State and Society

by Mortimer J. Adler, Ph.D.


Part I

Happiness is the ultimate goal of human striving, for the sake of which everything else should be sought and to the consummation of which everything else should be ordered. It is the complete good, the whole that includes all other goods as its component parts.

However, society and the state are larger wholes than their individual members. The prosperity of society and the welfare and security of the state would also appear to be ultimate goals.

The individual members of society manifest their justice by acting for the good of the society and state in which they live. Serious antisocial conduct is criminal injustice, doing injury or damage to the welfare of the community as well as to other human beings who participate in the community’s common good.

Hence the very first question that confronts us is, perhaps, the most fundamental of all the questions we have to face. How are these two ultimate goods to be ordered in relation to one another — the happiness of individual persons who are members of a society and the welfare of the society to which they belong?

A solution of the problem requires us to resolve the contradiction contained in the phrase “two ultimate goods.” Two ultimates are impossible; there can be only one. That being so, the problem to be solved is: Which one?

Both are common goods, but they are common in different senses of that term. The happiness of individuals is common in the sense that the essential components of a good human life are the same for all human beings, their happiness differing only in accidental respects. The Latin name for this common good is bonum commune humanis, the human common good.

The welfare of society and of the state is common in the sense that it is a good in which all the members of the state participate, deriving benefits for themselves from that participation. The Latin name for this common good is bonum commune communitatis, the social common good.

Each of these two common goods subordinate all individual goods. The essential components of hap-piness, the real goods that are the same for all human beings, subordinate the accidental components, the apparent goods that differ from individual to individual.

The selfish interests of individuals should be subordinated to the common good that is the welfare of society as a whole and the security of the state. Almost everyone, certainly all virtuous persons, recognize this as soon as the security of the state or the welfare of the community is seriously threatened.

But the pursuit of happiness is not a selfish individual interest. It seeks the attainment of a good that is shared by all human beings because it is the same for all of them. Should the human common good be subordinated to the security of the state and the welfare of the community, even when the social common good is seriously threatened?

For those who hold, as philosophers from Plato to Hegel have held, that man is made for the state, not the state for man, the question is already answered, yet not without residual difficulties.

For those who hold, from Aristotle to John Dewey, that the state is made for man, not the other way around, the question is also answered, again with residual difficulties that are not easy to resolve.

I do not hesitate to say at once that I side with the latter answer. It is true that individual members of a society are parts of a whole. It is also true that the good of a part can be sacrificed for the good of the whole. But it is not true that individual human beings as members of society are parts of that whole in the same way that arms and legs are parts of a human being. The critical error here consists in converting a metaphor into a literal truth.

When it is said that the society or the state is a living organism or an organic whole, the truth is that it is like a living organism or an organic whole because it, too, is organized, as all living organisms are. But its being organized only makes it appear to be a living organism. The apparent likeness does not make it really a living organism. That it is an organized whole having parts does not subordinate the parts to the whole as the parts of a living organism are subordinated to the organism as a whole.

Residual difficulties remain for anyone who tries to solve this problem simply and neatly. This becomes manifest to us when we discover that Hegel, who subordinates individual human beings to the state as parts to a whole, also declares that the state serves the happiness of the persons who are its members. So also Aristotle, who says again and again that the happiness of its citizens is the ultimate good to be aimed at by the state, permits himself, in one passage, to compare the individual members of society to the limbs of a living organism. Nor does he avoid the implication that they can be sacrificed, as arms and legs can be sacrificed, for the good of the whole.

Setting such difficulties aside for the moment, I think the most telling point in favor of the position that the state is made for man, not man for the state, lies in our recognition of the fact that participation in the social common good is indispensable to the happiness of human beings. In contrast, the welfare of the community can be achieved and preserved even if all its individual members do not succeed, by lack of moral virtue, in attaining their own personal happiness.

Human beings cannot lead good lives in total isolation from one another. We are social, not solitary, animals. We depend for our happiness upon associating with others, living in society and deriving the benefits that living in society confers upon us, especially the goods that are not wholly within our power to obtain for ourselves.

On the other hand, if the welfare of society depended upon the successful attainment of happiness by all its members, it would follow that the common good of the community could never be achieved. We know that all human beings do not become morally virtuous persons. For that and other reasons, all do not and never will succeed in attaining happiness, even to a slight degree. The two common goods are, therefore, not both equally ultimate as, of course, they simply cannot be.

