SOCIETY. "Man," says Aristotle in the beginning of his "politics," "is a social being." This definition is in some sort the point of departure of political science. It destroys at once all the false hypotheses which make society a mere convention. It has been truly said that such a convention presupposes the existence of a state of society in some form, in order that men might be able to come to an understanding with one another. Besides, the state of isolation is impossible. Man would not be able to exist in such a state. The child could not live without the food and care furnished by its mother, the woman could not dispense with the protection and labor of the man. Language, the bond of all society, is born with society and of society, and helps to maintain and extend it. The definition of man as a social being rests, therefore, on his most imperious wants, on his most instinctive sympathies and on his most invincible inclinations. Adam Smith rightly remarks that man is the only being who makes exchanges. Society, from a certain point of view, is merely a series of exchanges, a perpetual communication of material and moral benefits which men hold with each other. To complete the definition, or, rather, to give it all the clearness and truth which should receive, we must add, that if man is born a social being, he unceasingly becomes more social. The family, the tribe, the nation, with its vast development, mark the different periods of society. A moment comes when the division of mankind into nations gives place to a sentiment which expresses sociability in its highest degree; this sentiment is the sentiment of humanity. Man, far from being a wolf to man, homo homini lupus, according to the gloomy definition of Hobbes—adopted by all who see in society an artificial and conventional fact—sees in man a being worthy of his respect and his love, an equal, a brother. Religion and philosophy, by paths which are sometimes different and sometimes identical, lead to this sublime result, while interest, property understood, enjoins it on us to be useful to others in view of reciprocity.
—Society implies associates. We can not, therefore, flatter ourselves that we know the object of society without knowing first the nature of the beings which are its elements. Society itself is but the medium and the means which these beings make use of to develop themselves. What are these individuals? Are they simple units endowed with a vegetative or an animal life, and obeying the laws of fatality? No, they are moral persons, that is to say, free, responsible, whose destiny it is to develop and perfect themselves and rise to the conception and practice of the true and the good; having, in one word, besides material life, a moral and intellectual life. The special character of man, in this world, is to be at once the most social and the most personal of all things. Is it the person which shall be sacrificed to society, or society which shall aid in the development of the individual? It would be absurd to suppose that the diminution of that which constitutes our dignity, our value, our very being, should be the object or the result of the association of our efforts, labors and mutual assistance. In truth, the only object of society is to give value to the individual. By society the individual must become more enlightened, more powerful and more moral; society in turn will be worth only what those who compose it are worth.
—Respect for every right, the practice of every duty, the cultivation of every faculty, the development of human nature: such is the object of society. Society is essentially favorable to the growth, as it is absolutely necessary to the exercise and the guarantee, of all our legitimate inclinations. Thus, by it the family is ordered, property protected and increased, the capital necessary to civilization and material life increased, perpetuated and transmitted. The object of
institutions of the civil and political order is to assure this regular development of each and all. But it is important to remember that the state alone is not charged with the attainment of this object. The better part of human nature escapes the state. Religion is no more an affair of state than philosophy. And so with industry and commerce, as well as all the institutions intended to favor saving and to distribute wealth properly. In like manner the various means of instruction and education at the command of the individual and the family, do not depend upon the state. The state protects them, the law guarantees or regulates their exercise, but all these things have a proper and independent life of their own. Otherwise society would go contrary to its object. It would be no longer established to favor but to suppress individual development. Instead of being the putting in common of liberties respecting and aiding one another, it would be slavery organized, either by a powerful majority or a dominating minority.
—Political societies, in so far as they are collective beings, reflect and reproduce everything to be found in the nature of the individuals who compose them; only they reflect and reproduce it on a large scale, which has given rise to the saying that society is merely a big individual. It is true that this has been said of the state also, with truth in some respects, but still with much less truth, for all that enters into society is far from entering the state, as we have already seen. Nothing prevents and everything commands us to consider society as a living whole. There are in society collective rights and collective duties. It has the right to be guaranteed, and the duty of repressing evil and assisting the individual. This it does sometimes through the state, and sometimes by means of free associations. In like manner there is in society, as in the individual, an instinct of preservation and an instinct of progress. The one is attached to tradition, which is of a nature to serve society eternally, or simply to everything which has served it long. The instinct of progress walks in advance of all innovations, welcomes everything favorable to the ulterior development of the human mind and of society; it embraces the future in its views and its hopes, as the instinct of preservation adheres to the past and loves to keep itself within the limits of the present. These two instincts, almost always at war, are both necessary. They are completed, tempered and maintained by each other. From their collisions terrible crises result, the more to be feared, since, if one is devoted to routine, the other easily gives itself to adventure. But in spite of, and sometimes by means of, these crises themselves, humanity advances, launching itself toward the future, resting on the past, and making a starting point for useful progress and dangerous innovations at the cost of more than one laborious work of groping and painful experience. This progress of societies, demonstrated by the philosophy of history, a theory which was framed by a number of writers, notably by Turgot and Condorcet, in the last century, is scarcely denied in our day, although the scope and extent of that progress are continually in dispute. Who doubts in our day that modern society excels the societies of antiquity in justice and humanity, as well as in material development? Property more secure, better distributed, resting on labor as a foundation; the family purified, slavery and serfdom abolished; penalties more humane and more just; well-being increased; the sciences developed; the power of right above brute force: are not these certain results given by historical observation? The amount of evil, whether it be free or fatal, diminishes, no matter how enduring and wide-spread it may be; the amount of good increases: such is the visible revelation of Providence in history. Have we not here the most striking justification of society, the most incontestable proof of its necessity and its benefits?