Sunday, October 24, 2004

The Invention of the Individual

A previous post addressed the characteristics which distinguish the West from the culture which has bred militant Islamism. One of these characteristics is respect for the rights of the individual. But what is an individual?

The Western conception of the individual did not really exist in antiquity, nor does it in some cultures today. Distinct human beings are acknowledged, but they are appendages of family, tribe, or other collective structure, which have a greater claim to authority and authenticity than any single person.

As the Towering Barbarian has anticipated, one looks to the Jews and the Greeks for the origins of the individual. Jews brought the Law to the West, and with the Law came the idea of a man standing in relation to his God, with Whom he had a covenant, and Whose ordinances he was bound to obey. In that sense, the individual is the smallest unit of our human race to be judged by God on the basis of the Law.

The Greek innovation is reason, which looks to the world as an object separate from the self, an object that can be analyzed and understood by rational means. The Analyzer and Ratiocinator is the individual.

But the force which combined these two threads was Christianity, which brought the Law to Aristotle. In the teachings of Christ it becomes clear that the individual and his conscience are distinct in the eyes of God (Matthew 6:5-6 KJV):

And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.
This individual, in unmediated communion with God, possesses those natural rights which were recognized in the Declaration of Independence. He is granted these rights by his Creator, and they cannot be taken away by men.

The individual is the cornerstone of the West, on whom the structure of its civilization depends. The great experiment in Iraq depends for its success on the emergence of something similar in Mesopotamia. It is an open question whether Islamic theology or some other philosophy can produce in a short time the same thing that Jewish, Greek, and Christian thought articulated over the course of two millennia. The West will have to wait and see…


RDS said...

This interesting new blog seems to be off to a roaring good start! It's incomprehensible that the basis of our civilization, as you lay it out here, isn't being taught to young people in such clear terms from day 1.

Looking forward to more.


jj mollo said...

I have always felt that Christianity was the core to our society and objectively superior as a socializing force to other world religions. It is superior because of its emphasis on love, forgiveness, humility and respect for individuals, a philosophy that works. Even though people cannot live up to its tenants, the continuous effort to do so has paid off great dividends.

The most important aspect about Christianity and Modern Judaism is that they have been allowed to change over the centuries. The thoughts of the Greeks and Romans as well as those of the Renaissance and Reformation and even Charles Darwin have been allowed to influence today's believers. Just as democracy has matured by steps in the US, our religious culture has retained its relevance by periodic upgrades. The perspective of the free, independent and thoughtful individual was added by us more than Luther.