Everyone knows that individualism is a fundamental trait of Western Civilization. Everyone likes to contrast “the individualism of the West” to “the collectivism of the East”. Everyone claims that individualistic nations value self-sufficiency, personal choices, and self-interest, whereas collectivist nations value the needs of the group or nation as a whole. In most of the quick readings and lectures offered online there is a palpable bias in favor of the values of collectivism. Westerners tend to be portrayed as selfish promoters of the “inalienable right” of the individual to pursue his own happiness as he sees fit and keep the product of his effort. Non-Westerners tend to be portrayed as believers in the “greater good” of the community over the self-centered interests of the individual. The collectivism of non-Western cultures is also painted as more sensible and realistic in believing that the individual can only exist within a society that confers him rights and allows him to enjoy his welfare and happiness.
This is not an accident. The teachers and academics who control the production of knowledge in the West are committed to the promotion of socialistic policies, the common environment, and the harmony of the “We” against the “selfishness” and “abstract” illusions of individualism. Many on the Dissident Right have come to agree with the Left. They too speak in favor of the collectivist focus on the greater good, hierarchical relationships, duty to the group or nation, and the importance of having a “sense of belonging” and responsibility beyond the interests of the immediate family.
Only autistic libertarians, it would seem, prefer individualism. What these contrasting expressions miss is a historical awareness of the roots of individualism and the inescapable reality that the conceptions of collectivism coming out of the West are based on conscious decisions by individuals rather than acceptance without awareness of customary roles and group identities. The individualism of the West can’t be reduced to a mere choice of lifestyle, private property rights, and equality under the law. The fundamental question is whether individuals have an inner being of their own as individuals with a clear grasp of what is outside the mind and what is interior to it, what is merely given to the mind without consciousness and unknown, and what is mediated by the mind and therefore intelligible and freely chosen. Having an inner identity is what permits the flourishing of personalities, allows individuals to decide what collective values they wish to support rather than remain stereotyped characters without originality and vitality.
Having this inner being does not mean the individual can exist on his own without society. In collectivist cultures, in all non-white cultures, the group, the external world of nature, forces beyond reason, mysterious spirits, unquestioned conventions, exercise a decisive influence over the mental life of the individual. It is not that adults in relatively advanced civilizations in the East have been devoid of any sense of ego consciousness in distinction from the world around them. It is that this ego consciousness has remained undeveloped because it has been enveloped within hereditary influences, barely understood norms, magical or unquestioned powers ascribed to names, words, and deities.
Of course, the ego consciousness of most individuals in the West never attains its full potential. Just as the embryo has to recapitulate in abbreviated form the stages of organic evolution, the child in the West has to recapitulate the stages of cognitive and self-development the West experienced. But many fail to achieve a strong inner being because they don’t have the requisite IQ or were never properly educated. And now that the West is ruled by anti-white ideological forces the inner being of Whites has been severely damaged. There were no ideologies before the annihilation of traditions in the modern era. There were no isms before the bourgeois revolutions, no socialism, no conservatism, liberalism, feminism, or nationalism. Ideologies are now the only basis for a collectivist in-group identity in the West. The West needs to construct itself on the basis of nationalistic ideologies that enhance White individuals rather than imitate the collectivism of the East. In cultures which live tribally “each individual is only a type”. This is what Jacob Burckhardt observed, and he also observed that “the human race has over the ages achieved very little of supreme excellence”, and that only in Europe do we find a spirit of perpetual creativity and vitality, “multifarious life, a place where the richest formations originate, a home of all contrasts”. Europe’s strong sense of individuality explains this superlative contrast to the non-West.
The full flowering of multifarious personalities came about late in European history, in the nineteenth century. The roots go back to the prehistoric Indo-Europeans with their heroic aristocratic individualism. However, for Burckhardt, in the Middle Ages, “man was conscious of himself only as a member of a race, people, party, family, or corporation — only through some general category.” It was only in Renaissance Italy that the collectivist “veil first melted into air”; and the “subjective side…asserted itself…man became a spirited individual, and recognized himself as such.” Colin Morris challenges Burckhardt in his book The Discovery of the Individual, 1020-1200, published in 1972. Below I want to offer some notes about this book. In another article I will write about Burckardt’s unsurpassed study, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860).
The Self in the Middle Ages
Morris provides some insights about the nature of the Western self as it came to emerge, in his estimation, in medieval times. The individualism he has in mind is not the one we see emerging in Hobbes and Locke in which individuals with natural liberties pre-existing any society consciously come together to create a political order. There are many ways to approach the individualism of the West. The Lockean concept of liberty, or the negative concept of liberty, is only one among many others. What concerns Morris, or what he detects in the Middle Ages, is the emergence of a sense of self.
