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The Strange Career of Individualism

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By:Donald Livingston | May 04, 2017

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What is individualism? John Stuart Mill answered this question with a theory of rights. Mill looked for a "simple" theoretical principle that could distinguish the liberty of the individual from that of the state. Not only is there no such principle, but we miss the full character of individualism if we try to grasp it in terms of a philosophical theory of individual rights. What we value as individuality is not a theory but an historic practice. Like all practices, it was a long time arriving, and its character has been quite different in different periods. The ethic of this practice flows from a desire to live a life determined as much as possible by one's own choices. Every civilization has produced remarkable individuals who were self-determining, but only the West developed an ethic demanding self-determination for all human beings. In its pure form, it became the modern doctrine of moral autonomy: One is bound only by the laws he imposes upon himself.

Although the ethic is not necessarily Christian, it is perhaps not an accident that it developed in Christian culture. One way to hold society together is through kinship, tradition, and extensive ritual. Jewish society followed this path. The gospel, however, provided Christians with a different one. Attention shifted away from blood, custom, and ritual to the working of God's grace in the individual soul, whatever its historical origin might be.

But the modern ethic of autonomy did not appear until the 17th century. Nothing resembling the philosophical theory of inalienable natural rights of individuals appears before the late Middle Ages; nor is a counterpart to be found in the ancient languages of Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. If there are natural rights of individuals, self-evidently known to all rational beings, it is strange that the language needed to formulate them did not surface until modern times. Natural rights are in fact merely abstractions and idealizations from a particular way of life that prizes choice-making. Those who first enjoyed individuality did not invoke the language of natural rights because no such language had yet been invented. They boldly asserted their interests, and these later came to be transformed into legal rights, as, for example, in Magna Carta. Rights are the public and legal recognition of interests.

As the ethic of individualism gradually spread from men of noble class to men of middle class and, in time, to men of lower class and to women, it seemed to many that the main part of happiness was choice-making itself, and that, consequently, an entirely new conception of human nature, rationality, morality, and politics was needed. The chief obstacle to making autonomy the whole of the moral life was the Aristotelian-Christian tradition, which taught that what is chosen is more important than that the choice is one's own. In this tradition, the first question of reason, morality, and politics is. What is the highest good for man and what institutions are needed to educate the passions to desire that good? By the 17th century, Thomas Hobbes had inverted this understanding of moral and political life. There is no highest good that men pursue. There are only egoistically driven individuals, each disposed to pursue his own power and glory without limit unless acted upon by an outside force. Government is to be that force and to establish conditions in which individuals can pursue their own ends, whatever those might be, with a minimum of collision.

Although a number of refinements would be made, the Hobbesian state became the model for the modern state. But there was a catch. In order to secure the individual's autonomy, government had to be endowed with indivisible, infallible, and irresistible sovereignty. Only if government had this power would it be able to crush those independent social authorities that pose a threat to the individual's autonomy. The individual would have to obey, without question, the law of the sovereign (whether a monarch or democracy), but both the individual and the sovereign knew that complete freedom would obtain in that domain in which the law was silent, and that the point of law is to increase the scope of this domain as much as possible.

The modern state theorized by Hobbes, if consistently pursued, subverts the public authority of tradition, and with it those practices of virtue that had placed restraints on the egoistic soul. New egoistic moralities emerged to provide justification for the ethic of individualism. Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, Mandeville, and many others taught that man is motivated by self-interest and that social order is merely an artifice made out of contracts between enlightened egoists. Butler, Hutcheson, and Hume (who called it "the selfish system") vigorously opposed this theory and tried to find some place for virtue in the emerging modern state. But they did not become central figures in the canon of modern moral philosophy; Kant and Mill did. Both sought to restrain the egoism of individualism while rejecting traditional authority. For Mill, morality is nothing more than what produces the greatest amount of pleasure for the greatest number. Each choice is treated as equal. For Kant, any choice is moral as long as the principle under which it falls can be universalized as a law binding all rational agents. Having abandoned a metaphysical conception of the human good as the ground of ethics, Kant and Mill have nothing substantial to say about the content of what is chosen. In their respective theories, morality is reduced to alternative and incompatible ways of showing respect for choice-making in general.