The social common good is ultimate only to the extent that it is the good aimed at by individuals in their social or public lives. But human beings also lead private lives, of which their social conduct is only an aspect. Their personal happiness is their ultimate good without any qualification. The social common good is ultimate for them only in so far as they act socially. Their action for the common good of the society in which they live does more than serve its welfare. It serves their own happiness, which depends on their deriving benefits from society that are beyond their power as solitary individuals to achieve.

The truth of this is confirmed by the fact that the benefits conferred upon its individual members by society are all external goods and, as such, are possessions that rank lower in the scale of human goods than a human being’s personal perfections. Even when the views just expressed are fully understood and accepted, the fact still remains that the only two entities that human beings have ever acknowledged as their superiors are the state on earth and God in the cosmos.

We find the English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, referring to the state as “that great Leviathan, or (to speak more reverently) as that Mortal God, to which we owe under the Immortal God, our peace and defence.” We find the German philosopher, Hegel, declaring that “the State is the Divine Idea as it exists on earth.”

Those who, in our time, are proponents of the totalitarian state and worship the state in a pseudo-religious fashion, turn it into a secular divinity. They alone acknowledge no residual difficulties when they maintain that man is made to serve the state and that all individual interests are subordinate to the welfare of the state and can be sacrificed for it.

When States Exist, Are They Identical With Society?

The question is introduced by a conditional clause. States did not always exist. In what we regard as the remote past, the only human associations were families or tribes and villages.

To answer the question, it is necessary to spend a moment on the words that crowd in on us when we consider these ideas. We have already used some of these words: “society,” “community,” “association.” These appear to be synonymous. Every form of human association is a type of human society. Every type of human society is a community.

We have already used the word “state.” Other words occur in this connection: “political community,” “civil society,” “body politic,” “commonwealth.” These words, too, appear to be interchangeable synonyms. Two of them — “civil society” and “political community” — indicate at once that what their synonym, “state,” refers to is always only one type of society or community, in contradistinction to still other types of human associations — clubs, fraternities, companies, corporations, labor unions, trade associations, professional as-sociations, and so on.

Still other words remain to be considered, such as “city,” “nation,” “country,” and even “civilization” and “culture.” As we shall see presently, two of them enter into hyphenated conjunctions to form such terms as “city-state” and “nation-state.” Whether or not the difference between these two kinds of state are important in other connections, they are not important in connection with the problem of how state and society are related.

The word “country” adds little to the connotations of the other words except, perhaps, the indication of a place on earth that is the location of the state. We more often say “my country” than we say, “my state” because it is so obviously the place of our birth or the place we have moved to as an inhabitant.

A Greek and a Latin word add to our understanding of these matters. The Greek word “polis” is translated into English by the word “state” whether that refers to a city-state or a nation-state. Its ancient reference was to a city-state. That persists in modern times when we refer to a large city as a metropolis. The phrases “political community” and “body politic,” both of which refer to a state, also derive from that Greek root. When Immanuel Kant held before us what he regarded as the utopian idea of a world state, he called it a “cosmopolitical ideal.”

The Latin equivalent of the Greek polis, the word civis, comes down to us along another etymological stream, in which what is called a “civil society” is synonymous with what is called a “political community.” It also adds a new connotation to the word “state.”

From civis, we derive the English word “civilization.” When we distinguish civilization from culture, as we should, we are able to recognize that other forms of society have cultures, but only civil societies or states bring civilizations into existence.

To live in a civil society, to engage in political activity is to lead a civilized life, which means more than what is meant by saying that to live in any society that has a culture enables individuals to become cultured. Becoming acculturated is not the same as becoming civilized.

One concrete example of these concentric spheres should suffice. Take the present population of the United States. It is made up of persons who inhabit the land that stretches from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from the Canadian to the Mexican border, and also the land of Alaska and of the Hawaiian Islands. Viewed another way, that same population is composed of all the members of the society, called by the same name that we give to the land on which they live. Viewed in still another way, they are also citizens or subjects of the state, for which once again the same name is the label; and they are involved in the American economy, or the economy of the United States. “United States of America” or “Americans,” used as an identifying label in all four ways, identifies four different associations or organizations of the same people.

That the four circles in which the same people are related to one another involve them in different relationships and different activities underlies the distinction among the four sciences that investigate those relationships and activities: geography, sociology, political science, and economics.

With these considerations in mind, let us now return to the question posed: When states exist, are they identical with society? The totalitarian answer to this question is affirmative.

