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Freire and the Historical Quest for Ideal Community

Human history has witnessed a progression in conceptualizations of the ideal community. Among the classical thinkers of the Mediterranean, Plato proposed an ideal state in his Republic, and Aristotle subsequently followed with Politics. In the later patristic era, Augustine of Hippo laid out the City of God, and John Cassian encapsulated the ideals of cenobite communities in his Institutes and Conferences. In the medieval era, drawing in no small part on the previous work of Aristotle, the Dominican scholar Thomas Aquinas articulated the relationship of virtue to community in his conceptualizations of the common good. In the modern era, Jacques Maritain applied Thomist principals of individual freedom, virtue, and the common good in his contributions to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, subsequently adopted by what aspired to be an ideal international community - the United Nations. In the continuity of developing ideas concerning the ideal human community, I believe that it is possible to observe a certain tension between those who saw the ideal community as hierarchical, with cultural superiors privately situated in urban centers, and those who began to see an ideal community in more egalitarian structures, where superiors were positioned to orient the community without necessarily imposing upon the innate capacities for freedom and virtue held by its members.

The European discovery and subsequent conquest of the Americas in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries exacerbated the conflict between those who saw ideal communities as hierarchical and necessarily hegemonic in structure, with those who saw the ideal community as a convention of equals, organized around a central belief in certain truths. In the sixteenth century another Dominican scholar, Bartolomé de Las Casas, would utilize philosophical argument to advocate for the humanity of indigenous peoples in the Americas. In his Memorial de Remedios, Las Casas described his vision of an ideal community in which free indigenous farmers lived and worked alongside Spanish colonists (Keen, 1977). He attempted to establish this ideal community in Venezuela, but failed owing to ceaseless opposition from neighboring encomenderos. Nonetheless, Thomas More’s later published Utopia would bear similarities to Las Casas’ description of free communities in the Memorial de Remedios, and one historian has asserted that More actually based his visionary Utopia upon Las Casas’ description of the community in a manuscript conveyed to Moore by Erasmus. Four centuries later, Paulo Freire would concern himself with the liberation of the oppressed through the development of knowledge within communities, especially in the method of culture circles. In a 1999 paper, John Elias recognized the potential continuity of Friere with Thomist philosophy, and while Freire was not a categorical neo-Thomist like Maritain, it is worthwhile to consider whether Freire also poses a continuity of, and possibly an innovation in, historical notions concerning the ideal community.

Freire’s employment of culture circles for literacy instruction seems to be the most promising entry to connections with predecessors who were also concerned with ideal human community. To Freire, these dialogical communities were founded upon love, humility, hope, faith, and confidence, all dispositions traditionally identified with the virtues. The pedagogy employed with these communities recognized that truth is to be discovered as an insight by persons and communities, not to be imposed from outside. Centuries ago, Plutarch proposed that the mind is a fire to be ignited, not a vessel to be filled. Later Aquinas would describe the task of the teacher as facilitating the student’s own movement into previously unknown truths, and that the self-discovery of truth is superior to mediated truth. Freire would also recognize the teacher as a facilitator, or instrumental cause of learning, rather than as a superior who imposes truth.

The culture circles were also contextualized in the work of the community, much as Cassian and others described of the rural cenobite communities that emerged in the Middle East in the fourth century, populated by those seeking an escape from the economic, political, and moral oppression experienced in the urban centers of the day. Thomas Merton described of these communities, “The society they sought was one where all men were truly equal, where the only authority under God was the charismatic authority of wisdom, experience, and love? (The Wisdom of the Desert, p. 5). The similarity between what Freire describes as elimination of the oppressor from personal consciousness has striking parallels in the quest for “purity of heart? (puritas cordis) described by Cassian. Both the cenobite communities and the cultural circles were organized around the quest for discovery of truth in the word. To the cenobite communities there came seekers of the verbum salutis, the liberating word of salvation, and to the culture circles likewise came those who sought liberation in the truth of shared words. Both engaged in synaxis, the gathering of the community around a central socially equalizing principle – truth.

In 1960, Merton saw the cenobites as actualizing the highest ideal community in their own time, while leaving for us the task of finding our own ideal community. Merton wrote, “We cannot do exactly as they did. But we must be as thorough and ruthless in our determination to break all spiritual chains, and cast off the domination of alien compulsions, to find our true selves, to discover and develop our inalienable spiritual liberty and use it to build, on earth, the Kingdom of God" (The Wisdom of the Desert, p. 24). Not “exactly as they did,? Bartolomé de Las Casas sought to establish the Kingdom of God in the Americas through the establishment of egalitarian communities that liberated the indigenous peoples from the spiritual chains and alien compulsions of oppressive colonialism. Freire’s work stands in continuity with what amounts to a historical and global quest for ideal human community, a search that is as critical, and yet as promising, for the urban centers of North America and Asia as it is for the rural villages of Central and South America. Just as Merton challenged his audience, Freire too provides no prescription for an ideal community, but asserts that it must organically grow in its own place and time in order to be authentic for its human participants. Indeed, for both Merton and Freire, this is the very process of humanization.

Thomas Delaney, Ed.S. (Ed. Psych.), M.A. (Theo.)
Institute on Community Integration
University of Minnesota