The attack on tradition found in the Hobbesian modern state and in the new moralities of autonomy was reinforced by the revival of philosophy in the 16th century. This mode of thought, invented by the Greeks, is the most radical form of autonomy. The philosopher makes claims about the whole of reality and certifies these by nothing other than his own thinking. Philosophy cannot defer to traditional authority without ceasing to be what it is. If a tradition is accepted, it is not by virtue of its own authority, whether human or divine, but because it conforms to the philosopher's own self-imposed criteria of what is acceptable. The radical autonomy of philosophy posed little threat to the traditions of ancient Greek and Roman society because the philosopher was constrained by the pagan civil magistrate, as Socrates and Aristotle well knew. Likewise, biblical tradition had kept the radical autonomy of philosophy in check during the long period of Christendom by declaring reason to be "faith seeking understanding."

But by the time of Descartes, the disposition to individualism had found a strong ally in the revival of pagan Greek philosophy. Descartes is known as "the father of modern philosophy" because he established, as a principle of rationality itself, that all tradition is to be presumed false unless it can be shown to be otherwise by a mode of thought not subject to the authority of tradition. Descartes was careful to insist that this conception of rationality should be applied only to metaphysics, physics, and mathematics; it had no place in morals, politics, or religion. But this was only a paper barrier. Within a century, the radical autonomy of philosophy would be grafted onto the ethics of individuality. In the past, the individual had criticized this or that part of tradition, but he had assumed the background of tradition against which to display his individuality. Now, as a philosopher, he could invoke the name of reason to emancipate himself, not just from this or that tradition, but from tradition as such.

Until Descartes, philosophical autonomy had been the province of elites. Now, for the first time in history, it would inform a mass consciousness. The wars of the 16th and 17th centuries were between theological sects. The great struggles of the 20th century would be between secular philosophical sects: liberalism, socialism, Marxism, fascism, conservatism, feminism, modernism, postmodernism, etc. By the middle of the 18th century, Hume could complain that political discourse could not be conducted without a legitimating philosophical theory that would more often than not distort and corrupt whatever it touched. By the end of the century, Thomas Paine, in Common Sense, would be peddling Hobbesianism for the masses. And of religion, he would say in The Age of Reason, "my own mind is my church"—a maxim that could be written today over the doors of schools of liberal Christian theology. Nearly a century after Paine, Emerson, having enrancipated himself from the remaining fragments of his Protestant inheritance, would market for the masses the doctrine that choice-making as such is the absolute: "On my saying, 'What have I to do with the sacredness of traditions, if I live wholly from within?' my friend suggested — 'But these impulses may be from below, not from above.' I replied, 'They do not seem to me to be such; but if I am the Devil's child, I will live then from the Devil.' No law can be sacred to me but that of my own nature." Nietzsche, understandably, had a great respect for Emerson.

By the late 19th century, the individual had come a long way. From the first spirited actions of late medieval Christian freemen, he had invented an entirely new form of political association—the modern state—to provide a protected space for the pursuit of individual autonomy. He had devised a number of entirely new moralities that legitimated choice-making as nearly the whole of the moral life. And he had even redefined reason itself in such a way as to eliminate from rational discourse the ideas of human nature, the human good, and tradition. Human nature, as understood by the individual, would be nothing but the choices men make. Or, as Sartre would put it, "man is condemned to freedom" —to a life of criterion-less choice. Fragments of tradition would survive, and, in moments of weakness, the individual would warm himself at their fire, but being now endowed with a philosophical consciousness, he could not, in good conscience, long remain.

As the 20th century opened, things looked good for the individual. All the major regimes in Europe were either liberal ones governing in the name of the individual or were well on their way to becoming such. This was true even of czarist Russia. Then World War I tore apart the social fabric of Europe. This was the most important war of the 20th century and the least understood; World War II and the Cold War were merely its fallout. Had the individual read the fine print in the Faustian contract he had made with the modern state, the new moralities of autonomy, and antinomic philosophic reason, he might have seen disaster coming.

