Most political calamities in this era of the Politics of Calamity, if one were to analyze them down to their barest elements, would prove to revolve around the problem of the lost individual. This is not surprising, since both of the defining currents of modern politics, totalitarian progressivism and strongman populism, are perspectives which systematically reject the individual soul — its natural needs and its natural aims — in favor of collective sentiment, collective action, and even collective being.
We humans are closer to the divine than any other earthly creatures, as we alone are endowed with freedom of the will — which is the pretty way of saying that we are prone to acting self-destructively and to being fatally stupid about our best interests in ways that the lower species can never be. Men are all too easily diverted from the natural (i.e., wise) path by various and constant temptations, which in the main may be sorted into one of two categories: pleasure and fear. Since, then, there is little pleasure in living without self-determination, apart from the negative gratification of avoiding responsibilities the anticipation of which disturbs us, it follows that men cease wishing to live as natural individuals, or fail to develop that desire in the first place, primarily due to fear, broadly the fear of standing alone.
But if standing alone, all romantic flourish aside, is in the end merely the human condition in its mature form, then the fear of standing alone is essentially the fear of living a human life in the most complete sense of that term.
I did not insert the qualification “all romantic flourish aside” lightly. The romantic image of the individual — the proud posture of the man silhouetted heroically on the mountaintop, his hair blowing in the wind — is the antithesis of the genuine article, since, like all romanticism, it espouses an inherently collectivizing vision. Romanticism in art, philosophy, or behavior, bespeaks, at its roots, a craving for attention, which is to say for approval, for belonging. This makes “standing alone” merely a variation on the common child’s plea for acceptance, filtered through the adult weakness for ego-gratification. In other words, the romantic picture of the individual is the comforting lie or self-delusion of those unwilling to accept that they still have some growing up to do before they deserve to be called individuals at all. Romantic individualism, a very German idea in the worst sense, is nothing but an iconoclast’s way of clinging to the warmth of the crowd, a public performance style or subtle plea for social approval. The romantic conceives of himself with reference to his community and his status within it, on the implicit assumption that he cannot exist, let alone be understood, without that socially-defined context. (For more on this, see my chapter on “Individualism vs. Individuality,” in The Case Against Public Education.)
By contrast, the individual in the proper (non-romantic) sense is at base living in the natural condition of all humans who reach maturity — to the extent that they do so — independent of any social position or temporally-approved status. We may say, by way of a rough definition, that he is the adult human being judged according to the measure of his existence as a self-subsistent or self-determining entity, without reference to his external relations as such; which means his existence not as it appears to others, nor as he would like it to appear to them in his dependent (romantic) mood, but as it truly is.
While I cannot detail all the implications of that rough definition here, there are a few things that may be said with sufficient clarity and brevity to serve as a concretizing overview of what I mean when I refer to “the individual” in the moral or metaphysical senses — the senses implied by the word “individualism,” when this is used as the opposite of “collectivism.”
The individual is not born that way, or at least not in the fullest degree. He is born materially separate, but spiritually dependent, which is to say he is alive and distinguishably human, but still incapable of living fully in accordance with his own proper activity and by his own initiative, the latter being the conditions we normally associate with “being an individual” in the moral and metaphysical senses (as opposed to the aesthetic/romantic sense dismissed above). We may therefore describe the human being, at birth, as a “material individual” — a substratum implanted with an identifiable nature or idea, if you will allow that Aristotelian accent, but an idea that has not yet been infused throughout the concrete existence of that substratum.
But matter, as Aristotle explains, is potentiality; hence proper human development, which is to say proper education for a natural born human, is the process of actualizing his potential independence, which means becoming an individual in reality (i.e., in form), rather than merely in potency (i.e., matter), to the extent that he is able.
One thing that may be inferred from this understanding of the individual as the natural completion (the goal) of a developmental process, is that human nature, insofar as it aims at the gradual realization of a spiritual individual, inevitably produces a tension between the man and his community. A relatively healthy political community is, to varying degrees and in varying proportions, a spiritual collective comprised of material individuals. This fact explains the ease with which, at the birth of political philosophy, Socrates and his interlocutors (in Plato’s Republic) set about attempting to define the nature of the soul by way of a direct analogy with a just city. The individual, fully independent soul — still a relatively new idea in Socrates’ time — was best understood, dialectically, as a microcosm of the better-known collective life that was the polis. But this very fact — the collective spirit of a true political community — hints at an essential and intractable difficulty for the fully developed (i.e., spiritually actualized) individual living in society; or, to look at this from the reverse angle, it suggests the essential political problem caused by the presence of the actualized individual. In short, an individual in the deepest, most developed sense, is of necessity and by nature in the community, but not of the community.
