed to bring hope and fulfillment to those who have come to feel alienated , frustrated, and excluded from what they regard as their rightful place in a community. In its promise of unity and belonging lies much of the magic of totalitarian mystery, miracle, and authority.”
  • “Not the free individual but the lost individual; not Independence but isolation; not self-discovery but self-obsession; not to conquer but to be conquered; these are major states of mind in contemporary imaginative literature.”
  • “The historical emphasis upon the individual has been at the expense of the associative and symbolic relationship that must in fact uphold the individual’s own sense of integrity.”
  • “Other and more powerful forms of association have existed, but the major moral and psychological influences on the individual’s life have emanated from the family and local community and the church. Within such groups have been engendered the primary types of identification: affection, friendship, prestige, recognition. And within them also have been engendered or intensified the principal incentives of work, love, prayer, and devotion to freedom and order.”
  • “The family, religious association, and local community – these, the conservatives insisted, cannot be regarded as the external products of man’s thought and behavior; they are essentially prior to the individual and are the indispensable supports of belief and conduct. Release man from the contexts of community and you get not freedom and rights but intolerable aloneness and subjection to demoniac fears and passions. Society, Burke wrote in a celebrated line, is a partnership of the dead, the living, and the unborn.”
  • “All freedom, wrote Lord Acton, consists in radice in the preservation of an inner sphere exempt from State power. The political mystic may boggle at this, but the proposition is, when amended to include any type of power, political or other, irrefutable. Both freedom and the desire for freedom are nourished within the realization of spiritual privacy and among privileges of personal decision. Apart from these, any structure of authority becomes almost limitless in its scope.”

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