Why? Because the totalitarian state is one in which there are no human associations of any sort, including the family, that are not politically controlled or are not creatures of the state. Even the cultural activities of the totalitarian state, its educational institutions and its artistic productions, are all organized by the state, conducted by the state, and controlled by the state. So, too, are its professional enterprises and its economic associations and operations. Under such conditions, and only under such conditions, the state is identical with society. Nothing that human beings do is left out. Nothing is a private concern. Everything is affected with the public interest.

Under all other conditions, society and state are not identical. The state represents only the political aspect of society. Though the geographical boundaries of a state and a society are coterminous, and though the individuals who are members of the state are also members of the society, by reason of the fact that they live together in the same place, in the same country, it remains the case that the human beings who are members of the state also belong to associations or organizations that are not political, not creatures of the state, and not state-controlled.

They engage in many forms of activity which are not political in character and so do not involve their participation in the state. Their civilized life includes much more than that. It includes their domestic interests and their family life. It includes all their cultural activities that involve forms of leisuring. It includes all their business or professional associations through which they engage in work that is either toil or compensated leisure. It includes, above all, their private lives in which they seek, in addition to all other goods, their own personal perfections and their personal happiness.

When men voluntarily associate with one another for a common purpose, the purposes for which they as-sociate differ in many ways. Only one of these purposes is purely political. It is that purpose and that alone which makes their association a state. When they associate for other purposes, they belong to communities or organizations that are parts of the all-embracing political society that is identical with the state.

What I have just said may appear to contradict the statement that state and society are not identical. It does not.

True, the political community or civil society, which is identical with the state, is all-embracing in the sense that it includes within its borders all other forms of human association that are entered into for nonpolitical purposes. But that truth does not conflict with the fact that the all-embracing society has many nonpolitical aspects. Nor does it conflict with the fact that its members engage in many nonpolitical activities. Not everything that human beings do in a state is either prescribed or prohibited by the laws of the state. Much is merely permitted, still more lies totally beyond the scope of state-made laws — all the personal and purely private pursuits that affect only the individual engaging in them and no one else.

This, it must be added, holds true even in totalitarian states. No state can possibly be so completely totalitarian that it touches every aspect of human life and enters into its inviolably secret nooks and crannies. What is essentially private can never be totally transformed into something public.

Part II

Man, The Only Politically Social Amimal

We learn from biological science that some animals lead solitary lives and that other animals live and act in groups that are more or less organized. The latter are called gregarious or social animals. Their individual survival and the survival of the species to which they belong depend upon their living with one another, instead of in isolation, and upon their acting, to some degree at least, in concert with one another.

There can be no question that the members of the human species are gregarious or social animals. They, too, cannot survive, nor can the species, unless they associate with one another in groups, the smallest of which is the human family, without whose care and protection human offspring would perish.

But is man gregarious in the same way that all other species of gregarious animals are? Or does the human race differ from other species of social animals by reason of the fact that its gregariousness gives rise to states as well as to other forms of societies? If so, then man is a politically social animal.

I have long persisted in the view that man is radically different from all other animals, different in kind, not merely in degree. This means that human beings have the ability to do what other animals cannot do at all. If what humans did, other animals also did to one extent or another, then the difference would be only a difference in degree. If other animals were simply less political than human beings, that would be so. But if other animals are totally nonpolitical, then the difference is one of kind, and man is the only social animal that is also political.

I have written a book on this subject, entitled The Difference of Man and the Difference It Makes. Since its publication in 1967, I have written many articles to confirm and reinforce the arguments it presents, countering the claims of students of animal behavior who think they have found new evidence to show that human beings only differ in degree from the higher mammals — the chimpanzees, the bottle-nosed dolphins, and other species, to which behavioral scientists incorrectly attribute syntactical speech and conceptual thought.

There is no need here to repeat arguments to the effect that only human beings have the power of conceptual thought and engage in speech that is syntactical. Only such speech is an expression of conceptual thought. What looks like speech on the part of other animals is nothing but a form of communication by signals that refer only to perceptual objects, not to objects that have never been perceived or are totally imperceptible.

The only point I wish to make here is that man is the only politically social animal because (1) only man has an intellect as well as perceptual intelligence; (2) only man has the intellectual powers of understanding, judgment, and reasoning; (3) only man has free will and the power of free choice; and (4) only human beings, through syntactical speech, communicate their thoughts to one another — their judgments and their arguments.

