• Date: 2010 Jun 29

Is the Existence of Society Real and Substantial?

Society is composed of individuals. Had there been no individuals, no society could exist. Now let us see what is the nature of the composition society and what kind of relation there exists between society and man. In this respect the following theories have been put forward:
I. Composition of society is only fictitious and not real. In other words, no actual compounding has taken place. Actual compounding occurs only when as a result of the action and reaction of two or more things a new phenomenon emerges with its own characteristics as we see in the case of chemical compounds.
For example, as a result of the action and reaction of the two gases, classed oxygen and hydrogen, a new phenomenon called water emerges with its own properties and characteristics.
It is essential that after their combination and amalgamation the original components should lose their individual properties and effects and be totally dissolved into a new compound. In their social life men are never amalgamated in this way, and they are not dissolved into society.
 Therefore society has not real and substantial existence. Its existence is only fictitious and imaginary. It is individual alone that has a real existence. Therefore, in spite of the fact that human life in society has a social form, the individuals do not make a real compound by the name of society.
II. The second theory is that although society is not a real compound like natural compounds, yet is a synthetic compound. A synthetic compound is also a kind of a real compound, though not a natural one. A synthetic compound is an interconnected whole like a machine, the parts of which are assembled and put together. In a natural compound its component parts lose their identity and their independent effect, and are dissolved in the whole; but in a synthetic compound, the components lose their independent effect but not their identity.
They combine in a particular manner and consequently their effects are also combined. They assume the form of some new effects which are not exactly the total of the independent effects of the components in question. For example an automobile transports goods or persons from one place to another, but this effect neither relates to any part of it, nor to the total of the effects of all the parts in the unassembled state.
In a motor vehicle all parts of it are compulsorily interconnected with each other and they all work together. But there is no question of the loss of their identity in the whole. In fact in this case the whole has no existence independent of the parts. The whole vehicle is actually equivalent to the sum-total of its parts plus the special connection existing between them.

The same position is held by society. Society consists of primary and secondary systems and arrangements. The systems and the individuals to whom they are related, are interconnected. Any change in any one of these systems - cultural, religious, economic, legal or educational - bring about changes in other systems also. Thus, social life is the final product of the entire social process. But in this process the individuals do not lose their identity, neither in society as a whole nor in any system of it.


III. The third theory is that society is a real compound like any other natural compound. But it is a combination of minds, thoughts, emotions, desires, wills and lastly of cultures, and not that of physical. Just as the material elements as a result of their mutual action and reaction pave the way for the emergence of a new phenomenon, or as the philosophers say, able to assume a new form, and thus give birth to a new compound, similarly individual human beings with their individual inborn and acquired attainments enter the social life, are spiritually amalgamated and acquire a new spiritual identity known as 'collective spirit'.
This compound is natural but of a unique kind. It is natural and actual in the sense that its component parts mutually act, react, cause a change and become the parts of a new identity. Yet it differs from other natural compounds, because in this case the 'whole' or the compound does not exist as a 'real unit'.
In the case of other compounds the combination is real, because their component parts mutually act and react in a real manner and in such a way that the identity of the parts is changed, and the resulting compound appears in the form of a real unit, for the plurality of the parts is changed into the unit of the whole.

But in the case of the combination of individuals into society, though this combination is again real because as the result of their actual action and reaction, the individuals acquire a new identity, yet their plurality is in no way transformed into a unity. Any 'overall man' incorporating all individuals does not exist as a unit. Only the aggregate total of individuals can be called the overall man. But his existence is only imaginary.

IV. According to the fourth theory, society is a real compound and, for that matter, a compound par excellence. In the case of all natural compounds their component parts before being combined have their own identity. Apart from their social existence, men are mere animals having only potential humanity or the feeling of human ego. Human thinking and human feelings such as human emotions and desires appear only in the wake of the emergence of collective spirit. It is this spirit which fills a vacuum and gives man his personality.
Collective spirit has at all times been with man and its manifestations have always been visible in ethics, religion, science, philosophy and art. Men influence each other spiritually and culturally and are influenced through and in the wake of this collective spirit, not at any stage prior to it.

