Thursday, February 19, 2015

Christianity and Individualism

The extreme individualism of the modern west is something unusual in human history, in degree if not in kind. Compared to other societies we focus much more on people as independent agents and much less on communities or families. Consider that in many societies it is considered perfectly natural to punish a family or even a whole community for a crime committed by one of its members. The rules of a modern bureaucracy, which make it illegal for successful people to promote members of their families, would have struck most pre-modern government officials as unworkable and perhaps insane.

Where did this obsession with the individual agent come from?

One school of thought traces individualism to capitalism, urbanization, and the industrial economy. Marx of course was a leader of this school, and Marxists were always fulminating against bourgeois individualism. I suspect this is the line taken in most Western Civ classes.

But other scholars think that can't be the whole story. For one thing Japan has managed to achieve a high degree of modernity in most ways without embracing the extreme notions of individual agency prominent in the west. For another, many people see the rise of individualism happening much earlier than Marx allowed. In art and literature, especially, some people see individualism rampant in the Renaissance; Shakespeare's characters are often held up as models of modern thought and action.

If individualism was on the rise before capitalism, what was driving it? A growing school of historians points to Christianity. The basic idea is that medieval Christianity put its emphasis on the Christian's personal relationship with God, and on achieving a personal path to salvation, and that this inwardness pointed the way to individualism. Some theologians thought a Christian should be a stranger in this world, a pilgrim, whose mission was to sever worldly ties rather than to deepen them. This Chrstian alienation can be seen as the precursor of the alienation of the modern city dweller. Samuel Moyn has a little review essay on some of these historians in the Boston Review, which I recommend for the curious. Here he summarizes the ideas of French historian Marcel Gauchet:
For Gauchet, the secret lies in monotheism’s unique approach to God’s transcendence, which made the divine so otherworldly that man became more autonomous in consequence. Christianity in particular severed the monotheistic promise from terrestrial fulfillment in the Promised Land and inscribed it “in the soul’s inner recesses,” a step that, as Gauchet puts it, “[intensified] divine exteriority in relation to creation.” The same revolution that alienated individuals in relation to the world inadvertently prepared their independence from the divine and deprived politics of any sacred meaning. Siedentop observes that, as a matter of the history of language, the “individual” emerged more or less simultaneously with the “state.” Gauchet insists this is no accident, since the early modern kings who founded the absolutist state completed the long-term transition whereby secular political authority no longer incarnates the divine—that only Jesus could do—but represents the will of individuals. The social contract was thus born as authority in politics ultimately needed to come from the ground up, rather than heaven down. 
These questions are, of course, very difficult to answer in any definitive way. My own view is that industrialization is the essential background to individualism at our level, especially our economy of "jobs" that people get by themselves, rather than families or households that produce something together. But I suspect that this would not, in itself, be enough, and I wonder if Christian loneliness before God did play some sort of role.


David said...

When I used to teach Western Civ, I was struck by the unusualness of the situation in the Roman Empire during the time of early Christianity and the other spreading religions of that time. Many pre-imperial religious belief systems seemed to share features such as membership by birth, an obsession with purity, small-group solidarity, and suspicion of outsiders. Obviously ancient Judaism is the type here, but the early polis struck me as similar in these terms. Once you have a centuries-long large community guarded by a pax Romana, some people can start to choose their religions instead. Early Christianity is the type here: membership by choice, rejection of most purity rules (you can even eat food sacrificed to idols!), an ecumenical community identity, and welcome to newcomers.

I suppose part of my point here is that monotheism itself isn't the key; Christianity is. Traditional Judaism isn't very individualistic at all. Yes, Rabbis can debate one another, but when we talk about non-individualistic societies, we're not talking human automata. Pre-modern Rabbis almost always debated within that framework of purity rules, small-group solidarity, etc.

Gauchet also talks about the state, but I'd say the key here isn't the monarchs but bureaucratic accountability. This also started in the church, and is arguably almost the West's greatest civilizational obsession. I think a major place moderns learn individuality is from the school version of bureaucratic accountability: Did YOU get to school on time? Did YOU do YOUR homework? Are YOU listening to the lecture?

John said...

If you look at the article I linked to you'll encounter other historians who agree with you that Christianity is distinctive in this way.

Fascinating observation about bureaucracy and school. This sort of fits with my notion that a defining feature of our civilization is the "job," with defined duties that you do as an individual and are paid for as an individual, something very different from the economy of a peasant household. And don't we tell our children that school is their job?

G. Verloren said...

Were not the Ancient Romans a fairly individualistic people? Sure, they had their patriotic nationalism, but in an empire stretching across the known world and composed of people from many different cultures, there had to be great allowances of individual rights and freedoms, as well as individual responsibility.

I also seem to recall that most of the great Merchant Republics of Europe were reasonably individualistic as well, even if they too were often very nationalistic and even draconian in their handling of crimes.

Perhaps the notion that Capitalism is the driving force is somewhat off the mark? Maybe it isn't specifically Capitalism, but rather mere Commercialism and trade? Or more accurately, the cosmopolitan blending of cultures that arises from trade? Makes sense to me. A society with a single homogeneous culture is well suited to group-think, but a society made up of multiple different cultures is not.

This would explain the Christianity angle, as Christian history is chock full of multiculturalism. The religion was born amongst the Jews, but quickly spread among the Greeks, then became vogue in Rome proper, and then over many centuries it crept all throughout the disparate peoples of mainland Europe.

It also neatly explains why Japan lacks such a degree of individualism - they have long maintained an extremely homogeneous, insular culture, even in the face of major external influences and sweeping cultural and technological changes. For all that they have Westernized, they're still an amazingly homogeneous nation, with different cultures being extreme minorities that have historically been heavily repressed.

G. Verloren said...

Sniped! That's what I get for taking fifteen minutes to mull on my post before finishing it!

David said...

One may wish to distinguish between community solidarity and household solidarity. They're very different. The former was the one that had to be sustained by purity rules, collective rituals, etc., which may have been aimed less at countering the threat of outsiders and cosmopolitanism than at countering the individualism of the household ("Go fight the Amalekites? Bah! Who's going to watch my family's sheep?"). I think in many ways the household, very broadly defined, is still going strong. It's the polis/tribal-level community and its values (collective worship defined by place rather than belief, universal military service, etc.) that have died.