Not all human behavior is voluntary. Some human reactions issue from the reflexes with which human beings are endowed at birth. But all the rest, which do not consist in conditioned reflexes, are not only voluntary, but also a matter of free choice. To say this is to say that man alone of all animals does not come into the world endowed with preformed instinctive patterns of behavior. His innate endowment does not program his behavior, except for a relatively small number of reflexes. All of his programmed behavior consists in the self-programming that is habit formation, and all habits arise from voluntary acts.

To say that human beings have no instincts, in the strict sense of that term, is not to say that all members of the species do not have, inherent in their specific (and therefore common) human nature, certain instinctual impulses or natural drives. Human gregariousness is a case in point. Human beings are instinctually driven or impelled by their natures to associate with one another. But an instinctual drive or natural impulse, such as this, is not the same as an instinct. An instinct is an elaborate pattern of behavior that carries out an instinctual drive and reaches the goal at which the instinctual drive aims.

If man were instinctively social as well as endowed by his gregarious nature with an instinctual impulse or need to associate with his fellows, then all human beings, being members of the same species, would always form associations of exactly the same kind. Noaspect of their association would be voluntarily determined, nor would it differ from one group of individuals to another.

On this score, the evidence is irrefutably clear. Human associations differ in an incredibly wide variety of ways, from time to time, from place to place, and from one human group to another. This simply could not be the case if all human association were determined by an instinct present in all members of the human species.

It follows from this that human associations are voluntarily formed, not instinctively determined. Otherwise they would not differ as we pass from one human group to another, or from one time and place to another, since the members of all human groups are members of the same species and would have the same species-specific social instincts.

The behavior of the social insects — bees, ants, termites, and others — lies at the opposite extreme of the spectrum. The hive built and organized by the species of bee, the mound built and socially structured by one species of ant, the colonies formed by one species of termite, are always and everywhere the same. They will remain so as long as the species survives. That sameness bespeaks the sameness of the species-specific instinct, which all members of the species possess by native endowment — all without a single exception.

In between the two extremes of the social insects at one end and the human species at the other, the different species of nonpolitical gregarious animals each have their own instinctively determined patterns of social behavior. These will be the same for all members of the same species. They will differ from one species to another. In addition, there will be some admixture of social behavior that manifests the operation of the perceptual intelligence, which all vertebrates possess and the higher mammals possess in a high degree. One need only observe the difference in dams constructed at different sites by different groups of beavers, all of the same species, to see that this is so.

At the outset of this discussion, I said that man is the only politically social animal because only man has an intellect, reasons, makes free choices, and communicates his thoughts and judgments by making sentences using words that are not just signals. In the immediately preceding paragraphs, the argument took a different turn. We saw that the manifold diversity in forms of human association indicates that man’s social behavior cannot be instinctively determined. It must be voluntary and influenced by reason.

When the argument moves in that direction, it applies to all types of human association — to the family and the tribe as well as to the state. Here we are saying that we can infer man’s unique status as a rational animal with free choice from all the evidence we have about the highly various ways in which human beings organize their families, tribes, and states.

Is The State Natural, Conventional, Or Both?

This question can be asked about other forms of human association as well as about the state. To call any of them conventional implies that they arise from voluntary, not instinctive, behavior. It would appear to follow, therefore, that an association or society cannot be both natural and conventional. They must either be voluntarily formed or the product of instinctive determinations.

I have already declared that all animal societies are natural, not conventional. All are the products, more or less, of instinctive determination — more in the case of the social insects, less in the case of the gregarious higher mammals.

We are acquainted with innumerable human associations that are purely conventional. Think of how our labor unions, our trade associations, our clubs and fraternal organizations, our business corporations and our professional associations, are formed. Individuals come together and voluntarily unite to act in concert for a common purpose.

Omitted from the preceding roster of human associations are families, tribes, and states. That they are natural is evident from the fact they are found everywhere on earth where human beings live; this is not so in the case of other human groupings.

It has already been asserted that the immense variety in the way these natural associations or societies are structured indicates the operation of reason and choice in their origination. Being conventional, they can also be natural only if the word “natural” can be used to mean something other than being instinctively determined, as bee hives and termite colonies are. The clue to a solution of this problem lies in a point already noted.

While human beings do not have social instincts, as do bees, termites, and other gregarious animal species, humans are instinctually driven or impelled by their natural needs to associate in certain ways. Societies or associations that are formed in order to satisfy natural needs are natural in a sense of that word which is different from the sense it has when calling a society natural means that it is instinctively determined.

