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We have to look at the origins of individualism...


Earlier this week I was treated to a little brain stimulation by a visit from Kate Andrews and Darren Grimes of the Institute of Economic Affairs in London.  We walked in the country lanes of the Algarve (Portugal) together with Sooty, our black Labrador.  On one walk we took to asking each other questions, and one that Darren asked was the relationship of individualism to community.  Were they in tension, opposed to each other, or complementary?

“I don’t think you can have too much individualism,” was Kate’s immediate answer.  Clear, trenchant, persuasive.

But Darren recounted his experience of arriving in London from the North-east of England.  “I found it difficult,” he said.  “London is so big and isolating – it’s hard to find a sense of community, and I missed it.  I only found a community at an Anglo-Catholic church, and that was a lifesaver for me.”

My answer, as far as I can remember it, was longer and more nuanced.

“We have to look at the origins of individualism,” I said.  “It was basically an idea from the Jewish prophets in the centuries before Christ, refined and given real power and emphasis by the early Christians, especially Paul and Jesus.  And it was not entirely like individualism today.”

“The original Jewish idea, contained in the earlier parts of the Old Testament, was tribal or family responsibility.  The sins of the fathers were visited on the children, up to the third generation.  So if your great-grandfather did something bad, God would punish you for it.”

“This rather horrid idea – which still worked in a sense, because it made people afraid to do wrong things – was totally rejected by some of the best and latest Jewish prophets, notably Ezekiel, Second Isaiah (who wrote Isaiah chapters 40-66, some of the most eloquent and lyrical stuff in the Bible), and Hosea, who appealed to a sense of conscience, compassion, and social justice – concern for the poor, the sick, and even outsiders – which he felt could live within everyone.”

“For the first time, the emphasis was on individualism – the individual standing before God and his or her community – and not group responsibility.  It wasn’t the tribe, the nation, or the family that God was interested in, but the individual.  But note this well – from the start, the idea of individualism was inextricably linked to personal responsibility.  God was interested in individuals and their conduct, and appealed to the best in each individual – which was the ability to help and contribute to society.”

“So also, right from the start, there was absolutely no conflict between individualism and community.  Individuals had to realize their individuality, but also use it to benefit people around and beyond them.  Individualism and personal responsibility were twin cherries on a single stalk.”

“Paul and Jesus took this one stage further.  The words put in Christ’s mouth by the Gospel writers, and the message indelibly stamped on Christianity by Saint Paul, left no doubt about the worth of each individual in the sight of God, and the individual’s responsibility to improve himself or herself.”

“Paul’s great innovation here was universalism – he took a Jewish idea and applied it to everyone, whatever their background, nationality, or social status.  ‘There is no Jew or non-Jew, no slave or free, no man or woman, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’  The early Christian writers insisted that every individual, regardless of race, gender, or social background, should assume the responsibilities of inner freedom.  The Jewish birthright of access to God’s purpose and love was made personal and universal.”

“Through Christ, God suddenly acquired a new location – inside people, in the human self, the human soul. Paul was the first to state clearly – probably based on oral traditions of what Jesus said – that Christ can live inside each believer, a bit like ‘Intel inside’.  Talking to a crowd in Athens, Paul preached in Greek-friendly style: ‘God is not far from each of us, for as you say, in him we live and move and have our being.  As even some of your poets have said, we are indeed his offspring.’”

“Paul wrote to the followers of Christ in Corinth, ‘Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you.’  Another early Christian went further, ‘God is Love, and he who lives in Love, lives in God, and God lives in him.’  Individuals could become partakers of the divine nature.”

“The idea of individuality was stressed in a new way, linked to a moral imperative to improve oneself.  Individuality meant development – an obligation, sparked by awareness of God’s amazing, unlimited love, to become a better, more useful person.  Again, individuality was linked to personal responsibility, personal development, and social responsibility.”

“This idea today is not confined to Christians or believers of any kind.  The great psychotherapist and psychologist Viktor Frankl once proposed that the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast of America should be supplemented by a Statue of Responsibility off California.  No personal freedom without personal responsibility.”

“It should be evident how far this view is from the individuality which is loathed by socialists and many genuine do-gooders today.  They excoriate individualism because they assume it is linked to selfishness, the desire to advance oneself at the expense of other people and the community.  And for sure they have a point – because modern individualism often does take this form – ‘I’m alright, Jack.’”

“Yet what the enemies of individualism are opposing is not genuine, original, authentic individualism.  It’s a perversion of individualism.  It’s really nothing but selfishness.  And that is not individualism, not the great, ennobling idea of individualism derived from the best in the Jewish and Christian traditions, the genuine individualism of the West, which I think is the greatest idea ever invented.”

“So my answer, like Kate’s, is clear.  I agree, we can never have too much individualism, if it is individualism of the right kind.  There is no conflict between individualism and community.  They are two sides of the same coin.”