Individualism: The Cultural Logic of Modernity

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Individualism : The Cultural Logic of Modernity

No rational man would kill ten deer only to have the meat putrefy, or pick two hundred pounds of blueberries only to have the fruit spoil in a week. With money, the industrious enlarged their possessions, and because man by nature has an unlimited desire for material goods, soon the commons vanished, replaced by vast estates. Men without land were forced to sell their labor for wages; the buyer owned their labor, and thus what they produced belonged to him.

The buyer and seller of labor are linked by the exchange of money, not in any permanent way by custom or obligation. According to Locke, unlimited private property and the selling and buying of human labor, the two essential components of capitalism, are rooted in the nature of man. The interference with free markets and class structure by a society or a government goes against God and nature. Chamber of Commerce. Like the majority of Americans, I acquired the individualism that capitalism rests upon through public schooling; my fellow students and I learned to compete in the classroom and on the sports field, an ethic that prepared us for the workplace.

The Reformation destroyed medieval communal life and thereby launched individualism. Tocqueville captured in one word the essence of Modernity.

Stated in its most general form, the defining principle of Modernity is that every whole—a political community, a horse, or a carbon atom—is a sum of its isolated parts. Modernity rests upon three legs: science and technology, democracy, and capitalism; all three legs are bound together by individualism.

The overarching principle of Modernity, then, is that things exist in isolation , as separate entities. In Old Europe, like in every premodern culture, the group was considered prior to the individual in origin and authority. In Medieval France, the basic unit of society was the peasant family, the domus ; the Latin word meant both family and house, for the two were inextricably bound together.

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The domus usually went beyond two parents and their children to include servants, boarders, and illegitimate children, if any. The family, patriarchal and corporate in essence, was more than a set of interpersonal relations. Honors of achievement were bestowed upon the family, rather than the individual. Property belonged to the family, not the individual, and could not easily be separated from the family. The legal rights of the family over its members were inviolable.

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Since the whole is seen as prior to and greater than any of its parts, the overarching principle in Medieval Europe as well as in all premodern cultures is things exist only in relationship. In Buddhism, a flower or a lion is said to be empty, meaning that the flower or lion has no independent existence separable from everything else.

The ancient and modern ways of understanding humans, nature, and the transcendent differ radically. While self is not ignored by these two ancient thinkers, they emphasize the soul, what is universal about each person. In Modernity, of course, the soul is replaced by the isolated, autonomous self. We have arrived at the Great Chasm that separates modern and ancient cultures, a chasm that may be bridgeable intellectually, but not experientially. We moderns live in a totally different cosmos than our medieval ancestors or our Greek forbearers.

Aristotle believed that the stars traverse circles about the Earth because of their desire to emulate the Prime Mover, an eternal being beyond the sphere of fixed stars that moves as an object of love, yet itself is unchanging. We cannot go home again to the cozy, ancient cosmos, where the night sky displayed the transcendent and Mother Earth manifested harmony and fecundity.

Nor can we undo scientific knowledge; we live on a tiny planet, orbiting an ordinary star, near the edge of an ordinary galaxy that contains at least two hundred billion stars, in a universe with more than a hundred billion galaxies. For us, living in a world of many differing cultures, the spiritual life must include the deepest insights of all the wisdom traditions.

Unfortunately, we moderns are on the wrong side of the chasm, for the principle things exist in isolation is false. The ancient principle that things exist only in relationship , however, is very much present in everyday modern life, contrary to our cultural myth. In the nineteenth century, physicists hoped that someday they could isolate the atom from the cosmos, for they believed that knowing the properties of isolated atoms was the key to understanding the material world.

Physicists later, however, discovered that the more an atom is isolated, the less actual it is. Atoms and elementary particles do not exist in the same way that billiard balls and cue sticks do. Atomic entities exist as potentialities or possibilities rather than as definite concrete objects. In the twentieth century, quantum physicists were forced by nature to renounce the cultural dogma that the world is made up of autonomous parts, each with a separate, independent existence. In quantum physics, nothing has an independent existence separable from everything else. Things exist only in relationship— and, this has always been true, even in Newtonian mechanics, although physicists for over two centuries unwittingly promoted the fiction that the world is made up of separate, independent parts.

Often professor and student alike take what is constructed for mathematical convenience as reality. Such idealizations often fail to capture the interconnectedness of nature. For a watch, an automobile, or an electric motor to keep running in one direction, it must dump the heat it generates into its surroundings, and at some point this requires that the heat generated on Earth be radiated into empty space.

The Earth can cool off only because the universe is expanding and cooling down. Thus, a watch can keep time because the Big Bang started the universe in a one-way direction. For a physicist to understand completely why a machine can run in only one direction, she must understand the Big Bang. We must not be misled into thinking that things exist only in relationship applies exclusively to the exotic realms of quantum physics and cosmology.