As late as the 18th century, Europe was composed of hundreds of independent political units and social authorities. These were, over time, crushed into larger and larger consolidated modern states. The individual had approved of this because it seemed to open up for him a larger sphere for the enjoyment of autonomy—and only at the expense of tradition, provinciality, localism, and prejudice. He failed to notice that this process of destruction and consolidation concentrated unprecedented power in the state—power that could be put to uses quite other than that of being an umpire in the game of conflicting autonomies. The rich tapestry of independent social and political authorities had limited the power of the monarch. He could not order universal conscription, nor could he impose an income tax.

But modern states, ruling in the name of the individual, could do both. And with a glut of revenue and men, their wars would be awesome barbarisms. There would be more casualties in World War I (over eight million battle deaths and six million mutilated) than in the two preceding centuries of war in Europe. World War 11 would mingle civilians and combatants, leaving over 50 million dead. But war was not even the half of it. Nearly four times as many have been killed by their own governments' pursuit of ideological goals as have been killed in all of the wars fought around the globe in the 20th century. And most of this murder has been carried out in the name of the individual's autonomy.

This is a hard saying, but true. The ideologies of Marxism and liberalism have the same goal: maximizing the autonomy of the individual. And both have the same enemies: independent social authorities and religious tradition. The difference is that liberals are willing to accept a certain amount of class inequality for the sake of the market, whereas Marxists insist that autonomy is not available to all unless classes are eliminated. As liberals destroyed smaller polities and traditional authorities, Marxists raised the ante by also destroying classes. And Marx did the liberals one better by arguing that, if classes were eliminated, the state itself would wither away—though he acknowledged that a brief Hobbesian transition period ("the dictatorship of the proletariat") would be necessary. In the bidding over the individual's autonomy, many thought that Marxists offered the better deal. But let us look at what happened to Russia.

Under the czars of the late 19th century, Russia was a flourishing society. By 1907, it was the world's fourth-largest industrial power. In good years, it accounted for 40 percent of world wheat exports; the literacy rate of its military conscripts was 68 percent; and it had scored achievements in the arts and sciences equal to any European country. In the 80 years prior to the 1905 Revolution, the czars executed an average of 17 people a year. By contrast, according to R.J. Rummel, the total number killed by the Soviet regime is around 62 million. The czar's security forces in 1895 amounted to only 161 agents supported by less than 10,000 police. By contrast, in 1921 the Soviet Cheka employed 240,400 agents supported by the Red Army, NKVD, and militiamen. After Lenin, Russia would become an importer of grain, and its once flourishing culture would be dominated by "political correctness."

Can there be any doubt that the individual was better off under the czar, whose power was hedged in by the Church, nobility, provincial authorities, and other traditions? But this is not how the individual has been taught to see things. He has been told, and has come to believe, that the communist revolution was an inevitable reaction to the impossibly oppressive and reactionary regime of the czars. He thinks that the oppression of the Soviet regime—which he does not like to talk about for very long—was the continuation of a Russian authoritarian tradition. He cannot see that the Soviet state was an Enlightenment European regime ruling in the name of the individual's autonomy. He does not understand that the first totalitarian regime was that of the French Revolution, legitimated by the ideology of the rights of man; and that the Soviet terror was the French Terror writ large.

In addition to the threat of mass destruction, the individual would suffer from anomie. To be rooted is one of the deepest needs of the human heart. But the modern state, in its pursuit of autonomy, progressively destroyed those traditions and local sovereignties that make place possible. The individual increasingly found himself to be a unit in a sterile, abstract, uniform mass culture. He had rid himself of traditional authorities, only to be controlled and shaped by bureaucratic managers. If the individual should ever wake up (as the prodigal son did), he would see that an ethic of autonomy cannot stand on its own. Choice-making is not enough. Choices must first be meaningful, and that presupposes a cultural background against which significant choices can be made. But culture is not possible without traditional authorities. Michelangelo, Shakespeare, and Mozart are exemplars of individuality, but they were also firmly rooted in traditional societies. They were substantial individuals who gave substantial form to matter. How are they to be compared to the adolescent individualism of Emerson's "transcendentalism," Nietzsche's "transvaluation of all values," or Sartre's existentialism? The followers of these philosophers all rail against mass culture and conformity, but none of them has anything to offer but negative transcendence. They are not critics of the modern bureaucratic state but creatures of it, and they can be at home only there. Nietzcheans (as the example of Kojeve shows) make good bureaucrats. 

From the October 1999 issue of Chronicles.

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