There is no more iconic notion of our era (in Western culture at least) than that of The Individual. In fact, the idea of individuality virtually defines Western culture. But, like so many ‘Great Ideas’, it has a use by date.
Individuality has been latched onto by predators and has turned to the service of their agendas. It has become toxic. We must ask –Is the idea of the individual still useful to us? Has it reached its use by date?
In Inventing the Individual, Larry Siedentop traces the evolution of individualism in concert with the development of Christianity. It is a compelling thesis. The very essence of the Christian ideal is the lifting of the individual toward the prospect of personal salvation. I do not want to here enter into a debate about the merit of this focus or role the faith has played in an imputed transformation. The Church acted as much to crush individuality, so while it may have been the carrier of the flame of individualism, it certainly was not the custodian. It may have been no more than the available vehicle to carry an evolutionary impulse.
Siedentop argued that the individual evolved out of a more fundamental and instrumental condition of being – as part of an essential group like a family or tribe in which personal will was trumped by collective or group imperatives. We understand this best through the way marriages that once served social and political ends are now expressions of personal affection.
It is important to understand that evolutionary impulses that alter the human condition are not uniformly expressed. This is why arranged marriages are still crucial aspects of some cultures today. It is as if these impulses have one or two starting points in the world and their influences radiate from them – and transform the human condition over centuries or millennia.
As Western civilisation evolved, wars and displacements disrupted traditional instrumental groups and the relationships that made them functional. It is arguable that Christianity grew because it offered something essential to disrupted people, especially those dispossessed and exploited. As the roots of identity and meaning were torn away what could be more comforting than a community of strangers forming a new kind of group – voluntary and foundational – where the right of membership is not rooted in geography or blood. Here was an association that honoured a singular being – a person dislocated and separated – individualised.
Would Christianity have evolved without the Roman Empire disrupting the cultures it touched? Would the necessity of individualism emerged without the devastation of traditional ways? What happens to the person torn from the soil of homeland, tribe and family? They are wrenched from the spirits that cradled, nurtured and protected – that gave meaning and identity.
The trauma of dispossession and displacement is something we can understand in our observation of indigenous peoples whose lifeways have been shattered by an often brutal encounter with modernity. Individualism is so entrenched in our psyches that we find its absence incomprehensible and repellent. Its absence was ‘primitive’, and even ‘savage’, to use the language of late 19th century gentlemen who saw themselves at the very apex of human expression. Indigenous peoples remain a ‘problem’ to modernity precisely because their cultures and identity are not constructed on the precepts of individuality.
The very idea of the individual denotes a person apart. But apart from what? In Why Liberalism Failed, Patrick Deneen says that Liberalism had the intent “to liberate the individual from embedded cultures, traditions, places, and relationships”. Humans are understood to be “by nature, nonrelational creatures, separate and autonomous”. This is a bold and radical assertion that we need to look at in more depth.
Implicit here is that the pre-individualised state is inimical to the human condition because it is contrary to its nature. The indigenous person, embedded in place and culture, is justifiably to be seen as the enemy, especially if they defend their embedded condition.
Deneen’s critique is focused on Liberalism, which is an Enlightenment political and moral philosophy centred on ideals of liberty and equality – and which has the individual at the very centre. Perhaps it opposed the suffocating social power structures of its time for what seemed like good reasons, but the growth of the idea as a universal doctrine led to an absurdity.
Individualism was certainly not the foundation of human nature, unless we assume that the family and tribal states of being are inherently oppressive. In contemporary individualistic thought that would not be unexpected. If we do a quick self-check we might find a sentiment of reflexive agreement.
Am I saying that individual equality and liberty are not fundamental principles of our culture? Yes I am. They exist as ideas and ideals, but not as actualities. Are we really “by nature, nonrelational creatures, separate and autonomous”? Such ‘creatures’ exist, but, bar the psychopath, they are not human. They are, rather, fictions created by commercial and political powers.
Humans are inherently the very opposite – embedded and relational. We are happiest when we are in a stable community with strong relationships. Every time there is a shared catastrophe this is what we turn to. Any coach will tell you that a bunch of star performers do not make a team.
So what’s happened here? How come there is a fiction at the heart of Western culture? If the transition to individuality is in fact evolutionary, then prior states are inimical to the individual in the same way that being in the womb is inimical to our sense of being in the world. Perhaps birth is an act of liberation, but it is not one that regards the mother or an unborn child as an enemy. The evolution from one state to another does not involve a change in nature.
