The Death of the Individual

The displacement of the “individual” as a primary category of social and political thought — a distinctly observable trend in the contemporary West — is an infallible sign of civilizational despair. The nexus of causes and factors accounting for this undeniable phenomenon has been analyzed in many different ways and from many different perspectives: the draining of confidence in the “Western enterprise” after two world wars and the devastation of the generations; the natural tendency of a successful civilization to grow tired and lazy in the course of aeonian time, as Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee argued in their major works; the loss of religious conviction and its attendant moral armature, leading to rootless insecurity and lack of transcendent purpose; the attenuation of historical memory — what I have elsewhere called the chronosectomy — owing to a dumbed-down education paradigm and the consequent onset of a present-oriented hedonism. Perhaps all of these factors are coterminous and work together against the sense of individual responsibility for self, family, and nation. But whatever may explain our predicament, there can be little doubt that, despite all our technical advances, we are experiencing something like the advent of a new Dark Age.

The concept of the self has undergone a sea change, as has the practice of self-reliance, civic virtue, moral integrity, national pride, and the commitment to cultural perpetuation. The temptation is to embrace one of two options: unbridled self-indulgence without heed for the past or the future, a kind of, let’s say, bed-and-circuses mentality that has become pervasive in the West; or the emptying out of intellectual and spiritual substance into the amorphous but all-consuming structures of grand collective movements, generally of a utopian nature. I suspect these are only two sides of the same counterfeit coin. The pursuit of the millennium, to cite the title of Norman Cohn’s must-read volume, is an ironclad way of flattering one’s unearned self-esteem without demanding the duty of thought and the discipline of knowledge. It goes hand in hand with the surrender to authority at the cost of what the existentialists used to call personal authenticity. The individual, in the classic sense of a concrete center of cognitive awareness and moral responsibility, has become the relic of a vanishing tradition. The inclination is to identify with presumably benevolent but actually savage abstractions. In today’s “enlightened” world, the Arcadian dream — a dead idea embalmed with the illusion of vitality — has once again assumed massive and destructive proportions.

It should now be obvious that in the name of “the brotherhood of man,” of human sympathy and an oceanic desire for peace, a travesty is being enacted. Pragmatic democratic institutions and powers ready to entertain the prospect of conflict and sacrifice in the service of specific, empirical commitments to beneficial change, or the preservation of authentic liberal values, are slagged as aggressors, and courageous individuals unwilling to surrender themselves to the chants, slogans, and sentimentalities of the morally occulted are swept aside as vestiges of an archaic state of mind. As C.S. Lewis presciently wrote in his 1944 The Abolition of Man: “We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.” Such is the paideia, the method of education and cultural transmission, that obtains today in the West, chiefly in the debased Humanities.

The eclipse of the Humanities, which have been reduced to a politicized hybrid  called “cultural studies” in our university curricula, is one of the more conspicuous symptoms of precipitous cultural decline. In Break, Blow, Burn, Camille Paglia mourns the virtual extinction of lyric poetry, “which from its birth in ancient Greece has played so significant a role in the emergence of individualism, spawning in turn our concept of civil rights.” We have forfeited “custodianship” to “deconstruction” and in so doing have violated the “mission and goal of the humanities.”

It is, of course, not only a question of the melancholy fate of lyric poetry. We now suffer the dimming of a long tradition of scholarship, responsible pedagogy, literary memory, immersion in the cultural library, and the practice of independent study and thought — of learning for oneself rather than lapsing into groupthink or being “nudged” toward the treadmill uniformity of syndicate and guild. The articulation of broad-based knowledge and the formation of the sovereign sensibility, aware of both its freedom and its civic duties, even if more honored in the breach than the observance, represent the inherent morality of genuine education. “I am uncertain,” Paglia concludes, “about whether the West’s chaotic personalism can prevail against the totalizing creeds that menace it.”

The schools and institutions that “mediate moral understanding to children,” in the words of James Davison Hunter in The Death of Character, have become complicit “in destroying…character and its attending moral ideals,” by failing to provide “a more grounded experience of subjective autonomy.” One might go further and suggest that such a “more grounded experience” of subjective identity is almost entirely wanting and its antithesis — a world of unselved integers participating in a fable of universal peace and brotherhood — installed in its place. There can be no question that we live in an age in which the concept of the autonomous individual, capable of forming his own ideas, asserting his right of self-determination, and chary of dependence on others, has been critically weakened.

Erich Fromm has furnished the definitive study of the process of self-abdication in his Escape from Freedom, which convincingly accounts for the dynamic of moral and individual surrender to the collective mind. According to Fromm, the identification with authoritarianism is a “mechanism of escape” from a feeling of personal insecurity and weakness. The “severed” personality attempts to overcome so crippling a condition by choosing to “give up his freedom” as a way of “eliminating the gap” between his individual self and the world he cannot come to terms with or enter as a productive participant. The lamentable result is “the more or less complete surrender of individuality and the integrity of the self.” And the choice is paid for “by a kind of life that often consists only of automatic or compulsive activities,” another way of describing the totalitarian nightmare.

Fromm focuses on the psychology of Nazism to better clarify the structure of the totalitarian personality. It is typified by a deep intuition of lack, of insignificance and deficiency. Two of the factors that tend to predominate are a slavish admiration of power and the accusation of the Jews as a “race” that desires mastery over others. The contradiction is rarely noticed: power is to be sought as a good on the one hand, condemned as an evil on the other. And yet the paradox is only apparent. Where the psyche is inwardly prey to the presentiment of its own vacancy, one always requires both a threatening usurper and a redeeming authority to establish the conviction of one’s own supremacy and completeness. Though Fromm’s theory is not entirely original — Papa Freud throughout his oeuvre, Elias Canetti, and Eric Hoffer have all in one way or another proposed similar notions — it is about as accurate an understanding of the totalitarian impulse that governs the “lifeworld” of the contemporary sensibility as we can come up with.