Individualism and Its Contemporary Fate

Article excerpt

My concern in this article is to explore what I take to be the essence of freedom and to locate it in the context of our civilization. Described thus, the idea is insanely ambitious, and all I can do is sketch a position. I shall identify freedom with individualism, discuss first its emergence and then its established character in the eighteenth century, and finally say something about its paradoxical place in the world today.

Individuality is a universal characteristic of objects, but individualism is the practice that accords to some personal acts, beliefs, and utterances a legitimacy that may conflict with the dictates of custom or authority. Today, this practice is usually formulated as "self-interest," which makes it clear that individualism may liberate some individual wants from customary controls. As self-interest, individualism is often wrongly identified with the moral vice of selfishness and gets a bad press. Sometimes it is foolishly attacked as "consumerism" and described as "hyperindividualism" or the mania for accumulating material goods. These hostile characterizations are part of contemporary rhetoric to which we shall return. Let me begin, however, by sketching the emergence of freedom in its individualist form.

Ambivalence and the Coming of Modernity

We inherit various aspects of our freedom from the Greeks, the Romans, and the barons of the feudal period, but in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries something new was beginning to appear. Urbanization and printing were its essential preconditions, and it took many forms, but in all cases the enterprise of individuals was at the heart of it. If the coming of freedom may be grasped in terms of any single formula, we might invoke that of Martin Luther writing on Christian freedom. Jesus came, Luther affirmed, to free us from the law into a higher dutifulness. These words make it clear why, whatever religious beliefs we may entertain, Christianity is and remains at the heart of our civilization. They also reveal why Luther's doctrines led to endless conflict. The question is: What might these terms--law and higher dutifulness--signify? For Luther, the law was clearly Judaic, and the higher dutifulness was Christian piety subject to divine grace. Luther was taking his followers back to what he understood to have been the pure origins of their faith. However, the "law" from which we might seek to be freed might in individualist terms be any restraint that a critical spirit encounters. Consider, for example, Montaigne's use of this structure of thought when he remarked: "Wherever I wish to turn, I have to break through some barrier of custom, so carefully has custom blocked all our approaches" (1958, 119). Such a formula might equally, however, become a dangerous incitement to any lunatic who wanted to shrug off all restraint or spread some rabble-rousing gospel of his own. What then makes this the insight that lies at the heart of individualism?

Human life is everywhere subject to customs, rules, and restraints, but in most cultures these things change more or less insensibly. In European cultures, by contrast, we have a world in which rising generations develop new enterprises and often challenge the assumptions by which their parents lived. Some old "laws" are rejected, and in general some new "dutifulness" emerges. Enterprise is the key, and competition is the result, and this pattern appears not only in economic endeavors, but in ideas, moral sentiments, science, religious convictions, and everywhere else.

Human beings everywhere experience ambivalence about some area of life, and such feelings pose a serious danger to the settled order of things. Our evaluation of most things in our lives varies not only from person to person, but sometimes even from moment to moment. In Europe, however, we find the one civilization that found a way of combining ambivalence with social order. Ambivalence thus liberates the critical spirit, and it lies at the heart of many of the disagreements and conflicts among which we live. …