In fact the sociology of man precedes his psychology, contrary to the previous theory which maintains that psychology of man precedes his sociology. This theory holds that if man had not acquired social existence and sociology, he would not have reached the stage of acquiring human psyche and individual psychology.

The first theory is purely of the fundamentality of individual only. According to it, society has neither a real existence, nor any law, norm or destiny. It is only individuals who have actual existence and can be identified. The destiny of every individual is independent of the destiny of other individuals.

According to the second theory also what is basic is the individual. The proponents of this theory do not believe that society as a whole and as a combination of individuals has an actual existence. Anyhow, they maintain that the bond existing between the individuals is real and similar to a physical bond.
According to this theory though society has no existence independent of the individuals and it is only the individuals who have an actual existence, yet in view of the fact that the individuals in a society are linked with each other like the various component parts of a factory and all their actions are intertwined in a mechanical chain of causes and effects, these individuals have a common destiny, and society being composed of interconnected components, has also identity independent of that of its component parts, that is the individuals.

As for the third theory, it holds that both the individual and society are basic. It maintains that as the existence of its component parts (individuals) is not dissolved into that of society, and the component parts do not cease to exist, as is the case with the chemical compounds, the individual is basic. But society is also basic for the combination of the individuals from spiritual, intellectual and emotional point of view is similar to a chemical combination. The individuals in society acquire a new identity, that is of society, though they retain their own identity as well. According to this theory, as a result of the mutual action and reaction of its component parts, a new and living reality emerges in the form of society. In addition to the individual conscience, will, desire and thinking, a new conscience, a new will, a new desire and a new thinking appear which predominate the individual conscience and consciousness.

According to the fourth theory only society is basic. All that exists is collective spirit, collective conscience, collective consciousness, collective will and desire and collective psychic. Individual conscience and consciousness are only a manifestation of collective conscience and consciousness.

