Forgotten Roots of Individualism

Jan Olof Bengtsson*

[From HUMANITAS, Volume X, No. 2, 1997 © National Humanities Institute, Washington, DC USA]

The Origins of European Individualism, by Aaron Gurevich. Translated by Katharine Judelson. Oxford, UK & Cambridge, USA: Blackwell Publishers, 1995. vii+280 pp. £30. $27.95.

The title of the present work makes too broad a claim. To even approximately cover the subject of the origins of European individualism, one would at least have to deal with the complex and by no means settled issues of the relations between ancient Greek society and culture on the one hand and the neighboring Oriental kingdoms on the other. One would also necessarily have to investigate the peculiarities of Judaic religion in relation to both Oriental and Greek religion. Finally, any account of those origins which aspires to be even roughly adequate would have to place the greatest emphasis on the breakthrough of Christianity, its early history, and its synthesis with Greek philosophy.

With the exception of a few general remarks on early Christianity and a short treatment of St. Augustine, none of this is present in Gurevich's book. Gurevich instead focuses entirely on the much-debated issues of the status of individuality in the late Middle Ages and the crossover from the medieval to the Renaissance period. Unfortunately, the absence of a treatment of individuality in ancient Greece and Israel is due to a deliberate stand: Gurevich, after a cursory glance at the period, makes the remarkable statement that "[t]here seems to have been no awareness of individuality in ancient times." This is more than a simplification: it is simply wrong. Awareness of individuality was present even in the ancient Oriental cultures and even before the age of classical Greece. In ancient Judaism it is evident on all levels. For all the generalism and universalism of Greek philosophy and art—the Greeks, to be sure, may not have placed the highest value on individuality—we only have to turn to poetry, drama, historiography, and biography to find abundant evidence of the awareness of it. Already in Homer it is obvious.

At its best, the generalism and universalism of the Greeks was diligently extracted from the manifold of concrete living reality: this was also true of philosophy, although, with its rationalistic bias, it of course sometimes also went further. The immortality not only of the world-soul, but of the individual soul, was stressed by many philosophers within the Platonic, Gnostic, and, above all, Neoplatonic traditions. Especially in Roman times, a rich literature of private letters also confirms this awareness. Gurevich invests the term individualism with a heavy load of modern conceptual meanings—such as inner self-exploration, "tenacious quests" for a true inner essence through psychological introspection—which makes him overlook the existence of other forms of awareness of individuality in ancient times. And as Louis Dupré‚ remarked in his Passage to Modernity (1993), even Charles Taylor's denial in his Sources of the Self (1989) of "interiority" in Platonism—his understanding of Platonism as focusing solely on the generalistic "ontic logos" in its outer, cosmic, and public aspects—is also a considerable exaggeration.

There are, however, also some strong reasons for concentration on the periods chosen by Gurevich. First, these periods certainly also would have to be included in every serious account of the origins of European individualism. Second, Gurevich, a Russian historian, is a leading medieval scholar who has published widely on the subject over the years. Officially confined within the intellectual straitjacket established by communist censorship, for many years he nevertheless managed to introduce some heterodox theoretical novelties, as is shown in books published in English before the Russian liberation. Except as partial truths, however, these novelties, especially the structuralist ones, are theoretically problematic, even when not dovetailed with dogmatic historical materialism. At the time, however, they at least evidenced the academic and civic integrity and courage of their advocate. Without relinquishing the insights gained by his former methodological instruments, in the present work another central concern of its author is allowed to burst into the open. Today, Gurevich writes, "[h]istorians have devoted a great deal of time and effort to fruitful study of society from the economic, social and political angles. Yet the human being, the 'atom' of the social structure, is something about which we know little: it has, as it were, been engulfed by structures."

It is moving to read Gurevich's introductory personal statement about how the subject of the individual and individuality is "coming into its own with unprecedented force" in his country, how the former totalitarian regime forcibly kept eastern Europe out of the "common European home," how it "suppressed the individual and individual initiative in all spheres of life," how the very word individualism was a term of abuse, and how persecution could result from mere accusations of individual free expression: "To save our society from catastrophe, to revitalize it and to create a new intellectual climate, the question of the individual has to assume truly central importance. Russia cannot be drawn into European civilization (and I see no other way out of the present crisis) without adopting certain values fundamental to that civilization."

