In a recent essay for Ethika Politika, my friend Samantha Schroeder explores the demographic crisis currently facing the West as described by authors like Mary Eberstadt and Jonathan Last. Schroeder lays the blame for the oft-proclaimed “death of the God” at the foot of the “individualist-secular model” of living that displaces family life in order to make room for pleasure seeking and nonjudgmentalism. “It is the individual … who [becomes] the centerpiece of civilization after the death of God,” Samantha writes.
Surely, there is a lot of blame to go around for our current cultural-political-spiritual predicament, and any honest reckoning must give rampant individualism its fair share. But cultural traditionalists and foes of relativism make a mistake if they forswear “individualism” for the sake of community. Indeed, individualism rightly understood may be the first step back from the brink of cultural suicide upon which we now stand.
Individualism, we must remember, is a Christian invention. The individual in pagan societies was little more than a plaything of capricious gods, and even those heroes who managed to transcended their position and achieve lasting glory—like Achilles—remained slaves to the cruel exigencies of fate. Rigid rubrics of shame and honor constituted the substance of pagan morality, and the best that could be hoped for was to make it out of this life with one’s reputation for excellence intact. This preoccupation with political virtue often came at the expense of familial and interpersonal love—when the Trojan princess Andromache pleads with her husband Hector to “stay on the rampart, that you may not leave your child an orphan, your wife a widow,” all the brave prince can do is respond: “All these things are in my mind … yet I would feel deep shame before the Trojans, and the Trojan women with trailing garments, if like a coward I were to shrink aside from the fighting.” For Hector and other ancients, the personal is the political, and being seen to avoid battle even for the sake of fatherly and husbandly love would be a fate worse than death.
And while the Greek and pre-Christian world made the individual the victim of impersonal external forces, various Eastern philosophies erase the individual altogether. How else are we supposed to understand the Buddhist concept of nirvana (literally a “blowing out”) except as a cosmic shrug of the shoulders, a forfeiture of the weight of living? That Oriental nihilism, expressed with such mesmerizing beauty in Edward FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, tempts us to self-abnegation and the warm complacency of soft hedonism. Chesterton, at least, recognized that the danger of this philosophy was not that it denies the existence of God, but that it denies the existence of man.
Neither pagan fatalism nor eastern nihilism can satisfy the restless human heart; only Christ can do that. One of Christianity’s innovations, one of the greatest in the history of thought, was the turn to the individual—morality was no longer a matter of political virtue but of interior holiness, and the createdness of the natural order imbued it with a coherence that defeated nihilism. St. Augustine saw this Christian personalism as the triumph of the conscience, with God’s invitation to personal love finally granting the individual the ability to communicate the secrets of his heart. The Christian understandings of the unity of soul and body and the centrality of free will likewise affirm that our lives and moral choices do indeed matter. But conscience, free will, and moral agency are hollow concepts without a robust understanding of the individual as a unique creature born of and for love, with his or her own particular tensions, conflicts, doubts, hopes, and fears.
The Christian’s faith is fundamentally relational, then, and at all times sensitive to the irreducible psycho-spiritual drama unfolding in the heart of each person.
Reclaiming a robust appreciation for the individual seems a counter-intuitive remedy for our uniquely modern pathologies. As Schroeder points out, we are increasingly wary of tying ourselves to families, communities, or even other individuals. Art, sociology, and drama all draw attention to our conspicuous loneliness. But before we can go about the hard task of rebuilding healthy human communities, we must confront certain personal, prepolitical questions. Before we can articulate an authentic “we,” we must each one of us come to terms with the persistent “I.” Indeed, the problem is not that young people today strive to be rugged individualists, but try desperately to be absorbed into an undifferentiated and therefore feckless collective identity; the humanitarian ‘brotherhood of man’ at the heart of secular society is unsatisfying because it ignores, not unleashes, the individual.
Pope St. John Paul II made this brand of Christian personalism a hallmark of his long pontificate, telling the pilgrims gathered for World Youth Day in 2000: “It is important to realize that among the many questions surfacing in your minds, the decisive ones are not about ‘what.’ The basic question is ‘who’: to whom am I to go? Whom am I to follow? To whom should I entrust my life?” These are important questions that should haunt us all—questions which cannot be answered by parents, children, or supportive neighbors.
Families are important, as Schroeder rightly points out. But full and flourishing relationality can only come about as a consequence of well-developed individualism.