That is, if the fully developed individual instantiates human life in its definitive form, then the essential political problem is that the highest or “ideal” aim of political community should be to foster and educate such individuals, but that a society comprised of a large proportion of such fully developed individuals would be least able to function as a harmonious, mutually interdependent social hierarchy. This in turn defines the essential and perhaps impossible challenge of politics: to forge a state that is structurally, constitutionally humble enough to restrict its unifying impulse in deference to the apolitical or even anti-political growth natural to the potential individuals who comprise the society. Conversely, the social challenge for the individual as such is to be humble enough to tether his own spiritual impulse to the requirements of a well-ordered political community, which, again, means the community best structured to facilitate, or at least not thwart, the development of individuals in the full, apolitical or “post-political” sense.
In other words, the healthiest polity would be one that united what I have called material (or potential) individuals only to the extent and in the manner required to foster, rather than retard, the gradual actualization of free and independent souls; while the free and independent individual would, for the sake of both his own and the community’s well-being, have to learn to tolerate (though without acceding to) the collectivizing mechanisms of social life. Stated with the utmost simplicity, the best political community would revere the detached and apolitical soul, while that soul, for its part, would abide the political community with perfect irony. This just and supremely natural coexistence has never been fully achieved in practice, and probably never will be.
Such, then, by way of introducing my notion of the individual in theory — in what sense he is individuated, how individuation occurs (the development from potentiality to actuality), and the intrinsic antinomy of the seemingly ill-fitting but also mutually significant aims of individual realization and political harmony. Let us take a moment, however, to bring more concreteness to this character I am calling the actualized or spiritual individual, specifically with regard to the temperament or “instincts” that guide his approach to practical life and define his interaction with the human beings around him.
Inherent in the maturation process of fulfilling his innate potential, he inexorably comes to identify less and less with his material substratum, and more and more with his actualized soul. From this it follows that “the desires of the body,” including the immature (or, to return to our earlier language, romantic) obsession with how he is perceived by those around him — reputation, honor, rewards, praise — slowly recede from the forefront of his concerns, in favor of the increasingly independent search for glimmers of eternity amongst the untrammeled, shadowy corners of his thought. In consequence of this private evolution — which is also in a sense an evolution toward privacy — the manner of his voluntary interactions with society will gradually become more focused, with regard to quantity (reduced), frequency (rare), and aim (mutual spiritual development).
Though the following may strike the reader as somewhat arbitrary or even incongruous at first glance, given my depiction of the individual’s natural development as a movement away from matter, it is actually quite consistent that he should feel an essential and deep respect for property — not for acquisition, nor for wealth, but rather for the principle of ownership as such. This respect stems not from materialism or possessiveness (attitudes he largely eschews), but from his innate sense, intuited long before it becomes communicable, that he owns himself, that he must own himself, and that the feeling of non-ownership in oneself constitutes the subjective awareness of unfreedom, i.e., servitude or slavery. He is therefore disdainful of, if not repulsed by, political theories which seek to narrow the scope or dilute the role of private property ownership. Understanding the psychological (spiritual) roots of the concept of property, he appreciates all too clearly what economic socialism really means: collective ownership of the individual, which is to say the societal suffocation of human life itself.
In the teaching of socialism “a will to the denial of life” is but poorly concealed; botched men and races they must be who have devised a teaching of this sort. (Nietzsche, Will To Power, Ludovici translation, §125)
Relatedly, the individual abhors debt as a matter of principle, and would prefer, all things being equal, to live on crumbs than to borrow, as debt implies a ceding of his ownership rights to himself; as opposed to knowing one has earned whatever one has by one’s own effort, which has the psychological effect of reinforcing the feeling of self-ownership. One partial exception to this abhorrence of debt would be the gratitude he owes, and is eager to repay with interest, to anyone or anything he perceives as having contributed to the development of his spiritual independence. As he matures, this gratitude gradually extends to the hardships and “injustices” he has suffered, whether at the hands of Nature or of other people, to which, he comes to realize, he owes so much of his strength and self-understanding.
Consistent with the foregoing, and consequent to his craving for responsibility, the mature individual prefers helping others to being helped by them; and he helps without reservation or stinginess where he can. On the other hand, he offers assistance entirely without the altruist’s emotional weakness for turning “helping others” into an opportunity to sow or foster dependency in those others, which is to say that he is averse to asserting power lust under the cynical guises of “humanitarianism,” “moral duty,” or “pity.” He is therefore skeptical of all moral philosophies that place pity and sacrifice among the highest or definitive virtues, knowing that such a life would depend, in practice, on the continued availability of weak victims in need of help, whereas he harbors no romantic idealization of weakness, the downtrodden, or “charity cases” — nor of himself as personal savior of the huddled masses. Rather, his respect for property, and his rational capacity to universalize this respect (i.e., to recognize that everyone’s self-ownership, and not merely his own, is desirable to the extent that it is possible), leads him to prefer to help others only in ways that promote their greater independence, which is to say in ways intended to free them from needing further help.