Although the emphasis has thus shifted, in many respects The Origins of European Individualism could be regarded to a certain extent as a kind of summary of or introduction to Gurevich's other work. As a leading authority on the Middle Ages, Gurevich has been asked to contribute a volume to a new series, "The Making of Europe," edited by the French cultural historian Jacques Le Goff. Several other interesting works are included in the series, a few with intriguing though somewhat problematic titles, such as The European Revolutions 1492-1992 by Charles Tilly. All titles are published in five languages—by Beck in Germany, Blackwell in Great Britain (and the United States), Critica in Spain, Laterza in Italy and Seuil in France. A truly European project! With Gurevich's volume in one's hand, one cannot help wondering if the origins of European individualism are in any obvious way different from the origins of, for instance, American individualism. Of course, it is perfectly appropriate that countless series on local history, on various levels, are published around the world. But when it comes to cultural history and the history of ideas, geographical demarcations are sometimes artificial, as Gurevich is well aware in his previous works. And discussing the European revolutions, at least during the last two hundred years, without taking into consideration also the American "revolution," the largely European ideas behind it, and its European consequences, seems to me well-nigh impossible (and I cannot really believe Tilly does that). I have detected no overpowering reasons in the historical material analyzed in Gurevich's present book on the origins of European individualism why the title "Origins of Western Individualism" would not be more appropriate.

One of the subjects to be included in a more comprehensive study of the origins of individualism is the set of origins to be found after the period here covered. Tracing various strands of individualism, it would then be possible to differentiate at least between one kind of American individualism and some specifically European kinds of individualism. Concerning the origins, it would be superficial to regard American individualism as rooted exclusively in, for example, English puritanism, John Locke, the Enlightenment, and modern liberalism, and to regard European individualism as having other roots. The late medieval and Renaissance origins discussed by Gurevich, as well as the origins in classical antiquity and Judaeo-Christian religion, are necessarily, and for the knowledgeable quite obviously, also among the deeper roots of American individualism.

Today, in the eyes of many Europeans, above all the French, American liberalism more then ever has come to stand only for the oppressive invasion of consumerist mass culture. This view is promoted on the one hand by those who not only would be rid of "Americanism," but also would have the older roots of European individualism cut—and the sooner the better—or at least swiftly reinterpreted to suit present campaigns. On the other hand, a negative view of American liberalism also is held by those who struggle to protect and nourish the same roots. Although it is hard to blame this latter group, the problem here is that not even the defenders of the older roots seem to be properly aware that the shallow individualism engendering mass materialism is at least to some extent still counterbalanced in the United States by the moral force of the deeper, humanistic liberalism represented by a thinker such as Irving Babbitt.

If the exclusive Eurocentrism of Le Goff's new series has something to do with irritation over the felt incompatibility of European culture with globalized "Americanism," the reaction, understandable as it is, of introducing historically artificial differences in cultural identity, or overemphasizing real ones, surely is not promising. Less harmless expressions of a growing alienation between the two continents may not be far behind. To forestall the historical tragedy of such a development, there is a desperate need that America better communicate, through all its information technology, what, after all, it is and what it has stood for at its best—that the deeper, common roots are also there and not forgotten. America is a further development of Europe, and as such, it has managed by building on the common heritage to inspire and reinvigorate European individualism and freedom as well. Europeans have to learn more about the more profound American individualism represented by a thinker like Babbitt. Also, on a broader scale, the sheer decadence of a globalised false individualistic liberalism will not save friendship and peace, let alone true culture. Instead, the true values of humanity have to be recognized, assimilated, and renewed through a far deeper historical grasp and a far keener discrimination.

To the accomplishment of this pressing task, Gurevich, despite leaving out the classical and early Judaeo-Christian origins of individualism, makes a singularly important contribution. For what he manages to do is to reveal instead some other, often neglected origins of individualism that were present in the medieval period.

