Nostalgia for Community: Nisbet to Hunter via Reiff

In his 1953 The Quest for Community, Robert Nisbet anticipated themes more commonly associated with Philip Rieff’s 1966 The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith After Freud:

“Is not the most appealing popular religious literature of the day that which presents religion, not in its timeless role of sharpening man’s awareness of the omnipresence of evil and the difficulties of salvation, but as a means of relief from anxiety and frustration? It enjoins not virtue but adjustment. Are not the popular areas of psychology and ethics those involving either the theoretical principles or the therapeutic techniques of status and adjustment for the disinherited and insecure? ‘In what other period of human existence,’ asks Isaiah Berlin, ‘has so much effort been devoted not to the painfully difficult task of looking for light, but to the protection … of individuals from the intellectual burden of facing problems that may be too deep or complex?’ Every age has its literature of regeneration. Our own, however, is directed not to the ancient desire of man of higher virtue but to the obsessive craving of men for tranquility and belonging.”

He goes on to link this craving for tranquility and belonging to the then current popular wave of nostalgia:

“Nostalgia has become almost a central state of mind. In mass advertising, the magazine story, and in popular music we cannot fail to see the commercial appeal that seems to lie in cultural themes drawn from the near past. It is plainly a nostalgia, not for the greater adventurousness of earlier times but for the assertedly greater community and moral certainty of the generations preceding ours. If the distinguishing mark of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was transgression, that of the mid-twentieth century would appear to be the search for the road back.”

Knowing what lay ahead, remember Nisbet is writing in the early 1950s, it would seem that transgression had not yet exhausted itself as a cultural force and the road back would not be traveled for very long. In any case, Nisbet already recognized that the terms on which the journey was being undertaken would undermine its objective:

“Increasingly, individuals seek escape from the freedom of impersonality, secularism, and individualism. They look for community in marriage, thus putting, often, an intolerable strain upon a tie already grown institutionally fragile. They look for it in easy religion, which leads frequently to a vulgarization of Christianity the like of which the world has not seen before. They look for it in the psychiatrist’s office, in the cult, in functionless ritualizations of the past, and in all the other avocations of relief from nervous exhaustion.”

This recalls the following observations from James D. Hunter, a contemporary sociologist influenced by Rieff, in The Death of Character:

“We say we want the renewal of character in our day but we do not really know what to ask for. To have a renewal of character is to have a renewal of a creedal order that constrains, limits, binds, obligates, and compels. This price is too high for us to pay. We want character without conviction; we want strong morality but without the emotional burden of guilt or shame; we want virtue but without particular moral justifications that invariably offend; we want good without having to name evil; we want decency without the authority to insist upon it; we want moral community without any limitations to personal freedom. In short, we want what we cannot possibly have on the terms that we want it.”

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