A Brief Primer on Individualism in Western Intellectual History

As a non-Westerner, the respect and autonomy accorded the individual in the West have always intrigued me. No civilization, as far as I know, has given more scope to individual expression and initiative than the West. Non-Western civilizations have generally tended to subordinate the needs of the individual to those of the collective.

Despite important exceptions, including Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Rousseau, and Hegel, the prominence of the individual is one of Western civilization’s distinguishing marks. This individualism, as Colin Morris puts it in The Discovery of the Individual, is “an eccentricity among cultures.” The West has historically managed, more successfully than its rivals, to build societies in which each individual, regardless of his/her religious affiliation or cultural background, has the opportunity to pursue his/her interests and flourish to the fullness of his/her potential.

The first stirrings of Western individualism, in the sense of breaking free from the shackles of prevailing opinion, are traceable to the pre-Socratic philosophers. This group of original thinkers accounted for natural phenomena, such as earthquakes and eclipses, in naturalistic and rational terms, without the hitherto customary recourse to myths or deities as explanatory causes.

Socrates (469-399 BC) continued this trend when he boldly challenged conventional definitions of concepts like justice and beauty and exposed the inadequacy of common ideas, through subversive questioning and rigorous reasoning. He also proclaimed his unyielding commitment to the exploration of the self: “God orders me to fulfill the philosopher’s mission of searching into myself and other men.”

Ancient individualism witnessed a surge during the Hellenistic Age, which spans the period from the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC to the emergence of the Roman Empire after the Battle of Actium in 31 BC. After Aristotle’s death in 322 BC, ancient Greece underwent enormous political, intellectual, and psychological transformations. It came under the control of the Macedonian (later Roman) Empire. This arguably prompted Greek philosophers to turn inward and focus on private life, personal salvation, and internal happiness, at the expense of other concerns, such as the establishment of the ideal political organization. A number of philosophical schools emerged (the Stoics, Epicureans, Cynics, etc.) whose thought prioritized inner existence over public order. As Bernard Russell puts it:

When political power passed into the hands of the Macedonians, Greek philosophers … turned aside from politics and devoted themselves to the problem of individual virtue or salvation. They no longer asked: how can men create a good State? They asked instead: how can men be virtuous in a wicked world, or happy in a world of suffering?

The idea of the individual retained some importance with the rise of Christianity. Like Stoicism, the Christian faith holds that every individual possesses dignity because he/she was created in the likeness of the Creator. As Myrna Chase et al argue in their book Western Civilisation:

God cares for each person; he wants people to behave righteously and enter heaven; Christ died for all because he loves humanity. Christianity espouses active love and genuine concern for fellow human beings … The idea of a Christian conscience, prompted by God and transcending all other loyalties, reinforces respect for all human beings regardless of cultural and national differences. Also prompting respect for each person is the presupposition of natural equality stemming from the Christian belief that each individual, regardless of birth, wealth, or talent, is precious to God.

St. Augustine (354-430), whose theological system was to influence medieval Christianity, wrote an autobiographical work entitled Confessions, which Stephen Trombley has described as “the first text in which the first-person singular voice, the I, comes into play in this form in Western thought.” In his The City of God, Augustine formulates an argument proving his own existence that looks forward to René Descartes’ cogito ergo sum: “I am not at all afraid of the arguments of the Academicians, who say, What if you are deceived? For if I am deceived, I am. For he who is not cannot be deceived; and if I am deceived, by this token I am.”

Individualism reappeared with a vengeance during the Christian Middle Ages, particularly between 1050 and 1200. A number of factors may have occasioned this development including the growth of cities; the rise of professions outside the church (lawyers, clerks, teachers); and the recovery of Greco-Roman manuscripts via the Islamic world and the Byzantine Empire.

One of the manifestations of this momentous change was the rise of individual faith: namely, the idea that the individual should first get to know him/herself as a prelude to knowing God and that individuals differed in the way or extent to which they approached the Creator. Other manifestations of medieval individualism included a growing awareness that inner repentance exceeded external penance in importance, an increase in literature written in the first person, the institution of individual confession at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, a growing interest in personal appearance, and an increase in the number of personal details included in portraits.

As an example of the importance that individualism assumed during the High Middle Ages, Benedictine theologian Guibert of Nogent (died 1124) called on preachers to incorporate their own experiences into their interpretations of the Gospel:

Whoever has the duty of teaching, if he wishes to be perfectly equipped, can first learn in himself, and afterwards profitably teach to others, what the experience of his inner struggles has taught.

The Franciscan monastic order also underlined the primacy of conscience over hierarchy and blind obedience to authority. Francis of Assisi (died 1226) writes: “If any one of the ministers gives to his brothers an order contrary to our rule or to conscience, the brothers are not bound to obey him, for obedience cannot command sin.” Thomas Aquinas (1225–74) believed that humans could only realize themselves through the unhindered pursuit of knowledge: “By expanding his own knowledge, man was becoming more like God, and to be like God was man’s true desired end.”

The Renaissance witnessed a rise in self-consciousness and individuality which led to, among other things, an increase in self-portraits, autobiographies, and diaries, and the production of non-distorting, flat mirrors. The period also saw the development of a new genre: “how-to books,” such as Machiavelli’s Prince and Castiglione’s Courtier in which, as Peter Watson points out: “the emphasis, as often as not, is on technique and on choice, meaning that individuals could select from alternatives whichever suited their character, pocket, or whim.”

