Individualism

 

     Our forebears before the Enlightenment had in general a deep sense of human solidarity. It was not that they were unaware of people as individuals, or that they did not care for them as such. One has only to read Euripides or Shakespeare to see that that was not the case. But in general they saw human existence as having little meaning except in relationship to others. The Stoic Epictetus is not untypical:

I will say that it is natural for the foot, for instance, to be clean. But if you consider it as someone’s foot, and not merely as a detached object, it will be fitting for it to walk in the dirt, and tread upon thorns, and sometimes even be cut off for the sake of the body as a whole. Otherwise it is no longer a foot. We should reason in some such manner concerning ourselves also. What are you? A man. If then, indeed, you consider yourself merely as a detached being, it is natural for you to live to old age and be rich and healthy. But if you consider yourself as a man, and as a part of the whole, it will be fitting, on account of that whole, that you should at one time be sick; at another, take a voyage and be exposed to danger; sometimes be in want; and possibly it may happen, die before your time. Why, then, are you displeased? Do you not know that, just as the foot in detachment is no longer a foot, so you in detachment are no longer a man? For what is a man? A part of a city, first, of that made up by gods and men; and next, of that to which you immediately belong, which is a miniature of the universal city. (Discourses 2.5.24, trans. Elizabeth Carter, revised Robin Hard, revised Christopher Bryan)


Such notions as this stand in sharp contrast to a rather more modern ideal with which many of us were raised—the ideal of the “man alone,” who needs no one and owes nothing to anyone, who stands tall on his own two feet against the world, and who, at the end of every adventure, rides off alone into the sunset rather than be tied down to community or place. To our forebears, such an “ideal” as that would have sounded like a description of damnation. For them, to be a “wanderer,” belonging nowhere, without kin or homeland, was to be in hell. Such, before his salvation by the goddess, was the fate of Apuleius’ Lucius in the Metamorphoses. Such the plight of the old warrior in The Wanderer, remembering the joys of the table shared with fellow warriors, remembering the joys of knowing his liege lord, and grieving because all are gone. Certainly the ancient Hebrews shared this opinion. When Cain learns that the punishment for murdering his brother is that he is to be “a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth,” his reaction is that this is the worst thing that could be imagined, “more than I can bear” (Gen. 4:12). In biblical Israel, as Johannes Pedersen said in a now classic statement,

When we look at the soul, we always see a community rising behind it. What it is, it is by virtue of others. It has sprung up from a family which has filled it with its contents, and from which it can never grow away. The family forms the narrowest community in which it lives. But wherever it works, it must live in community, because it is its nature to communicate itself to others, to share blessing with them. Loneliness, the lack of community, the Old Testament only knows as something unnatural, an expression that life is failing.[1]

So in Jewish understanding as in pagan, communities of human beings naturally belonged together and stood or fell together, for better or worse (cf. 2 Sam. 24, Josh. 7; m. Sanh. 4.5).[2] Hence neither Jew nor Greek understood either “peace” or “justice” to be things that one could have by oneself. “Peace” was being in harmonious relationship with those to whom one was bound. “Justice” was proper behavior toward them. Both were essentially communal concepts.[3]

The French sociologist Louis Dumont makes a useful distinction between the person considered as an “empirical subject of speech, thought, and will, the individual sample of humankind as found in all societies,” and “the independent, autonomous, and thus essentially non-social moral being, who carries our paramount values and is found primarily in our modern ideology of man and society. From that point of view, there emerge two kinds of societies. Where the individual is a paramount value I speak of individualism. In the opposite case, where the paramount value lies in society as a whole, I speak of holism.”[4]  In speaking thus of “individualism” in contrast with “holism,” Dumont is not speaking of individuals who withdraw from the world to pursue a life of asceticism and denial and even, as some would say, through constant intercession to become closer to the rest of the world. That was an idea with which our forebears were entirely familiar. Dumont is speaking of those who, thinking they are normal and full members of their societies, yet consider themselves in relationship to those societies to be independent, autonomous, and essentially unobligated. That is the attitude that most people who lived before the Enlightenment would have found surprising. It is an attitude that was perfectly illustrated in a newscast that I watched some time ago on CNN. The President of the United States, together with some former U.S. Presidents and other prominent citizens, was engaged in a day of promoting community concern. “We all ought to do something for our local communities” was the general message. Hardly, I reflected, something to which anyone could object, and no doubt a good way for the politicians concerned to get for themselves a little harmless media coverage. “Mom and pop politics,” as one of the political commentators observed. But I was wrong, and so was she. At least one person did object. After the news item, an apparently quite well educated, seemingly normal young man was interviewed. He, as he made clear, had been outraged by the whole affair. Why? Because it had suggested that there was something wrong with those who felt no responsibility toward their communities. For his part, he said, he felt not the slightest obligation to other people living in his city, and that did not of itself make him a bad person. On the contrary: the assertion that he ought to be involved in the general support of others in his community was, in his view, an infringement of his personal rights.

