In their book, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, Bellah et al. (1985) note the paradox that “at the very core of American culture” lies “individualism.” While a paradox can make for an enjoyable intellectual puzzle or serve as a spur to prayer, it is an uncertain foundation for a society and so also a just political order. While “the dignity, indeed the sacredness, of the individual” is central to American identity, it is also the case that “some of our deepest problems both as individuals and as a society are also closely linked to our individualism” (p. 142).

After briefly tracing the historical development of modern individualism within the “context of moral and religious obligations” of classical republicanism and Reformation Christianity that served both to justify and limit its autarkic tendencies, they ask whether or not such “an individualism in which the self has become the main form of reality can be sustained.” The broad anthropological (and so social) concern “is not simply whether self-contained individuals might withdraw from the public sphere to pursue private ends.” It is rather to ask “whether such individuals are capable of sustaining either a public or a private life” (p. 143, emphasis in original).

Both personally and as an Orthodox Christian I can acknowledge and appreciate the real benefits—personal and social—of modern individualism. At first, it may seem that the Enlightenment concern for individual freedom and the more communal orientation of traditional Christianity are at odds with each other. And certainly as Bellah et al.’s analysis suggests if we understand human freedom in nakedly individualistic terms this opposition is real. The radical, ontological individualism that sees society as (at best) an “artificial construction” (p. 334) that may at any moment “overwhelm the individual and destroy any chance of autonomy unless he stands against it” serves only to foster fear and suspicion. In such a context, power replaces love and my neighbor becomes my enemy (p. 144).

Whatever might be the excesses of the Enlightenment pursuit of individual freedom, it was at least in part a reasonable response to cultural forms that valued institutions and hierarch over the person. Whatever might have been the strengths of pre-modern society, it is also true that “monarchical and aristocratic authority” both civil and religious could be—and often was—“arbitrary and oppressive” (p. 142). The canonical tradition of the Orthodox Church is based on the sober realization that “there are those in her fold whose degenerate will scorns” the life of mutual charity and respect in pursuit of their “own selfish” desires (Patsavos, pp. 28-29).

At the same time we need to be careful that we don’t romanticize traditional societies. Yes, contemporary forms of individualism “seem to be producing a way of life that is neither individually or socially viable.” Yet not only is such a “return to traditional forms” unwise, it is impossible and requires us to so utterly ignore history as to represent an even more radical form of individualism than that which it would seek to correct! “The question, then, is whether the older civic and biblical traditions have the capacity to reformulate themselves while simultaneously remaining faithful to their own deepest insights” (Bellah, p. 144). While I can’t hope to address the whole of this question, let me offer a suggestion.

The Christian ascetical tradition is an anthropologically sound starting point for any theoretical, and more importantly, practical, “reformulation” of these older traditions. Especially as articulated within the tradition of the Orthodox Church, asceticism takes a holistic view the human person rather than the more differential view common in the social sciences and legal positivism. The anthropology of the latter assumes a “moral logic [that] undercuts” the possibility of community (Bellah, p. 144) seeing as it does the person in terms of ever smaller “parts.” This needn’t be the case. Attending to our own experience we see that “differentiation takes place when” we concentrate our “attention on particular phenomena.” Ideally this “differentiated knowledge leads us back to a deeper, more structured knowledge of the whole.” While “there is no essential opposition between” a holistic, “comprehensive” view of the person and “the various differential theories,” our “knowledge of the whole is primary” (van Kaam, 1969, p. 116).

The reason for this is clear enough. Even the most “detailed descriptions … are bound to fit more than one person.” We come to know each other in our uniqueness “only within the framework of direct personal relationships and communion.... Love is the supreme road to knowledge of the person, because it is an acceptance of the other person as a whole.” Unlike the more theoretical approaches we alluded to above, to say nothing of our own neurotic strivings, love doesn’t “project on the other person” our own “preferences, demands or desires.” Rather love accepts the other as he or she is, “in the fullness of [his or her] uniqueness.” This is also why our highly individualistic culture struggles with a whole range of problems related to sexuality. It is “in the self-transcendence and offering of self that is sexual love” where husband and wife learn to live in mutual acceptance of each other’s uniqueness (Yannaras, p. 23).

For the theological anthropology of the Orthodox Church, “‘person’ and ‘individual’ are opposite in meaning. The individual is the denial or neglect of the distinctiveness of the person” (p. 22). Christian asceticism has as its goal the liberation of the truly personal from the merely individualistic. In the full and proper sense, moreover, the liberty that ascetical struggle offers is not simply an absence of constraints (a “freedom from” if you will) but a “[p]erfection and sanctification” that makes possible the person’s “restoration to the fullness of [his or her] existential possibilities” and so to be what he or she “is called to be -- the image and glory of God” (p. 109).

George F. Will, in a December 2012 speech delivered at Washington University in St. Louis (“Religion and Politics in the First Modern Nation”; for the text of the speech, go here; to listen to the whole speech, here), said that while the “ancients had asked what is the highest of which mankind is capable and how can we pursue this? Hobbes and subsequent modernists asked: What is the worst that can happen and how can we avoid it?” Christian asceticism, rooted as it is in a holistic understanding of the human person and the human condition, answers both these questions by reminding us in very practical ways (e.g., fasting, sexual restraint, the importance of prayer, manual labor, and care for the poor) that we cannot be our best unless we are first able to prevent ourselves from being our worst.

In one sense the paradox at the core of American culture is inherent in being a member of any community secular or religious. There is always a tension between what is unique in each of us as persons and what we share as human beings. At the same time, the ontological individualism that has taken hold of American culture reflects a serious anthropological heresy. As Yannaras points out, taken in the ontological sense the “individual is the denial or neglect of the distinctiveness of the person.” We see the consequences of this confusion most clearly in the ways in which our concerns for individual rights become mere identity politics, which in the pursuit of “some rationalistic arrangement for the ‘rights of individuals’ or an ‘objective’ implementation of social justice makes all individual beings alike and denies them personal distinctiveness” (Yannaras, p. 22).

American individualism is not intrinsically immoral nor is it an anthropological heresy. For all America’s real faults and sins, it is founded on -- and until recently preserved by -- an ascetical intuition that helped Americans avoid the excessive of both the radical individualism of the Enlightenment and of pre-Modern aristocratic authority. The Puritan work ethic, the US Constitution’s separation of powers, our Bourgeois virtues, and commitment to Civil Rights all reflect that aspect of the American character that takes seriously the need to correct what is worse in us so that what is best in us can shine forth. Americans are not by any stretch of the imagination monks, but we are, in our way and when we are our best selves, an ascetical people nonetheless.



Bellah, R. N., Sullivan, W. M., Swidler, A., & Tipton, S. M. (1985). Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers.

Patsavos, L. J. (2003). Spiritual Dimensions of the Holy Canons. Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press.

van Kaam, A. (1966/1969). Existential Foundations of Psychology. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc.

Will, G. F. (2012). Religion and Politics in the First Modern Nation. St Louis, MO: John C. Danforth Center on Religion & Politics, Washington University.

Yannaras, C. (1984). The Freedom of Morality. (E. Briere, Trans.) Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir's Seminary Press.