Individualism and the near global preoccupation with the self and the interests of the self is increasingly becoming the norm everywhere.
This norm is an abnormality. It is destroying the foundations of what makes life meaningful, and long lasting human relations and fulfilment possible. From time immemorial humanity has been characterized by the idea of community and commonality. This ancient norm is perhaps wired into our human genes, and correctly defines a key aspect of what truly makes us human. The rise of the solitary individual, and ‘the lonely crowd’, is a paradox that has been the focus of many studies. The English poet John Donne immortalized the powerful message that:
No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main …
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
Larry Siedentop’s book, Inventing the Individual – the Origins of Western Liberalism, demonstrates that Individualism has not always been an essential part of the Anglo-American/European ethos or of non-Western, non-European societies either. It is a new invention which arose at a certain point in the history of these societies. This development was however, progressive, eventually preferring an “association of individuals rather than an association of families” (p129).
Central to Siedentop’s argument is the pivotal role played by the medieval Church. He pays special attention to the rise of monasticism and the teachings of the Church fathers and intellectuals, such as Bonaventure, Thomas Aquinas, Dons Scotus, William of Occam and Augustine, among others. He discusses, for example, the role played by Augustine who in his Confessions (an extended prayer) focuses on “the inwardness of the individual … a sphere of dialogue, of conversation with God” (p104). By Augustine privileging prayer and grace, thus “Inventing the Individual – in the sense of acknowledging the equality of humans in the face of their maker…” (p105), Siedentop argues, he laid the foundation for “ … the demolition of ancient rationalism. The patriarchal family, the aristocratic society underlying the polis, the cosmos as a hierarchy of ends and purposes: all these became suspect and vulnerable without its support” (p104).
The European renaissance and reformation created the context for a further development and understanding of these ideas. Christian belief in the special place of prayer and grace, in the equality of souls and in moral equality before God are then seen to be the mother of Western Liberalism, together with its radical notions of human liberty, equality and fraternity.
The new secularism, and the future of these ideas cut off and without reference to their original Christian cradle and context, poses a present and real danger. The runaway contemporary naked individualism, the glaring inequalities and lack of respect one for the other, the diminishing freedoms everywhere – these are perhaps a sign of this danger. So, too, is the unconscionable greed, excessive love of money and power, at the expense of loving and empowering human relations. Siedentop very powerfully reminds us of this. To his fellow Westerners he concludes “If we in the West do not understand the moral depth of our own tradition, how can we hope to shape the conversation of mankind?” (p363).
Review of Larry Siedentop, Inventing the Individual – The Origins of Western Liberalism (Penguin, 2015).
Dr Aloo Mojola Visiting Professor in Translation Studies, Philosophy and Biblical Studies at St Paul’s University, Limuru, Kenya.