His natural social inclinations, then, will often be those of the teacher, mentor, critic, or benefactor — but his teaching, criticism, or benefaction will almost invariably be directed toward the encouragement of the kind of self-development that might be judged apolitical in the sense of anti-social. That is, his wish, insofar as he is to participate in society, is to support the growth from material to spiritual individualism in others, which, in light of what we have seen, may easily be interpreted (by unenlightened collectivists) as fomenting disharmony or undermining the social compact — in short, “corrupting the youth.”
In general, the individual does not define himself or derive his purpose by deference to the demands or sensibilities of an abstract collective of unactualized and artificially limited human potential. Therefore, insofar as he has a social impulse, that impulse will tend toward the nurturing of a garden of fellow individuals who may live and think with him, in a realm above the predetermined belief structures and communal passions mandated by the quasi-religious orthodoxy of the political collective. That is to say, he is susceptible to the charge of impiety.
It is more than a little intriguing, perhaps even profoundly significant, that the individual as a moral and metaphysical entity rose to full and definitive prominence during mankind’s peak of civilized collectivism (as opposed to today’s utterly uncivilized forms of collectivism), which is to say during the historical moment when the politics of social harmony and the interdependence of different and unequal members had produced its most ennobling fruit, the independent man of reason or “lover of wisdom.” We might infer from this that the actualized individual was the hidden or “unconscious” purpose of the poetic-heroic collective that typified ancient society at its most successful. Alternatively, we might say that the spirit of aesthetic heroism and communal aspiration inadvertently nurtured its own counter force, and arguably its ultimate downfall.
The ancient understanding of freedom as local collective self-determination begat the higher idea of freedom as the spiritual independence and completion of the individual man, which the classical Greeks, who paradoxically understood and honored the individual man more deeply than any of our modern “individualists,” identified as culminating in the philosophic life. This growth or crystallization of the notion of freedom as individual virtue, and ultimately as wisdom, is encapsulated perfectly in the transition from the traditional Greek image of the ideal man as Achilles, the spirited warrior motivated by righteous anger, to Socrates, the dialectical ironist immune to passions such as righteous anger. Achilles’ spiritedness enlivens the feelings of honor that exalt the polis. Socrates’ rational investigation places the desire for knowledge above the desires of the polis (and in that sense also above the demands of honor). In 399 B.C., democratic Athens took civilized collectivism’s ultimate stand against the individual, executing Socrates for his philosophic activity, thereby unintentionally — or rather unknowingly — signaling history’s definitive triumph of the individual qua actualized soul over the state qua spiritual collective comprised of mere material individuals.
The politics of late antiquity and the medieval period may be synopsized as a series of increasingly futile and hence increasingly brutal efforts to reassert and strengthen the aims of communal power, in order to stifle the newly-emerged and attractive alternative, the life of the apolitical or supra-political individual. The religious history of the middle ages plays this battle out in the most theatrical way: Christianity is at its heart a Greek-inspired elevation of the individual soul against earthly power; nevertheless, the Christian church consistently tilted toward the assertion of temporal (i.e., doctrinal) authority against the longing for eternity embodied in the life of the spiritual individual.
Modernity, rebelling at last against the authority of the collective, ushered in the political entrenchment of individualism, which is to say the creation of forms of government which would not only be friendly to the apolitical individual — the realistic hope of the classical Greek inventors of political philosophy — but rather would prioritize him, and even elevate him to the seat of power. But there was a catch. Whereas the classical individual — the truly free man — was the rare product of an arduous and dangerous process of self-development and virtuous activity, and therefore always and inevitably a small minority of any population, the moderns, as intrinsic to their political project, raised the individual to political centrality precisely by reducing him to the properties he shares in common with all men, namely those following upon mere material separateness. In other words, the modern political philosophers, most famously the “state of nature” theorists, achieved their liberalizing coup by universalizing the condition of individualism, making it a simple matter of mankind’s birthright, rather than the natural goal of human life, as it had been understood by the ancients — the distant, tantalizing intimation of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful that inspires longing.
