Freedom and Individualism


We are generally unaware of the history of the ideas that influence our perspective and personal beliefs.  This is only natural in the absence of thoughtful examination.  However, an awareness of the intellectual heritage embedded in our assumptions can sharpen our understanding of the forces confronting us.  In this chapter we will consider the history and popular perceptions of two interrelated ideas that dominate the American identity: Freedom and individualism.  In subsequent chapters I will go on to unpack the significance of these potent concepts in the context of the American present.  Here I will discuss their intellectual and cultural roots.

The idea of freedom was a fundamental concern of European “Enlightenment” thinking, and it gained ascendancy during precisely the period when Europeans were colonizing North America.  The idea of freedom is closely related to the concept of individuality, and the two are fundamentally interrelated.  At a glance that would seem simple enough.  Yet, their respective meanings and implications have been subject to ongoing controversy.

It might sound strange to us today, but we human beings have not always had a concept of ourselves as autonomous individual beings.  For thousands of years human survival depended on the functional integrity of communities, cultures and civilizations.  Throughout the history of societal emergence from a tribal past, individual human beings depended on the stability and security of cultural unity and coherence.  Personal identity was intimately associated with community, the only institution providing stability and safety in a dangerous world.  Culture and community were the sources of all forms of knowledge and served as the basis for mental health and spiritual strength.

However, strict dependence on social context was limiting.  The mind and imagination were circumscribed by the conceptual horizons of shared knowledge and community experience. Christianity brought a relatively sudden and radical reorientation toward individual consciousness.  The social consequences of this were not readily apparent.  For a thousand years most Christians could not read the Bible.  Church services were conducted in Latin.  It was not until the high middle-ages that thinking people began to question the institutional dogmas and restrictions of medieval culture and to experience themselves as independent free-thinking individuals.

This did not happen all at once.  However, the gradual emergence of self-conscious individuality, especially since the 15th century, freed human initiative and creativity from stifling social constraints.  Mind and spirit sought liberation from overbearing conformity.  And, the realization of individuality led to a growing rebellion against the rigid fettering of patriarchal families, religious dogmatism, and the social and economic control of trade guilds.

Individualism was empowering and seductive.  Its’ radical character failed at first to disrupt the stability of existing institutions.  Over time, however, it gradually subverted and broke down the social structures and sense of community that had long provided the security upon which people depend.  Some recognized this danger before others, and individualism attracted fierce criticism from a wide range of perspectives, both conservative and revolutionary.  Indeed, diverse definitions and conceptions of individualism proliferated rapidly into a confused array of contradictory views.

Initially, resistance to individualism was perhaps most strongly felt among Catholic thinkers.  The earliest known use of the term was in 1820, when Joseph de Maistre spoke of individualism as “this deep and frightening division of minds, this infinite fragmentation of all doctrines….”   Reacting to the horrors of the recent French Revolution, as did many others, de Maistre believed the social order had been, he said, “shattered to its foundations because there was too much liberty in Europe and not enough Religion.”  Authority was weakening everywhere that individual opinion grew.  Individual reason was “of its nature the mortal enemy of all association”.  Its exercise led to spiritual and civil anarchy.[i]

The French political theorist (and a young priest), Lamennais, who was likewise shocked by the brutality of the French terror, wrote of the individualist: “His [personal] reason – that is his law, his truth, his justice.  To seek to impose on him an obligation he has not previously imposed on himself by his own thought and will is to violate the most sacred of his rights…. Hence, no legislation, no power is possible, and the same doctrine which produces anarchy in men’s minds further produces an irremediable political anarchy, and overturns the very bases of human society.”

