The Social Nature of Man
In a previous section of this Guide, we said that man is neither body nor soul, but is at the same time body-and-soul. We must now add to this another truth. While the first went against the grain of contemporary materialism, this second truth flies in the face of our pervasive individualism. It is the idea of man as a naturally social being, rather than a solitary one, according to the Catholic understanding of human nature: “God did not create man as a ‘solitary being’ but wished him to be a ‘social being’. Social life therefore is not exterior to man: he can only grow and realize his vocation in relation with others.”
Scripture agrees, teaching that the human person was called from the very beginning to lead a social life: “It is not good for man to be alone.”
Being made in the image and likeness of the triune God, the human person is naturally communal and distinguished from other creatures in this respect. The Church proclaims this truth about man constantly, and all of CST presupposes it. Even in addressing issues of a purely economic concern, the need for communion is kept central. As Benedict XVI stated:
“One of the deepest forms of poverty a person can experience is isolation. If we look closely at other kinds of poverty, including material forms, we see that they are born from isolation, from not being loved or from difficulties in being able to love.”
a. Aquinas on the social nature of man
In his epistle, De Regno, St. Thomas Aquinas provides various arguments for this position which are worth listing here due to their simplicity and coherence.
i. Man is physically unsuited for survival in isolation. “For all other animals, nature has prepared food, hair as a covering, teeth, horns, claws as means of defence or at least speed in flight, while man alone was made without any natural provisions for these things. Instead of all these, man was endowed with reason, by the use of which he could procure all these things for himself by the work of his hands. Now, one man alone is not able to procure them all for himself, for one man could not sufficiently provide for life, unassisted. It is therefore natural that man should live in the society of many.”
ii. Man lacks the sufficiency of instinct found in other creatures. “All other animals are able to, discern, by inborn skill, what is useful and what is injurious, even as the sheep naturally regards the wolf as his enemy. Some animals also recognize by natural skill certain medicinal herbs and other things necessary for their life. Man, on the contrary, has a natural knowledge of the things which are essential for his life only in a general fashion, inasmuch as he is able to attain knowledge of the particular things necessary for human life by reasoning from natural principles. But it is not possible for one man to arrive at a knowledge of all these things by his own individual reason. It is therefore necessary for man to live in a multitude so that each one may assist his fellows, and different men may be occupied in seeking, by their reason, to make different discoveries—one, for example, in medicine, one in this and another in that.”
iii. Through the gift of speech man is made for communication. “…the use of speech is a prerogative proper to man. By this means, one man is able fully to express his conceptions to others. Other animals, it is true, express their feelings to one another in a general way, as a dog may express anger by barking and other animals give vent to other feelings in various fashions. But man communicates with his kind more completely than any other animal known to be gregarious, such as the crane, the ant or the bee. With this in mind, Solomon says: ‘It is better that there be two than one; for they have the advantage of their company.’ ”
b. The consensus of the pagans
This truth about man was acknowledged in the pagan world as well. Aristotle had proclaimed that “man is by nature a political animal,” which he follows by quoting Homer, who said that any man who lives outside of the community of other persons does so, not because he is acting according to human nature, but because he is either below or above humanity. He is either an ascetic or a villain—and both of these are, of course, exceptions which serve to prove the rule.
c. The Enlightenment and the “social contract”
What has been said so far leaves little room for the so-called “libertarian” mentality, which would conceive of man as a “noble savage” who enters into society only as a necessary evil rather than as a natural good. Such a view, although it seems quite normal today, is quite modern and is in fact a product of Enlightenment humanism. Only during that period did it become a core doctrine, eventually evolving into the school of thought known as Liberalism. If, taking a wider view, we survey human history in general, we find that this anti-social point of view is quite in the minority. If we survey Christian history specifically, we find that it is non-existent.
d. Personal development
We are warned never to lose sight of the interdependence of man and his fellows. “The human person may never be thought of only as an absolute individual being, built up by himself and on himself.” If we are to consider personal growth and realization in its fullness, we must be able to acknowledge the role of personal responsibility in the development of the individual, while at the same time taking into account our profound need for community. Pope Benedict XVI elaborated on the paradox:
“The human person by nature is actively involved in his own development…since as everybody knows, we are all capable of making free and responsible choices. Nor is it merely at the mercy of our caprice, since we all know that we are a gift, not something self-generated. Our freedom is profoundly shaped by our being, and by its limits. No one shapes his own conscience arbitrarily, but we all build our own ‘I’ on the basis of a ‘self’ which is given to us. Not only are other persons outside our control, but each one of us is outside his or her own control. A person’s development is compromised, if he claims to be solely responsible for producing what he becomes.”
e. Social sin
Although CST does not spend a great deal of time developing the theological understanding of sin, it necessarily takes it into account as it pertains to the subject. What this means is that CST acknowledges not only the personal aspect of sin, but also its social aspect. It teaches that “every sin is social insofar as and because it also has social consequences.” While sin is a result of the personal actions of an individual’s free will, yet by virtue of human solidarity every sin of the individual directly impacts his neighbor. This is not by any means an attempt to cancel the responsibility of the individual sinner, but is rather, as was suggested above, an examination of sinfulness from its interpersonal aspect, which complements its individual aspect.
f. The law of descent—the law of ascent
To express the same thing in terms used by St. John Paul II, we can say that as a consequence of the social aspect of sin it is appropriate to speak of a “law of descent” which is a kind of “communion of sin” by which each sinful soul drags down the whole Church along with it. On the bright side, this also implies a corresponding “law of ascent” which operates by virtue of the “communion of saints,” and so it is said that “every soul that rises above itself, raises up the world.”
The body of Christ is a unity that hangs together, for better or worse, in solidarity unto the end. It is precisely this social reality which informs the Catholic principle of solidarity which we will discuss below. For if our lives are intertwined, and if it is easier to live virtuously when material conditions are at an optimum level, then we ought to do our utmost to lift our neighbors from want, and we ought to see clearly that our own prosperity is not enough.
 Gen 2:18.