March 13, 2008


Individualism (Wilfred M. McClay, 03/13/08, First Principles)

[A]lthough “individualism” is a relatively new term in Western intellectual and religious history, it has a long and distinguished pedigree, informed by rich antecedents and fertile anticipations. Belief in the dignity and worth of the individual person has always been a distinguishing mark, and a principal mainstay, of what we call Western civilization, the defense of which has become an increasingly central element in what now goes by the name of conservatism.

Elements of that belief can be detected as far back as classical antiquity, particularly in the Greek discovery of philosophy as a distinctive form of free rational inquiry, and in the Greco-Roman stress upon the need for virtuous individual citizens to sustain a healthy republican political order. Other elements appeared later, particularly in the intensely self-directed moral discipline of Epicureanism and Stoicism. Even more importantly, the traditions and institutions arising out of biblical monotheism, whether Jewish or Christian, placed heavy emphasis upon the infinite value, personal agency, and moral accountability of the individual person. That emphasis reached a pinnacle of sorts in Western Christianity, which incorporated the divergent legacies of Athens and Jerusalem into a single universalized faith.

None of these expressions of belief in the individual were quite the same as modern individualism, however, for the freedom the premodern individual enjoyed, particularly since the advent of Christianity, was always constrained. It was constrained by belief in the existence of an objective moral order not to be violated with impunity by antinomian rebels and enthusiasts. And it was constrained by belief in the inherent frailty of human nature, which indicated that virtue cannot be produced in social isolation. Although almost all influential Western thinkers before the dawn of modernity had conceded the importance of the individual, none used the term “individualism” to express that belief.

Instead, “individualism” first arose in the discourse of opposition to the French Revolution. The nineteenth-century French writer Joseph de Maistre used the word to describe what he found horrifying about the revolution: its overturning of established social hierarchies and dissolution of traditional social bonds in favor of an atomizing doctrine of individual natural rights that freed each individual to be his or her own moral arbiter. For Maistre, individualism was not an affirmation of dignity, but a nightmare of moral anarchy, a nightmare that he rendered in startlingly vivid terms.

What's especially important to recognize is that this individualism then gave rise to secular European statism, the atomized population being easier to control once dependent on the state.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 13, 2008 8:36 PM

What about Confucius' superior man?

Posted by: erp at March 13, 2008 9:58 PM