SURELY, the greatest creation of human civilisation is the human individual. To own one’s own life, freed from the unyielding obligations of family, tribe and nation, is a relatively new human experience. For most of human history, human experience has been overwhelmingly collective. For millennia, tradition has dictated practically every aspect of our lives. Our ways were expected to be the ways of our ancestors – and, if they weren’t, then the people who mattered would want to know why.
The people who mattered: emperors, kings, warlords, popes; they were the only people who could aspire to the luxury of individualism. Their power and their wealth provided them with the mental and physical space to conceive of themselves as unique beings in time. Beings whose features, words and deeds could live on long after they were dead.
The words of the mythical Irish hero, Cuchulainn, sum up the proposition neatly: “I care not if I live but a night and a day, so long as my deeds live after me.”
What was it, then, that allowed ordinary people to find the space and time to conceive of themselves as something more than someone’s son or daughter, a member of a tribe, the subject of a king? The answer is, of course, the city. From the earliest times, cities have served as the crucibles of individualism. They are also the birthplaces of the essential quality that makes selfhood possible: liberty.
Not by accident did the Middle Ages produce the saying: “City air makes you free.” If a serf was able to evade his obligations to his feudal lord by living within the boundaries of a town or city for a year and a day, then he was declared a free man. That freedom to make of oneself what one pleases is crucial. It is difficult to be an individual in chains.
Cities are also – and not surprisingly – the birthplaces of democracy. The sheer diversity that existed within a city’s walls: the vast number of tradespeople and specialists who lived there; and the markets which these successful individuals created, regulated and supplied; all were allergic to tyranny. It is difficult to make money with someone looking over your shoulder.
Indeed, economic historian, Jeremy Black, pondering why it was Great Britain rather than the larger and more prosperous France that kicked off the Industrial Revolution, contrasts the less centralised and more liberal government of the British Isles with the highly centralised and bureaucratic regime of the absolute Bourbon monarchs. To get a good idea financed and a working prototype designed and built in Great Britain was a matter of months, in France it could take years.
Capitalism, itself, represents the apotheosis of individualism. One has only to contemplate the extraordinarily eloquent photograph of the Victorian engineer, entrepreneur, and all-round industrial titan, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, to grasp the why and how of Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerburg.
|The individual as world-shaper: Isambard Kingdom Brunel.|
But, the freedom to make a good idea pay must be buttressed by a great many other freedoms. The individual must be free to think, to speak, to write, and to publish her thoughts. She must be free to come together with like-minded individuals in pursuit of a common purpose. Most crucially, she must be free to participate in the making of the laws by which her life is both protected and constrained, and be confident that those laws will be applied, and enforced, without fear or favour – to everyone.
Cities, liberty, capitalism, liberal democracy, the Rule of Law: all of these have played a part in the emergence of the individual. Indeed, the history of the last three centuries has been the history of individualism’s relentless demographic expansion: from the rulers’ dreams of immortality; to the craftspeople and merchants who turned muck into brass; to the industrial workers who demanded, with unrelenting energy, a fair share of the wealth their own blood, toil, tears and sweat was creating.
The great irony of individualism is that the nearer humanity comes to the point where every person can make their own life, the more doubtful many intellectuals become of its merit. But, before embracing the moral oblivion of collective identity; and the strictures of tribal tradition, they should ask themselves this question:
How long could I be happy in a house without windows, doors … or mirrors?
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 6 January 2023.
Individual freedom is a bit of a con really in a class society. The bottom 50% of New Zealanders own just 2% of the wealth. In this land of plenty “we” still manage to allow hunger and homelessness and increasing elder poverty–not all boomers are multiple or even one property owners.
Obviously most of us are better off than the poor sods in historical slave, feudal, or colonial societies. Individual freedom can only ever go so far because as a species we are all in it together on a finite Earth. The staunchest ACT member still wants a highway provided for them to drive their Porsche Cayenne on, and prisons to lock up the scary bad guys that want their stuff. Mine, mine mine!
What we all do have though is intellectual freedom, to deal with the existential dilemma that is human mortality. I pretty much refrain from asking anyone these days–“howzit going?” Does someone that says “all good”, “yeah nah sweet as bro”, “can’t complain” have a functioning brain, and even a glimmer of understanding that none of us get out of here alive? Give me sarcasm, & cynicism rather than temporisers.
Post Modernist philosophy, monetarist economics and almost everything in life becoming transactions have certainly elevated individualism and demoted collectivism.
"The great irony of individualism is that the nearer humanity comes to the point where every person can make their own life, the more doubtful many intellectuals become of its merit."
The great irony of individualism in my mind is the fact that it is often used to circumscribe the lives of the less fortunate. It is also used as an excuse to put society itself in danger as with anti-vaxers. And of course it's the individualism that allows every nong in the US to walk round armed to the teeth.
Personally I don't want my individualism to be at the mercy of Geoff Bazos or Elon musk. I don't want to be an individual when it comes to the workplace – I want the collectivism of a union. Over reliance on individualism leads to libertarian disasters, as have happened in a couple of places in the US.
Incidentally, a not necessarily strange to hear someone like you Chris extolling the virtues of individualism – but slagging off collectivism? How else do we fight against the predatory capitalists?
