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Early Modern Views Of Society

When the Jesuits brought knowledge of their explorations into China back to Europe, an organic view of society as a compendium of functioning interdependent parts started to take shape. Although this was a bare shadow of China's sophisticated civilization, it led to a Western idea of a body politic, with the state as the head, the church as the heart, and economy and other social systems as the limbs and organs of society. This organic view had far-reaching implications well into the twentieth century, especially in structural functionalist views of society. Karl Marx (1818–1883), however, regarded these developments as a definitive conflict between the generation of civil society and political community. Civil society developed conflicting classes within it that were regulated by the political community. The contradictions of everyday life were monitored by a state that favored the ruling class, and the state wore a political lion skin for the dominant class. Hence, political relations were often mediated by class relations. Hence, society began to manifest simultaneously both conflictual and consensual components. Society was forever in a state of flux.

With the division of labor, industrialization, and the quest for the development of the nation-state, a new philosophical challenge emerged in the form of one question: What comes first, society or the individual? In the ancient Western world of Greece and Rome, the individual was not so much a factor. Rather, a person made commitments to the virtues of various institutions and traditions such as the family. But with the struggle for the creation of the European nation, especially in France, the concept of the individual greatly challenged definitions of society. On the one hand, the more conservative view of kings retained the idea of society as a given, as a complete whole functioning in accord with the will of God; individuals would simply obey the laws of society and work to maintain this equilibrium. On the other hand, the more radical views of French revolutionaries saw the individual as the center of the universe with a variety of inalienable rights; society would serve the individual while maintaining the supremacy of that individual through liberté, egalité, fraternité—liberty, equality, fraternity—a battle cry of the French Revolution.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Adam Smith Biography to Spectroscopic binarySociety - Ancient Views Of Society: East And West, Early Modern Views Of Society, Society: Consensus And Conflict