Robert Nisbet's thoughts. Essays explore themes of progress and community

The Making of Modern Society, by Robert Nisbet. New York: New York University Press. 215 pp. $35. Prejudices: A philosophical dictionary, by Robert Nisbet. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. 318 pp. $6.95, paperback.

Robert Nisbet is one of the best thinkers of our time, but you've never see him on ``Nightline.'' He's such a good writer that reading him one has a very firm sense of the authority and charm of his mind.

Nisbet has been publishing books for over 35 years. In the autobiographical introduction to his latest collection of essays, ``The Making of Modern Society,'' he sums up his career. It began in Maricopa, Calif., in the west side of the San Joaquin Valley - ``in those years,'' he writes, ``still harsh desert, reclaimed only by the millions of barrels of oil pumped annually by the grotesque oil derricks, which stood like dead trees in a fossil forest.''

Nisbet traces his career back to his youth in Maricopa because he began to think in that place. There was nothing else to do. ``Its ugliness and hostile challenge to the human spirit drove me straight to books for haven and experience of the vicarious.'' Besides his parents, he names three influences: a good school system, a surprisingly large collection of books in the local public library, and his mother's subscription to The Christian Science Monitor.

In the fall of 1932, he went to the University of California at Berkeley. There he studied under the maverick and fractious Frederick J. Teggart - who taught a course called ``Progress and Civilization'' - and wandered in the stacks. After the war, he returned and got a PhD under Professor Teggart. During his subsequent 42 years of teaching and administration, Nisbet made signal contributions to his field of sociology. In 1978, acknowledging his limits and unwilling to exploit the tenure system, he retired. Since then, he has been associated with the American Enterprise Institute in Washington D.C., first directly, and now loosely, preferring to write at home.

The career reflects the thinking of the man - intellectually ambitious, public spirited, balanced. Going over his many books, Nisbet points out two themes: ``developmentalism'' and ``community.'' The first relates to the many forms the idea of progress has taken throughout Western history, ending in this century in the idea - and Marxist practice - of the millennial state. Community, on the other hand, points to Nisbet's interest in the intermediate associations - family, guild, church - that protect the individual from being absorbed in the state.

``The Making of Modern Society'' assembles recent essays on these themes. There are moments when reading these essays that one feels the sudden rush and stillness that Allan Bloom has recently called ``the philosophic experience.''

Nisbet's essays on developmentalism and ``futurology'' provide such moments of truth. He virtually proves - all proof in the social sciences is ``virtual'' - that, contrary to popular belief, the future does not lie in the present: Rather, the future is the unforeseeable consequence of the actions of ``geniuses, prophets, maniacs,'' among others.

In ``The Social Impact of the American Revolution,'' Nisbet contrasts the US revolution with the French and Russian revolutions, noting the flourishing of ``voluntary associations'' in America, the ``innumerable intermediate associations'' that acted as a ``buffer against the invasions of political centralization.''

These themes are recapitulated in Nisbet's philosophical dictionary, ``Prejudices,'' now available in paperback. ``Prejudices'' is an American classic. For its stylistic energy and rational drive, it belongs next to ``The Federalist Papers''; for lucidity and charm, next to ``The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin.''

Beyond that, confronting the ``shamelessness'' of much contemporary experience, Nisbet's prose has the Roman quality of gravitas, which he himself calls ``perhaps the most honored of Roman virtues,'' a style tested by experience and weighted with respect for nature and history.

Nisbet does not pander to the media demand for bite-sized thoughts. Indeed, he handles the long sentence superbly. In the essay on ``Effrontery,'' he unrolls a series of portraits of effrontery, each contained in a long sentence that moves with Latinate fatality. This is the ``grave style'' at its best - not pompous, capable of satirical brilliance, but too serious for TV, and the product of years of thought.

``Prejudices'' contains an essay called ``Creationism'' that could not be more timely. In his work on developmentalism and futurology, Nisbet has long dealt with the core issues in the controversy over creationism. Here, in fewer than six pages, he summarizes the debate and predicts ``a sharp change in [the] dominance of pure secularism.'' ``Creationists of the educated, common-sense, rational type'' have the leading edge, he believes.

Reading this critic of ``progress'' and futurology, one gets a clear, even pungent, sense of life and of the future. That paradox crowns a great career.

On US Revolution:

THE line from the social revolution of the 1770s to the civil rights revolution of the 1960s is a direct one. It is a line that passes through the Civil War - itself certainly not without revolutionary implication - and through a host of changes in the status of Americans of all races, beliefs, and classes. The United States has indeed undergone a process of almost permanent revolution. I can think of no greater injustice to ourselves, as well as to the makers of revolution in Philadelphia, than to deny that fact and to allow the honored word revolution to be preempted today by spokesmen for societies which, through their congealed despotisms, have made revolution all but impossible.

-Robert Nisbet, `The Social Impact of the American Revolution.'

Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.

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