April 5, 2010


“Liberty Leading the People” by Eugène Delacroix

A Brief Exploration of History of Western Individualism

With the dusk of the Middle Ages and the dawn of the modern era, individualism gradually began as a way of adapting to the new social, economic, and political conditions in Europe. And, henceforth, it evolved into social, economic, political, and philosophical doctrines expressive of one’s independence, self-reliance, self-determination, and, hence, individuality. In general, individualism gives primacy to the individual over what opposes her/his individuality, be it a social institution or the state. This new way of adapting to life under the new circumstances found diverse expressions, not always in agreement with each other, in the philosophies of the French philosophes, Immanuel Kant, W.G.F. Hegel, John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx, Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean Paul Sartre, and et cetera.

The word “individuality” (derived from Latin word indīviduus, meaning “indivisible” or “inseparable”) is commonly stipulated as the state or quality of being an individual who exists as a distinct entity and possesses sum total of qualities and characteristics that form the individual’s identity and distinguish the individual from others. However, the concept of individuality and the doctrines in which it has been embodied are not easy to unravel. They have been viewed differently in various historical periods, and they can be examined from different perspectives, such as that of psychology, sociology, political science, and ethics.

Here, we are faced with an important distinction between the two concepts “individualism” and “individuality”. From a technical viewpoint, the former is often depicted as social and ethical phenomena of human relations and conduct, while the latter is often depicted as a psychological phenomenon of mental growth. In this sense, not without exceptions, individualism is a proper subject matter within the disciplines of sociology and ethics while individuality is an appropriate subject matter within the discipline of psychology. Nonetheless, each discipline has its own distinct concepts of individualism and individuality. Moreover, each discipline can examine these concepts in interdisciplinary fashions. For example, a sociologist can examine the sociological concept of individualism under the light of psychology; conversely, a psychologist can examine the psychological concept of individuality under the light of sociology. In addition, a sociologist can examine individuality within a sociological context, and a psychologist can examine individualism within a psychological context.

The nature of relation between the individual and society or state has been a recurring theme in history of individualism. Should the individual have primacy over the state? Or, should the interests of the state have priority over the interests of the individual? Or, should there be a symbiotic relation between the two? This article is an attempt to briefly explore the complex phenomenon of individualism mainly within a historical context, starting with the Greece of antiquity.

§1. Age of Antiquity of Greece

In his The Origins of European Individualism, historian Aron Gurevich (1924-2006) asserted, “[T]here seems to have been no awareness of individuality in ancient times [which includes the classical Greece].” Although some scholars dismiss this assertion, they acknowledge that the Greeks, unlike the contemporary Western societies, probably did not have high-ranking value for individuality. Within the socio-political context of their society, it is said that the Greeks of antiquity did not seem to have a word for “individuality”; they reportedly did not appear to understand it. Our contemporary Western lifestyles, in many ways alienated from the life of our societies and their institutions, would have been appalling to the classical Greeks. To them, our contemporary individualism would have been an unconscionable act of social division—estranging ourselves from each other and the society. The Greek polis (i.e., the Greek city-state), especially during the Golden Age of Pericles (448-404 BC), was not just a guarantee of citizenship; the Greek polis made it possible for a man to become a human. Fifth century BC Athenians were interested not in the rights of man as an individual, but in the rights of Athenians as a whole. In his famous funeral oration, Pericles, the statesman-ruler of the democratic Athens, declared to the citizens:

“We do not say that a man who takes no interest in the politics [i.e., the affairs of the polis] is a man who minds his own business; we say he has no business here at all.”

The Greek city-state functioned as a civilizing force by collectively creating social conditions necessary to development of good life for its citizens. The Athenians would have found our cult of egocentric individualism incomprehensible. To the Greek thought, even our cherished ideal of privacy would have been a scandalous failure of human maturity.

To the Greeks, the Delphic Oracle’s maxim “know thyself” did not mean to individuate or dissociate themselves from the society. For them, one’s livelihood, well-being, and personal developments were essentially dependent on the communal life. This is manifest in life of Socrates when he, out of respect for the laws of Athens which had condemned him to death, chose not to escape from his own execution when he had the chance. He argued that individuals who disobey the laws of their own society tear away at the foundation of communal life.

The Greek sense of community is also exhibited in their intellectual activities. For the Athenians, the pursuit of philosophical truths was no private, individual affair; truth was not something that could be attained individually and monologically, but something that could be achieved collectively and dialogically. As demonstrated in Plato’s dialogues, the directive “know thyself” was not carried out in private, away from the public forum. For Socrates, in accordance with Plato’s dialogues, truth is achieved by way of dialogue and dialectical interaction with others. This Greek disposition, in the realm of politics, is deemed to be a contributing factor to the unprecedented birth of Athenian “democracy”, which is a Greek word (δημοκρατία, dēmokratiā) meaning “rule of people”—not individual.