The young man was of course entitled to his opinions. They were opinions, nonetheless, that would have led him to be regarded as a “bad person” by thinking persons in virtually every human society known to us before the Enlightenment: bad, if not insane. We admire so splendid a statement of human interdependence as that in John Donne’s Meditation, composed early in the seventeenth century­:

No man is in island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.[5]

Yet we need to understand that for all the magnificence of Donne’s rhetoric (which his hearers will certainly have appreciated) he was expressing an idea that they would have regarded as being in itself a commonplace, something unarguable. So Richard Hooker, though less splendidly, says exactly the same thing:

God hath created nothing simply for itself: but each thing in all things, and of everything each part in other hath such interest that in the whole world nothing is found whereunto any thing created can say, I need thee not.[6]

democratie_en_amerique-1So general was this assumption of human interdependence that as late as 1835 Alexis de Tocqueville, writing his by-no-means-unsympathetic account De la démocratie en Amérique (ET: Democracy in America), felt obliged to explain himself even for using the word individualisme—as well as seeing no reason to disguise his sharply critical reaction to the phenomenon for which it stood:

Individualism is a novel expression, to which a novel idea has given birth. Our fathers were only acquainted with égoïsme (selfishness). Selfishness is a passionate and exaggerated love of self, which leads a man to connect everything with himself and to prefer himself to everything in the world. Individualism is a mature and calm feeling, which disposes each member of the community to sever himself from the mass of his fellow-creatures, and to draw apart with his family and friends, so that after he has formed a little circle of his own, he willingly leaves society at large to itself. Selfishness originates in blind instinct; individualism proceeds from erroneous judgment more than depraved feelings; it originates as much in deficiencies of mind as in perversity of heart. Selfishness blights the germ of all virtue; individualism, at first, only saps the virtues of public life; but in the long run it attacks and destroys all others and is at length absorbed in downright selfishness.[7]

In contemporary thought, however, this assumption of human interdependence has been more clearly reflected in certain African understandings of society than in much that has been typical of the West. Specifically, I would point to the African concept of Ubuntu–a concept summed up in the Xhosa proverb, Umuntu ngumuntu ngabanye bantu—an expression meaning, as Michael Battle says, “that each individual humanity is ideally expressed in relationship with others and, in turn, individuality is truly expressed. Or ‘a person depends on other persons to be a person.’”[8] In other words, you can’t be human by yourself. Most of Saint Paul’s contemporaries—Jew and pagan alike—would have understood that perfectly. In this connection I am reminded of a story (I cannot recall its source) of an African Christian in the late twentieth century who expressed surprise that Westerners had ever taken to Christianity or the Scriptures, since the Christian and Scriptural understanding of society seemed to him to be quite alien to Western attitudes as he had experienced them, and much closer to African attitudes.   The answer to his implied question was, of course, that it was pre-Enlightenment Westerners who took to Christianity and the Scriptures—and that they would doubtless have found much in modern Western attitudes as alien as he did.

Of course we must not romanticize ancient or African societies, which for all their notions of solidarity had and have their own imperfections. No less a warrior for human rights than Archbishop Desmond Tutu points to the dangers of “solidarity,” or ubuntu, and the concomitant advantages of a measure of individualism: “Because Westerners have a strong sense of the value of the individual, they are able to take personal initiatives. It’s not so easy, when you are a community-minded person, to go against the stream.”[9]  Extremes of such “solidarity” can lead to total devaluation of the individual and of the personal, to the horrors of the “collective” and to the treatment of entire groups and societies as “personnel” or “canon fodder.” It is also only too easy for societies in which one is deeply conscious of the link between one’s own personality and the rest of the group (the nation, the tribe, the family) to de-humanize all who are not members of the group—a weakness from which in antiquity neither Jew, Christian, nor pagan, neither Greek, Roman, nor barbarian could claim exemption. This makes, indeed, the breadth of vision of someone like Saint Paul the more remarkable, with his assertion of concern for the essentially human hopes and problems even of those who were outside the believing community, rejoicing “with those who rejoice” and weeping “with those who weep” (see Rom. 12.14-21). Alas, Christians themselves over the centuries have by no means lived up to that ideal.

