The many myths of the individual free us from authority but subject us to power
In Book Six of the The Iliad, Diomedes encounters Glaukos for the first time and asks of him, “Who among mortal men are you, good friend?” Glaukos proceeds to deliver a 66-line response in which he tells the story of his ancestors. Where the Stanford student would have detailed his interests, education, and career plans, Glaukos spoke of facts beyond his control. In an age in which personal identity is a political battleground, Glaukos’ understanding can seem retrograde. After all, don’t we all have the right to choose our own identities?
The modern answer is an unqualified “yes.” As Justice Kennedy argued, “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”
But reality is not as simple.
Like Justice Kennedy’s newfound rights, the right to determine your own identity seems heavily contingent and severely restricted in reality. We live our own lives but can probably never overcome the influences from our parents, upbringings, genes, or norms of our societies. Moreover, I cannot become a black female member of the Iroquois Nation. Even if I swore I was all those things, the community would not be required to defer to my fantasy. Accepting these limits seems like an important part of maturation. The question, as always, is where to draw the line between individual choice and the well-being of the community.
But why is it important to maintain a line at all? I fear our society no longer has an answer.
“Who cares? If you don’t like it, don’t do it!” is the ever-ready response to any concern about other people’s freely chosen behavior. But we care about other people and care about ourselves. Changing norms of acceptable social behavior will undoubtedly affect me and any future family of mine in a thousand ways. Individuals will want to choose their own way, but if our society lacks clear expectations for the roles and behaviors of parents and children, teachers and students, politicians and voters, and men and women, we will all suffer.
The “Who cares? it doesn’t affect you” school of thought is destructive to a political community. As intellectual historian Wilfred McClay puts it, “Such a liberty, taken to its limit, renders supreme the individual’s will and preferences, superior to all conceptions of nature or God or any other extra-personal standard of judgment, including family and polity.”
Our original, republican idea of self-government was for institutions to help cultivate the individual and improve him such that he could use liberty well, and self-govern. However, we have since turned to a democratic idea of self-government in which “one’s natural self is the best of all possible selves,” as Irving Kristol observed, and the society need only give the individual liberty and remove all corrupting influences. Individualism guided the individual to dismiss external standards and choose his own path, but left nothing to restrain the temptation toward pure self-interest.
Columbia professor Mark Lilla writes in the New York Times that, “our children are being encouraged to talk about their individual identities, even before they have them.” By the time the individual graduates high school, he will have been taught that his preferences are the highest good and the strongest argument, no matter their impact on the community. College, for those who attend, only encourages continued self-focus with student groups, professors and administrators whose full-time job “heighten the significance of diversity issues,” according to Professor Lilla.
Accordingly, all societal and customary authorities begin to look like chains, restraining and oppressing. The idea that tradition, which is centuries upon centuries of accumulated practical wisdom, can make human freedom meaningful by directing it toward worthy ends, has been lost. The inevitable retort, “Who are you to say what’s worthy?” satisfies our pride, but only that.
Over time, the number of choices to which the community could say “no” diminished until there was little reason for the community to exist. After all, people do not just come together for the sake of it, but to do something. Many communal institutions like schools and churches and civic groups began to change their own standards to accommodate the new individuals, but only managed to quicken their own decline. As Irving Kristol observed, “People do not have respect for institutions, which, instead of making demands upon them, are completely subservient to their whims.”
So the chains were thrust off and the institutions sidelined, only for us to discover that the individual was far from self-sufficient. His need for community and a place and role within it did not shrink during his liberation, but the community had already been debilitated. The mass of individuals then turns to its only other option for community: the state.
We need only to look to history for evidence. The laissez-faire of the nineteenth century was followed by the totalizing states of the early twentieth century. After all, a ‘national community’ is most appealing in the absence of an actual community. As individualism spread in the second half of the twentieth century, traditional authorities like religion, community, and family broke down, while the state continued to grow, filling the voids. While we’ve never had more real income and personal freedom, we’ve also never been more convinced that something is wrong, that we’re on the wrong track.
People need help, and the only power capable and willing to reach all the new individuals living according to their own standards, and also to treat them equally, anonymously, and amorally — like widgets on an assembly line — is the central state.
So why is it important to stake out a line that individual choice shall not cross? Why is it dangerous to let the individual remake himself in his own image, ignoring the community? Why did Glaukos find meaning, identity and purpose in connecting himself to his ancestors and carrying on their traditions?
Because in the end, the state is not enough. Neither is the Internet nor the market. They will give you what you want, but not what you need, and no amount of personal freedom will make your need for comfort, structure, education, and a role — because we all need to be needed — go away. Ministering to those needs might just require a minister, a family and a community.
Photo Credit: Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, 1818, Caspar David Friedrich