Here we can see the root of the philosophical error. There are two sources of individualism, not one. The Enlightenment source arises from a discontent formed as an aspiration – to be free from a condition thought to be oppressive, denying liberty and equality to those who think they should have both. We have sympathy with that.
The other source is spiritual, but this is confused. We see in original Christianity a balm to the trauma of displacement and dislocation through the restoration of the opportunity to be embedded and related. But the symbol of the faith became the radical individual in a state of mystical transformation. This individualisation is an intensification, not a separation, and it is expressed through shamans, priests, magicians and mystics – all shades of the one, rather than distinct expressions.
Intensification generates distinction, not separation, but that distinction is so often expressed through spatial separation. The radical individual lives apart often, alone or in a community.
Intensification also precipitates the trauma of initiation. The Crucifixion of Christ echoes the shaman’s initiatory drama of being hung on a tree.
In important ways the trauma of separation and the trauma of intensification are related. Both mark a transition into an alternative state of awareness. Both are transitory phases. The error of Liberalism is the assumption that individualism is an end state marked by the expression of the ideals of liberty, equality and rationality. The free, equal and rational person is the apogee of human evolution, it was thought.
The error of Christianity was to make an extreme claim on individuality, and be unable to sustain it. The central radically transformative individual was both feared and celebrated, and not infrequently killed before being revered.
That Enlightenment ideal imagined the perfect human as radically displaced – from religion, culture and nature. Deneen observes that according to Liberalism’s fans [T]he advent of liberalism marks the end of a benighted age, the liberation of humanity from darkness, the overcoming of oppression and arbitrary inequality, the descent of monarchy and aristocracy, the advance of prosperity and modern technology, and the advent of an age of nearly unbroken progress. Liberalism is credited with the cessation of religious war, the opening of an age of tolerance and equality, the expanding spheres of personal opportunity and social interaction that today culminate in globalization, and the ongoing victories over sexism, racism, colonialism, heteronormativity, and a host of other unacceptable prejudices that divide, demean, and segregate.
It’s a compelling and familiar sales pitch. But if we agree on this we must confess also that Liberalism has led to the sundry ills of the contemporary world – the pollutions, illnesses of body, mind and spirit. It is not an unalloyed good. It articulated a promise of idealism, and failed to deliver on it.
There is a difference between what has happened and what must happen. History does not necessarily deliver necessary sequences – only those that do happen. In the same way that Christianity was, in part, carrier of the torch, not the custodian, so Liberalism must be seen in relation to the idea of the individual. Where Christianity’s error was the assertion of an historically ground sole franchise, Liberalism’s championing of individualism as a universal and absolute ideal was its. Christianity did not emerge because it was perfect and ordained by God, but because it was responding to a human need at the time. Had it baulked at its delusion of exclusivity, the Enlightenment would likely not have manifested. Had individualism not become a universal ideal Western civilization would not have become what it is. In the mess of what we have there is a constant theme of individuality, but the agents are carriers, not causes.
Deneen cautions that the liberated individual “becomes synonymous with hedonic titillation, visceral crudeness, and distraction, all oriented toward promoting consumption, appetite, and detachment.” Has the individual been “liberated” only to be left with no clear pathway into the future? This is the problem of excising a spiritual vision from an account of individuality. But the dream of being a ‘free and equal’ individual is powerful only because it has a spiritual foundation to it. It is nonsensical in its atheistic or materialistic mode. Freedom and equality are aspirational goals, and hence a kind of redemption – a restoration to a ‘lost’ state.
The US Declaration of Independence asserts that “all men are created equal” and that “they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights”. The authors of the Declaration were religious men, and yet Liberalism has come fuse religious principles with materialistic thought. Materialism has to employ the ideals that are religious to serve its ends because it cannot develop its own.
It is abundantly clear that materialism, expressed through political and commercial interests, has delivered neither equality nor liberty. In Age of Anger: A History of the Present Pankaj Mishra traces the failed efforts to manifest Liberalism’s noble ideals. Overtly religious wars may have ended, but, as John Gray in 7 Types of Atheism argues, worse proxy religious wars precipitated. It is no doubt that the worst conflicts have occurred under Liberalism’s banner. Why is this?
We inherently blend religious and materialistic thought, whether we see ourselves as religious or as atheists, or as a member of the rising new class of Spiritual But Not Religious (SBNR). We live in a blended culture that sees individuality as important as being embedded and connected. We don’t see an inherent contradiction. And that generates a confusion we are mostly unaware of.
