Bees and Communio

Bees are awesome creatures, and something about bees has always caught my attention. So – when the language about bees returned to the English version of the Exsultet of the Easter Vigil Mass – it was quite exciting, and the odd diversion to these social insects in the text added so much to the liturgy as it speaks of the Easter candle, the light of which has been divided among the congregation:

“a fire into many flames divided,
yet never dimmed by sharing of its light,
for it is fed by melting wax,
drawn out by mother bees
to build a torch so precious.”[1]

In this way, bees figure into the most important communal celebration in Christianity. This seems appropriate, as bees have figured prominently in how we have conceived the communal nature of man since at least Aristotle.

Hobbes, reacting to Aristotle, contrasts man to bees in the Leviathan:It is true, that certain living creatures, as bees… live sociably with one another,” they all work harmoniously toward a common end for the whole hive, and this all without speech. “Therefore some man may desire to know, why mankind cannot do the same.”[2]

Hobbes says that man cannot do this, as he is continually plagued with “competition for honor and dignity.”[3] Man’s private good differs from the common good, unlike that of bees. Hobbes takes language and reason as further proof of this: a man can question the goals and strategy of his superiors, while bees cannot. It’s this basic harmony that Hobbes points to when he says bees are naturally social while man is not.

Aristotle of course sees mankind as inherently and naturally social. It is more than that, though, not only does Aristotle see humans as social, he actually sees them as more social than bees. This is due to the faculty of language. “But language serves to declare what is advantageous and what the reverse, and it is the particularity of man, in comparison with other animals, that he alone possesses a perception of good and evil.”[4] What Hobbes takes as evidence of our natural asociality, Aristotle takes as a marker of our social and political nature. At the core of this is not only a different conception of man, but also a different conception of what it means to be social and political.

Our social nature is unlike that of bees in that it does not quash our individuality. We do not become drones. The person does not need to be defined against the collective. Central to this is language, which is at once integrally social and yet also allows us to define ourselves individually. It also allows us to question and propose new strategies based upon our practical reason, as both Hobbes and Aristotle point out.

The logos which language provides opened new avenues for the human person that are not available on the near animalistic conception that Hobbes is working off of. Hobbes counts language as simply another tool to be used in your quest for your desires. Language is nothing but rhetoric, and rhetoric is simply a way to push the right buttons on other men so that they give you what you desire from them. Language pulls levers, nothing else. Aristotle envisions language completely differently: by words we can share judgments about good and evil, and seek to direct the actions of the whole community. Words are at the root of our rationality, and they assure for us a place that is more than a drone in a hive.

This is what we should keep in mind when we propose a common life based upon the principles of communio. To avoid the traps of rank individualism or rank collectivism, we should have in our minds this view of human nature: our social nature does not require unthinking harmony among men. In fact, it creates the opportunity for our development as individual persons. Perhaps this is somewhat paradoxical, but it is nonetheless true.

Bees may be extraordinary creatures, but mankind is still all the more extraordinary.

[1] Exultet, Roman Missal, 2011 ICEL translation.
[2] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, Chapter 17.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Aristotle, Politics, 1253a7.

Alexander S. Anderson is a student fellow at the Hildebrand Project.



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