Marsilio Ficino (1433–99), Italian humanist priest and one of the luminaries of the Renaissance, gave voice to this growing confidence in man’s abilities: “Since man has observed the order of the heavens, when they move, whither they proceed and with what measures, and what they produce, who could deny that man possesses as it were almost the same genius as the Author of the heavens?” Giorgio Vasari (1511–74), Italian painter and architect, celebrated the striving for personal glory and fame as “a praiseworthy thing,” while French essayist Michel de Montaigne (1533–92) put a premium on the exploration and cultivation of one’s individual self:

The greatest thing on earth is to know how to belong to oneself. Everyone looks in front of them. But I look inside myself. I have no concerns but my own. I constantly reflect on myself; I control myself; I taste myself. We owe some things to society, but the greater part of ourselves.

Although the Catholic Church made its own advances in terms of individualism, the Protestant Reformation also contributed to this development. In his rejection of the sale of indulgences and of what he saw as immoral ecclesiastical practices, Martin Luther revived the twelfth-century emphasis on inner contrition or piety as the means of expiating one’s sins. By arguing that inner faith was sufficient for salvation, Luther downgraded the importance of the sacraments and dispensed with church hierarchy and with the need for intercession. The believer could now develop a direct and personal relationship with God, without the mediation of the clergyman. Moreover, Luther’s doctrine of sola scriptura (‘by scripture alone’) called for direct engagement with the holy text, thereby encouraging individual study of the Bible in lieu of authoritative or papal interpretations. Furthermore, Luther’s translation of the Bible into German, which was quickly followed by other vernacular translations (such as William Tyndale’s English translation) are said to have made the holy text accessible to all believers.

Rene Descartes (1596–1650) set out to build a new epistemological edifice by submitting his knowledge to rigorous scrutiny and discarding any information that failed to withstand the test of doubt. More importantly, Descartes established the existence of God and of the outside world based on the discovery of his own self. What Descartes saw as indubitable proof of his own existence (the very fact that he doubted his existence proved to him that he actually did exist) served as the bedrock or starting point of his epistemological project.

The Western emphasis on the individual gained further ground in the following centuries. German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) took a dim view of the unrestricted pursuit of self-interest. Nevertheless, he conceived of individuals as “ends in themselves,” rather than as means for the achievement of the ends of others, and stressed the equal worth of all human beings. Kant attached so much importance to the beliefs and opinions of each individual that he feared a democratic form of government could wield “an executive power in which ‘all’ decide for or even against one who does not agree.”

English-born political philosopher Thomas Paine (1737–1809) called for the abolition of slavery, affirmed that all human beings are born with equal rights, and supported the establishment of a democratic system in which citizens elect their leaders. He regarded the state as “a necessary evil”: necessary because of important functions like maintaining public order and security, but evil because of the risk of imposing collective will on the individual, thereby limiting his freedom.

Prussian polymath Baron von Humboldt (died 1859) viewed the development of one’s talents and abilities as the “true end of man.” Echoing Kant’s sentiments, he disapproved of excessive state interference in economic and social affairs, warning that it could generate “comfort, ease, tranquility,” rather than “variety and activity.”

In Resistance to Civil Government, Henry David Thoreau (1817–62) argues that the primacy of the individual is the hallmark of a truly free and enlightened state, and that the state derives its legitimacy and authority from the individual: “There will never be a really free and enlightened State, until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly.”

In On Liberty (1859), John Stuart Mill (1806–73) opines that “it is only the cultivation of individuality which produces, or can produce, well-developed human beings.” Mill acknowledges the importance that each individual should benefit from the experiences of others, but:

it is the privilege and proper condition of a human being, arrived at the maturity of his faculties, to use and interpret experience in his own way. It is for him to find out what part of recorded experience is properly applicable to his own circumstances and character.

Individualist theory scaled new heights in the nineteenth century with the birth of existentialism. In response to what he saw as the marginalization of the individual in Hegel and Marx, Søren Kierkegaard (1813–55) sought to restore the relevance of the individual: “Each age has its characteristic depravity. Ours is perhaps not pleasure or indulgence or sensuality, but rather a dissolute pantheistic contempt for individual man.” Kierkegaard, commonly deemed the first existentialist, described his goal thus: “to be clear in my mind what I am to do, not what I need to know … to find a truth which is true for me, to find the idea for which I can live and die.”

Kierkegaard criticized previous philosophical systems, from ancient Greece onwards, for what he perceived as their failure to understand the human condition, which he defined as the constant and absolute freedom to make moral choices and decisions. The realization that human beings have absolute freedom of choice induces, not happiness or relief, but anxiety and dread, or in Kierkegaard’s words, “the dizziness of freedom.”

Western societies ought to be proud of their intellectual heritage and the pre-eminence of the individual therein. The elevation of the self in the West has been taken to extremes at times, resulting in the formation of ideologies calling for the abandonment of social or collective commitments. However, the high regard in which the individual is held in Western civilization has played a significant role in facilitating the outburst of intellectual, scientific and artistic inventiveness that has taken place since the twelfth century. In fact, the individualist ethos is one of the prerequisites for the success and flourishing of any civilization: whether in the West or elsewhere.


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