Were such principles to prevail, Lamennais continued, “what could one foresee but troubles, disorders calamities without end and universal dissolution?”  Man, he argued, “lives only in society” and “institutions, laws, governments draw all their strength from a certain concourse of thoughts and wills.”[ii]

Criticism of individualism in the 19th century was not limited to conservative thinkers.  It came from every side.  The social philosopher Saint-Simon, who has been described as a utopian socialist, founded an influential movement in the late 1820s that rejected the Enlightenment glorification of the individual and proposed a systematic, hierarchically organized and “harmonious” social order which was incompatible with individualism. His views gained wide attention.  It has been suggested that Karl Marx took many of his ideas from Saint-Simon.  Auguste Comte, a follower of Saint-Simon, devised even more comprehensive plans for the future of human society.  Despite an inflated belief in himself as a super-human visionary, Auguste Comte came to be considered a founding influence of what we now know as the social sciences.

These socialist thinkers embraced Enlightenment confidence in the supremacy of science and reason, and its rejection of metaphysics and religion.  But they denied the validity of the Enlightenment view of the individual.  Individualism, as they viewed it, threatened their visions of a cohesive social order.  The view of classical liberalism regarding individualism was similar but less rigid, believing it would undermine the pluralist society that would minimize state intervention and maximizes political liberty.  The primary concern of the classical liberalism of the 19th century was liberty, as its name suggests.  The implied threat to liberty posed by individualism was described by liberal thinkers as “social atomization”, which they believed would inevitably lead to disequilibrium, degeneration, and anarchy.

These views evolved.  Through much of the 19th century both the left and right, socialist and conservative thinkers alike, saw in individualism a negative influence that opposed social cohesion and the public interest.  However, Steven Lukes writes that the thinking of some socialist thinkers began to change late in the century.  A new perception emerged that denied a basic opposition between individualism and socialism, positing instead that “individualism signified the autonomy, freedom and sacredness of the individual – values which had hitherto taken a negative, oppressive and anarchic form but could henceforth only be preserved within a cooperative and rationally-organized social order.[iii]

Imaginative Social Constructions

Needless to say, the notion that individuality could actually be preserved by authoritarian social institutions, presents a conflicting view of great consequence.  By the end of the 19th century diametrically opposed social philosophies claimed individualism as their own.  The sacred independence of the human person was championed by classical liberalism on the one hand, while the seductive utopian visions of a perfect society led inexorably to the totalitarian and fascist movements of the 20th century, and ultimately to the unprecedented violence of total war.

The confused history of social philosophy since the 17th century, which began as a reaction to the severe constraints of medieval culture, led to a profusion of diverse visionary ideas.  By the time North America was being colonized, recognition that rationalism was not answering the questions posed by a rapidly changing society unleashed a flood of speculation.  Suddenly the bases for social order and moral responsibility were wide open to fanciful consideration.  It was assumed that a “correct” form for the organization of society must surely exist.  But who was to be the visionary who would determine its’ “true structure”?

The product of these imaginative conceptions included both the radical utopian visions of communism and fascism, and the beginnings of social theory that developed ultimately into the various disciplines we know as the social sciences today.  Pursued on the basis of an explicit rejection of religion and metaphysics as foolish and imaginary, present day assumptions have fully embraced the Enlightenment’s faith in reason as the source of truth.

However, emerging with little or no moral or intellectual background in the 19th century, creative ideas inevitably flourished in the human imagination.  It became apparent to many that an implicitly correct morality, free of religious dogma, was needed.  The traditional religious sources of such knowledge were de-legitimized.  Everyone had their own ideas, and some were quite confident that their utopian visions for the future represented absolute truth.  In addition to identifying an ultimately “correct” form for human society, the conscious urgency for finding a non-religious foundation for morality loomed large.

From Rousseau and Fichte to Comte and Marx, fiercely conceived visions crystalized rapidly into politicized certainties, and freedom paid a high price.  One hundred years later, the futility and disastrous consequences of such efforts had become clear.

We must acknowledge the powerful reaction against the rationalism of the Enlightenment which erupted concurrently with social radicalism.  An outpouring of magnificent art, music, and literature, known to history as the Romantic Movement, transcended all controversies.  Its’ radiant spirit graces Western culture to this day.  And, of course, religious belief in an ultimate transcendent reality has never vanished.