In fact our culture is a constant battle zone between the two, and for us it is just normal life. We do not know a world in which there is an absence of binary conflicts. Conservatives want to preserve the embedded and connected and the Progressives champion the dislocated individual. These days, however, simple binary descriptions fail to deliver the complexity of the actual state of cultural tensions. These conflicts are not real. Only the confusion is.
If Liberalism’s individual is the ideal universal condition, it is opposed deeply by many who disagree. There is an existential conflict afoot. If individualism is a transitional evolutionary phase in human consciousness and spirituality then we can understand the conflict in a different light.
Aside from the radical individuals who occupy heroic and mystical roles human, cultures embrace their members in the encompassing arms of place and tradition. For individualism to natively arise it must do so by disrupting the norm. And, short of looming catastrophes, that is not likely to happen. Externally imposed trauma acts as a plough that disrupts the ‘soil’ and precipitates separation. Individuals emerge out of necessity, rather than desire – but where to from there? There is no going back to things as they were.
Liberalism’s individual seems frozen at the moment of separation, celebrating the novelty of the moment and wanting to hold it forever. It can exist only in the ruins of what was. The spiritual individual seeks a restoration of the state of connection through a novel interpretation of faith and belief. There is no celebration of release. Each response is distinct. For one, individuality as a sense of separation is the attainment of a desired state. For the other it is a terrible condition to be in.
Christianity has developed a doctrine that admits no evolutionary imperative in the divine creation. Were it otherwise, it might imagine that the Fall, and the Redemption that must follow, is an evolutionary mechanism that applies to all humans. Liberalism in its materialistic guise admits evolution, but not of human consciousness (and hence spirit) other than in incidental relation to the brain.
A deeper enduring tradition of mystical thought offers that human consciousness evolves through the experience of being in physical form. The human person (not the individual) evolves, and individuality may be one of the stages it goes through.
These days we are conditioned to think the self, the person and the individual are all the same thing, and the terms are freely interchangeable. But they are not. As humans we are persons who possess distinct selves that may be individuated to some degree.
We must conclude that Liberalism’s individual is a fiction and a fantasy. A being with no natural connection to place, community or the divine cannot exist other than as a grotesque expression of a traumatized person. Christianity’s individual is maligned by the imputation of sin and the need to be redeemed from its separation from God.
In both instances there is an existential trauma that fuels a conception of being. It is twisted out of shape. Christianity and Liberalism – the twin engines of Western culture – have both failed for the same reason. They have misread human nature. The idea and ideal of the individual exemplifies that failure.
In the West Christianity has played a double paradoxical role. It has called the human person forth from the mud of life with a promise. And then it has put a tollgate on the road it has mapped out. The price demanded was the subjugation of the personal inner life to that marketed by the clerics. That same subjugation was later demanded by the owners of factories. Industrialization created a market for a compensatory individualism that was exploited in what we now understand as consumerism. What began in religious faith flowed into the imperatives of commercial and political systems that demand similar observances.
Wither “I” in the maelstrom of product? With a credit card as a compass and a catalogue as a map many embark on the Ikea pathway to salvation and satisfaction – and no one gets there.
Frank DeMarco, in his latest book, Awakening from the 3D World, invites the reader to imagine that they are a constituent of a continuity of being. Our individual sense of I is not an expression of separation but of particularization – an intensification of awareness of being that must find a new form of relationship to the world in is inhabiting.
This is very different to the social or political notion of individuality that asserts a sense of specialness and singularity with no sense of substance or character. Being is alone sufficient. The cry, “I am an individual!” is an affirmation of separation and significance, not as a good thing, but as an articulation of profound existential crisis. It is a cry against being a ‘nobody’ – a loss of connection and meaning. Here individuality is used to assert what it cannot ever deliver. This is the central confusion of our culture.
Individualization as an expression of intensified awareness rooted in the continuity of being is profoundly different to an expression of separation and significance that has no conscious affirmation of belonging. The experience of the individual as a separate thing is intense, but like the amputee, it is haunted by the phantom of what it has been separated from.
It is time to change language here. From here on the term ‘individual’, and its variants, will stand for Liberalism’s creation only. The alternative term is the Intensified Self. This denotes a person whose expression might be taken to be radical individualism, but who driven by a deeper sense of connection and belonging. This is exemplified in the mystic or shaman whose greater awareness of essential interconnectivity of lives intensifies their being.
