Individualism is one of the hallmarks of Western philosophy and civilization. No other intellectual tradition has been as intensively (some would say: excessively) preoccupied with singling out and defining the individual self than Western philosophy, and no other polity has made the presumed rights and prerogatives of the individual as central a concern as Western societies. Individualism is as defining a characteristic of our present civilization as capitalism, materialism, technology, and global expansion.
Socrates’ work and example were an important beginning of this individualistic legacy. Socrates’ inner independence from the community in which he lived set an important precedent for the way in which a person could conceive of himself or herself as a separate and distinct being. However radical Socrates’ individualism was, however, he never ceased to think of himself as a member of a community. His very individualism was defined as a social role (as his self-conception as Athens’ “gadfly” clearly shows). And no Greek philosopher in Antiquity ever thought of the individual as anything else than a social being, a zoon politicon.
This became different at the beginning of the Modern Age. Modern philosophy developed a concept of the individual that was far more solitary than that created by Socrates and Antiquity. The modern definition of the self disregards any reference to society or social context and fastens exclusively on what the self is in itself. Because of this approach to understanding and defining the self, modern philosophy ended up with a conception of an individual that was besieged by the problem of solipsism and the question of how a person could possibly relate to the outside world.
The philosopher who first formulated the idea of this solitary self was Rene Descartes (1596-1650). It is because of his groundbreaking work in this respect that he has become known as “the father of modern philosophy.” To understand why Descartes felt compelled to develop his radical individualism, it will be helpful to take a look at the general situation of his time.
The Modern Age came into being around 1500 CE--give or take a hundred years. The thousand years or so before that time are called the Middle Ages, and they are sometimes characterized as the "Dark Age." The transitional years that followed the Middle Ages brought about enormous changes in all areas of life. Four major events and developments stand out: The Renaissance, the Reformation, the change from agrarian Feudalism to urban Capitalism, and the discovery and conquest of overseas territories and peoples.
The word "Renaissance" means "re-birth," and the term refers to the rediscovery and re-activation of much of the sophisticated pagan culture of Antiquity that had been suppressed by the Catholicism of the Middle Ages. It was characterized foremost by a new worldliness of life. The earth was not seen as a vale of tears anymore, but as a place where it was “a pleasure to live.” Renaissance men and women did not think of the physical world as merely transitory and insignificant in comparison with life after death, but as a cosmos that deserved their full attention and admiration. The naked human body became a prominent subject of Renaissance painting and sculpture. Painters and art patrons did not think of it as sinful and in need of being covered up, but as something to be respected and cherished. Science, too, turned to the physical world with renewed energy and curiosity. The trailblazing discoveries, theories, and inventions of Galileo Galilei, together with the physicist’s opposition to traditional church teachings, can be seen as typical and representative of the growing secularization of the European mind.
The new worldliness became prevalent in other areas of life as well. Political power throughout the Middle Ages was sanctioned by the Catholic church, and in theory at least was tempered by carefully delineated moral obligations toward God and citizens. During the Renaissance power tended to become a purely worldly affair, and a desirable goal in itself. In his notorious book The Prince, written in 1513, Machiavelli advocated openly that in the art of ruling efficiency has to be more important than ethics, and that rulers often have to lie, cheat, and take all sorts of measures that are cruel and ruthless.
Machiavelli's theory reflected the practice of the time. Furious struggles for power were the order of the day. The papacy itself became the object of pure power politics. Kings and warlords from all European countries conquered and lost cities and territories at a rate that would have been perceived as lawless and chaotic in earlier times. Dramatists like Shakespeare explored the psychology of Renaissance princes in such characters as Macbeth, Richard III, or Hamlet's uncle Claudius. Hamlet expressed some of the dismay of the contemporaries of such violent Renaissance men when he exclaimed: "The time is out of joint! O cursed spite/ That ever I was born to set it right."