In the Middle Ages, Europe only gradually became a unified culture, and the unity which was established was composed of different elements: a viable modus vivendi had to be found between Christianity, including the Greek philosophy and Roman law it had appropriated, and the Germanic culture of the North. It is mainly as an expert on this latter Northern culture that Gurevich has interesting things to say about the origins of European—and, I feel confident to add, American—individualism. The chapter on Northern individualism shows that, with the exception of classical antiquity, Gurevich has a fine eye for universal human values as they come alive in the variegated, individualized richness of concrete historical experience, across the boundaries of cultures.

The emerging European unity was a synthesis of North and South, in the sense that the intermingling and invading northerners, while to a large extent remaining in control in the South and never completely relinquishing their own heritage, quickly adopted the rich civilization they encountered and also brought it back home. Each contributed in its own way to individualism, and Gurevich puts forth some strong arguments why the Northern culture should not be considered of secondary importance.

Gurevich, in concord with Caroline Walker Bynum and others, challenges the predominant view of the late Middle Ages, established and defended by historians such as Charles Homer Haskins, Johan Nordström, and Colin Morris, according to which the breakthrough of the Renaissance, a preponderant trait of which is its individualism, in many respects occurred already in the twelfth century. According to Gurevich, however, one of the results brought by the study of structures, mentalities and "culture" in the broad, anthropological sense accepted today among historians of a certain kind was to deflate the pretensions on behalf of single individualist heroes—such as Abélard, John of Salisbury and Bernard of Ventadour—to be leading representatives of a significant, wider liberation from the impersonal uniformities of the Church and the society it dominated. Gurevich duly acknowledges the partial truths revealed by the proponents of the "twelfth-century Renaissance" but seems to conclude that the individualist heroes were exceptions rather than representative. (A more philosophically oriented historian would put much more emphasis on at least one of the heroes, namely St. Francis, whose truly Christian "individualism," theologically and philosophically first systematically expounded by Duns Scotus, was of the utmost historical importance.) Although Gurevich seems to regard Jacob Burckhardt's famous work on Die Kultur der Renaissance in Italien (1860) as an opposite exaggeration, provoking the other as a reaction, Burckhardt has to be credited, I think, for explicitly stressing how at least Italy already at the end of the thirteenth century began to "swarm with individuality," how "the charm laid upon human personality was dissolved, and a thousand figures meet us each in its own special shape and dress" (S. G. C. Middlemore's translation). The imperfections of Burckhardt's work notwithstanding, it is a pity, and also somewhat strange, that Gurevich gives such an unnuanced and brief account of his thesis, which still has prominent adherents, especially as his own results point in the direction of at least a partial reconsideration of Burckhardt.

But Gurevich's chapters on medieval Christian society and culture are of course in other respects reliable. They present us with a picture of Christian life and literature—especially biography—in the late Middle Ages that is to a large extent bound by "stock topics, literary clichés and constraints of tradition, from which generalized models were taken," and with the effect that "we are always bedeviled by the sense that we cannot grasp the individual personality. The medieval philosopher's formula 'Individuum est ineffabilé' immediately comes to mind." "The unique nature of their personalities and features that distinguished each one of them from other people were viewed as sinful and abnormal, deserving of repentance, even if deep down the author concerned might be proud of such characteristics." Finally, although at the same time hinting at the moral and spiritual risks involved in secular individualism, Gurevich has to conclude that

fact is fact: the most profound penetration of the secret recesses of a person's own soul is that provided by the Confessions of St Augustine. The high point of the development on the individual is to be found at the very threshold of the Middle Ages, not, as might well have been expected, at its end. In the course of a thousand years, there is no other revelation of a person's inner self that is so candid. Petrarch, St Augustine's disciple, drew lessons from him in what by then was a radically changed world: while St Augustine's personality is revealed as he draws nearer to God and seeks spiritual union with Him, Petrarch's attention, on the other hand, is concentrated on his own significant self, as he carefully and prudently moulds his own biography and personality. In a central chapter, "The 'Persona' in Search of the Individual," Gurevich makes an attempt to follow the word "person" from the ancient Greek and Roman meanings of prosopon and persona, originally the mask carried by the actors at the theatre, then to the general meaning of the subject of legal rights and the dogmatic trinitarian meanings, and finally to the transfer to the human level and the level of the human soul. The subject matter is, however, a little too complex to be elucidated within the narrow confines of a short chapter in a book of this kind, which can hardly avoid vague and inexact formulations. The main conclusion, however, is clear enough: the persona doesn't really find its individuality during the Middle Ages.