While the Greeks did not seem to comprehend or highly value individuality, they did emphasize the cultivation of human character (ēthos*) and virtues (aretai*). In general, the Greeks ideally valued the life of “excellence”, which entailed the development of human potentials such as “beauty” (as evident in their works of art), “courage” (as indicated in their myths and tragedies), “justice” (as obvious in their invention of democracy and how the polis existed for the good of all), “intellect” (as shown in their pursuits of theoretical disciplines such as geometry and philosophy), “wisdom” (as evident in the characters of their thinkers), and et cetera. The Greek city-state placed great value on and made possible the cultivation of human character and virtues, which were not deemed as individualistic pursuits. In general, their view of ethics (derived from the Greek word ἦθος, ēthos) was mainly character-based, emphasizing the pursuit of “excellence”, whereby one actualizes one’s potentials within the social context.

§2. Medieval Age

During the Medieval Age in Europe (roughly from 476 to 1517), Christian beliefs and values dominated the scene. While some of the legacies of the Greek and Roman civilizations were retained by the Roman Catholic Church, many of their intellectual and cultural achievements were pronounced unworthy. The Church charged them with being pagan and immoral. For centuries, Christianity shaped the entire cultural, social, and political life of Europe. Social institutions, economic relations, arts, literature, philosophy, and science were put under the strict control of the Church. The free, rational, Greek-style speculation was brought to an end by the Church and was not to be restored until the advent of the modem era, beginning around 1650. The Medieval Christianity put an end to free thinking, and replaced it with dogmas and authoritarianism, enforcing strict obedience to the authority of the Church. As a general rule, anyone who dared to challenge the dogmas or authority of the Church was tortured and/or put to death. Consequently, individualism found no significant expressions in the Dark Ages of Europe. However, there gradually developed a growing sense of doubt and mistrust toward the Church, its authority, its worldview, and its political control. Hence, the conditions were ripe to gradually give birth to the age of individualism. History seems to demonstrate that when religious, social, and political institutions are untrustworthy and lose their legitimacy—and no longer function for the sake of the common good—people individuate and break away from them to shape their own fragmented lives. (Of course, another contributing factor seems to be an unprecedented development of complexity of social life, which can have alienating effects.) In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle deemed this mode of social existence as sub-human.

§3. Renaissance

The 15th century Renaissance (which is a French word for “rebirth”) in Europe brought about a revival of Greco-Roman art, literature, philosophy, and humanism. The Greek man-centered view of the world (cf. Protagoras’ statement, “Man is the measure of all thing.”) inspired them and brought about an intellectual and social revolution, which reaffirmed the dignity, worth, and powers of human beings. Renaissance is deemed as the rediscovery of the human—that man is a capable being, with the power to direct one’s own destiny. This emergent view, of course, undermined the influence of the Church and weakened the structure of the Medieval feudalism. The new ethical posture of the Europeans, coupled with the invention of the printing press, Columbus’ discovery of the New World, and the discovery of new trade routes via water and land, gradually promoted advent of a new social order.

§4. Protestant Reformation and Cartesian Thinking

With the authority of the Church having been undermined and the faltering of the Medieval institutions, the phenomenon of individualism gradually began to unfold in Europe. A substantial blow to the authority of the Church was the rise of Lutheranism and Calvinism (collectively known as the Protestant Reformation, from 1517 to 1648). These movements ideally put the emphasis on the individual to read and interpret the Bible for oneself without the interference of the Church. One may narrowly construe the two movements as a sort of individualism within the sphere of Christianity itself. In due course, Christianity gradually became less of a communal affair than a personal matter. This progressive shift from the communal life to the individuated lives is still present in our time more pervasively and cynically than ever.