The seductive intellectual assumptions of the Enlightenment continued to form the basis for social thinking and the development of Western society.  And, they press in on us today as we face cultural fracturing and civil dislocation.  With the benefit of hind-sight we can see that assumptions once considered undeniable were actually built on quicksand.  A society governed by reason and presumed to possess the stability of a rational order gave way to unrestrained material excess, and now to political dysfunction, civil disorder, and anomie.

Twentieth century philosophers and social historians like Isaiah Berlin, Robert Nisbet, Eric Voegelin, and Richard Weaver were not surprised:

 “His pride reveals itself in impatience,” conservative philosopher Richard Weaver wrote of Americans, “which is an unwillingness to bear the pain of discipline.  The physical world is a complex of imposed conditions; when these thwart immediate expressions of his will, he becomes angry and asserts that there should be no obstruction of his wishes.  In effect this becomes a deification of his own will; man is not making himself like a god but is taking himself as he is and putting himself in the place of God.”[iv]

“It is a commonplace,” wrote Isaiah Berlin, “that neither political equality nor efficient organization nor social justice is compatible with more than a modicum of individual liberty, and certainly not with unrestricted laissez-faire; that justice and generosity, public and private loyalties, the demands of genius and the claims of society can conflict violently with each other.  And it is no great way from that to the generalization that not all good things are compatible, still less all the ideals of mankind.”[v]

And, Robert Nisbet argues: “It is the failure of traditional social authorities, allegiances, and their embedded autonomies to endure to our [20th] century that, above anything else, is responsible for the intolerable strains which have been place upon the traditional political community and for its present malaise.”[vi]

Eric Voegelin commented that the present social order exists as “a dream world”, alienated from and oblivious to the foundations of reality.

Individuality and Dislocation

Where does this leave us as we consider the right and necessary place for freedom and individuality at present and in the future?  Social conditions were radically altered in the 20th century, yet the relationship between the two remains.  The changing dynamic has been traced through history by the American sociologist and historian, Robert Nisbet, who is refreshingly practical.  His celebrated classic, The Quest for Community (1953), was influential in the founding of the American Conservative Movement.

“No fault is to be found with the declared purposes of individualism,” Nisbet wrote. “As a philosophy it has correctly emphasized the fact that the ultimate criteria of freedom lie in the greater or lesser degrees of autonomy possessed by persons. A conception of freedom that does not center upon the ethical primacy of the person is either naïve or malevolent.  We have seen how another conception of freedom, the one that finds freedom in conformity to the General Will, in participation in collective identity, is the root of the totalitarian view of freedom and order.  Any freedom worthy of the name is indubitably freedom of persons.”[vii]

Ideas have consequences[viii], and these ideas are substantial.  They confront us even now.  The paradox hidden in the Enlightenment vision of absolute freedom and unlimited prosperity has remained largely unconscious and unresolved to the present day, whether the implications be social, economic, or physical.  Popular assumptions never come with guarantees.  Unlimited freedom and prosperity for Americans depended on unlimited resources and absolute control over the facts of nature.  In the two centuries since the founding of the United States it has become clear that reason is a practical tool, and not a guarantor of truth. And we have discovered that nature possesses an inviolable equilibrium.

The questions concerning the infallible perfectibility of science and reason have, in the words of Michael Allen Gillespie, been “overshadowed by the contemporaneous advances in the natural sciences and the rapid development of an industrial civilization that emphasized the benefits of increased human power but was more or less indifferent to the ways in which this power compromised human autonomy.  As a practical matter, while the philosophical and aesthetic qualms of a few had some impact on intellectual life, little could shake the general public’s growing faith in a modern scientific enterprise that seemed to promise such widespread benefits to humanity.[ix]

The sense of self-conscious individuality that first gained credibility during the Renaissance gave impetus to the soon accelerating development of industry and commerce.  Almost everything about modern society has come about by this means, for better or for worse.  And yet, ironically, the unrelenting mechanistic character of industrial culture has led directly to the demise of the same autonomous individuality that had originally brought it to life.