With regard to human families, the natural need is exactly the same as the natural need satisfied by instinctive associations on the part of the lower animals. The other gregarious species would not survive unless their members associated and acted in concert. The same is true of the human species. The existence of human families is coeval with the existence of the human species on earth.

The family came into existence to satisfy the animal needs inherent in human nature and to prevent human offspring from perishing. At different times and places, familial associations took on different forms. The human family is thus both natural (because it serves a natural need) and also conventional (because the various forms it takes are voluntarily chosen, not instinctively determined).

When, in the course of human history, families came together and united to form small villages or tribal communities, natural needs and voluntariness were again operative. The fact that a tribe or village involved more individuals than the number making up each of its component families allowed it to satisfy more than daily needs. The number of persons who toiled for the means of subsistence, and the division of labor among them, permitted them to accumulate more than they consumed from day to day and to store for some future time the excess that did not perish. The tribe or village was also better able to defend itself against outsiders and also to protect its members from the ravages of an inclement environment.

Both families and tribes or villages same the same basic biological needs — survival and subsistence. The family was less self-sufficing and less secure than the tribe because it was a smaller, less populous, community. The crude implements used by the primeval family to eke out the means of subsistence from the natural resources available were improved and supplemented by other tools when families united to form tribes or villages. Some elements of culture — ritualistic practices, decorations, song, dance, and painting — also came into existence at this later stage of human social development.

At a still later stage, tribes or villages united to form the earliest cities. Once again the increase in population and a slightly more elaborate division of labor served better the same biological needs of survival and security. The larger society, now including families and tribes of associated families, was more self-sufficing and more secure against the inclemency of nature and the hostility of other social groups. In addition, the elements of human culture proliferated, became more refined, and eventually gave rise to the arts and sciences, and to the institutions of religion and political life (i.e., city life).

The earliest cities were states — city-states. Being more self-sufficing and secure than isolated families and than families united in isolated tribal communities, the city-state was able to serve a natural need above the biological level — to serve the specifically human, rather than animal, need to do more than just stay alive, the aspiration to live well and to lead a civilized human life.

Let me paraphrase Aristotle’s account of the origin of cities: “When tribes or villages united to form a community that was nearly or quite self-sufficing, the state came into existence, originating in the bare needs of life and continuing in existence for the sake of a good life. Therefore, if earlier forms of society were natural because they satisfied natural human needs, so too was the state natural.” In this account of the origin and naturalness of the state, no reference is made to two myths developed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to explain how states came into being.

One was the myth that prior to the existence of states, human beings lived in total isolation from one another, in a condition that the modern mythmakers called “a state of nature.” The other was the myth that they departed from a state of nature and entered civil or political society through a device that the mythmakers called “a social contract,” to which the individuals who united to form a state gave their voluntary consent. Rousseau, one of the mythmakers along with Hobbes and Locke, admitted that a state of nature is purely hypothetical, not historical. He should have said the same thing about the social contract.

The very phrase “state of nature” flies outrageously in the face of fact. Man being by nature a gregarious animal, a state of nature, understood to mean human beings living in isolation from one another, is not only mythical but also unnatural. If human beings never lived and could never have survived in this unnatural condition, they did not originate states by the voluntary act of isolated individuals contracting with one another to unite in a form of social organization that is a state.

The Aristotelian account of families uniting to form tribal communities and tribal communities uniting to form cities is much more in accord with all the facts. The acts by which these unions occurred were voluntary, but they were not of a character that can be properly described as entering into a contract.

Scholarly commentaries on Aristotle’s Politics and Rousseau’s Social Contract regard these two great political philosophers as starkly opposed to one another, with Aristotle insisting, on the one hand, that the state is purely natural and with Rousseau insisting, on the other hand, that the state is purely conventional. A more careful reading of the texts reveals that this is not so.

In the context of all the passages in Aristotle’s Politics where its author asserts that the state is purely natural or a creation of nature, we can also find the sentence in which he says that “he who first founded the state was the greatest of benefactors.” That reference to a founder of the state implies that the state is not purely natural in origin. It is not only a creation of nature, but also a product of human devising and innovation. What Aristotle had in mind when he referred to the founding fathers of states were innovators who drafted constitutions, the kind of constitution that Solon drafted for Athens and Lycurgus for Sparta.

