Civil society

Civil society can be understood as the "third sector" of society, distinct from government and business, and including the family and the private sphere.[1] By other authors, civil society is used in the sense of 1) the aggregate of non-governmental organizations and institutions that manifest interests and will of citizens or 2) individuals and organizations in a society which are independent of the government.[2]

Sometimes the term civil society is used in the more general sense of "the elements such as freedom of speech, an independent judiciary, etc, that make up a democratic society" (Collins English Dictionary).[3] Especially in the discussions among thinkers of Eastern and Central Europe, civil society is seen also as a normative concept of civic values.


The term civil society goes back to Aristotle's phrase koinōnía politikḗ (κοινωνία πολιτική), occurring in his Politics, where it refers to a ‘political community’, commensurate with the Greek city-state (polis) characterized by a shared set of norms and ethos, in which free citizens on an equal footing lived under the rule of law. The telos or end of civil society, thus defined, was eudaimonia (τὸ εὖ ζῆν tò eu zēn) (often translated as human flourishing or common well-being), in as man was defined as a ‘political (social) animal’ (ζῷον πολιτικόν zōon politikón).[4][5][6][7] The concept was used by Roman writers, such as Cicero, where it referred to the ancient notion of a republic (res publica). It re-entered into Western political discourse following one of the late medieval translations of Aristotle's Politics into Latin by Leonardo Bruni who as a first translated koinōnía politikḗ into societas civilis. With the rise of a distinction between monarchical autonomy and public law, the term then gained currency to denote the corporate estates (Ständestaat) of a feudal elite of land-holders as opposed to the powers exercised by the prince.[8] It had a long history in state theory, and was revived with particular force in recent times, in Eastern Europe, where dissidents such as Václav Havel as late as in the 1990's employed it to denote the sphere of civic associations threatened by the intrusive holistic state-dominated regimes of Communist Eastern Europe.[9] The first post-modern usage of civil society as denoting political opposition stems from writings of Aleksander Smolar in 1978-79.[10] However the term was not in use by Solidarity labor union in 1980-1981 and was popularized on a global scale by anti-communist propaganda only in 1989 as a tool of legitimation of neoliberal transformation.[10]