As early as 1941 the theologian and philosopher, Reinhold Niebuhr, warned us of this emerging challenge.  Our attention was elsewhere then, and the cruel truth is only now becoming clear:

The social and economic destruction of individuality is a consequence of the mechanical and impersonal elaborations of a commercial culture which reach their culmination in the development of industrial civilization.  Modern industrialism pushes the logic of impersonal money and credit relationships to its final conclusion.  The process of production and exchange, which remained imbedded in the texture of personal relationships in a simpler economy, are gradually emancipated and established as a realm of automatic and rationalized relations in which the individual is subordinated to the process….

“Inevitably the early vision of capitalist philosophers (like Adam Smith) of a process of production and exchange which would make for automatic harmony of interests is not realized.  Man controls this process just enough to disturb its harmony.  The men who control and own the machines become the wielders of social power on a vaster scale and of more dynamic quality than previous history has known.  They cannot resist the temptations of power any more than the older oligarchies of history.  But they differ from previous oligarchies in that their injustices are more immediately destructive of the very basis of their society than the injustices of a less dynamic age.  Modern society is consequently involved in a process of friction and decay which threaten the whole world with disaster and which seem to develop a kind of inexorable logic of their own, defying all human efforts to arrest the decay.”[x]

That industrial society and the technologies it has generated have provided major benefits for Americans goes without question.  However, the broad accompanying suppression of individuality is apparent to those who care to reflect on the consequences.

Commerce and industry are an integral part of an advancing civilization.  Why should this be a problem?  We expect our autonomous freedom to be threatened by tyrants, as it often is, but not by industry.  A healthy society needs a productive economy.  It does not, however, need repetitive financial crises, the mind-numbing oppression of mass production, or extremes of wealth and poverty.  This is what we have inherited, and in the 21st century it has destroyed the middle-class and driven the economic reality of the American people into the ground.

Robert Nisbet answers this question decisively, placing it in historical context: “During the past two centuries,” he writes, “mankind has undergone the most traumatic social change it has experienced since the beginnings of settled culture in the Neolithic age.  I refer to the decline – even disappearance in spreading sections – of the local community, the dislocation of kinship, and the erosion of the sacred in human affairs…. The historical roots of culture and personality alike lie deep in the neighborhood, family, and religion. …Through approximately ten thousand years, the period since the appearance of agricultural arts made settled community possible, the basic strength of these ties remained intact: this despite the innumerable wars, migrations, famines, plagues, and other kinds of catastrophes to which humankind as subjected.

“Very different, however, has been the case since the onset of the two great revolutions of modern times: the democratic and the industrial at the end of the 18th century.  Unlike all preceding major changes in human history, these revolutions went below the superstructure of society, went right to man’s most ancient and cherished sources of identity. With the rise of the factory system and the mass electorate, there was inevitably a wrenching of the individual from his accustomed family, local, and religious contexts.”[xi]

A leading American sociologist during the second half of the 20th century, Nisbet argues that when individuality loses contact with the social “authority” of associative community structures and intermediate institutions such as family, churches, athletic and cultural clubs, and local business, professional and interest associations, the resulting dislocation results directly in the strengthening of government as a centralized State.  Needless to say, when individuals lose their grounding through anomie and alienation, it can lead to psycho-social disorientation and pathological behavior – both individual and national.

Concepts and Consequences

“It was in the United States,” writes Steven Lukes, “that ‘individualism’ primarily came to celebrate capitalism and liberal democracy.  It became a symbolic catchword of immense ideological significances, expressing all that has at various times been implied in the philosophy of natural rights, the belief in free enterprise, and the American Dream.  It expressed, in fact, the operative ideals of 19th and early 20th century America…, advancing a set of universal claims seen as incompatible with the parallel claims of socialism and communism of the Old World.  It referred, not to the sources of social dissolution or the painful transition to a future harmonious social order, …but rather to the actual or imminent realization of the final stage of human progress in a spontaneously cohesive society of equal individual rights, limited government, laissez-faire, natural justice and equal opportunity, and individual freedom, moral development and dignity.  Naturally it carried widely varying connotations in differing contexts and at different times.[xii]

The audacity of belief in “a spontaneously cohesive society” encompassing such a wide range of ideals set the stage for the conflicts and contention that have defined American political life throughout.  The result, however, has provided a forum for debate, and the opportunity to clarify differences between concepts.

