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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

The Risk of Civil Society Voluntary Associations and Political Stability in Ancient and Modern Thought

Event Recap

As the 2011 “Arab Spring” approaches summertime, conventional wisdom holds that the success of these revolutions hinges in large part upon the presence of a strong civil society, which provides cohesion to popular uprisings and allows the possibility of the orderly change of political power. The key cases are Egypt, where a relatively strong civil society has enabled communication and collaboration throughout the revolution, and Libya, where institutions of civil society had been systematically crushed for decades. Without question the current revolutionary fervor in the Arab world has reinvigorated a debate about the role civil society plays in democratization, human rights and international peace.

On April 14 Yonder Gillihan brought new historical perspective to bear on the question during a lunch colloquium that compared ancient and modern understandings of civil society. While researching the anti-statist Jewish sect believed to have written the Dead Sea Scrolls, Gillihan, an assistant professor of theology at Boston College, noted surprising similarities between this group and pro-state groups in ancient Athens, Rome, Egypt, and Asia Minor. He also found that although ancient Athens harbored very few voluntary associations (the core component of civil society), voluntary associations flourished elsewhere under Hellenistic and Roman imperial rule. Modern understandings, or models, of civil society, he argued, help explain when and why associations flourished in these ancient and medieval societies.

The core component of a thriving civil society is the voluntary association, Gillihan said. Through voluntary associations, civil society creates a common identity in a diverse society, facilitates trust between citizens, and legitimizes the state by creating trust between it and its members. Certain conditions must exist, however, for civil society to thrive: (1) protections of the freedoms of assembly and speech; (2) a state guarantee for binding associational contracts; (3) some political, economic, and social stability as well as some level of prosperity. This model explains the state’s motivation in encouraging civil society: through granting funds, land, or other resources the state encourages the individual to identify their welfare and ideology with that of the state. Encouraging voluntary associations, however, also poses risks: voluntary associations can form along racial and economic lines, be explicitly anti-state, or simply alienate citizens from political life.

According to Gillihan, Plato understood the importance of cultivating a common identity through public institutions, but he viewed private, voluntary associations as a threat to the city. In contrast, Gillihan argued that we can infer Aristotle’s views from his treatment of tyrants: associations such as common meal clubs and private organizations promoted trust between members of the polis. Aristotle’s more pragmatic approach won the day. Greek and Roman imperial rulers strategically extended liberties and resources, thereby increasing their legitimacy and allowing them to manage smaller groups within their realms. Arguably, Gillihan said, we can attribute long periods of political stability in the Roman Empire to the cultivation of civil society. Just as in modern times, however, the risks of cultivating voluntary associations remained and imperial rulers often had to balance these risks with the benefits, sometimes by brutal means