If your average Westerner was asked to state what best defined the modern world, there is a strong likelihood he or she would give an answer relating to individualism. This is because individualism is one of the defining characteristics of modernism as it has been expressed both in the West and in other eras where similar late stage degeneracies in societies have taken place. The role of the individual has been exalted to an excessive degree in the modern West such that there is basically no sense of community, united purpose, or public spiritedness in our countries any more.
Many on the “soft Left” of classical liberalism and libertarianism (for these cannot properly be called “conservative” or “Rightist”) would see absolutely no problem with this. These ideologies perpetuate, and indeed claim to thrive upon, the mythology of the “rugged individual” who pulls himself up by his own bootstraps through his own hard work and abilities. These are the folks who assume that anything which challenges this proposition in the least way must be “communist” or “collectivist.” They fail to grasp that civilisation itself is “collectivist” by this definition. No “rugged individualist” who has ever lived has succeeded outside of the framework of a community and society which allowed him to operate under the protections of various laws and/or customs that maintain order within their social system. This fact is as true for the West as it is for any other civilisation that has ever existed. The West is not – and never could be – special in that regard, despite the constant drumbeat about “American exceptionalism” and its European counterparts. Westerners are as subject to the laws of nature and human nature as anyone else.
The great irony is that classical liberalism’s great collectivist bugaboo – socialism – is not actually as collectivist in spirit as they’d like to think. In fact, libertarianism and socialism are in many ways two sides of the same coin, both being modernistic rejections of traditional society which depend upon several post-Enlightenment epistemes for their intellectual justification. They reject traditional “grounding features” within society such as religion, hierarchy, the legitimacy of authority, and so forth. In doing so, they atomise society, breaking down social bonds and turning communities into soulless, mindless aggregations of atomic individuals with no loyalties or obligations to each other beyond the rather ridiculous “non-aggression principle.” Both libertarianism and socialism are anti-social in the true sense of the term – BOTH break down these social bonds. Classical liberalism does so to “free” the individual to pursue his own private interests often to the detriment of society, while socialism essentially does the same thing, enabling each individual to exercise political power to try to allocate to himself a greater share of the economic pie. The mechanisms may be different – reduced versus enhanced exercise of state power – but the fundamental driving force (individual self-aggrandisement and self-interest) is the same. The dichotomy between individualism and state power is often not as great as many people think.
Whether under the guise of socialism or libertarianism, this individualism is responsible for the lion’s share of the pathologies we see infecting the Western world today. Whether it is expressed as the hard-charging corporate executive trying to maximise profits by dumping toxic waste into a river or as the purple-haired, nose-ringed feminist screeching about the patriarchy and demanding its overthrow, the drive towards the maximisation of individual assertiveness over and against the interests of the social body is destroying what cohesion and purpose the West may have left. In both cases – the rugged individualist capitalist who values personal profit over all and the radical left-wing agitator screaming for more special interest “rights” – there is a fundamental rejection of the traditional Western understanding that “rights” carried with them definite responsibilities towards God, the church, the community, and that failing to meet these obligations negated the existence of said rights.
As a result, while many classical liberals operate under the assumption that individualism “is what the West was built upon,” this is simply not the case. This line of thinking actually arises from a generalised sort of ignorance about the development and evolution of Western history from the classical era to the present. The rise of individualism was not a fundamental basis for the West, but was instead an unfortunate and detrimental aberration from traditional Western civilisation. It embodies the so-called “progressive fallacy,” a view of history which essentially arose out of the Enlightenment and which views the ever-leftward movement of the modern West (which includes the rise and increase of individualism) as “progress,” in and of itself without reference to whether our societies have actually been intrinsically strengthened or weakened, helped or harmed, by this movement.
Because it essentially rejects tradition and community, individualism of both the libertarian and socialist types is anti-historical and divorced from any intellectual grounding in the actual foundations and evolution of Western civilisation. Like their close cousin Marxism, their sense of history is essentially dialectical and conflictive rather than integrative and holistic. It is no surprise that such ideologies which purport to “scientifically” organise society would take this approach. Science – as a process – involves the principle of analysis, the taking apart of the subject of study into its component pieces and treating them independently from one another. When this is applied to chemicals or the motion of bodies of matter, it works well enough. When applied to communities and societies, it is radically destructive, an unhealthy and cancerous process that destroys all social bonds and contributes to the artificialisation of human life.
A study of Western antiquity demonstrates the relative disdain with which individualism has been held for most of our history.
Beginning with the Greeks, we should observe that in archaic and classical Greece – the eras in which “the West” as a distinct continuity really began to diverge from the broader Mediterranean-Near Eastern cultural koine – individualism was not well-respected. The unit of social organisation was the polis, often translated as “city-state,” but encompassing a far wider meaning than mere political independence. The polis was the centre of Greek life regardless of whatever political form its government might take. Whether they were monarchic, tyrannic, oligarchic, or democratic, the poleis were understood to be organic, hierarchic communities to which everybody belonged and in which everybody found their place within the cohesive whole, even if they were slaves or women without “political liberty.”
