Part II: The Bumpy Road toward Individualism

by | Nov 5, 2008

Individualism began as a doctrine implicit in the Ancient Greek view of man, best captured in their art and in Aristotelian philosophy. That view consisted essentially of reality being knowable and the base of all knowledge, and of man as a heroic being. Such a view reflected an individual’s pride in his own capabilities, his […]

Individualism began as a doctrine implicit in the Ancient Greek view of man, best captured in their art and in Aristotelian philosophy. That view consisted essentially of reality being knowable and the base of all knowledge, and of man as a heroic being. Such a view reflected an individual’s pride in his own capabilities, his self-reliance, and acceptance of responsibility for his own life and soul, i.e., his consciousness.

However, a doctrine left implicit is on wobbly footing. Consequently, when in 313 the Byzantine Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan making Christianity the official state religion, the implicit idea of individualism was buried under reams of Christian dogma.

Central to Christianity is the notion of altruism, meaning: self-sacrifice. Altruism is explicitly anti the self. Although why others’ selves are to be held superior to one’s own, was never made clear, altruism was widely accepted through the assiduous efforts of a number of Christian fanatics, principally Augustine, Bishop of Hippo (354-430).

The wide acceptance of Christianity—forced upon men by the state’s power of the gun—led to the Medieval Ages. And for a thousand years altruism, and its political expression collectivism, kept the population burdened with illiteracy and consequent disease and poverty. Church and state both admonished the individual to live for the group, to sacrifice himself to others. With altruism calling the moral shots, collectivism kept individualism tethered to oblivion.

The word ‘group’ refers to a number of individual things—-either human or not. For example: a group of candy bars, or a group of trees. A group does not exist as a concrete object. It is an abstraction, a shorthand way of referring to a number of things together. It does not and cannot exist apart from the objects comprising it.

Only individual objects exist, including human beings. Why Christianity considered the group somehow superior to the individuals comprising it was not questioned. Why an individual should sacrifice himself to a group of other individuals, with each individual commanded to sacrifice himself to the other, and so forth around in a vicious circle, was never answered.

In such a quagmire, men had little chance to raise themselves out of a morality that claimed they should suffer and die for others and a society that said they should work for others. Individualism was nowhere in practice. Collectivism and its moral base, altruism, dominated men’s lives.

Slowly over the centuries a little of Aristotle’s thought seeped into Western Europe. Peter Abelard (1079-1142) taught some of his ideas at the University of Paris. Then between 1267 and 1273 the publication of Thomas Aquinas’ more important works, raised a tiny node of implicit individualism. Aquinas argued that the domain of faith was separate from the domain of reason. This was an implicit indication that the individual counted for something.

Although it was not nearly enough to teach men the importance of individualism, it opened a door to it: the recognition that a certain kind of methodology is essential to man’s successful life on earth—the methodology of thought, of reason, of conviction. Through that door, a number of artists and writers in their work implied the importance of the individual.

For instance, Dante’s (1265-1321) Divine Comedy while a paean to Christian values, was focused on the travels of an individual man and his love for an individual woman. Dante’s splendid oath of dedication to the highest best is usually regarded as his devotion to God. But one can legitimately understand his words, “for thee and nothing else I care,” as a solemn commitment to one’s own highest best. One can only speculate to what extent such a commitment entered men’s minds as they read Dante.

In any case, the separation of the realm of reason from that of faith was an important beginning. Although that beginning was an inexact and incomplete view of the individual self, it led out of the Medieval Ages into a period of comparative euphoria, the Italian Renaissance.

Influenced by Aristotle, Aquinas’ work made possible the Italian Renaissance by way of shaping in part men’s understanding of their means of gaining knowledge. That understanding necessarily rides alongside of how men regard reality and their own nature.

If, for example, a person learns that he gains knowledge by looking out at reality and using his mind to identify what he sees, he will also form simultaneously the view that reality is knowable. And he’ll feel pretty good about his own abilities to know and learn things.

On the other hand, if he believes that he must look to some higher authority to be told what’s in a non-existent dimension, which he cannot of course see or know, he will form simultaneously the view that reality is unknowable and/or unimportant and that others know best. And he’ll not feel very self-confident about his own abilities to know anything.

Morally, Renaissance man was still mired in medieval Christianity with its pernicious affect on the human spirit. The Christian view that the good was to sacrifice one’s life to others, that the self was loathsome, that one’s own individual life had no value and must be subordinated to others, that obedience to authority was one’s duty—all this was oppressive. It made men sad.

Existentially, on the level of practical pursuits, the recognition of the value of reason had a mighty liberating affect. To some extent men came to understand that since only the individual has the capacity of reason, their own individual life was a value. The Aristotelian view that man was basically good and benevolent, that nature was open to his efforts, that friendship and love and justice among men were worth striving for is a view that encompasses values that can only be attributable to an individual, not to a group. These ideas made men happy.

As might be expected, and can easily be seen in its art, the Italian Renaissance was characterized by men’s longing for the heroic grandeur that was Greece on the one hand, and on the other by men’s befuddled entrapment in Christian values.

The tug-of-war between man’s right to live for himself, and the state and church’s dictates that he live for others began in earnest. The battle between incomplete individualism and collectivism as a moral ideal was mounted.

—————– To Be Continued ——————–

Sylvia Bokor is an artist and writer. You can read more of her writings on her blog.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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