The second movement that put an end to the Middle Ages was the Reformation. Its beginning is usually identified with Martin Luther's publication of his 95 theses against indulgences on a church door in Wittenberg in 1517. It unleashed a storm of Protestant rebellions all over northern Europe, and eventually lead to the break-up of Western Christianity into several independent churches. Europe became divided into Catholic and Protestant regions. More than a hundred years of fierce and brutal "Wars of Religion" ensued in which Catholic and Protestant monarchs tried to gain as much territory as possible, and to install their own faith as the official religion of their domains. The massacre of the Huguenots in France and the Thirty Years War in Germany are among the low points of these Wars of Religion.
The single most important doctrinal difference between Protestantism and Catholicism was Luther's insistence that every individual had an immediate relation to God, and that this relation could not be mediated through the offices of a priest or a church hierarchy. By reading scriptures himself or herself, every Christian had direct access to the truth; the authority of the Pope and his councils became irrelevant for how the Word of God was to be interpreted by the believer. Luther and other Protestant leaders initiated the translation of the Bible from the traditional Latin into native languages, languages that ordinary people could understand. Intensive study of scriptures, unsupervised by priests, became a widespread practice. The Catholic church found this individualistic circumvention of clerical authorities so threatening at the time, that it targeted Bible translators for special persecution. Tyndal, the first translator of the New Testament into English, was captured by the Inquisition while studying on the Continent, and eventually executed by garroting.
Catholicism was a culture of community and hierarchy. The individual had its predetermined place in both; individual freedom was limited by social status and spiritual directives. Catholicism was thus a culture that provided certainty and security to individuals who might otherwise feel abandoned and lost. Protestantism furthered a culture of individualistic self-reliance. By setting the individual free in his or her conscience, by defying the spiritual authority of the church and its worldly extensions, Protestantism became one of the origins of modern individualism in general.
Renaissance and Reformation as cultural movements did not come out of nowhere, but unfolded in the context of the decaying social and economic order of the Middle Ages. The most tangible development that marked the end of the medieval period was the accelerating change from agrarian Feudalism to urban Capitalism. Feudalism had been a relatively stable system for hundreds of years because agricultural production was very primitive--producing few surpluses, and thus keeping trade and urban developments at a low level. Serfs were forbidden by law to leave the land on which they were born, and the few individuals who left anyway had few places to go to. Most of the towns and cities of the former Roman Empire had severely decayed or vanished altogether; in some places cattle grazed among the sometimes still visible ruins of Antiquity. The once extensive road system had fallen into complete disrepair. With the exception of a few thriving cities like Paris or Cologne, an urban civilization no longer existed in the Middle Ages.
Toward the end of this “Dark Age,” however, growing numbers of serfs escaped to the few towns and cities that did exist, and these urban centers began to grow and attract more migrants. New trades developed in these places, and production intensified. Beginning with the Renaissance, small and primitive shops were increasingly replaced by bigger and efficiently structured manufacturing establishments. Ever larger amounts of money were invested in such enterprises; banking houses were established to facilitate investment and trade.
The new interest in the sciences produced many technological innovations. Gutenberg's invention of printing from movable type, for example, was the beginning of a communication technology that profoundly changed the character of European culture, and the systematic introduction of gunpowder lead to a whole new line of weapons manufacturing--not to mention a whole new type of warfare. The cities as a whole became very productive and grew rich through their trade and other commercial activities. In time their accumulated money translated into political power. The landed aristocracy began to lose influence and prestige; a new social class began to make its weight felt: the wealthy burghers, the bourgeoisie. Capitalism emerged as the dominant economic system of the future.
Capitalism is an economic system in which individual initiative and personal wealth can play a significant role. Enormous personal fortunes were made around 1500 through money lending and investments. Bankers often could dictate terms to eminent aristocrats and rulers. Besides Protestantism, Capitalism became thus an important breeding ground for the kind of individualism that was to characterize the culture of the West.
The fourth development that marks the end of the European Middle Ages was the discovery and conquest of overseas territories. Columbus' accidental discovery of the Americas in 1492 is often cited as the seminal event, but one gets a more accurate picture of the situation if one remembers that within a short period of time dozens of explorers and adventurers set out to seek their fortunes across the oceans. New technologies, such as compasses, improved ways of rigging sails, telescopes, and more reliable calculations in astronomy, made it possible for European seafarers to cross much larger bodies of water than before. The introduction of firearms and other weapons made it possible for small numbers of Europeans to defeat and subjugate large numbers of natives who might not welcome the foreign adventurers on their lands.