The sense of incertitude and mistrust was also projected in philosophy, which was not impervious to the unfolding phenomenon of individualism. In fact, the sense of incertitude and mistrust seems to have instigated an unprecedented shift in the way of thinking as exemplified by French mathematician, philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650), the father of modern philosophy. Modern philosophy is recognizably different in many ways from the Greek philosophy. While the Greeks of antiquity philosophized dialogically and outdoors in the public, Descartes (and many subsequent thinkers) philosophized monologically and in seclusion away from the public view. Modern philosophy begins with Descartes, with the self thinking in solitude, becoming conscious of the false and doubtful ideas one has accepted so far in life, and deciding that the time has come to overthrow all of one’s beliefs. In the first paragraph of his “First Meditation”, Descartes wrote:

“Everything must be thoroughly overthrown for once in my life, if I ever want to establish anything solid and permanent in the sciences. . . . Today I have freed my mind from all cares. I am quite alone. At last I shall have time to devote myself seriously and freely to the destruction of all my former opinions.” (Meditations)

His problem was: Can I, by my own reason, establish solid and permanent truths? Unfortunately, for Descartes, the historical conditions of his time, when the Church was authoritative and intolerant, had no mercy on free thinking; therefore, he had to take refuge in the safety of seclusion.

§5. The Age of Enlightenment

Following the footsteps of Renaissance, the Age of Enlightenment (roughly from 1650 to 1770), celebrated human reason and reawakened a sense of self-confidence and self-discipline. Having observed how human reason had managed to discover the natural laws of nature under the hands of Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), and Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727), the Enlightenment figures applied reason to human nature and society to infer natural rights of liberty, equality, and property for all mankind. French philosophes, such as Voltaire (1694-1778), charged the Church and the political establishment with having conspired together to fetter human reason and to keep the masses ignorant and impoverished. Jean Jacque Rousseau (1712-1778), another Enlightenment philosopher, stated, “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” (The Social Contract) Eventually, such Enlightenment ideas contributed to the French Revolution (1789-1799), which put an end to the dominance of the Church and monarchy in France. Thereafter, the Enlightenment gospel of independence and freedom spread throughout Europe, paving the way for the modern individualism, which was concurrent with the rise of secularization and bureaucratization of the social and political structures of European societies, adding to the complexity of the modern life.

The Enlightenment—invigorated with the truths of science and of human nature, and with its daring spirit to challenge the authorities and the longstanding traditions—brought about a paradigm shift in human thinking and relations. This paradigm shift, which is part of our psyche today, can be characterized with what they referred to as the “natural law of progress”: human reason can discover scientific truths about the world and human nature, and in turn this body of knowledge can be put into practice to improve human societies and living conditions through history. About a century later, Karl Marx reflected the same idea of progress in his dialectic of history.

§6. The Modern Age

With the diminution of the power and influence of the Church hand in hand with the cessation of the Medieval age and its feudal socio-economic structures, the modern age gradually took form as a result of many factors, among which are: the new Cartesian mode of thought, the scientific understanding of the world, the Enlightenment values and their applications, propagation of money, and the formation of the nation-states accompanied by secularization and bureaucratization of their social and political institutions, and the advent of capitalism and industrialism. With the rise of “modernity”, a new ethical view of human conduct—which put the accent on the individual—emerged in the Western societies.

The Greek ethical view of human conduct, often referred to as “virtue ethics”, valued cultivation of character and virtues, such as strength, courage, prudence, justice, and moderation, in a society that principally functioned for the common benefit of the citizenry. In contrast, the Medieval ethical view was principally “authority ethics”, that is, the right conduct was prescribed by whoever had the authority within the hierarchy of power, such as the Church, prince, feudal lord, or community. In contrast to the Greek and Medieval ethical postures, the modern ethics is generally based not on “character” or “authority”—but fundamentally based on “autonomy” of the individual in choosing her/his own conduct. German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and English philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) put forth noteworthy, ethical theories based on autonomy of the individual.

Today, our Kantian and Millian legacy is that the individual’s autonomy is central in making ethical decisions. In principle, the modern ethical view is a narrow inquiry, on the part of the autonomous individual, into whether action a, b, or c will be the good one to choose. And, in choosing, the individual applies a formula to judge the action. Kant’s celebrated ethical formula is, “Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law of nature.” (Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals) In other words, do not lie or cheat if you do not like to be lied to or cheated. And, Mill’s ethical formula is, “One should always act so as to bring the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people.” (Utilitarianism) Since the French Revolution until present, the authority that has been most recognizable has been fundamentally that of the autonomous individual.

In the modern era where individuals are estranged from one another in a society where social bonds are fragmented and not as fundamental anymore, ethics has become formulaicinstrumental, and considerably quantitative. For the most part, the new ethical view of man does not seem to put high value on the cultivation of character or virtues. As mentioned earlier, the existing modern ethical view is principally a narrow inquiry into whether action a, b, or c will be the good one to choose, a choice that is often predicated on safety, pleasure, expediency, profitability, efficiency of time, and/or minimization of hardship.

