The origins of “society” during the enlightenment

“From the Greeks to James Harrington in the seventeenth century (not to mention for his followers among American revolutionaries), extremes of riches and poverty were opposed, but as a matter of the stability of the commonwealth, not as a matter of justice, and not in the name of material equality. It was essentially not until the eighteenth century in Europe that anything like distributive justice within political order, whether aiming at sufficiency or equality, became widely conceivable.

When this finally occurred, the credibility of a politics of obligatory sufficiency competed with the credibility of a politics of obligatory equality almost from the first. What followed in the invention of ideals of modern distributive justice was one of the fundamental shifts in our understanding of how human beings ought to live among one other at any scale. Like so many other discontinuities in the eighteenth century, this one took place as the social realm became something distinct. Before, the notion of ‘society’ had been precluded by visions that prioritized God or nature as suprahuman authorities to which humans must conform, and political regimes were defined according to their relation to divine plan or natural law. The Enlightenment inventors of a new understanding of humanity insisted, by contrast, that the structure of social institutions does most to determine a people’s way of life, including what they believe about the divine and what sort of political authority they embrace. There was ‘a fundamental transformation in what might be called the vocabulary of human relations during the period.’ The newly coined notion of ‘society’, described ‘an entity which did not owe its existence to any religious or political authority or indeed to any principle external to itself.’ It signified a profound transformation in how Europeans ‘imagined the world around them: from a perspective in which the human terrestrial order was seen as subordinated to exterior (particularly divine) determinations, to one in which it was seen as autonomous and self-regulating.’ And before ‘society,’ there was no possibility of ‘social justice.'”

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