Several 20th century thinkers have attempted to structure the debate between opposing views of individualism such that economic freedom is independent of social or cultural restraints.[xiii]  In a 1945 lecture and a paper first published soon after, the economist and political philosopher Friedrich Hayek explained the difference he saw between two views of individualism and the social consequences of their conflicting viewpoints.[xiv]  Carefully distinguishing between what he calls “true individualism” and “false individualism”, I will let him represent himself in his own words:

What, then, are the essential characteristics of true individualism?  The first thing that should be said is that it is primarily a theory of society, an attempt to understand the forces which determine the social life of man, and only in the second instance a set of political maxims derived from this view of society.  This fact should by itself be sufficient to refute the silliest of common misunderstandings: the belief that individualism postulates (or bases its arguments on the assumption of) the existence of isolated or self-contained individuals, instead of starting from men whose whole nature and character is determined by their existence in society.  If that were true, it would indeed have nothing to contribute to our understanding of society.  But its basic contention is quite a different one; it is that there is no other way toward an understanding of social phenomena but through our understanding of individual actions directed toward other people and guided by their expected behavior.  This argument is directed primarily against the properly collectivist theories of society which pretend to be able directly to comprehend social wholes like society, etc., as entities [sui generis] which exist independently of the individuals which compose them.  The next step in the individualistic analysis of society, however, is directed against the rationalistic pseudo-individualism which also leads to practical collectivism.  It is the contention that, by tracing the combined efforts of individual actions, we discover that many of the institutions on which human achievements rest have arisen and are functioning without a designing or directing [human] mind; …that the spontaneous collaboration of free men often creates things which are greater than their individual minds can ever fully comprehend.[xv]

Hayek describes “true individualism” as anti-rationalistic and “false individualism” as rationalistic, explaining that the anti-rationalistic concept regards human beings effectively as tending to be irrational and fallible, “whose individual errors are corrected only in the course of a social process, and which aims at making the best of a very imperfect material….”  He goes on to suggest that “man has achieved what he has in spite of the fact that he is only partly guided by reason, and that his individual reason is very limited and imperfect.” And he contrasts this view to one “which assumes that Reason, with a capital R, is always fully and equally available to all humans and that everything which man achieves is the direct result of, and therefore subject to, the control of individual reason.

Hayek illustrates the assumptions of rationalistic “individualism” by quoting a famous passage from the French philosopher Descartes, who was a major influence in Enlightenment rationalism.  Descartes argues that “there is seldom so much perfection in works composed of many separate parts, upon which different hands had been employed, as in those completed by a single master.[xvi]

While the design theories of Descartes and many others “necessarily lead to the conclusion that social processes can be made to serve human ends only if they are subjected to the control of individual human reason…,” in Hayek’s words, “true individualism believes on the contrary that, if left free, men will often achieve more than individual human reason could design or foresee.”[xvii]  

“This contrast,” Hayek writes, “between anti-rationalist and… rationalist individualism permeates all social thought.[xviii]

Robert Nisbet explains these social dynamics more explicitly:

“What we have learned under the guidance of studies in modern social psychology, with the dismaying spectacle before us of enlarging masses of insecure individuals seeking communal refuge of one sort or another, is that the rationalist image of man is theoretically inadequate and practically intolerable.  We have learned that man is not self-sufficing in social isolation, that his nature cannot be deduced simply from elements innate to the germ plasm, and that between man and such social groups as the family, local group, and interest association there is an indispensable connection.  We know no conception of individuality is adequate that does not take into consideration the myriad ties which normally bind the individual to others from birth to death.