The ambitious and ruthless power seekers that Shakespeare portrayed so well in his tragedies found their real-life counterparts in such adventurous conquerors as Cortez, Alvarado, or Pizarro. Settlement of conquered overseas territories followed quickly. Wherever possible, old native cultures were destroyed, Christianity introduced by force or persuasion, available treasures plundered, plantations organized, slaves imported, and the regular transfer of the new wealth to Europe established on a regular basis. While Europeans became fully aware for the first time of how small their old world had been in comparison to the whole globe, they aggressively exported their own culture and thereby ensured that in time their ways would become the ways of the world.
The result of all these social and cultural changes was a widespread feeling of uncertainty among many Europeans. The old stable world of the Middle Ages was gone, and a new permanent order had not yet been established. Old truths had become increasingly doubtful, but new ones had not yet firmly taken hold of people's minds. The new interest in scientific research produced the basis of what was to become the sound knowledge of the future, but confidence in that knowledge was as yet far from general. Philosophical skeptics like Michel de Montaigne, whose influential Essays were published in 1580, emphasized how uncertain all the old truths had turned out to be. His conclusion for the present, however, was not that the emergence of the new sciences was a new dawn of real knowledge. Instead he kept alive in people's minds the fundamental skeptical question: How long will it take until the new truths will have to be discarded as well?
In Montaigne's case the rebirth of the culture of Antiquity meant primarily the rediscovery of certain skeptical philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome. From the Pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus Montaigne took the notion that everything is in constant flux. From such post-classical skeptic philosophers as Pyrrho and Sextus Empiricus he accepted the notion that things that are in flux cannot really be known, and that the human senses, constantly changing themselves, could not possibly reveal to us the true nature of things. As so many other scholars of the time, Montaigne lacked any kind of optimism with regard to science and reason. For him a profound uncertainty was the basic human condition.
Shakespeare's Prince Hamlet (the play of this name was first produced in 1601) can be seen as a prototypical character of this transitional period of early Modernity. Hamlet is a student in Wittenberg, the center of rebellious Lutheran Protestantism. He has to return to Denmark to attend his father's funeral. To his disgust he finds not only that his uncle has taken possession of the throne, but also that his mother has married the usurper in undue haste. The ghost of his father tells Hamlet that he was murdered by his uncle, and he urges the prince to avenge his death. In the old days Hamlet would not have had much reason to delay the revenge. Laertes, for example, the brother of his sweetheart Ophelia (and a student at the very traditionalist University of Paris) has no compunction to attack Hamlet when he is told that Hamlet killed his father Polonius. And Fortinbras, the Prince of Norway, an impetuous and unthinking warrior of the traditional kind, does not hesitate to wage a bloody war of conquest for a piece of territory that is too small to bury all the dead that that war would produce--because that is what princes are traditionally expected to do.
Both Laertes and Fortinbras are young men who feel no hesitation with regard to their duties, as they identify with their traditional social role and the conventional moral order of their world. But Hamlet is not a traditional prince; he is a modern man, an individual full of doubt as to what is true, and what would be the right way to act. For him the old role models are not beyond question anymore, and what is real in the world, and what merely an illusion, cannot be known with certainty. Hamlet finds himself to be the Prince of Denmark, to be sure, but that is not so much a sound identity anymore, as a mere role. He knows what people expect from him, and from his upbringing he knows what attitude he ought to take, but in his own eyes that attitude is just a mask, a guise, not something he could really be. Thus he lets time go by--partly loathing himself for his vacillation between presumed duties and doubts, but without coming to any satisfactory resolution. Action is finally forced upon him, but too late--and too arbitrarily to do anyone any good. Hamlet dies senselessly--along with his uncle, his mother, Ophelia, and Ophelia's brother. Politics as usual will continue for a while after his death, but for him there is not much promise or meaning in that. "The rest is silence," are his famous last words, and they express that for him, the modern individual, the old world with its certainties and meanings has forever gone.