In passing, it is worth mentioning that German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) had a negative view of political individualism and found it detrimental to the state. Inspired by the classical Greek city-state, in his Philosophy of Right, he gave primacy and power to the state over the individual. In the book, he insisted that individuals exist for the sake of the state, not the other way around. In fact, according to Hegel, nation-states are the true individuals of world history. As he put it in his Lectures on the Philosophy of History, “[T]he Individuals of World-History are nations.” Furthermore, for Hegel, individualism does not make possible one’s selfhood. In his Phenomenology of Spirit, he wrote, “Self-consciousness exists in and for itself when, and by the fact that, it so exists for another; that is, it exists only in being acknowledged.” In other words, one would not know that he is a self until he is looked at by another self, acknowledged by another self. Other selves act as mirrors through which one can become conscious of one’s own self.

By the time German philosopher Karl Marx (1818-1883), an heir to the promise of the Enlightenment, appeared on the scene, he lambasted the Hegelian idea of state. For Marx, the state only serves the interests of the ruling class through ideologies that are designed to impoverish the masses. By seizing upon Hegel’s own statement, “what is rational is real”, Marx claimed that Hegel never meant to defend the state’s status quo—that only what is “rational” has a claim to be called “real”, and the most important task is to mercilessly criticize the government and the social institutions so that they are compelled to become more “rational” and, therefore, more “real”. “Criticism” became the slogan of Marx. “The philosophers”, Marx wrote, “have so far only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.” In his Manifesto of 1848, he wrote: “The communists . . . openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a communist revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Workers of the world unite!” It is dubious how critically we have inherited the Enlightenment ideals when we, as a nation, actually desire our “chains” and are senselessly absorbed into materialism (in spite of our revered Christian values) while the government directly or indirectly condones this irrationality.

At last, it is worth briefly mentioning that, according to Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), if we think we are always consciously in control of our decisions and conducts, we might be mistaken. The faculty of consciousness is invisibly enslaved to the subconscious impulses. So long as our conscious mental activities and unconscious impulses are not integrated, the illusion of self-control, hence “autonomy”, may subsist.

§7. The Post-Modern Era

What is the post-modern ethical outlook in the Western societies? Perhaps, it is too premature to make a well-founded evaluation. The perpetual scientific, technological, economic, and political developments keep transforming our lives and social environment at such a fast pace that one can hardly make a full appreciation of what is happening. Things are changing too rapidly to be able to pause and think. It seems to me that even ethics itself is undergoing changes, developing new modes of thinking, categories, definitions, and concepts (such as “hyper-ethics” and “hyper-individualism”) in order to be able to deal with the pace of change and new complexities of human relations. The post-modern ethical view of man seems to be inverting (markedly in the spheres of business and politics) truth and lie, right and wrong, good and bad, and so on—with the implication that such normative judgments, in addition to the time-honored ethical values that have proped them, are losing their traditional meanings and standings. On this ground, the post-modern individualism seems to be buttressing itself. German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) had predicted the collapse of the traditional values which, he warned, will lead to a crisis of unparalleled magnitude, which he coined “nihilism”: “What does nihilism mean? That the highest values devalue themselves. The aim is lacking; [the question] ‘why?’ finds no answer.” (Will to Power)

A Heideggerian may make an observation as follows: Within the context of our post-modern lifestyles in the contemporary Western societies—where our conceptions of being and time are distorted by our crisis of imagination; where being is tantamount to having and time is indistinguishable from what is immediate; where, hence, we are inauthentic (alienated) and do not trust one another; and where, as a result, our socio-politico-economic institutions are fraudulent and untrustworthy—, individualism (i.e., detachment from others and the society) has become a way to survive, as opposed to live. In this sense, individualism—which is oftentimes associated with cynicism, narcissism, pretentiousness, fanaticism, facile nationalism/patriotism—is a dead-end. If, as the classical Athenians reckoned, human relations in a socio-political setting which functions for the good of all is a necessary condition for the cultivation of one’s humanity, then individualism as it stands is a reductio ad absurdum. The Greek polis provided the conditions that made it possible for the citizens to develop as humans. And, in turn, this made possible the citizens’ contributions to the polis.

