Tuesday, April 20, 2010


During one of our sun-room musings the other day, pondering the wonders of American life, Brigitte and I fell to talking about that strange growth, Individualism. We tried to remember if the concept, in any form at all, had ever even surfaced during our lives in Europe, but we failed to find even a trace of “individualism” in the common heritage that we’d absorbed through experience or upbringing. Meanwhile, doing some digging, I’ve come to understand why. We both grew up in environments largely dominated by Catholicism, she in Poland and I in Hungary. Her own background heritage was Lutheran with Catholic branches; mine the exact inverse of that. Furthermore, while the seeds of individualism were European, the living plant that they produced never took root as ideology in Germany, least of all in that form of it which is linked to property.

An interesting history. In a nutshell—but, mind you, this is my synthesis of it, so grain of salt—it is in part a secularization of the traditional concept of the inviolable, immortal soul, in part a reaction to a rising tide of socialism born in the wake of the French Revolution. My way of making sense of modernity is to see it as just that: the rediscovery of discarded spiritual values in a new and shiny secular form. But let me sketch the history.

The concept arose, ironically enough, from an upsurge of utopian socialist movements that followed the French Revolution, notably Owenism, a movement begun by the Welshman, Robert Owen (1771-1858). Another such was Saint-Simonianism, named after Claude Henri de Rouvroy, comte de Saint Simon (1760-1825). Owenites applied the word pejoratively to their opponents. Thus where you find socialism, you find individualism. Scholars suspect that the usage originated in France, possibly used by Saint Simon’s followers. Now the Owenites believed in communal ownership of property whereas individualists did not. Hence individualism was apparently already born with the Sign of Satan, the dollar or the pound sign, on its forehead. Owenism left its mark in the United States as well, in New Harmony, founded in Indiana around 1824. This utopian community barely endured for two years.

The word soon acquired a positive and religious aura thanks to the efforts of Millenarians and Unitarians. The first category refers to diverse movements over time that have focused on the End Times, almost always imagining these to be right around the corner. One such figure was James Elishama Smith (1801-1857), also known as Shepherd Smith (he edited a journal called The Shepherd). Smith had what you might call a colorful career. He was a Millenarian minister, prolific journalist and writer. You might sample some of his thought by looking at his 1854 book, The Divine Drama here. He eventually turned socialist, translated Saint Simon, and edited an Owenite journal. Late in his life he discovered the “universal” qualities of individualism. Universalism, by the way, was another ideological flower of the nineteenth century—“enlightened” humanity’s efforts, meseems, to reinvent the divine. Characteristically (the man had a wide range) Smith also discovered that individualism favored the accumulation of wealth: blessed from two sides, in other words.

Later on William Maccall (1812-1888), a Unitarian minister, also laid down some universalist justifications for individualism in his book Elements of Individualism (1857). You might wish to look at that book here. He starts out by laying out thirty-three articles of faith, of which the first one is: “I believe that I am an Individual Man.” Here is his brief commentary on that article:

The inference from this is, that whatever else may be the accidents of my position or the peculiarities of my lot, whether I be Christian, or Jew, or Unitarian, or minister of the Gospel, or healthy or the contrary, or rich or poor, or fortunate or unfortunate, my highest and noblest characteristic is that of being an Individual.

Maccall’s articles nowhere link individualism to property ownership, wealth creation, or any subject of the sort. His aim, rather, is to support his belief “that the Unity of the Universe necessitates Infinite Multiformity in the Universe,” which is an odd sort of assertion unless, in pondering it, the notion arises that that New Age was striving to build a concept of God from the bottom up. And in that schemed individuality finds its supporting role.

Yes, an interesting history. Remembering the past—it comes naturally to people of our age—musing back, we searched for the “universal” message we receive as children from our parents and our teachers. It had a different flavor. It had its roots in the parable of the talents, by and large, an obligation to develop them, but always in the context of helping the community. There were no Hidden Hands anywhere in our upbringing, no talk about enlightened self-interest either. There was no spot where God was not. And we never needed preachers to tell us that we were individuals. That seemed sort of obvious.


  1. This was a really nice post, Arsen. After two decades in Japan, have been feeling really very lost back home. And reading your memories of growing up in Europe I realized how much I had grown to love the commitment to collective harmony and community contribution-- and that feeling of really being "in it" with your neighbors. LA takes things to extremes of course...

  2. Hi, Peony. There is a Sufi saying that you have to taste in order to know...most true of great complex phenomena like cultural atmospheres.

    By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yes, we wept, when we remembered Zion.

    We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.

    For there they that carried us away captive required of us song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.

    How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?

    [Psalm 137]

    And sometimes, oddly, this happens in reverse...

  3. Very nice.

    I must admit, however, that I got a little confused when you were talking about the Owenites and St. Simoniasm... That transition from socialism and utopian to the glorification of individualism was odd.

    But, with the fourth paragraph, the evolution got clearer. It is funny how people just assume that we've always been a rugged, individualistic people... The idea of that somehow fits with peoples notions of pioneers going west and settling. Of course, they did that as communities... but, well....