The state (or polity) is a complete society, concerned with the whole of human life, which exists and rules for the purpose of justice and peace. It works in harmony with various “incomplete societies”, such as families, guilds, associations, villages, and cities, which all come together to form the state. But modern nation-states are not the same as traditional states.
We can find examples of this in medieval Christendom. There, kings were not, as is sometimes imagined, Absolute Monarchs whose every word was law. Rather, a medieval kingdom was a patchwork of many jurisdictions. Noble territories, chartered towns, and other districts had their own laws which could not be overturned. Most importantly, instead of a federal state which could overturn the laws of any courts lower than its own, there was room for different customs. This is why St. Thomas Aquinas taught that “custom has the force of law” (ST, I-II, Q97, A3, co.).
There are also examples of powerful empires which still maintained subsidiary structures. The Incas, the Holy Roman Empire, and the Umayyad Caliphate all provide different historical models. Subsidiarity, according to St. John Paul II, means that “a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good” (Centesimus Annus § 48). This is not the conflict between “big government” authoritarianism and “small government” libertarianism. The authority of a powerful state and the liberty of local government can work together in perfect harmony, if the sacred principle of subsidiarity is upheld.
Many today would call these premodern states “primitive,” “weak,” or “disorganized,” for having a lack of clear borders or uniform structure. But the traditional idea of integral hierarchy is not about imposing a monotonous uniformity; it is about a vast synthetic harmony of different natures coming together in peace and love. Scripture provides a beautiful image of the unity which the powerful are called to share with the lowly: the wolf shall dwell with the lamb: and the leopard shall lie down with the kid: the calf and the lion, and the sheep shall abide together, and a little child shall lead them (Isaiah 11:6). In a just hierarchy, we can recognize that the common good is good for all of us.
In fact, the lack of totalitarian state power allows the necessary agency for the flourishing of communities and traditions. Obviously, the governments of premodern society were not perfect. At times, they fell into tyranny or were upset by conflict. But it is the modern state, hand in hand with capitalism, which has solidified vast “structures of sin” like never before, plunging all of humanity into a dark age of isolation and atheism, with only the Self, the State, or the Market to worship.