Thus, modern individualist politics, having reduced man to his basic material separateness, with no theoretical space, let alone pride of place, for his true actualization (activity in accordance with the highest capacities of the soul), established a construct of modern liberty with no inherent political aspiration beyond the continued protection of material humanity — of unindividuated individuals, if you will. But this reduction of man to his material (potential) being, without reference to, let alone grounding in, any definable human purpose, meant that, in the name of advancing the historical cause of the individual, modernity effectively developed a body politic without its head; that is, modern political philosophy oriented society toward the individual while simultaneously ignoring his divine spark.
This is why the founders of the greatest fruit of modern political individualism insisted in so many ways that the success and survival of the republic they had formed would depend on the people’s continued adherence to their religious practices and beliefs. Modern liberty is not the liberty of the polity seen as a self-governing and harmonious collective comprised of good men who owe their life and virtue to the city, but rather of each individual seen as an isolated material being with its own natural right to self-development. This was, in many ways, a glorious advance for the cause of human nature; but in its universalism — its deference to the material equality of all humans and their innate rights — it carelessly eschewed any politically-defined priority or aspiration regarding what proper human self-development might mean.
The great modern political achievement, classical liberalism, revealed the essential and intractable political problem defined above — the conflict between spiritual collective and spiritual (actualized) individual — from the opposite side. In effect, modern liberty embodied a society of material individuals pursuing their respective aims without either the unifying purpose of the archaic spiritual collective of warrior-poets, or the classical educational ideal of “activity in accordance with virtue,” as Aristotle defined the happy life.
This is where European (mostly German) philosophers with dreams of a new spiritual collective joined forces with churches ignited by the sparks of early progressivism, to fill the void of ultimate human purpose that the early modern political thinkers had denigrated. And thus, in practical terms, was born the special threat to modern liberty that Tocqueville envisioned: soft despotism.
A society comprised of material individuals without a higher concept of human nature, in the sense of a purpose, may, and almost certainly will, become a community of apolitical men without the spur of spiritual aspiration — without the longing for eternity — and united only by the shared desire for self-preservation and the equal pursuit of disparate materially-defined aims. Such a society, for all its practical freedom, is history’s natural prey for the progressive promise of greater security and the safety of endless comfort (pleasure), purchased at the price of a slow but permanent siphoning of individual liberty. The mass of material individuals, increasingly diverted from the liberating attractions of human nature by the illiberal (i.e., de-individualizing) enticements of perpetual immaturity — limitless material gratification, petty self-absorption, the prioritizing of comfort and security over the (perceived) privations, pains, and risks of self-development — itself becomes the progressive state’s sharpest scythe in its enactment of tall poppy syndrome. The natural growth of the actualized or spiritual individual is systematically cut down in accordance with the will to the denial of life of an uncivilized (ignorant and aimless) collective of immature individuals caressed into pleading for “benign” paternalism in the name of freedom and equality.
In my essay, “Modern Demagoguery, or Why Trump Is Not to Blame,” I explain this political devolution from the perspective of its ultimate outcome:
Today, under the two-century sway of this German theoretical romanticism of “The People,” this idealism of abstract humanity, the crowd is the thing, which means the individual is an unthing, a dead letter, though perhaps a remnant of his clothing is still run up the flagpole by those clinging to a nostalgic dream they call “America.”
In response to which description a friend, and one of the dwindling number of men who still deserve to be called an American without qualification, e-mailed the following comment and observation:
It hit the mind like an ice pick on a naked and raw nerve. Horrifyingly undeniable.
Politics can offer no solution to a rotted culture. I fear for my grandchildren and pray I die as an individual.
I replied to my friend’s final prayer with this consideration: Moral character is essentially a matter of deeply entrenched habits. Thus, at the end, when we are alone with ourselves (i.e., all our public performances stripped away), we will all die as we lived.
To elaborate on this, while the development of true individuals may certainly be curtailed or even, in theory, ended outright by authoritarian political structures, there is nothing a state, however oppressive, can do to de-individualize a man already grown to mature (i.e., natural) adulthood. The actualized individual, though increasingly rare, is no more at the mercy of political currents than Socrates himself was susceptible to harm at the hands of the democratic collective that tried, convicted, and executed him.
I would have you know that, if you kill such a one as I am, you will injure yourselves more than you will injure me. Meletus and Anytus will not injure me: they cannot; for it is not in the nature of things that a bad man should injure a better than himself. I do not deny that he may, perhaps, kill him, or drive him into exile, or deprive him of civil rights; and he may imagine, and others may imagine, that he is doing him a great injury: but in that I do not agree with him; for the evil of doing as Anytus is doing — of unjustly taking away another man’s life — is greater far.
— Socrates, in Plato’s Apology (Jowett translation)