But if, as even Gurevich acknowledges with regard to St. Augustine, Christianity had brought a new emphasis on the individual, how could that emphasis have been removed again so quickly when Christianity became exclusively dominant? Unfortunately, for Gurevich, this question simply does not arise, since as we have seen, for him, generally, there was no awareness of individuality in ancient times; St. Augustine was also an exceptional hero. Because for Gurevich there is no problem, he does not provide an adequate explanation or even a historical background.

No doubt the degree of Greek individualism in comparison with the Oriental neighbors has sometimes been exaggerated. But the truth seems nonetheless basically incontrovertible that Greek society, relatively, and for better or worse, in many respects brought a new kind of awareness of individuality. The religion of ancient Israel was also clearly exceptional in its emphasis on God's personal interventions and its emphasis on individual Grace andProvidence.1 And the cosmopolitanism of Hellenistic and Roman civilization added yet another reason why emergent Christianity had to adopt a distinct, individually oriented approach.

Upon its rise to power, however, Christianity also adopted two things from the pre-Christian world, which, I think it fair to say, were not conducive even to maintaining the level of appreciation of individuality already attained, and which instead tended to obscure, subordinate, or even annihilate it. Although never faced squarely by Gurevich, these factors loom irrepressibly over his pages. The first was the organization of the Church on the model of the late Roman empire. Proportionally to its decadence, the latter came ever more to assume the despotic qualities and structures of the anti-individualistic "oriental" absolute kingdoms that traditionally had been deplored and castigated in classical Greek and Roman political theory. Unlike the late Roman rulers, the medieval Popes were of course not tyrannical despots, and the Church to a considerable extent admirably managed to fill the forms taken over with true spiritual content, just as, in the political field, the medieval Germanic emperors at their best elevated the imperial rule. The presence of a fixed orthodoxy and a firm organizational structure of this kind can also of course, in favorable circumstances, protect and support a sound development of individuality—better at least than a relativistic, anarchic capitalism and mass democracy. Again, different meanings of individualism would have to be sorted out in a more comprehensive work. Understanding the human being as simply "the 'atom' of the social structure," as Gurevich seems to do, is not unproblematic, albeit excusable in his case.

The actually emerging new structure of the Church, however, which shaped a large part of medieval society and even the medieval economy in its image—a structure with strict hierarchical and uniformist traits—did not give enough space to sound individualism. Gurevich is sometimes surprisingly harsh—as when we are given to understand that his research confirms the "common knowledge that the Middle Ages were a time that brought forth an abundance of impostors."

But taking over the ramshackle structures of the late Roman empire, partly spiritualizing and ameliorating, partly aggravating them, was not the only blow dealt by Christianity to individualism. Early Christianity also took over a version of Platonic philosophy, which, under the influence of mystics inspired by radical monism, became even more "generalistic" than in Plato himself. Later, for various reasons, the incorporation of Aristotelianism only confirmed this tendency.

Both outer, institutional, and philosophico-theological factors thus contributed to what, without these perspectives, would seem to be simply a paradoxical decline of individuality in the Middle Ages. I would venture to suggest that the picture Gurevich presents is to a large extent the outcome of these factors.

So far, Gurevich simply has not found any decisive origins of European individualism in the Middle Ages. It is perhaps not only the fact that I am myself a Scandinavian that makes me tend to think that Gurevich's true strength and originality comes to the fore at the point where he is forced to look elsewhere, and specifically to the north, for the origins of individuality. Space unfortunately does not allow any detailed exploration of Gurevich's lengthy chapter on "the rich and colourful ancient literature from Scandinavia—the poems of the Edda, the poetry of the skalds or sagas." I will have to restrict myself to giving a few quotations, and then concluding with some short remarks on the import of Gurevich's findings.

