Among the most influential ideas influencing colonial America was the concept of independent human individuality. First appearing in ancient Greece, and then more coherently during the Renaissance, a new sense of independent individuality led naturally to the compelling idea of personal freedom.
These conceptions spread together in reaction to an authoritarian European culture of dynastic families, medieval guilds, and other autocratic institutions.
The term “individualism” apparently first came into common use among political philosophers in the late 18th century, leading almost immediately to confusion. Differing interpretations ultimately engendered two fiercely competitive philosophies. But, that’s a story for another day.
My purpose here is to consider liberty from our perspective as individuals.
Individual liberty has sometimes been associated with egotism and selfishness. However, the concept was originally conceived 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.
These ideas were championed by the humanist movement of the 15th and 16th centuries, which began as a dialog among Christian thinkers and generated considerable controversy. Some of the resulting conflicts have never been resolved.
Humanism has come to be regarded as a secular philosophy in recent times, but religious interpretations remain strong.
The interrelated 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.”
Early humanist thinking 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 philosophical contradictions were, however, swept under the carpet and remain to this day. While the physical realm of nature and the constraints of a complex society impose inevitable limits to freedom, these realities have rarely entered into consideration.
We face constraints to our freedom every day. We care for our families, whatever that requires, and cooperate with the requirements of our employment. We commit ourselves willingly to civic responsibilities, athletic teams or dance recitals for our kids, charitable organizations and religious communities, all of which can take up most of our wakeful hours. And, we rarely fail to notice the impositions made upon us by government and the weather.
As with our social circumstances, the physical environment presents obstacles and burdens. We normally take these things for granted. But, there is more. The challenges to our sense of personal independence and integrity seem to be everywhere today. Even our values are challenged.
Many things can chafe in life, particularly the actions of others. Domineering and dysfunctional institutions are particularly aggravating in a time of deteriorating social conditions. Yet, human beings have always risen above the natural constraints in life to find meaning and purpose in a social world.
As Americans in the early years of the 21st Century we face a simple question – in very complex circumstances. What do we value here? What is it that humankind gained with the founding of the United States? Where do we wish to take it?
I believe we will find it useful to reflect on the meaning and purpose of liberty, a vaguely defined idea that has been central to the American character for more than 200 years, but which has led to illogical thinking and unconstrained behavior.
An inquisitive mind and a questioning attitude are of greater importance today than ever before. Muddled thinking, stubborn miscommunication, and useless antagonism can easily subvert our best intentions.
In the coming months we will explore the dangers of unexamined assumptions and the role they have played in our past.
Next week: A Conflicted Legacy.
A note to regular readers: Please watch for the next post in just one week, on or about December 9, after which there will be a break until December 30.