Indeed, the Greeks had a word to describe the type of person who refused to take part in public concerns and attended only to his private affairs and business. This term was idios, from which we derive our term “idiot,” and it referred to something that was “private, personal, unique to the individual.” The principle of individualism is literally where our word “idiot” comes from. This same mistrust of individualism can be seen in Aristotle’s principle of the Golden Mean (see below), which described the “mean” as the apex in virtue (aretē) between two suboptimal extremes. In the cases of virtues relating to the interface between the individual and his social organisation (e.g. courage, magnanimity, proper ambition, modesty, etc.), the place of virtue is held by the one who keeps the effects of his actions upon his community and society in view, while the detrimental extremes are held by those who veer of into individualistic pursuits (e.g. cowardice as too great a concern for one’s own self-preservation, ambition as a lust for self-promotion rather than glory through service to the polis, and so forth).
The same general situation existed among the Romans, especially during their periods of greatness during the early Republic and during the century of the Antonine Emperors. In these periods, service to the state was the highest civic virtue, and men who focused excessively on their own private pursuits were viewed with suspicion. And rightly so, for the failures of these two periods and their collapses into decadence were the direct consequence of men who came into office seeking their own personal wealth and power ahead of the good of the community.
The medieval period was also one of communitarianism over individualism. That this was seen in virtually every facet of European life – from religion to the cities to the manorial village system and beyond need hardly be expounded upon. Even in the realm of economics, the divide between rich individuals seeking to maximise their profits through preferential treatment of their business and poor individuals seeking to maximise their individual wages through collective union bargaining (the modern adversarial labour relationship) was largely not known. Instead, the guild system preponderated, in which the interests of all economic players within a craft – from the guildmaster to the lowliest apprentice – were considered together.
Indeed, all of the various institutions which socially conservative classical liberals claim to support and find needful – the family, the church, the local community – are “collectivist” in nature. No family can exist where it’s every man for himself. Churches are inherently communitarian and aggregative, by their very nature. The community, village, hamlet, township – these all generally exist on “collectivist” grounds and involve collective efforts by most, if not all, members of the community. These things are what many classical liberals will claim to believe are necessary for our Western way of life – and they are right about that, though they don’t hold to this in practice.
So what happened to this long and glorious tradition of community and genuine society?
The Renaissance, that’s what happened.
The Renaissance is one of those historical transitions that modern history looks back upon with undeserved reverence. The nature of the Renaissance was of a revolt, a revolution against the traditional social bonds that had hithertofore obtained in the West, and their replacement with a set of social memes which exalted the individual and the “unique” (exactly the sort of society Hesse implicitly rejected in Magister Ludi).
What we need to understand about the Renaissance is that while it purported to be (and is often described as) a “return” to classicism, it really was not. The Renaissance efforts to restore the Greco-Roman spirit and material culture were imperfect, to say the least, and bore about as much relation to the actual classical spirit as today’s Alt-Right “neo-pagans” do to ancient Odinism, which is to say, hardly any.
As far back as Burckhardt’s magisterial thesis on life in Renaissance Italy, individualism has been understood to be a defining characteristic of the Renaissance, which puts the movement at odds with the mainstream of actual ancient Greek and Roman life. The “Renaissance Man” differed in many important ways from ancient aristocratic notables, being one whose actions were intended to bring glory to himself through his learning and ambition, rather than collaterally as a result of his own natural magnificence and service to his people and state. He was defined by a studied humanism that rejected the earlier spiritual centering of society, and replaced that centering with himself. The cult of self was crucial to the fundamental alteration which began to appear in the West from the Renaissance onward. This cult – which was already incipient as early as the 13th century in northern Italy – flowered in Italy and then spread northward in the 16th-17th centuries during the “Northern Renaissance.” Modern scholarship has attempted to soften the characterisation of this era as individualistic, but only because the devolution of society was a slow process and the common man still held on to much of his communitarian heritage.
The path which the Renaissance set us upon took us in directions which typically describe decadent and decaying civilisations, and this is indeed what was introduced into the West during the 14th-16th centuries. The “modern world” is an abnormality, an eccentricity which is the result of centuries of rot that have undermined the spiritual, social, and civil foundations of our civilisation.
Look at modern Western society today. Every feeling of civic and social solidarity has been swept away. In its place has been the pursuit of private wealth, private political power (an evil aided by democracy and legal egalitarianism), and the division of society into mutually antagonistic popular parties. It is a sad testament to the corrosive effects of individualism that roughly half of the people in the West cannot even find it within themselves to oppose the invasion of their own countries and the victimisation of their own children. Yet, this is nothing new. Such a state of affairs is typical of nations at the terminal stage of decadence, when private matters take all precedence over the public good. Sir John Glubb observed in his remarkable essay, The Fate of Empires,
“Another remarkable and unexpected symptom of national decline is the intensification of internal political hatreds. One would have expected that, when the survival of the nation became precarious, political factions would drop their rivalry and stand shoulder-to-shoulder to save their country.
