The great expansion of material power that began in the 18th century, though it brought unexampled prosperity, overwhelmed those civic institutions, most of them independent of the crown and the feudal gentry, that strengthened communities and ministered to their sick or “strayed” souls. This civic-pastoral culture was rooted in the local knowledge of particular people and conditions. Such voluntary associations as the confraternity and the sodality, the guild and the charité, were hospitable in the widest sense. In old French towns the hotels-dieu — “hostels of God” — offered refuge to the weak and the sick. In Venice the Scuole Grandi — the “Great Schools” — brightened the city’s piazzas not only by sponsoring civic festivals, but by distributing alms, succoring paupers, and administering hospitals. In the smoky depths of Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, in the coal-hell of the English Midlands, the civic-pastoral system still functioned — when Morel is too sick to work, the community helps him.
Social reformers, rather than draw on the immense stock of moral know-how the old institutions embodied, regarded them as archaic and replaced them with vast bureaucratic machineries that treat people statistically and generically. These social agencies, if they are capable of the pity that redistributes wealth, cannot easily rise to the compassion that raises up those who have been cast down amid the sorrows and difficulties of the world.
As cases of funk multiply, as psychopathic extravagance turns classrooms into shooting galleries, as depression becomes the norm rather than the exception, as television ads reflect, as in a circus mirror, a sick, sleepless, and impotent people, it seems to me that our faith in social technic must be reexamined, and that we should reconsider the merits of a civic culture that, though it had its defects, was grounded in a deeper knowledge of the heart.
It is not simply, as Wordsworth said, that “old usages and local privilege” once “softened, almost solemnized” man’s mortal existence: They tamed or channeled passions that we, with our elaborate social mechanisms, seem powerless to control. Yet rather than question the soul-killing social codes and regulations that have replaced voluntary, spontaneous, and deeply traditional patterns of civil life, our intellectual elite prefers to blame the thunder on the right.
– Michael Knox Beran is a contributing editor of City Journal. His most recent book is Forge of Empires 1861–1871: Three Revolutionary Statesmen and the World They Made.