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The Cult of the Individual

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"That leaves the American citizen, 125 million strong, with his faith in individualism and what it will do for him--mainly without his rent, his job, a decent suit of clothes, a pair of shoes, or food. His faith in this free-for-all individualism has now led him to the place where his fellow individualists of greater strength, cunning, and greed are in a position to say for how much, or rather, for how little, he shall work, for how long, and whether, he shall be allowed to make any complaint or even seek redress in case he is unhappy or dissatisfied, ill-treated, deprived, or even actually starved. In fact, his faith in this individualism as a solvent for all of his ills has caused him to slumber while his fellow individualists of greater greed and cunning have been seizing his wealth, his church, his press, his courts, his judges, his legislators, his police, and quite all of his originally agreed upon constitutional privileges so that, today, he walks practically in fear of his own shadow."-
Theodore Dreiser (1871-1945), American novelist, "Individualism"- Seen in Destructive Phase, The Progressive, January 9, 1932; reprinted April 9, 2009.            

The open struggle between the rights of the individual and the needs of society and the state is a relatively recent one in human history.  No prophet or priest of ancient Israel, philosopher of ancient Athens, or politician of ancient Rome, would have dared to argue that the needs of the individual ever outweighed the needs of the state.  Proclaiming such a position in public would have earned you exile or execution in any of these three founding cultures of Western Civilization.            

The formal philosophical beginning of individualism can be traced directly to René Descartes and his concept of cogito ergo sum: I think, therefore I am.  (I personally prefer William Sloane Coffin's version, amo ergo sum, I love therefore I am.)  In the moment he used himself and the recognition of his thinking as the first step in his system of knowledge, Descartes established the importance of the individual in relation to a philosophical system and, consequently, the world.                     

Over the next four centuries, philosophers have argued over the moral ascendency of the needs of the group versus that of the individual, in much the same way theologians argued freewill and predestination from the Dark Ages to the Reformation.  Intrinsically related to this argument is the question of an individual's freedom, where he derives that freedom from, in both a theoretical and a practical sense, and what relationship-if any--does that freedom have with both the beliefs and needs of his community and the state?  Additionally, is this freedom, and that freedom's associated rights, objectively discernible, or are they purely subjective, limited in both scope and use by time and circumstance?            

This suggests to me that the first question that must be answered is freedom an object to be striven for, an end onto itself; or is freedom a subject to be experienced, a means to an end rather than an end in itself?            

I believe that freedom is a subject, not an object.  Freedom is a state of existence to be experienced, not an idol that can be grasped and held like a child's toy.  Nelson Mandela came out of his many years of physical confinement realizing that South Africa would never truly be free while it was held by the bonds of hatred and fear.  When you attempt to make freedom an object to be grasped, you invariably deny that freedom to someone else.  White South Africa held their "freedom"- so tightly, that they were bound to their fear of Black South Africans as if they were prisoners in a chain gang.  Black South Africans were every bit as tightly bound to the hatred of the injustice of apartheid visited upon them by White South Africans.  Mandela left prison with a key that unlocked the gates to a new and more inclusive freedom for both sides.            

Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence wrote of our right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."-  We must understand that the freedom required to attain and enjoy these rights, and the rights themselves, is not the actual goal itself.  In psychological terms, our goal as human beings is not to have (or possess) an amorphous, ill-defined freedom; every human being's goal is to be free to attempt to attain these goals.              

Mutual respect for one another's rights is the true basis for being free.  Furthermore, the denial of any group's or individual's rights are inherently dangerous to anyone and everyone who enjoys freedom.  If, through the law, you (individually or as a group) can deny a group or individual some right or freedom that you now enjoy, then at sometime in the future the same logic can be used to deny you a right or freedom that you have heretofore enjoyed.              

For Americans, our preoccupation with wealth has in many cases led us to conflate freedom and being free primarily with the right to acquire and use our property (wealth), rather than the rights of all of our fellow human beings to live and be free.  This in turn has led us to grasp our individual perceptions of "freedom"- so tightly that they have shackled our lives, rather than use our freedom as wings by which we may best live our lives and be free.  Like the South Africans, we are imprisoned by our beliefs about what freedom is, while at the same time binding millions of our fellow citizens with unrequited needs--including a job with a living wage, and an adequate level of food, housing, medical care, education, and real opportunity--that they must have to truly be free.            

Burdened by the misapprehension that freedom and what we desire are somehow identical, too many Americans have become enamored with what to me is an idolatrous fixation: that our own individual freedoms--both real and assumed--matter above all other considerations and responsibilities within our society.  This way of thinking has led us to our current economic meltdown, the alienation of ourselves from the other people in our lives and communities as well as ourselves, and the exaltation of material possessions over human interactions and human needs.            

This is not to say that the rights of the individual are unimportant, or even that they are always secondary to the needs of society.  A balance between the two is needed: the individual must be free to achieve the goals of who and what he wants to be, within the limits of his own gifts that give him the capability to achieve his dreams. This must be done while allowing other members of society to achieve their own dreams, and in such a way that neither success nor failure is guaranteed.  It is morally wrong to make failure impossible; just as it is equally wrong to make success impossible, such as was the case for African-Americans seventy-five years ago.            

Here is a basic assumption for the purposes of this article: I believe that we can all agree that you cannot truly be free without some concomitant degree of responsibility.  If that is true, to what extent does that responsibility go beyond the responsibility for just ourselves, to include responsibility for other people?  Is their no responsibility except for ourselves, or is it limited to just our families?  Our circle of friends? Our community? Our nation? Or do we have some responsibility to everyone and everything on Planet Earth?            

I shall approach this by asking a simple question: to what extent do we derive--in a practical sense--our rights from the agreement of those who are around us?            

As I have stated before, in my article "Rights, Powers, Privileges, and Responsibilities,"- (, 27 July, 2007), the "unalienable rights"- of which Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, are--in philosophical terms--natural rights.  To quote from the article, "Natural rights are intrinsic to us as human beings, existing, as Immanuel Kant would say, 'a priori,' without proof. To be more precise, the dictionary defines a priori as: 'Proceeding from a known or assumed cause to a necessarily related effect; deductive;' (The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition copyright © 1992 by Houghton Mifflin Company)."-            

At the same time, Jefferson understood that in a practical sense, the rights we enjoy on a daily basis are what philosophers and political scientists call "positive rights."-  These positive rights are the natural rights which We the People retain when we grant sovereignty, i.e., power and authority, to the government, through the Social Contract.             

Our "natural rights"- as human beings, are transformed into "positive rights"- by either the implicit or explicit agreement with the other members of our nation and its civil society as a whole, within the context of the Social Contract (See the "Tao of Government,"-, 28 February, 2009, for more on Power, Authority, Sovereignty, and the Social Contract).  Recognizing this, Jefferson used this as the foundation for the Declaration of Independence's statement "That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed"-            

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Richard Girard is a polymath and autodidact whose greatest desire in life is to be his generations' Thomas Paine. He is an FDR Democrat, which probably puts him with U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders in the current political spectrum. His answer to (more...)

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