But the Greece of antiquity, which never ceases to mesmerize our imaginations, comparatively had a small population, and life was simple and devoid of the modern complexities. According to literary critic and essayist George Steiner:

“A mass democracy never inspired the ancient Greek thinkers with much confidence. They did not think it could work. Then, under Thomas Jefferson and under the great figures of the Enlightenment, they tried to bring together the ideal of a true mass democracy with that of a high culture of debate, of freedom, and of openness in the discourse of law, of public affairs, and of government. And, the two have not lived very comfortably together. The dream of Jefferson, and of Lincoln as well, that somehow the ideal of ancient Athens could be extended to a continental scale has proved illusory.” (Oliver Taplin, Greek Fire)



*Ēthos: According to the definition of “ēthos” found in the Dictionary of Philosophy (2nd Edition) by Peter A. Angeles:

ēthos (Greek, character, one’s habitual way of living, one’s moral motivation or purpose) 1. the character, tone, disposition, values, and sentiments of a person, community, or people. 2. in Plato, one’s ēthos is the character produced by habitual responses. 3. in Aristotle, one’s ēthos is the character produced by moral as opposed to intellectual habits. Aristotle describes different ēthoi (plural) found at different stages in human development. . . . 4. in Stoicism, ēthos refers to that which motivates behavior or conduct. (This is reminiscent of Heraclitus’ saying that the ēthos of an individual is his daimōn. )

*Aretai (plural for aretē): According to the definition of “aretē” found in the Dictionary of Philosophy (2nd Edition) by Peter A. Angeles:

aretē (Greek, the goodness of a thing, that at which a thing excels) in Greek literature, when applied to persons it signified qualities such as valor, prowess, courage, and strength. In a moral sense it meant virtuousness, meritoriousness, and goodness of service. It is often translated as virtue. (See entries under VIRTUE)

The philosophic meaning of aretē has to do with the functioning excellence of a thing. When something performs the function it is designed to perform and it does it excellently, then it has aretē; it is virtuous in that respect. Example: The aretē of a pruning tool is to cut branches. It was intended for this purpose. It does this better than anything else. Insofar as it performs its function well, it has aretē.

To determine human aretē, the Greeks asked: “What is unique to the human? What functions does a human perform that no other thing performs as well?” It is not locomotion, not growth, not sensation, not procreating; these and many other functions are shared in common with other beings such as animals. The aretē of humans will be found in that which they can do uniquely: reason. The use of the rational faculty is that which distinguishes a human from all other beings. A human’s aretē consists of the development and use of reason to the utmost level of functioning excellence. (And, for Aristotle, in this consists also an individual’s ultimate happiness.)

*Virtue: According to the definition of “virtue” found in the Dictionary of Philosophy (2nd Edition) by Peter A. Angeles:

virtues, cardinal the highest ideals or forms of conduct in a given culture. All others are of secondary importance to them and are derived from them and/or depend upon them for their existence. Greek culture stressed four basic (cardinal) virtues: wisdom or prudence, courage or fortitude, justice or righteousness, and moderation or temperance. . . .

virtues, moral (Aristotle) those functioning excellences (aretai) of human conduct that are controlled by the rational part of humans. . . . Some of the main points in Aristotle’s ethical philosophy: 1. moral virtues are achieved by means of a consistent practice that creates a habit of action. 2. the principal ingredient in this process is the following of the means between extremes. . . . Extremes are to be regarded as vices. For example, the moral virtue of courage is the mean between two extremes: that of foolhardiness (rashness, stupidity) and that of cowardice (being overwhelmed by fear). 3. an action is not in itself a virtuous action merely because it follows the mean. An action is a morally virtuous action because it conforms with, or is controlled by, reason. Insofar as the action conforms with or is controlled by reason, it will automatically involve a mean between extremes.

virtues, dianoetic (Aristotle) also called intellectual virtues (dianoetic, form Greek, dianoētikós; from diánoia, the intellect) 1. the intellectual (rationally thought-out) virtues or values. 2. in Aristotle the phrase aretai dianoētikai refers to the values inherent in the awareness (and acceptance) of the rational principles which guide moral conduct. This is contrasted with the moral virtues . . . , which have to do with the everyday reasoned control of our sensitive and appetitive life. According to Aristotle, the rational part of the soul has two parts: (a) that which contemplates the unchangeable, universal, eternal principle of things; and (b) that which contemplates objects that are subject to change. The aretē (functioning excellence) of the first is the intellectual virtue of sophia, abstract wisdom (theoretical intelligence); The aretē of the second is phronēsis, practical wisdom (prudence, thoughtfulness, ability, and intention to do the right thing).

virtues (Stoics) the principal or cardinal virtues in Stoicism are: reason, courage, justice, and self-discipline. . . . For the Stoics, the virtuous life is the only good but is unattainable without knowledge. The end of the virtuous life is the ideal of complete self-sufficiency and self-mastery of the individual living according to the harmonies of his or her inner rational nature and the corresponding universal rational necessity in the cosmos.

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