Are distinct societal spheres a threat to human freedom? The fruitfulness of the principle of sphere sovereignty

31 March 2016

An appreciation of the role of the individual within human society traditionally faced two extreme positions which are already found in ancient Greek philosophy. An early 5th century thinker, Callicles, acknowledged being individual but ultimately admires the tyrant who (collectively) subjects the weak to its power. Although the sophist, Protagoras, claimed that the individual is its own measure, he still contemplated a state which does not acknowledge any material boundaries for its power. The life-encompassing educational ideal (paideia) of Greek culture, culminating in the polis (the city-state), laid the foundation for the views of Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. Both these medieval thinkers did not escape the totalitarian implications of the Greek idea of the polis. Thomas Aquinas merely superimposed the church on the state, which is supposed to transcend the transient and incomplete happiness promised by the state, while directed at carrying a person to eternal bliss. Marsilius of Padua articulated a view of society as being constituted by individuals, anticipating the later conceptions of Rousseau. A radical alternative to both atomistic (individualistic) and holistic (universalistic) views is developed by Johannes Althusius. He was the first thinker who understood the whole-parts relation properly by acknowledging the proper laws (legespropriae) of each social entity and in doing so anticipated the principle of sphere sovereignty. Attention is given to the conceptions of Friedrich Julius Stahl, which are intermediate between the Aristotelian-Thomistic position and the reformational tradition. According to Kuyper the phrase sphere sovereignty was introduced by Van Prinsterer, but Veenhof declared that he could not find the place where he used this phrase. In spite of instances where Kuyper clearly understood the "next-to-each-other" implications of sphere sovereignty, he still entertained Aristotle's emphasis on an organic (teleological) development within society which was continued in the thought of Thomas Aquinas and Romanticism. This particularly manifested itself in Kuyper's view of the state as an ethical organism. It was Dooyeweerd who explored the meaning of the principle of sphere sovereignty in its full cosmic scope, relevant for an understanding of cosmic time, of the modal aspects of reality and for the different kinds of entities found within creation. No single sphere-sovereign societal entity should be reduced to a mere part of an encompassing whole, to be subordinate to such a whole. The distinct spheres of societal entities are channels for human freedom within all of them and could therefore not be seen as a threat to this freedom. However, freedom, expressing itself within collective, communal or coordinational relationships, may proceed either in a norm-conformative way or in an antinormative way