Compelling ideas have been central to the emergence of civilizations throughout history. Among the most influential ideas dominating European thinking and culture during the period preceding the founding of the United States was known as humanism. It was the ideal of autonomous human individuality, generally attributed to such thinkers as Petrarch and Erasmus, which led initially to the humanist movement.
Individualism has sometimes been associated with egotism and selfishness, but the concept was originally conceived in the fourteenth century as respect for the validity of the views and experience of the individual within his or her own sphere, and the ideal that each of us should be encouraged to develop our own natural gifts.
Humanism developed as a dialog among Christian thinkers and generated considerable controversy. Some of the resulting conflicts have never been resolved. The particular ideas that ultimately became most influential in the development of western civilization focused on the will to freedom and the notion of human control over nature.
Writing of this history, the American philosopher and political scientist Michael Allen Gillespie, a professor at Duke University, has observed that “modernity has two goals – to make man master and possessor of nature and to make human freedom possible. The question that remains is whether these two are compatible with one another.”[i]
Despite their inconsistencies, these ideas had a profound impact. Appearing during the European Renaissance, the historic transition from medieval to modern times, humanism gradually crystallized into the conviction that an ideal future civilization would bring freedom and prosperity to the world through the progress of science and rational governance. To many the United States of America came to embody that promise.
The problem, however, was swept under the carpet and never went away. The notion that physical reality and the natural constraints of family life and a complex society present inevitable limits to freedom has never been fully examined. We care for our families, whatever that requires. We cooperate with the sometimes uncomfortable but necessary requirements of our employment. We commit ourselves willingly to civic engagements: athletic teams or dance recitals for our kids, charitable organizations and religious communities, all of which can take up most of our wakeful hours.
I believe we will find it useful to reflect on the historical evolution of our assumptions, ideas that are central to the American character and have co-existed for 200 years, but which contain fundamental contradictions. These inherent contradictions are of great importance to us today. They subvert our best intentions and remain unresolved behind the contentiousness that threatens our self-confidence at the present turning point.
[i] Michael Allen Gillespie, The Theological Origins of Modernity. (Chicago, 2008), p. 42.