Thanks Chris, a great essay, much to ponder.
"Cities, liberty, capitalism, liberal democracy, the Rule of Law: all of these have played a part in the emergence of the individual."
The tight, verging on tyrannical, social control in the sprawling cities in places like China rather suggest something special about the rise, in the West, of "the principles of modern liberal societies — “liberal” in the classical sense of devotion to human liberty, with a private sphere protected by natural rights, the equal moral dignity of individuals, freedom of conscience, and a limited state? When and how did Western societies come by such foundational ideas of human freedom?"
"liberalism, secularism, human equality and natural rights, the social contract, and the shielding of the private from the public and of society from the state should not be treated as innovations of modernity in either of these ways. Instead we should understand these essential features of the modern West as products of Christianity itself."
Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism by Larry Siedentop
Excellent essay (and Happy New Year). Christianity also played a massive role in the evolution of the individual in the West with its emphasis on the one on one relationship between each person and God. So did Ancient Greek philosophers, especially Socrates with his probing dialectic and appeal to the daimonium or conscience of every person. "Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness " are the charter of individualism, but these values today are under serious threat from both the leftist intellectual and the oligarchs at Davos.
The main goal of neoliberalism is the Individual who chooses.This is the context for homo economicus or the rational self interested utility maximiser and the concept of the individual who chooses is located amongst the theory of autonomy,property rights,governing strategies of laissez faire and arguments like Mills harm principle for a reduced role for the state and support for policies of low taxation.So while autonomy is supposed to be the basis of freedom,it is also the basis for the competitive market based order.Autonomy or individuals who choose in its truest sense requires much more than basic needs which need fulfilment.Food,shelter clothing and something else that only exists outside the realms of the individual love and affection for self esteem.Clearly that would see support for personal autonomy as the goal for a liberal education as including support for social welfare and the state.
Sincethe middle ages , at least since Democracy was establishe in the UK, governments have been passing laws that control people;s freedom. Steadily week by week month by month and year by year. seldom are any of them ever revoked. I suspect there was ever so much more freedom for the individual in medievil times than there is now. You can't do a bloody thing without a consent.
D J S
Welcome back Chris to "23".
Gosh ... "23"!. The sixties to me are still just "yesterday".
I look forward to many more challenging thoughtful columns from you. The last one is no exception.
Albeit a two handed argument. For on the one hand you appear to extol individualism, on the other, curiously crediting human progress as having arisen from collectivism (Cities).
So which is it? I think I agree that it not a question of "either" ... or "or". It is both.
Our solo? Kiwi hero's, for instance Rutherford, Hillary and Blake, fine individuals all, were nurtured, educated trained challenged and inspired by the parents, families, schools, communities and yes Cities (villages?) ... characteristically in essence and indubitably ... quintessentially ... "of New Zealand".
I dont think capitilism stops one from being an individual with free will. Bad politicians and restrictive mandates are very unhelpful though.
I do know what you are getting at here, Chris, and I also know that you are putting class-based socialism into the individualism category here - a point that many miss, because class is not an Identity, but rather a shared situation determined by economics. Class can be changed, or (in the ideal of socialism) eliminated, whereas Identity cannot, and the objective of socialism is to allow the individual to escape Class. I'm reminded of a certain Oscar Wilde essay, where he says he supports socialism because he supports freedom.
>>>Christianity also played a massive role in the evolution of the individual in the West with its emphasis on the one on one relationship between each person and God.<<<
That's sixteenth century Calvinism. Prior to that, Christianity was deeply and unswervingly reflective of Social Identity and Social Groups, and what you describe as one to one was highly mediated, both spiritually and temporally.
Karl Marx himself was an individualist. There is nothing at all inconsistent in being an individualist AND a 'communalist', both. There is nothing inconsistent about strongly being both. Sigmund Freud and Karl Jung (among others) would have had something to say to that (as did of course, Karl Marx). It gets unhealthy when the the one is indulged at the expense of the other.
Ion A. Dowman
"Tiger Mountain" seemed to imply that poverty should not exist in an individualistic society. I think this proves the case that it is up to the individual to grasp the opportunities that NZ offers. It is your choice if you try hard in school or even attend, it is your choice what career you would like to follow and it the results of your hard labour and personal choices that govern how your life turns out.
Weve just had a PM whose only work experience was in a fish and chip shop but clearly spent her whole life taking steps up the political ladder to the highest job in the country. She was found wanting but achieved her goal. Many immigrants arrive with nothing and work hard for their family often with their own business, impressing on their children how important school and hard work is.
If you fail in this country it is not because the opportunities were not there, it was your individual choices.
Returning once again to poetry - 1 September 1939 by W H Auden.
...The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone....
All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.
Excerpt split into paragraphs wrong description? but I'm not properly schooled. But these words plucked out from thousands absorb in the parched mind like water. Prescription - read this poem frequently. I think Auden means when he says there is no State, that all our society is a matter of our own naming, our own construct. We decide to make or do something, name it and make it a reality to us, until we change it for something else; like our NZ welfare state, that has been 'disappeared', swapped for a bag of beans by a bunch of Jack and Jills.
Also see - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Existentialism
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