Many believe that the fact “that we are individuals” is a product of modern industrial society, and many expect individualism to become the norm in the world as modern industry and science spread outside the West. But Morris knows that having “an inner being” is very “unusual”. Westerners take is as a “matter of common sense that we stand apart from the natural order in which we are set…and that we have our own distinct personality”. They assume that having an inner self “is a common element in human psychology” and that “every adult human being is aware of a distinction between himself and the people and things around him”. They don’t know that the West is “exceptional among the civilizations of the world” in this respect.
I don’t agree with Morris leaving out the ancient Greek world from this “sense of individuality”. A latent conception of individuality is already visible in the representation of the hero in the epics and mythical stories of Indo-Europeans, in the Iliad, and in the Germanic-Scandinavian sagas of the early medieval era. The separation of the cognitive self out of the enveloping world is evident in the philosophy of the Presocratics. Morris thinks that the first inklings of individuality only become visible in the Roman era and in Christianity. In Rome, around 50 BC, he finds lyrical poetry “freed from the conventional ethics” of the day. He finds historians, Sallust and Suetonius, reflecting about the motives and personalities of statesmen, “although they were still inclined to see them as types rather than as fully formed personalities”. He also detects in Seneca’s letters a concern “with self-examination and the pursuit of disciplined virtue,” but, unlike the writers of the Middle Ages, he thinks there is a lack of intense passion and affection in Seneca’s writings. In Christianity, as it entered the West under the heavy influence of Greco-Roman civilization, he detects a strong emphasis on the “value of the individual.” He says there is a “a sense of individual identity and value implicit in [the] belief that [there is] a God who has called each man by name”. Christianity looks into the “interior” or the “inner convictions” of the believer, and, in its “central belief that God became man for man’s salvation,” it affirms the dignity of all humans.
Saint Augustine’s Confessions, he says, is “the first autobiography ever written,” “a product of Christian experience and reflection,” in line “with the tradition of self-exploration in the late Greco-Roman world”. “The Confessions…lay at the root of a good deal of medieval autobiography, and helped to establish the sense of importance of each individual’s experiences within the purposes of God”. The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius (480-525) is a form of rational self-examination, “a personal work” in which Boethius declares that he composed it “while I was mutely pondering within myself and recording my sorrowful complaints with my pen”.
From here Morris jumps a few centuries right into Peter Damiani (1007-1072) who seemed to believe that only with the rejection of the outside world would “the mind return within itself, with all its resources collected,” and that after death he would enter “the splendour of the inner country”. Morris refers in passing to a “sense of inwardness” among other Christians committed to “withdrawal from the world”, an inclination for “self-exploration” — but on the whole this period still “offered little scope to the individual and did not value individuality”. Only with the end of the barbaric chaos which engulfed the West for many centuries after the fall of Rome, the resurgence of city life, the building of magnificent cathedrals and universities, the “twelfth century renaissance” and the discovery of many classical writings, do we find men like Peter Abelard authoring books with the title Ethics: or, Know yourself (1135) and John Salisbury saying: “Who is more contemptible than he who scorns a knowledge of himself?” (1159). “Self-knowledge,” Morris believes, “was one of the dominant themes of the age”. Self-knowledge was the path to God.
Self-Expression and Psychological Exploration
Morris observes a “widespread desire for self-expression” in the period 1050-1200. Guibert of Nogent insisted that self-analysis was the key ingredient of the preacher’s task.
No preaching seems to me more profitable than that which reveals a man to himself, and replaces in his inner self, that is in his mind, what has been projected outside; and which convincingly places him, as in a portrait before his own eyes.
In the new lyric poetry of this time there is a strong inclination to express one’s sincere feelings as well as to put oneself in the position of the person who suffers or desires. This concern with inner feelings found expression not only in poetry but in confessions, in the writing of autobiographies, and in portraiture. There was also a growing awareness of the importance of intention. Peter Abelard in particular insisted that a man could not be called a sinner except in light of the intentions motivating his actions. Morris actually detects a “wide concern about psychology,” and a realization that a “multiplicity of affections and appetites” made up man’s inner being. The motivations of humans were more complex than mere choices between good and evil actions. There was a “variety of appetites and goods.
