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Europe and the United States

Political And Religious Commonwealths, Markets, Individuals, And Interests, Intermediate Associations And The State

An ancient term of Western political and social theory, civil society has enjoyed enormous popularity in recent years and has outstripped its geographic origins to spread all over the world. Public leaders, newspaper writers, religious figures, social theorists, political activists, and commentators from many different perspectives now use the term on a regular basis. The term's meaning has shifted dramatically over the centuries, and different historical periods have understood it in distinct ways.

Three distinct usages can be delineated. Civil society first appears in classical Greek and Roman thought, which considered it to be synonymous with a politically organized commonwealth—a view that was modified by the medieval church's distaste for purely political categories and came to describe a society organized around the primacy of religion. As powerful markets and centralized states began to erode medieval institutions, a second, and characteristically modern, liberal understanding arose that conceived of civil society as the arena of economic relations and institutions. Frightened by the consequences of the French Revolution and the advent of mass political activity, a third conception developed during the middle of the nineteenth century to describe civil society as a sphere of voluntary intermediate organizations that stand between the state and the citizen. Pioneered by Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–1859), this is the way civil society is understood in contemporary usage. Although chronologically distinct, each of these understandings contributes important insights to political and social life and sheds light on contemporary issues of democracy and equality.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Ephemeris to Evolution - Historical Background