“In the fourteenth century, the weakening empire of Byzantium was threatened, and indeed dominated, by the Ottoman Turks. the situation was so serious that one would have expected every subject of Byzantium to abandon his personal interests and to stand with his compatriots in a last desperate attempt to save the country. The reverse occurred. The Byzantines spent the last fifty years of their history in fighting one another in repeated civil wars, until the Ottomans moved in and administered the coup de grâce.”
As astounding as such behaviour is, the same thing happened in Greece during the Roman encroachments, and indeed happened in the very seat of the Renaissance, Northern Italy, during the Spanish and French invasions. And it is happening in the West today. Even in the clown world of American politics, the two main political parties are simultaneously extraneous and coterminous, yet contribute to an increasingly envenomed divide.
Western society illustrates the ills of individualism. Social atomisation, as noted above, has destroyed all semblance of unity and common purpose. The family is disintegrating as a socially stabilising institution for passing on culture and traditions. Roughly half of all marriages end in divorce, and even the ones that don’t still tend to revolve around the view of marriage as an “economic contract” rather than a binding oath taken before and enforced by God. Our elders are shuffled off into poorly staffed nursing homes so the children can enjoy their “lifestyle” of pleasures. Churches have ceased to be socially directive sources of moral influence and have devolved either into country clubs between which individual worshipers flit at their pleasure, or else have turned into insular gardens for believers who no longer engage and influence their cultures. The local community – which can exist even in large cities – has given way to suburbia and massive apartment blocks in which neighbours can go for years without speaking to each other.
Further, the disappearance of each of these institutions leaves a vacuum into which impersonal, heavy-handed “democratic” governments step in and in which welfare is handed out via EBT card instead of churches and communities identifying the worthy poor and extending a helping hand. Individualism and social atomisation have served to create exactly the sort of lazy, every man for himself version of social beneficence that classical liberals claim to find so offensive. Even the best modern democracy is in a worse social and civil state than the average monarchy was during the Middle Ages.
Finally, one of the openly seen signs of decadence created by individualism is the shift in the way and for what reasons individual recognition and advancement is sought in one’s society. I alluded to this above when I mentioned the Renaissance Man, who was known for his mastery of many intellectual and other pursuits. However, this mastery was not usually achieved for the purpose of being employed in the common good, but instead for ones own economic benefit, or even simply to strokes one’s vanity. Likewise, wealth was not desired so that one might live comfortably and have plenty so as to be able to give to one’s community, the poor, and their circle of clients and friends. The ancients used wealth to finance public works that benefits the whole community – baths, aqueducts, roads, temples. It was only when they entered their periods of individualistic decadence that this wealth was turned to supporting armies to enforce their claims to personal political power and the like. The Renaissance Man most often used his wealth in the pursuit of artistic aggrandisement of his own properties or to buy political offices.
Today. individual recognition and wealth are often sought and obtained through many frivolous endeavours which provide no benefits to society as a whole – entertainment, sports, activism, and the like. But most importantly, the modern view of individual recognition is that it is something we award to ourselves. I’m going to do this weird, cool thing and put it on YouTube and expect to get millions of likes and worldwide recognition. This is a debased view of individual recognition, but one which necessarily goes in tandem with democracy and mass culture.
The ancients were certainly willing to laud the achievements of great men. Certainly, the existence of such works as Plutarch’s Lives and Arrian’s Campaigns of Alexander testify to this. Do not misunderstand what I am saying here. However, for them, recognition was something which other people – the community, the nation, posterity – granted to exceptional men who did exceptional things. This view has much akin to Carlyle’s exposition of heroism as pertaining to those few men who perform exceptionally worthy deeds out of a desire for sincerity and truth. To seek to grant to yourself recognition and adulation was philotimia, excessive ambition, and was viewed as a serious charactre flaw. Today’s “heroes” in politics, sports, and entertainment are a laughable shadow of what true heroism and worthiness really are.
I fear that it is perhaps too late to rescue the West from its obsession with individualism. Our civilisation has already ingested that strychnine and the patient may well die because of it. Without a proper understanding of the place of the individual within and subordinated to the collectives of society, church, family, and community, there is no hope for “restoring the West,” and all efforts to do so within the framework of demotic, democratic, populist, classically liberal movements will be doomed to failure. Perhaps it is our civilisation’s lot to decay and be replaced by another, standing on its ruins as medieval Europe did with Rome, one which might avoid the trap of individualism if it can learn from and take seriously the errors of our own present civilisation, which it may well read about in its own history books.