The State as the Will of the Nation

Updated: May 4

Pp 150-154 Bosanquet, B. (1899). The philosophical theory of the state. London: Macmillan.

The State, as thus conceived, is not merely the political fabric. The term “State ” accents indeed the political aspect of the whole, and is opposed to the notion of an anarchical society. But it includes the entire hierarchy of institutions by which life is determined, from the family to the trade, and from the trade to the Church and the University. It includes all of them, not as the mere collection of the growths of the country, but as the structure which gives life and meaning to the political whole, while receiving from it mutual adjustment, and therefore expansion and a more liberal air. The State, it might be said, is thus conceived as the operative criticism of all institutions—the modification and adjustment by which they are capable of playing a rational part in the object of human will. And criticism, in this sense, is the life of institutions. As exclusive objects, they are a prey to stagnation and disease—think of the temper which lives solely for the family or solely for the Church; it is only as taken up into the movement and circulation of the State that they are living spiritual beings. It follows that the State, in this sense, is, above all things, not a number of persons. but a working conception of life. It is, as Plato has taught us, the conception by the guidance of which every living member of the commonwealth is enabled to perform his function. If we ask whether this means that a complete conception of the aims and possibilities of the common life exists even in the minds of states-men, not to speak of ordinary citizens, the question answers itself in the negative. And yet the State can only live and work in as far as such a conception, in however fragmentary, one-sided shapes, pervades the general mind. It is not there mostly in reflective shape; and in so far as it is in reflective shape it is according to ultimate standards contradictory and incomplete. But everyone who has a fair judgment of what his own place demands from him, has, at his own angle, so to speak, a working insight into the end of the State; and, of course, practical contradictions would be fewer if such conceptions were completer and more covered by each other. But a complete reflective conception of the end of the State, comprehensive and free from contradiction, would mean a complete idea of the realization of all human capacity, without waste or failure. Such a conception is impossible owing to the gradual character of the process by which the end of life, the nature of the good, is determined for man. The Real Will, as represented by the State, is only a partial embodiment of it.

The State, as the operative criticism of all institutions, is necessarily force; and in the last resort, it is the only recognized and justified force. It seems important to observe that force is inherent in the State, and no true ideal points in the direction of destroying it. For the force of the State proceeds essentially from its character of being our own mind extended, so to speak, beyond our immediate consciousness. Not only is the conduct of life as a whole beyond the powers of the average individual at its average level, but it is beyond the powers of all the average individuals in a society taken together at their average level. We make a great mistake in thinking of the force exercised by the State as limited to the restraint of disorderly persons by the police and the punishment of intentional lawbreakers. The State is the fly-wheel of our life. Its system is constantly reminding us of duties, from sanitation to the incidents of trusteeship, which we have not the least desire to neglect, but which we are either too ignorant or too indolent to carry out apart from instruction and authoritative suggestion. We profit at every turn by Institutions, rules, traditions, researches, made by minds at their best, which, through State action, are now in a form to operate as extensions of our own minds. It is not merely the contrast between the limited activity of one individual and the greater achievement of millions put together. It is the contrast between individuals working in the order and armed with the laws, customs, writings, and institutions devised by ages, and the same individuals considered as their daily average selves, with a varying but always limited range of immediate consciousness. For at any given moment, no judge knows all the law; no author knows all his own books, not to mention those of others; no official of an institution has the whole logic and meaning of the institution before his mind. All individuals are continually reinforced and carried on, beyond their average immediate consciousness, by the knowledge, resources, and energy which surround them in the social order, with its inheritance, of which the order itself is the greater part. And the return of this greater self, forming a system adjusted to unity, upon their isolated minds, as an expansion and them, necessarily takes the shape of force, in as far as their minds are inert. And this must always be the case, not merely so long as wills are straightforwardly rebellious against the common good, but so long as the knowledge and energy of the average mind are unequal to dealing, on its own initiative and out of its own resources, with all possible conjunctions in which necessary conditions of the common good are to be maintained. In other words, there must be inertia to overcome, as long as the limitations of our animal nature' exist at all. The State is, as Plato told us, the individual mind writ large, or, as we have said, our mind reinforced by capacities which are of its own nature, but which supplement its defects. And this being so, the less complete must clearly submit to find itself in the more complete, and be carried along with it so far as the latter is able to advance. It is very important to note, however, that our mind at its best is very different from our mind at its average; and it has understood and approved, when at its best, a great deal which in its average moments comes upon it as force or custom from the outside. Thus, there is no abrupt division between our conscious mind and the social system of suggestion, custom, and force, which supports and extends and amends it. The two are related much as the focus of consciousness is related to the sub -conscious and automatic habits by which daily life is rendered possible. It is no more conceivable that social life should go on without force and authoritative custom, because the end of social life is reflected in the varying intelligence of individuals, than that individual life should go on without sub-consciousness and automatism, because it is ultimately relative to the ends which appear as ideas in the shifting focus of the mind. The inherent limitations of State action will be dealt with in a later chapter. We have thus far been attempting to make clear what is meant by the identification of the State with the Real Will of the Individual in which he wills his own nature as a rational being; in which identification we find the only true account of political obligation.

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