As for the Qur'anic verses, they support the third theory. As we pointed out earlier, the Holy Qur'an does not deal with human questions in the same way as a book of science or philosophy would. It deals with these questions differently.
Anyhow, it mentions the questions concerning society and individual in a way that substantiates the third theory. The Holy Qur'an maintains that the peoples (societies) have a common destiny, a common deed-sheet, and an understanding and consciousness. They obey and disobey. It is evident that if a people were to have no actual existence, there would have been no question of their destiny, understanding, consciousness, obedience and disobedience. This proves that the Holy Quran believes in some sort of collective and social life. Collective life is not a mere allegory. It is as much a reality, as collective death.
The Holy Qur'an says: "Every nation has a term; when it comes, they cannot put it back a single hour, nor can they put it forward." (Surah al-A'raf, 7:34)
The Holy Qur'an says: "Every nation shall be summoned to its record." (Surah al-Jathiyah, 45:28)
This shows that each nation has a record of its deeds, and as a living, conscious and responsible being, shall be summoned to render an account of what it did.
The Holy Qur'an says: "To every nation We have made their deeds seem fair." (Surah al-An'am, 6: 109)
This verse indicates that every nation acquires a special outlook, a special way of thinking and some special standards. Each nation has a special way of looking at things and understanding them. The judgements of each nation are based on the special standards adopted by it. Each nation has its own taste. The acts which seem fair to one nation, appear to be unfair to another. It is the social atmosphere of a nation which determines the taste of its individual members. The Holy Quran says:
"Every nation tried to seize their Prophet and argued falsely with a view to refute the truth. Then I seized them, and how awful was My punishment." (Surah al-Mu'min, 40:5)
This verse refers to a shameful collective decision with a view to fight the truth. In it, there is also a mention of a general punishment for this collective offence.
In the Holy Qur'an there are instances in which the act of one individual in society has been attributed to the whole society or the act of one generation has been attributed to the subsequent generations.[16] This is possible only in the cases in which a particular people may be of one collective way of thinking and may be having, so to say, one collective spirit. For example, in the story of the tribe of Thamud, the action of one man who hamstrung the she-camel of Prophet Salih, has been attributed to the whole tribe. The Qur'an says: "They hamstrung her". Thus the whole tribe has been regarded as culpable and deserving punishment. "So your Lord destroyed them".
Explaining this point in one of his sermons Imam Ali says: "Men! The only thing which unites people and provides them with a common destiny is happiness and resentment".
When people collectively feel pleased or displeased with something which might have been done by one single person, they are to be regarded as one man and they have a common destiny. The she-camel of Thamud was hamstrung by one individual, but Allah punished the whole tribe, because they all were pleased with his action. Allah has said: "They hamstrung her and so they had to regret." (Surah ash-Shu'ara', 26:167)
Allah punished them all because they all approved the decision taken by that one man. Hence, when that decision was put into practice it was actually the collective decision of them all. Though hamstringing was the action of one man, Allah has ascribed it to them generally. He said that they hamstrung the she-camel, and not that one of them hamstrung her.
Here there is another point worth-remembering. To be merely pleased with a sin without practically committing it, is not regarded as a sin. If a person feels happy on knowing that some other person has committed or is about to commit a sin, that person himself will not regarded as guilty. Even if a person decides to commit a sin himself, but does not commit it actually, he is not to blame.
The approval of a sin committed by another individual is considered to be a sin only when this approval amounts to some sort of participation in the decision about that sin or in the commitment of it. That is the nature of all collective sins.
First the social atmosphere and the collective spirit of people approve the commitment of a particular sin and pave the way for it. Then one member of society whose decision is a part of the decision of other members and whose approval is a part of the approval of others, perpetrates that sin actually. In this case the sin of that individual is the sin of all members of that society. What has been stated by Imam Ali visualizes this kind of situation and inter alia explains the meaning of the above quoted verse. Otherwise mere happiness or resentment not involving participation in the decision and the action of the actual perpetrator is not regarded as a sin.
In the Holy Quran occasionally the deeds of one generation also have been attributed to the subsequent generations. For example the past deeds of the Israelites have been attributed to the Jews contemporary to the Holy Prophet.
The Holy Qur'an says that these people deserve humiliation and ignominy because they used to kill the Prophets. That was said because from the viewpoint of the Holy Qur'an the Israelites of the time of the Holy Prophet were a continuation and an extension of their predecessors who used to kill the Prophets. Not only that, but from the point of view of collective thinking they were exactly those people of the past who still continued to exist. The French philosopher, Auguste Comte says: "Human society consists more of the dead than of the living". In other words, in all periods of history the people of the past influence mankind more than the living people. The statement that "the dead more than ever continue to rule over the living", means the same thing. (Vide: Raymond Aron's Main Currents in Sociological Thought, Vol. I, p. 91)
Al-Mizan, the celebrated commentary on the Holy Qur'an, discussing the question that a society having one spirit and one collective thinking assumes the position of just one human being and all its members become as if they are the organs of one person, says that all the members of society become so absorbed into the personality of society that their joys and griefs become the joys and griefs of society and their prosperity and misery become its prosperity and misery.
Al-Mizan continues to say: "The Holy Qur'an has expressed this view regarding the nations and societies having a collective thinking as a result of their religious or national bias, by declaring the subsequent generations accountable for the deeds of the preceding generations. The Holy Qur'an blames the present people for the deeds of their fore-fathers. Obviously this is the only correct way of passing judgement on the people having a collective thinking and a collective spirit". (al-Mizan, vol. IV, p. 112)
Man and Universe by  Martyr Ayatullah Murtada Mutahhari
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