Is it possible to walk with a foot in both camps – spiritual and materialist? Not without persistent confusion. Individualism is not a useful thought any more. Besides it is not what we mean most of the time in any case. A sportsperson may wear shirt with a number on the back, but it is not to denote their individuality, rather their particularity. To clarify our thoughts we must clarify our language.
As humans we are not individuals, but nodes in a network – points of particularity – unique and enduring. The sense of individuality that we struggle to understand and live with is a signal of a sense of separation – an absence of awareness of a greater being of which we are part.
We can lose this sense of individuality because it is a fiction. It will die, but our particularity will not. The intensification of awareness of connectedness will render the illusion of individuality redundant, and we will see it as an injurious idea.
The Intensified Self is the phantom element of the separated individual. It is the part of us that cannot be pleased or satisfied by stuff bought by adding adornments and embellishments to our bodies. Deneen observes that the founders of Liberalism separated themselves from a culture that promoted the “virtues of self-restraint and civility.” Now, in the pursuit of free speech, neither virtue is easy to find. The individual is not inherently virtuous.
The separated self craves connection and belonging, but has been persuaded that these can be attained through the acquisition of commercial products and services. Even the promise of the Intensified Self has been turned into a commodity.
Yet implicit in the messages of our culture there is a clear signal – the confusion of the Individual is losing its appeal. We may not yet be at the stage of acknowledging the Intensified Self, but the growth of the SBNR movement flags a growing momentum in walking away from Liberalism and institutional religion. Jeff Kripal, Professor of Philosophy and Religious Thought at Rice University in Texas, sees the people who identify as SBNR as “placeholders” – signaling they still have skin in the game of cultural discourse on spiritual and religious matters, but they have no truck with faith traditions tainted by evils and errors.
There is no shortage of evidence that Western culture is in a deep crisis of meaning. This is perhaps nowhere better exemplified in the foreword to Why Liberalism Failed:
The Yale University Press series Politics and Culture begins with the premise that self-government, the hallmark and glory of the United States, the West, and an expanding number of countries around the world, is ailing. Those who sense the ailment cannot agree on what it is, much less how it is to be treated; and that disagreement, only deepening as time passes, is in fact part of the ailment.
When this message is being delivered through a major American university’s textbook you know the concern is very plainly mainstream.
The legacy of the Enlightenment is an extraordinary conceit married to a singular philosophy. The humanist conceit that the human being (and European males in particular) is the highest form of intelligent life has been united to an assertion that there is nothing beyond the mechanism of the physical world. The best future that can be imagined in this marriage is that of transhumanism – humans will be subsumed into rapidly evolving technology. We have reached the end of the natural process of evolution and now step into a new stage enabled by robotics and AI.
The PSI researcher, Dean Radin, is far from convinced that we have reached our evolutionary apogee. In Real Magic he says:
If extraterrestrials are watching, they may well have decided that as a species, we’re still basically infants, spending most of our time sleeping, pooping, or crying. We haven’t reached out to say hello via humanity’s global telepathic mind because we’re still enthralled with the cowboy myth of rugged individualism? What other than our planet-sized ego makes us think that the conscious universe of galactic minds would be interested in engaging with infants?
To Radin we are in our infancy still. He quotes Peter Carroll, the founder of Chaos Magic, from his book Liber Null: Psychonauté saying that “Science has brought us power and ideas but not the wisdom or responsibility to handle them. The next great advance that humanity will make will be into the psychic domain.”
To some the Enlightenment’s rejection of religion constituted a radical disruption to a mentality that was incapable of moving beyond habits of thought and tradition. In an important way the founders of Liberalism added their own contribution. The idea of the individual deeply disrupted habits of thought as well. But it was not a profound insight so much as a useful idiot of an idea – that has now outlived its usefulness.
The evolutionary impulse that is driving the transformation of human consciousness (and no doubt others as well) needs better carriers than Liberalism and Christianity, and the confused thought they have generated.
The television series Star Trek opened with the proposition that Space was the “final frontier” in perfect materialist thought. Peter Carroll thinks the “psychic domain” is next. There is a difference in thinking here –one final and the other next. One closed and absolute, and the other open.
We use the term ‘spiritual’ in many loose ways. There is a necessary connection between spiritual and psychic – and from that a whole array of contentious and speculative ideas will emerge. Our ideas are imprecise and ill-formed, showing how much work we have yet to do.
It is our choice to decide where we locate ourselves in relation to the passions and arguments about the nature of human being and our destiny. If we move away from Liberalism and its companion notions and arguments we have to be prepared to let go the idea of the individual – and all it means and implies.