“As an abstract philosophy, individualism was tolerable in an age when the basic elements of social organization were still strong and psychologically meaningful.  In fact, whatever its theoretical inadequacy, the philosophy of individualism may be said to have had a kind of pragmatic value in an age when the traditional primary relationships were, if anything, too strong, too confining.  Today, however, the philosophy of individualism lacks even pragmatic justification.  For the prime psychological problems of our age, the practical problems that is, are those not of release but of reintegration.”[xix]

The Ground of Individuality

For Americans the autonomy of the individual is of primary importance.  There can be no liberty, no creative initiative, and no motivation to learn moral responsibility without it.  Yet, the perceptions we have inherited from the past lack clarity and have been subjected to little thoughtful examination.  Many of us have paid a price for failing to investigate the truth and think for ourselves.  Most important in this dangerously fragile time, we must recognize that self-respect and personal sense of identity depend on moral responsibility and the freedom of association and interconnectedness.

“The greatest single lesson to be drawn from the social transformations of the 20th century,” writes Nisbet, “from the phenomena of individual insecurity and the mass quest for community, is that the intensity of men’s motivations toward freedom and culture is unalterably connected with the relationships of a social organization that has structural coherence and functional significance.”[xx]

“Separate man from the primary contexts of normative association, as the 19th century individualist enjoined [ie. attempted] in effect, and you separate him not only from the basic values of a culture but from the sources of individuality itself.”[xxi]

The differences and diversity of ideas and perspective that have punctuated the American past do not easily lend themselves to a coherent vision for the future.  But, an understanding of the past is necessary for a realistic understanding of the present.  If we can recognize how our thinking, (or failure to think), has led to the social, economic, and ethical difficulties we are now experiencing, we will find they are fundamentally interrelated.

It is important that we make ourselves aware of how we have changed, and our society with us.

This will be essential as we address the challenges before us.  As human beings we must learn by doing, struggling always to seek truth in the context of experience and social context.  The ideas and thinking discussed in this book are offered for consideration as we seek a path forward to genuinely American solutions.  In the next several chapters we will further explore the meaning and challenges of freedom in society, and in our personal lives.  Our circumstances are complex and our vision limited.  Reason and rationality are investigative tools; they are not windows to truth.

[i]    Joseph de Maistre, in Steven Lukes, Individualism, Basil Blackwell Publ. (1973), p. 4.

[ii]    Lamennais, in Steven Lukes, Ibid., pp. 5-6.

[iii]   Steven Lukes, Ibid., p. 12.

[iv]   Richard M. Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences, Univ. of Chicago Press (1948), p. 165.

[v]   Isaiah Berlin, Two Concepts of Liberty (1958, 1969, 1997), in Liberty, Oxford Univ. Press (2002), p. 213.

[vi]   Robert Nisbet, Twilight of Authority, Oxford Univ. Press (1975), p. 69.

[vii]  Robert Nisbet, The Quest for Community, Oxford Univ. Press (1953), ICS Press edition (1990), p. 207.

[viii]  Richard Weaver’s classic 1948 conservative commentary, Ideas Have Consequences, became an influential critique of the post-enlightenment confusion and social consequences that were influencing the United States in the mid-twentieth century.  See also, pages xxx and xxx below.

[ix]    Michael Allen Gillespie, The Theological Origins of Modernity, Univ. of Chicago Press (2008), p. 7.

[x]    Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man, Charles Scribner’s Sons (1941) and Westminster John Knox Press (1996), vol. 1, p. 66-67.

[xi]   Robert Nisbet, Twilight of Authority, op. cit., p. 70.

[xii]   Steven Lukes, op. cit., p. 26.

[xiii]  Noteworthy voices articulating conflicting views and clarifications include Isaiah Berlin, F. A. Hayek, Steven Lukes, Robert Nisbet, and Eric Voegelin.

[xiv]   F. A. Hayek, Individualism: True and False, in Individualism and Economic Order, Univ. of Chicago Press (1948), pp. 1-32.

[xv]   Ibid., pp. 6-7.

[xvi]   Réné Descartes, A Discourse on Method (Everyman’s ed.), pp. 10-11, in F.A. Hayek, op. cit., pp. 9-10.

[xvii]   F. A. Hayek, op. cit., pp. 10-11.

[xviii]  Ibid.

[xix]   Robert Nisbet, The Quest for Community, op. cit., pp. 211-212.

[xx]    Ibid.

[xxi]    Ibid., p. 214.