Along with this interest in self-knowledge there came “a great increase in the autobiographical content of books on a wide variety of subjects”. For many centuries Augustine’s Confessions was the only autobiographical work, but during the twelfth century there was a “general tendency to examine, and publish, one’s personal experience”. (Meanwhile, it should be noted that in China, the most advanced civilization of this period, there were no intellectual novelties, no autobiographical works, no self-examination and self-questioning, but mere repetition of the same Confucian and Taoist ideas originated in the Axial Age). This inner self questioning occasioned as well, in the writings of Saint Anselm and Peter Abelard, a rational justification of faith. The “inner distress” brought by the sometimes doubtful reliability of Scripture with its contradictory statements elicited books aimed at establishing Christianity on a more sound or consistent basis. Philosophers were no longer satisfied with the “authority” of the Scripture, but wanted answers to such questions as: “If almighty God existed, or had any power,” why should God make man suffer so much?
|Portrait of Geoffrey Plantagenet (1151)|
Morris also notices in the centuries after 1000 AD “the inclusion of more and more personal details in a portrait”. The intention of older pictures was to convey an idea, a type of character, whereas the aim of a portrait was to represent a particular person. In the words of one scholar, what was novel about the portrait was “the characterization of a man absolutely and unchangeably by his particular physical peculiarities, especially his face, and not by the insignia of his office or rank”. Morris recognizes that individualized and realistic portraitures were invented in Romans times, to be revived after 1000 AD. Why was there a growing stress “in personal gestures and in private idiosyncrasies”? Morris describes this as part of the discovery of the individual self. But one could say bluntly that humans remain faceless, mere types, rather than actually living, concrete personalities, unless they come to apprehend their inner being as the ultimate authority of what there is. Throughout their histories, non-Europeans have remain faceless types, representatives of accepted conventions, remote and impersonal, anonymous, characterless and dull, replaceable.
Friendship and Courtly Love
Another component connected with the exploration of the self and the “growth of a keen self-awareness” among Europeans was an interest in the ideal of friendship. Discussions of friendship can be found in Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and others, but only “the twelfth century has been called the century of friendship”. I will add that friendship beyond one’s collective kin tends to be uniquely European, for true friendship presupposes an inner self freed from kinship rules and stereotypical characters. The letter was the most salient vehicle for declarations of friendship. We still have great collections of the correspondence of many of the great individuals of this age. Friendship entails honesty, and it is no accident that honesty is a uniquely European ideal. The Chinese, for example, are far less concerned with honesty; it is all about “saving face”, avoiding a true expression of one’s feelings, caring only about how others perceive you in ways that are conventionally acceptable to ensure one’s interests in society. In stark contrast, friendship in the Middle Ages came to mean honesty about oneself, and the importance of accepting a friend as he is rather than as a type. Here is Saint Bernard (1120s) writing to a friend:
You could reach me if you but considered what I am; and you can reach me still whenever you wish, if you are content to find me as I am and not as you wish me to be. I cannot think what else you see in me besides what I am, what it is you are chasing which is not me.
This was also the century of courtly love were lovers in the stories of Chrétien de Troyes “indulge in lengthy self-questioning about the nature of their feeling for each other”. While the cult of friendship was taken up primarily by members of the monastic orders and celibate intellectuals; and passionate love was regarded as sinful by the Church, and marriages among the upper classes were generally undertaken for political and social reasons, courtly love, the desire to serve and adore the beloved, was restricted to the lay aristocracy, or, more accurately, troubadours under the patronage of wealthy noblemen or women, who traveled extensively singing their love poems. It was a poetry of desire, devotion and adoration; and while it was a longing for a married woman, hidden love, adulterous and dominated by physical desire, it was not about actual adulterous affairs, but a celebration of the virtues of fidelity for the unavailable beloved, joy, courtesy. One could say that the center of interest was not the mistress, “but one’s own self, the thoughts inspired by the passions aroused, by the distant beloved.” It was a discovery of the intensively personal nature of love, a focus on the inner experience of love, concerned with self-analysis of the nature of sexual longing and the joy involved in the sensations and sentiments associated with love.
Chrétien de Troyes, who was more than a troubadour, the major poet of his age, is said to have been the first exponent in human history of romantic love, of “marrying for love”. His stories offer psychological insights of the thoughts and emotions of lovers, and the “differing qualities of people’s minds…and their varied attitudes to love” — for instance, the contrast of a shy love with an obsessive, adulterous passion. He saw how in the “affairs of love” the power of the heart surpasses “the expectations of custom”. “I will do as my heart wills”.
This book, The Discovery of the Individual, only scratches the surface of the incredible novelties Europe saw during the long Middle Ages. The point of this article is simply to outline the importance the search for the inner being of humans was to men in the Middle Ages; what it means to have individuality, personality, to be inner-directed rather than faceless, impersonal, controlled by forces and emotions beyond one’s understanding. Only if we understand the psychology of Western man will we understand the nature of the forces trying to destroy this unique man, replace him with masses of migrants from Africa and Asia with a poorly developed sense of inner being and personality.