Rousseau begins The Social Contract by saying that, of all human societies, only the family is natural because it serves the basic biological needs. The italicized word “only” implies that the state must be purely conventional. However, a few pages later, Rousseau tells us that mankind could not have survived in the isolated condition that he calls a state of nature. It was his natural need to associate for the sake of survival that led him to depart from a state of nature and enter, by voluntary contract, into civil society.

Two contradictions are plainly evident here. If the human family is a naturally necessary society, then human beings never lived in isolation in a state of nature. If the impulse to enter into civil society arises from the same natural need that caused human beings to live in families, then the state is as natural as the family, not purely conventional as Rousseau’s earlier statement implies. In addition, if the family satisfied those biological needs adequately, there was no need for the state.

By saying that the state enables human beings not only to survive and subsist, but also to live well, Aristotle expands the natural needs that the state serves beyond the biological needs served by the family and the tribal community. From the passage in which Rousseau attributes the origin of the state to the merely biological needs of subsistence and survival, it would appear that some conflict is still present between Aristotle and Rousseau.

However, even that is not the case. A few pages later in The Social Contract, we find a passage in which Rousseau eloquently praises the state for enabling man to do more than merely survive and subsist — to live a civilized and good life, a condition accessible to no other species of animal, all of which associate instinctively only to serve their biological needs.

The only matter on which Rousseau and Aristotle remain opposed concerns the myth of the social contract, as opposed to the historical reality that Solon and Lycurgus brought states into existence by drafting constitutions for them.

Part IV

What Must Be Included In The Definition Of The State?

Aristotle’s reference to the benefactors who first founded states by drafting constitutions for them would seem to imply that having a constitutional form of government is an indispensable element in the idea of the state. This raises a serious problem for us.

Some of the human societies that we call states, both in the historic past and now, have despotic rather than constitutional forms of government. Is it, therefore, improper to regard ancient Persia, Babylon, and Egypt as states? Must we, for the same reason, withhold the attribution of statehood to the societies that, in modern times, lived under the absolute despotisms of the Bourbons, the Hapsburgs, and the Stuarts? Is it wrong today to regard Saudi Arabia, Argentina, Chile, and even, perhaps, the Soviet Union as states, or Germany under Hitler and Italy under Mussolini?

Before trying to answer these questions, let me first take a few preliminary steps toward a tenable definition of statehood.

(1) Families and tribes, as contrasted with states, are composed of individuals who, to a greater or lesser degree, are related by consanguinity or ties of blood — more so in the family, less so in the tribal community. This is not true of all the individuals who comprise the population of a state.

(2) Families may exist in independence of one another and as not subordinate to or included in any larger community. The same holds for tribal communities. Both may also exist as subordinate to and included in larger communities — families in tribes, and both families and tribes in states. But a state does not exist unless it is an independent community and one that is not subordinate to or included in any larger community. The point just made can also be expressed by saying that the state cannot exist unless it has sovereignty.

Much has been said on the subject of sovereignty, but the only thing that is relevant here is the note of supremacy which the term implies. States are supreme in the sense that, as independent communities, not subordinated to anything larger than themselves, they acknowledge no superior on earth. This carries with it their claim to autonomy as well as to independence. As the word “autonomy” connotes, sovereigns are laws unto themselves. A sovereign state is not subject to laws imposed by others.

(3) In consequence of what has already been said, it should be added that states are more populous than families and tribal communities. The larger size of their populations, and the consequent greater division of labor, enables states to produce more wealth than families or tribal communities; and, in addition, to emancipate some portion of their populations from toil and give them time for the leisuring that produces the goods of civilization — the arts and sciences, together with social institutions of all sorts.

(4) From this distinguishing characteristic of states, it follows that states can serve more than the biological needs served by isolated families or independent tribal communities. Beyond the means of subsistence, they provide human beings with the conditions they need for a good or civilized life.

The fact that in all the states that have existed up to the present and in many of the states that now exist the conditions of a good life are enjoyed only by a privileged few does not alter the point under consideration. What matters here is that such conditions are not enjoyed by any individuals living in isolated families or small, independent tribal communities.

It may be regarded as a point of progress in human affairs that, when the earliest states came into existence, some individuals, if only a few, enjoyed such conditions. Further progress was made by later states in which the many, rather than the few, enjoyed the conditions of a good life. We can look forward to still further progress when this will hold true for all — the whole population of a state.