Gurevich discovers that "[t]he vision of the world and the presentation of character found there are such that the individual—and by no means only figures occupying a prominent place in society, but also ordinary Icelanders or Norwegians—is widely represented in the writing of the period under discussion and to an exceptional degree!" The free peasantry and free trade of the Germanics represented a genuine individualism already in the early Middle Ages, and it is "a most serious delusion" to overlook the importance of the "barbarians" when considering the questions of the individual and individualism. "The individual in the society of pagan Europe was very definitely not swallowed up within the group—there was fairly wide scope for self-discovery and self-assertion." More specifically, "[w]hat we have before us is the taut dialectic of two principles that are to be found within the personality of the German or the Scandinavian—the group principle and that of the individual. The unquestioning adherence to values of the family or clan does not in any way rule out the development of personal initiative and a keen awareness of the individual." "Different aspects of the individual personality are recorded in these writings—the incorporation of the individual into the group, whose moral demands would be satisfied without question, and, at the same time, people's awareness of their own worth and a certain degree of separateness." Even the discovery of the inner self was here given more scope. Christian rigour, repressing individuals "so that their own identities might be lost in that of the Lord [clearly not an Augustinian notion!], had not yet taken hold of the inner world of the Germanic people of the north." This makes it possible for us to "lift part of the curtain, which conceals the deeper layers of the individual's self-awareness, that must have existed further south as well, but that 'went underground' as Christianity spread." This is why the Scandinavian sources are important: they reveal "an earlier stage in the history of the individual in comparison to that to be found in continental Europe."

The opposition between an individualistic and an anti-individualistic culture is not identical with the opposition between a world-affirming and a world-negating culture—as the Bible and St. Augustine, emphasizing the unique personal relationship with God in faith and love, clearly show. James C. Russell, in The Germanization Of Early Medieval Christianity (1994), emphasizes the latter opposition, but clearly the two are often inseparable in the cases discussed by Russell and Gurevich. H. A. Korff, author of Geist der Goethezeit (1923-30), regarded the whole modern development, from the Renaissance, through the Reformation and the Enlightenment, to its culmination in the German culture of idealistic humanism, as the manifestation of the long struggle of the Germanic spirit of individualistic world-affirmation—youthful, strong, and brimming with life—to break free of the fetters of Christian Weltverdüsterung. Kant deepened the concept of reason and made the human subject the focus of epistemological as well as ethical thought, and with the Sturm und Drang, untamed individualism came into its own, confusingly mixed with pantheism. Following upon this, neo-classicism in its Weimar form, while restoring the ideals once abolished and forgotten by Christianity, achieved a new synthesis of the unique development of the individual and moral and aesthetic universality. Although concentrating mainly on Goethe, Korff is not blind to the fact that the dimension of religious transcendence, upheld by Christianity, was not simply to be ignored or denied. When the true German romantics seek to restore this dimension, Christianity partly reasserts itself—although, one has to add, this dimension also reappears in the speculative form of more or less theistic variants of idealistic philosophy. Once the exclusive monopoly of the organized, orthodox form of Christianity had been thrown off, it could only return in modified forms or as selectively combined with a transcendence apprehended by equally strong Platonic and German speculative elements.

Commenting upon the Reformation, Gurevich seems to come close to a view of this kind. It does not quite do justice to Christianity, but as to the status of the individual, and also on the level of spiritual life, it certainly points to the weaknesses of the medieval Church and society.

In the above quotations Gurevich especially draws attention to the "taut dialectic" uniting the individual and society in a way which satisfies the legitimate requirements of both as somehow rooted in the natural character of the German or the Scandinavian. It is a little adventurous to carry such theories far, but at least it is permissible and—after a century torn between the catastrophes of communism and fascism on the one hand and the extremism of libertarianism on the other—even recommendable to trace the prerequisites for such fragile syntheses. And surely those prerequisites will then be found to lie basically at the level of the moral character of the individual. Its prerequisites being such, a synthesis of this kind can in no way be considered a mere "middle way." A compromise is not a synthesis, and in the latter a wholly new and different dimension will be discernible. This, however, is not the place to discuss further the fascinating philosophical issues here involved.

