Is it possible to speak of individualism these days without laughing? The concept of the individual and his inherent rights and worth has occupied many of the greatest thinkers and philosophers throughout recorded history. Aristotle discussed the topic 2,500 years ago and it has reappeared in irregular intervals and in widely varying places and circumstances since then.
These days, the banner of individualism has mostly been taken up by libertarians and anarchists in the West. Sadly, today, we have no philosophers who stand proudly on the shoulders of Paine, Jefferson, Emerson, and Thoreau and enunciate the core principles of individualism to a modern audience. John Zerzan from Eugene, Oregon writes from an anarchistic and individualist perspective, but his books are too dense and academic for most readers in this day. G. Edward Griffin is an excellent researcher and his talks on the origins on collectivism are edifying, though he has little to say about individualism per se.
Although the West is the birthplace of individualism and has seen dozens of brilliant thinkers espouse on its merits for the last 2,000 years, it has never gained a firm toehold. Collectivism and its modern manifestations-communism and socialism- always gains sway and brushes aside the fractured and disorganized individualist movement. Indeed, individualism’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. People who believe in and live the principles of self-rule and self-reliance seldom want to band together with large numbers of others and hence are easily picked off and isolated by institutions such as the state.
In the East, the various Asian cultures have never produced the rich legacy of individualist thought that the West has. Confucian values remain firmly rooted, with their emphasis on family and tradition. The importance of filial piety, culture, and group identity are constantly reinforced, both overtly and covertly. The individual, as such, has little to no meaning in Asian cultures. In Viet Nam, one of their more popular idioms is ‘the nail that sticks out gets hammered down.’
Whether we are speaking of East or West, another factor to consider is that humans are by nature tribal creatures and we desperately want to belong to groups, to ‘fit in.’ That group can be as small as a gang or fraternity or as big as a country. Hence, the popularity of ‘nationalism’ and its extreme manifestation- jingoism. This longing and insecurity has been deftly manipulated by political elites for thousands of years.Individualist thinkers and activists, whether wearing the label of ‘left’ (anarchist) or ‘right’ (libertarian) have been hounded, persecuted, ridiculed, ignored, and sometimes murdered for their beliefs.
‘Group think’ is not a modern phenomenon. It has been a part of human society since, well, forever. Cultures, societies, nations, governments and corporations don’t want individuals. They want sheep. The want predictability, conformity, and efficiency. They want obedience. And most of the time, humans are all to willing to oblige.
As an exercise in awareness, I often try to do the opposite of what is expected of me, whether ordering food in a restaurant, walking across the street, talking to a stranger or sitting in the dentist chair. Acting outside of the norm of acceptable and expected behaviors always produces uncomfortable effects on people. Many people become physically agitated when you don’t do what they expect. You are not playing by the rules. Acting as a thinking individual just doesn’t cut it in society. ‘Why are you throwing a wrench in the machine? Why don’t you just go along to get along? Stop making things hard on yourself and others…..’
Individualism as an ideology and practice will never penetrate deeply into human societies. It will always remain on the fringe, as an enticing and enlightening idea, an inspiration for a brave few to try to live authentically, as Thoreau encouraged us to do 150 years ago.