Civil society is much more than a gathering of passionate folks having tea to save the whales. There is a rich historical legacy of thinking about what it means and how it operates.
For many, perhaps most people, the term and the very idea of civil society came along recently, a function of the globalisation of ideas, spontaneous mass movements, the internet, and even the greater democratisation of Eastern Europe, post-Soviet domination. Instead, the tendrils stretch back much further, and the intellectual foundations reach back to the beginnings of Western civilisation. Let's examine this tradition.
The very term civil society goes back to Aristotle's phrase "koinōnía politikḗ", in his volume, Politics, where it refers to a "political community", such as a Greek city-state, with its shared set of norms and an ethos, in which free citizens were on an equal footing and lived under the rule of law. The goal of civil society, therefore, was "eudaimonia", the human flourishing or common well-being, as in the commonly expressed idea that man was uniquely a "political animal". Later Roman writers, such as Cicero, spoke to the notion of a republic, or "res publica", as the ideal.
With the rise of a distinction...