The Spheres of Life

2012-06-17

In his book F.W. Maitland and the Making of the Modern World, historian Alan Macfarlane makes the following observation about the core aspects of human society:

Human life can for convenience be divided into four major spheres, the pursuit of power (politics), the pursuit of wealth (economics), the pursuit of salvation and meaning (religion), the pursuit of social and sexual warmth (kinship). In the normal state of affairs these are fused into one totality, a holistic merging based on the dominance of one sphere to which everything else is secondary. Tribal societies provide this dominance or infrastructure through kinship, India and Islam through religion, traditional China through kinship and ethics (Confucianism), ancien regime Europe increasingly through kin-based politics. What is peculiar about modernity is that there is no institutional infrastructure, or, if it exists, it is provided by the impersonal, contextual, contractual pressures of the 'free' market economy and the ethic of trust upon which it has to be based.

Aside from the inherent importance of the differences he highlights between all other societies and Anglospheric modernity, I naturally find myself drawn to his division of human life into four major spheres, since it echoes my tetradic analysis of the human individual as having four primary capacities: thought, choice, action, and feeling. I will freely grant that I'm intellectually primed to see such tetrads, since I've been thinking in terms of those four capacities for many years now. However, it makes sense to me that if individuals have four primary powers then they would be mirrored in society at large.

Thus religion (or, more broadly, philosophy) is the social sphere in which the power of thought and understanding is fundamental, politics is the social sphere in the power of choice and decision-making is fundamental, economics is the social sphere in which the power of action and production is fundamental, and kinship is the social sphere in which the power of feeling and emotion is fundamental.

Furthermore, just as certain certain social arrangements submerge all of the social spheres into one primary sphere (as Macfarlane points out), certain individual ways of life submerge all of the human powers into one primary power: intellectualists say that the power of thought is primary, intentionalists and preachers of "positive thinking" say that the power of choice is primary, materialists and pragmatists say that the power of action is primary, and emotionalists say that the power of feeling is primary. As I explored in The Tao of Roark, I find that it's difficult to give each human power its due measure in my own life, and to integrate them all harmoniously; doing so at the societal level is even harder, given the myriad complexities of social interaction. One might like to think that some ideal societal arrangement would make it all easy, but personally I've given up on such utopian notions -- largely under the influence of my study of the Anglosphere and the multifaceted origins of modernity.

Or, as I always say: "Utopia is not an option." :-)


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