A Community of Individuals
“Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
Perhaps no sentence captures the spirit of individualism more than that line from the great essayist’s Self-Reliance. And yet Emerson in that same essay expresses a sentiment that seems like it could have come directly from one of E.D.’s attacks on individualism, globalization, and free trade:
As our Religion, our Education, our Art look abroad, so does our spirit of society. All men plume themselves on the improvement of society, and no man improves.
Society never advances. It recedes as fast on one side as it gains on the other. Its progress is only apparent like the workers of a treadmill. It undergoes continual changes; it is barbarous, it is civilized, it is christianized, it is rich, it is scientific; but this change is not amelioration. For every thing that is given something is taken. Society acquires new arts and loses old instincts….
The civilized man has built a coach, but has lost the use of his feet. He is supported on crutches, but lacks so much support of the muscle.
Emerson, writing in 1841, is critiquing the very idea of “growth for the sake of growth” and materialism that E.D. lays at the feet of individualism. In other words, Emerson argued that individualism was the antidote to materialism whereas E.D. and several other commentators whom I respect now claim that individualism is in fact the cause of materialism.
Powerful as the arguments of E.D., Philip Blond and others may be, I think Emerson’s explanation gets it more right. But this does not mean E.D. and Blond are entirely wrong in their diagnosis, either. And the extent to which they are correct is an important issue, because both individualists such as I and communitarians like E.D. and the Front Porch Republic are ultimately after something very similar: a less intrusive centralized government, and a less materialistic, more virtuous culture.
At root, E.D. et al’s argument against individualism is that it “denies the need for community and family; it abandons such antiquated notions as God and tradition and favors reason and wealth over history and modesty.”
To the extent individualism is characterized by those traits, one could even correctly blame it for the apparent return of materialism and the rise of libertinism. But what we are really talking about here is a “market mentality” that is at most one specific form of individualism, and in reality indistinguishable from the very “herd mentality” that Emersonian individualism explicitly rejects and seeks to counter. Under this mentality, everything has its price, and possessions are synonymous with virtue. One’s individuality is expressed by possessing, consuming, or attending “the best” or “the hottest” sound system, iPod, night club, champagne, beach, car, or cell phone. The irony of expressing one’s individuality by having or doing what everyone else wants to have or do is lost.
Of course, no influential philosopher of any stripe has ever explicitly advocated such a mentality, and few people would ever expressly admit adhering to such a world view. And yet this worldview is implicit in so many elements of our everyday lives. We see it in the belief that one is a better person for choosing the “cool and rebellious” computer; in the inane self-absorption of “The Hills”; in the belief that having a high-paying job automatically makes one morally equivalent to John Galt, when at best you’re Eddie Willers; and in the celebrity who feigns to care so much about the plight of the poor people of country X even as she is wearing Prada shoes, carrying a Gucci purse and residing in a multi-million dollar mansion with a private jet at her disposal.
So to the extent that individualism deems the market to be an arbiter of morality, there is a fair amount of truth in the idea that individualism is to blame for the materialism of our most recent era. But Emersonian style individualism, the “rugged individualism” that is so quintessentially American and to which most self-described individualists relate, is at its core an attempt to escape the idea that the market place is an arbiter of morality, explicitly rejecting the false belief that that which is popular is good even as it demands a limited government that allows ample room for the market to function.
In this conception, individualism is a moral imperative, indeed it is the essence of what it means to be a human. The individual qua individual engages in an ongoing search for moral truth. That which is “new” is not automatically better, but is instead evaluated on its merits. It recognizes that locale, family, and life experiences are what inform an individual’s understanding of the world and what is right for that individual. It approaches all topics by seeking to understand what is best and right to do at that time and in that place.
Community to the individualist indeed should take on more, rather than less meaning and beauty. To the individualist, a community – a real, honest-to-God community – represents a group of people united by a common interest, nay, a common love whether the object of that love be a religion, a landscape, or a neighborhood. And just as a community represents a common love at a particular moment in time, tradition represents such a common love that stretches across time.
But when community and tradition take precedence over the individual, and demands that the individual cease to exist, community causes great harm. It can result in Pitcairn Island, or racial segregation, or the quashing of any spirit that does not completely conform to the community’s established way of life.
And there is something even worse that occurs when community ceases to value the individual. It fails to recognize that the traditions that it values so deeply came from somewhere; they did not simply emerge fully-formed, but were instead the work of some individual or group of individuals who came up with an idea that would be better than what previously existed. It thus prevents new traditions from forming that may supplement or improve or update the old traditions to make them more relevant to the present day. Instead, the old tradition remains in place, unchanged, whether or not it continues to have value to the people who engage in that tradition; and so, it quickly becomes a dead tradition.