(5) Finally, we come to the criterion of statehood that appears to be problematic: its form of government. Not only Aristotle suggested that this criterion be employed in the definition of statehood. Locke wrote to the same effect when he declared that absolute monarchy is inconsistent with civil society, which is statehood. So, too, Rousseau when he maintained that the only legitimate form of government is that of a republic, and implied that only republics deserve to be called states in the full sense of that term.

The solution of our problem lies in the words “the full sense of that term.” A definition can be either purely descriptive or it can be prescriptive as well. For example, we can define manmade laws as laws that any form of government makes and enforces, whether or not that government and its laws are just. Our definition is then purely descriptive because it falls short of considering what manmade laws should be.

The definition becomes prescriptive by requiring that, to be laws in the full sense, they must be made by a legitimate government, having the rightful authority to make laws as well as to enforce them, and also that the laws enacted be just. As Augustine and others have said, an unjust law is a law in name only, for it satisfies only the descriptive criteria in the definition of law. It fails to satisfy the prescriptive criterion.

Descriptively defined, the all-embracing large societies that include families and other subordinate communities and that have independence and sovereignty, can all be called states, regardless of the form of government under which their populations live. In a way that Aristotle pointed out, they carry over from tribal communities the kind of government appropriate to families and tribes despotic rule by parents and by the elders or chieftains of the tribe. In this sense, they appear to be extensions of the family and the tribe. To become fully different, states must satisfy the other descriptive criteria that distinguish states from isolated families and independent tribes. They must also satisfy the additional prescriptive criterion that requires a shift from the form of government appropriate to families and tribes to one that is distinctively appropriate to states — constitutional rather than despotic government.

In terms of this fuller definition of statehood, ancient Persia under Xerxes and ancient Egypt under its Pharoahs do not deserve to be called states. In contrast, ancient Athens and Sparta, under their adopted constitutions, were states in the full sense of that term.

The same discrimination between societies that are states only by a purely descriptive definition of states and societies that are states by an additional prescriptive criterion, applies to all later societies — in the Middle Ages, in modern times, and in the contemporary world. Does the purely descriptive definition of statehood or the fuller definition apply equally to all the historic forms that states have taken?

For example, can a city-state have statehood in exactly the same sense of the term as a nation-state? Does this hold as well for imperial city-states and imperial nation-states that have colonies? And for unitary states, such as France and Sweden, as well as for federated states, such as the Russia, Switzerland, and the USA?

I think the question can be answered affirmatively, both for the purely descriptive definition of statehood and also for the fuller definition of it. All the things that differentiate city-states from nation-states are accidental aspects of statehood and so do not enter into its definition.

Concrete applications of the point just made should clarify it. What differentiates a city-state from a nation-state lies in the role that a great city plays.

Consider such ancient city-states as Athens, Sparta, Thebes, and Corinth. Their domains embraced the surrounding countryside, but statehood resided principally in the city itself and secondarily in its immediate environs. The same can be said about certain of the great commercial cities in modern times — Venice on the Adriatic, and the cities of the Hanseatic League on the North Sea and the Baltic.

Though they were equally great commercial cities, London, Stockholm, and St. Petersburg were the capital cities of nation-states — England, Sweden, and Russia. The difference between being merely the capital city of a nation-state that includes other large cities and being an independent, sovereign city, dominating an adjacent countryside, justifies calling the latter city-states, but not the former. However, the nation-state that has a capital city and other large cities within its domains has statehood in exactly the same sense that independent, sovereign city-states do.

Similarly, it makes no difference to its having the properties of statehood whether a particular state does or does not have colonies and whether it has a unitary or federal type of organization.

Considering states that are federal in structure leads us to a distinction between two types of sovereignty, external and internal. All states have external sovereignty vis-a-vis other states. They also have internal sovereignty in the sense that they possess the supreme power to enforce the laws of the land. Everyone who belongs to the population of a state is subject to its laws; no one outside the state is. In unitary states, that internal sovereignty is undivided. In federal states, it is divided between the states or provinces that constitute a federal union and the nation or nation-state thus composed.

For example, both the United States and the State of Massachusetts have internal sovereignty over the people of Massachusetts. The people of Massachusetts are subject to the laws of the federal government and also to the laws of the state in which they live. They live under a dual jurisdiction.

While Massachusetts has internal sovereignty over the population resident there, it has no external sovereignty whatsoever. It cannot make war or peace with other states. It cannot form alliances or conclude treaties. With minor exceptions, it cannot control commerce with other states or immigration from other states. It cannot do many other things that states with external sovereignty can do.

