Sociology as an Art Form

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

The appearance of Sociology as an Art Form at this juncture in Robert Nisbet’s career comes as something of a surprise. What most of his readers, both enthusiasts and detractors, doubtlesssly anticipated was an elaboration and defense of the much-discussed Twilight of Authority, published in 1975. Sociology as an Art Form not only eschews such an apologetic task, it promises to embroil Nisbet in an entirely different kind of argument.

In the earlier work Nisbet had applied to contemporary society the analytic perspective he has carefully worked out over the last thirty-five years. This exercise yielded singularly pessimistic results. Inspired by such conservative social philosophers and sociologists as Burke, Tocqueville, Durkheim, Toennies, and Proudhon, Nisbet decried the state’s emergence as the central fact of modern existence. In Nisbet’s eyes, the state (including the American state) has become an omnipotent power, slowly eviscerating those lesser authorities that would, in a more organic social order, vie for man’s loyalty. What impels Western societies towards ever-enhanced state sovereignty is neither the demands of war nor the quest for more orderly industrial development. Important as these imperatives are, Nisbet regards them as secondary causal elements. Of truly fundamental importance is the ideal of social egalitarianism which has tantalized and even obsessed many Western intellectuals for more than two centuries. For Nisbet, Rousseau’s Social Contract presents the essential dynamic: the intense fellowship and dignified equality of the ancient polis can be achieved under modern conditions when individuals transfer totally all their rights to the body politic. Nisbet accuses contemporary intellectuals of unconsciously fostering this exact dynamic by their too-exclusive concern for social justice interpreted as greater equality of conditions. Their egalitarian ideology invites the state to penetrate and subvert lesser social bodies—family, political party, university, local school, church, service organizations. Nisbet sees these intermediate authorities as dangerously weak, insufficiently powerful to resist the state or provide the individual with secure community. The natural hierarchical structure which gives them strength crumbles under endless “affirmative action” demands from government bureaucrats. The West is therefore in decline: the ominous twilight is the shadow cast by Leviathan.

Despite the apparent dissimilarity of the two books, it helps immensely to know something about Twilight of Authority when reading Sociology as an Art Form. For while the latter may not be a defense of the former, it does in effect constitute a justification of the method both of Twilight of Authority and a much earlier statement of Nisbet’s views, the famous Quest for Community (1953). In both works, Nisbet approaches contemporary issues obliquely, via the history of social and political thought. This strategy is not dictated by an antiquarian impulse. Rather, like the followers of Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin, Nisbet tends to view social philosophy (and sociology) as dominated by prophets and seers, persons of enormous vision who find themselves captivated by a problem so portentous and fascinating that it wrests from them great and complex intellectual creations. One always needs to consult these original creations before tackling contemporary literature on the subject, for they often synopsize with brilliant compaction the critical elements of the problem. Moreover, the extraordinarily powerful images they present (one thinks immediately of Marx’s Manifesto) may radically affect how the problem is understood ever after. Thus, in Nisbet’s view, to study properly the morphology of revolution, one should not begin by consulting bibliographical pages in the American Political Science Review. Rather he must work with Machiavelli’s Discourses or Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France.

The assumption which generates Nisbet’s method is obviously a controversial one. We are not inclined to evaluate the efforts of Marx, Weber, Tawney, Simmell, or Tocqueville using the standard of creativity. That Toennies or Durkheim should be regarded as artists strikes us as odd and perhaps even disrespectful. In Sociology as an Art Form Nisbet attempts to account for these reactions and show that they ultimately stem from a defective understanding of both science and art. Ironically, some of the...

(The entire section is 1878 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

Booklist. LXXIII, October 1, 1976, p. 221.

Kirkus Review. XLIV, August 1, 1976, p. 890.

Library Journal. CI, October 1, 1976, p. 2078.

New York Times. September 29, 1976, p. 35.

New York Times Book Review. October 31, 1976, p. 27.