Historically, Christianity has of course been as fundamental a condition for such a synthesis as the personality of the German. Nevertheless, Gurevich's book, although, with the exception of St. Augustine, undeservedly minimizing the early Christian contribution to individualism, reminds us of the important fact, often overlooked, that not only the communal but also the individualist moment of the synthesis has other origins than Christianity, origins that are often equally important.

It would take many centuries before both the medieval political ideal, taken over, like the model of medieval Church organization, from the Roman empire, and its heirs, the absolute national monarchies, were supplanted by tenable constitutional orders in the western world. Although this took place under the continuous exegesis of the Roman republic, it was at the same time only then that certain original Germanic freedoms were restored. Following Gurevich, and, partially, Korff, I would suggest, although I do not consider the German spirit an exclusive ethnic characteristic, that it is not unreasonable to contend that, at least as things actually turned out, the German spirit contributed greatly to finding a way out of the modern chaos of absolute state authority, atomistic individualism, empirical sensualism, utilitarianism, mechanical external order, Rousseauistic contradictions, revolutionary terror, neo-Caesarism, and medievalist reaction. At least the dialectic of the German spirit (applied to larger communities than the family), as manifested in the British constitutional efforts of 1688 (by no means only Lockean), in the American Constitution, in some of the French ones, and in the tradition of moral and political idealism initiated by Kant, contributed decisively to achieving a synthesis. In the pure republics or the constitutional monarchies thus emerging, drawing inspiration from classical and Christian as well as later modern sources, the pre-Christian German factor emphasized by Gurevich surely also played its part, although sometimes hidden.

To a considerable extent the results proved successful. Still—in the face of the subsequent cultural and spiritual decline, the new conformist tendencies, and, in some instances, the outright political tragedies that have overcome the nations reformed along these lines—we badly need to reconsider and reinforce the insights and conditions needed to uphold the political and cultural synthesis of true individualism and moral community. The lamentable alternatives—and not least the specifically modern ones produced by this ending twentieth century—still haunt our societies. And, although rediscovery is on its way, the real highway around and out of these dead ends—the principles which laid the foundations of our ordered freedom in the not-too-distant past—remains obscured and even forgotten.

Long lost in the maze of materialism, lingering positivism and scientism, the empty extravaganza of the modernist avant-garde, and postmodernism, but still there and waiting for us is the gracefully balanced idealism which overcomes the excesses of both the Enlightenment and Romanticism. That idealism gives to the value-centered historicism made possible by the Enlightenment and Romanticist insights a clearer focus in the individual, and in its own unique way synthesizes and develops the best elements of the classical, Christian and Germanic traditions. Here, the persona finally has found its individuality, and the synthesis of the free development of the unique, individualized persona and the greater human and metaphysical community is the central theme. In accordance with historical practice, I term this current, which was dominant in Scandinavia in the nineteenth century, personal idealism.

In Gurevich's book, some of its antecedents can be recognized. The context is a discussion of the origins of individualism. According to personal idealism, individualism is not enough. But when Aaron Gurevich discusses individualism, weight elsewhere lacking is added. Here we have the privilege to learn about individualism from a historian whose country has only during the last ten years been reformed along at least some of the lines discussed above: Russia's development toward ordered freedom, although well under way in some quarters in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, was tragically and brutally hindered and interrupted by interdependent extremes which were both, although for opposite reasons, anti-individualistic. Gurevich does not compare the Middle Ages with communism. But regarding the latter's far more sinister, brutally materialistic collectivism, uniformity, and threat to the individual, he knows equally well what he is talking about. He knows the repression, and he knows the impostors. He knows that the freedom achieved is tenuous. He knows what he is looking for to save Russia. Aaron Gurevich's sense of urgency shakes the ill-founded complacency of us all.

*Jan Olof Bengtsson is a Doctoral Candidate in the History of Ideas at Lund University. [Back]

1 The exaggerations of the Greek and Israelite examples stem, I suggest, from neglect of what Karl Jaspers called the "Axial Age," the geographically much broader, sweeping change in outlook that in important respects changed the rigid, often highly anti-individualistic structures of "traditional society" also in China, India, and Persia in the last millenium B.C. [Back]

Copyright © 1998 National Humanities Institute.
Last updated 10 April 1998