Must we not conclude, therefore, that the State of Massachusetts has statehood to a lesser extent because it lacks the external sovereignty that fully independent states possess? Yet it cannot be said that Massachusetts does not have statehood at all, in any sense of that term. Nor can it be said that the USA has statehood to a less extent because, being a federal rather than a unitary state, its internal sovereignty is restricted to certain matters, the rest being left to the jurisdiction of the several states in the federal union.

Considering the external sovereignty of states vis-a-vis one another, we can understand why states are sometimes thought of as moral or juridical persons. This attribution of personality to them derives by analogy from the things that real or natural persons and private corporations are able to do.

Individual persons can enter into contracts with one another, dispute with one another, engage in economic transactions with one another, and so on. Associated human beings, especially when their association creates a corporation, can do these same things. The laws that govern the activities of corporations and their interactions with one another recognize them as juridical persons for this reason.

For the same reason, states having external sovereignty regard themselves, metaphorically if not literally, as persons. This resembled literal truth more closely when absolute monarchs identified the states they ruled with their own persons, referring to themselves by the name of the state they ruled when addressing one another. Claudius, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, in a letter to the King of England, signed himself “Denmark.” Louis XIV said, “L’etat, c’est moi.”

The consideration of external sovereignty leads us to one further insight. Sovereign states, like the sovereign princes who identified the states they ruled with their own persons, are always in a state of war with one another.

Their external sovereignty is inseparable from their absolute autonomy. No enforceable laws govern the conduct of sovereigns vis-a-vis one another. In the absence of enforceable laws, sovereigns resort to force, which is warfare, when they cannot settle their conflicts in any other way. Even when sovereigns are not engaged in warfare with one another, they always remain in a state of war, which consists in the necessity of resorting to force in order to settle disputes because other means of doing so are not available or sufficient for the purpose.

The Goodness Of The State

With respect to all the ideas treated in this book, the overarching idea, treated in a prior book, is the idea of goodness, of good and evil, of right and wrong. I cannot conclude this chapter without asking whether the state is good or evil.

Only philosophical anarchists look upon the state as evil, an evil that need not be suffered. They do so because they think all coercive force is evil. The state, through its internal sovereignty, has the power to enforce laws. It could not govern otherwise.

Philosophical anarchists mistakenly think that men can live in peace and harmony with one another without being subject to coercive government of any kind. In their view, the state and its coercive government are avoidable evils that do not have to be endured because another alternative is available.

Some, like Bakunin, advocate direct action to overthrow the state and abolish government. Others, like Marx, predict the ultimate withering away of the state in the future. The establishment of a communist economy, under the dictatorship of the proletariat, is the penultimate step in that direction.

By still others, the state is regarded as a necessary, not an avoidable, evil. It is to be suffered for the sake of certain benefits that cannot be obtained in any other way. It is the price one must pay for civil peace and for the protection of life and limb.

It would be better if these and other advantages could be obtained in the much smaller local community of a neighborhood, instead of the much larger, more extended society of the state, with its overwhelming concentration of power and its overpowering centralization of government.

Unfortunately, all but the most extreme advocates of decentralization admit that the benefits conferred by the larger society that is a state cannot be obtained without suffering certain disadvantages that follow in their wake. For them, the state is, therefore, a necessary evil, but one that is not totally devoid of redeeming features, which render it also good.

To whatever extent you concede that they have some justification for their complaints against the state, you minimize the good done by the state — the benefits it confers on its inhabitants. Be that as it may, you also affirm that the state is not totally evil and that it may, on balance, do more good than evil. The greatest goodness inherent in the state, which in my judgment cannot be denied, lies in the ultimate end it serves, which no other form of society serves at all, or certainly not as well.

When the state is correctly conceived as made for man, not the other way around, it seeks to facilitate the pursuit of happiness. It does so both directly and also indirectly by promoting the general welfare, participation in which confers on individuals external goods they could not otherwise obtain for themselves. When the state is correctly conceived as coming into existence not just for the increased satisfaction of man’s biological needs, but preeminently to enable human beings to live well and to lead civilized lives, its goodness overshadows any of the evils that those who have complaints against the state can think of. If it is not an unalloyed good, it is at least more good than bad, and the goodness it does have is indispensable to the pursuit of happiness.

This series is excerpted from Dr. Adler’s book A Vision of the Future (1984).