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.