Nevertheless there are, as de Tocqueville saw, dangers in individualism, too. For all the value of its emphases on human rights and personal responsibilities, in its extreme forms individualism can be corrosive. It is surely no accident that it is “individual” rights that are repeatedly appealed to as justification for the United States’ apparent inability to create for itself decent national health care or a rational system of gun control—thereby, alas, providing us with a perfect example of C. S. Lewis’s dictum that good things made into gods become demons . Indeed, granted the dangers to society inherent in both “individualism” and “solidarity,” I would venture to suggest that at the present time it is “individualism” that poses the greater threat to us, and in particular—dreadful irony!—the greater threat to us as individuals, for it is essentially a spiritual threat. Generations have loved to quote the last line of Dante Alighieri’s Commedia, in which he speaks of “the Love that moves the sun and the other stars: l’amor che move il sole a l’altre stelle.”  But if would we would do justice to Dante’s intention, we must remember the entire sentence with which he closes his poem:

Here power failed the high imagination;

   but my desire and will were turned,

   like a wheel that is moved evenly,

by the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.

All’alta fantasia qui mancò possa;

               ma già volgeva il mio disio e’l velle,

               sì come rota ch’igualmente è mossa,

            l’amor che move il sole a l’altre stelle

                                    (Paradiso 33.142-45)                                     

Dante’s celebration of the Love that moves “the sun and the other stars” is only the subordinate clause. The main clause celebrates the fact that that same Love also moves him. And that is the point. If I am moved by the Love that moves all things, then I am bound to all things by that Love, and all things are bound by It to me. John Donne was right. “I am involved in Mankind.”  If, by contrast, I insist on concerns that point only to myself, and to those whom I happen to choose, where shall I go? “Those who would save their life,” Jesus said, “will lose it.”  Rabbi Hillel asked, “If I am for myself alone, what am I?”  What, indeed?  A “consumer,” perhaps?  And such, according to Christian mythology, is Satan. There he stands, Dante tells us, at the bottom of the pit, locked in the icy cold of his own creation, the ultimate consumer! But wait—beyond the aimless winds that sweep across the frozen plain, is there not music (of a sort)? Listen! There is music–of a sort! They are playing what surely must be the national anthem of Hell: I Did It My Way.[11]

dvinfernoluciferkingofhell_m

 

[1]Johannes Pedersen, Israel: Its Life and Culture (London: Oxford University Press, 1926), II.263.

[2] This appears to be the understanding of humanity that stands behind the unknown Palestinian Jew, living only a few years after Paul, who wrote 2 (4) Ezra 3-14: “O Adam, what have you done? For though it was you who sinned, the fall was not yours alone, but ours also who are your descendants” (7.118).

[3] Such holism, often referred to by the (not very satisfactory) phrase “corporate personality” or, as I referred to it above, “solidarity,” has been fairly commonly posited of ancient Israel—notably since H. Wheeler Robinson’s influential paper, “The Hebrew Conception of Corporate Personality,” (in Werden und Wesen des Alten Testaments: Vorträge gehalten auf der Internationalen Tagung Alttestamentlicher Forscher zu Göttingen vom 4.–10. September 1935, ed. P. Volz, F. Stummer, and J. Hempel [Berlin: Alfred Töpelmann, 1936]). What is less commonly conceded is that in this matter ancient Israel was entirely at one with her neighbors.

[4] Louis Dumont, Essays on Individualism: Modern Ideology in Anthropological Perspective (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1986), 25.

[5] John Donne, Meditations upon Emergent Occasions 17.

[6] Richard Hooker, Sermon on Pride 2.

[7] Alexis de Tocqueville, De la démocratie en Amérique (1835-1840); ET Democracy in America, trans. Henry Reeve, rev. Francis Bowen (New York: Vintage Books, 1954) 104.

[8] Michael Battle, “The Ubuntu Theology of Desmond Tutu,” in Archbishop Tutu: Prophetic Witness in South Africa, Leonard Hulley, Louise Kretschmar, and Luke Lungile Pato eds. (Cape Town: Human and Rousseau, 1996), 99-100.

[9] Desmond Tutu, “Where Is Now Thy God?,” cited in Michael Battle, Reconciliation: The Ubuntu Theology of Desmond Tutu (Cleveland, Ohio: The Pilgrim Press, 1997), v.

[10] “The royal banners of Hell go forward” (Paradiso 34.1). Dante is, of course, parodying Venantius Fortunatus’ hymn in honor of the cross.

[11] I owe this splendid observation to the Dean of Exeter, in a sermon preached in Exeter Cathedral, in England, during the summer of 1997.

Christopher Bryan

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