A Theological Perspective On The Degeneration of Individualism

A Theological Perspective On The Degeneration of Individualism


Long before the term “individualism” was coined in 1820 by the Frenchman Joseph de Maître, elements of its conception had long dominated Western thought. From politics to religion, Western societies founded an ideology in which all persons are understood as autonomous agents capable of and entitled to acting of their own accord, pursuing freely and unencumbered their own beliefs and desires. Religious leaders, philosophers, and social commentators as far back as the 15th century were laying the foundation for a particular ideology that would come to transcend geographic and chronological constraints. The benefits, and to some extent, the necessity of individualism were self-evident to thinkers like Ralph Waldo Emerson who postulated that, "my life is for itself.” A more contemporary female counterpart to Emerson, such as Ayn Rand, wrote that, "Every man is an independent sovereign entity who possess an inalienable right to his own like." [4] And yet, fascination with individualism has not declined throughout the centuries, as contemporary researchers like Geert Hofstede continue to describe it in even its more mundane implications and consequences: analyzing, for example, how individuals have interacted with one other in the home and the workplace over the centuries.

One important conclusion that can be drawn from the centuries of research, discussion, and debate is that individualism is made up of several notions. Notable authors such as renowned sociologist Robin M. Williams Jr. described them loosely, stating that, “the individual [is] an integral agent, relatively autonomous and morally responsible." [9] Going further, a study published in 2002 in the European Journal of Personality proposed that individualism is made up of three distinguishable components: Uniqueness, Autonomy, and Mature Self-responsibility. Uniqueness “lays emphasis on a person’s awareness of being unique…an individual sees oneself as not being like other people, as being different from the others”, while autonomy, “refers to a person’s capacity for independent thinking, judgment, and survival”, and mature self-responsibility, “means that a person accepts responsibility for self and for one’s actions…” [6] In order to fully understand the impact of how the philosophy of individualism has impacted and shaped Western society, it is helpful to view the evolution and consequences of this ideology in terms of such components.

Uniqueness, in other words, was emerging from the huddled masses of persons cowed by a doctrine that threatened fire and brimstone upon those who dared challenge the religious social order.

To begin, individualism was first conceived during a tumultuous period in Western Europe when wars stemming from clashes of religious doctrine wreaked havoc on the continent, and more importantly on the notion that the Catholic Church was entitled to absolute dominion over politics and society. Since the linking of the church to the late Roman Empire was officially established in the year 315 under Emperor Constantine, the doctrines of the Catholic Church have long since "played a role in binding population and their lives into local hierarchies.” [1] "To step out of line was to effectively isolate oneself from society,” or worse be labeled a heretic and put to death, as was the case with Jan Hus, a Czech reformer who dared speak against the papacy. [1] Yet, it was such dissention that eventually brought individuals to break from the old order of the religious institutions, organizing themselves into smaller ideological groups that held some degree of influence. This was the case involving the rebellions against the authority of the seemingly infallible Pope and Roman Catholic Church. Uniqueness, in other words, was emerging from the huddled masses of persons cowed by a doctrine that threatened fire and brimstone upon those who dared challenge the religious social order. 

Brave men and women began to shed the chains of social constraint, and endured reprisal from their more conservative peers. One such man was Martin Luther. The Catholic Church throughout the centuries had enforced their doctrines through the administration and enforcement of its dogma. The rightness of such beliefs was, and still is, open for debate even as the control they gave the Catholic Church is apparent. The basis of the power of the Catholic Church emanated from the total control they seemed to possess in this life and the afterlife as evinced by Pope Boniface VIII statement that it, “is necessary for salvation that every living creature be under submission to the Roman pontiff” (Boniface 1302). But two centuries after Pope Boniface’s statement, it was Luther who began to challenge the supremacy of the Church and its doctrines. Common practices, like the sale of indulgences, for instance, were challenged as corrupt and unnecessary. Luther did not rebel for rebellion’s sake, but rather encouraged Christians to edify themselves in the teachings of the Bible in his teaching of Sola Scriptura (by scripture alone) and not to rely on the words of another, counteracting, “the delusive doctrine of works” that “perverts the right understanding of faith and forces him from the way of truth and salvation.” Luther's teachings presaged the Protestant Revolution—in part a harvest of the seeds of individualism, that great ideological pillar on which modern Western civilization is built. Moreover, individualism involved encouraging the liberation of the oppressive legal and social structures that demanded unwavering loyalty and obedience to a pre-established code of conduct, instead promoting the cultivation of the individual self. But how does Christian doctrine relate to individualism, and more specifically the three concepts of Uniqueness, Autonomy and Mature self-responsibility? Without delving too deeply into a theological analysis of the Bible, here are a few instances where the Bible does mention or allude to these three components of modern individualism:

But now, O LORD, thou art our father; we are the clay, and thou our potter; and we all are the work of thy hand.
— Isaiah 64:8, King James Version
And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat. But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.
— Genesis 2:16-17, King James Version
Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin.
— James 4:17, King James Version
When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things
— 1 Corinthians 13:11, King James Version

The Catholic Church failed to acknowledge these three components had been rooted in Christian faith, and thereby unknowingly created the perfect environment for a revolution of thought and doctrine.

Individualism was not simply confined to academic analysis and religious discourse, however. It soon became the catalyst behind two of the most historically important Revolutions in modern Western history: in France and the United States. During the French Revolution a significant portion of the ruled majority gained economic and social standing as industries and education blossomed: "The bourgeoisie aim was civil equality; they worked to destroy the privilege of the nobility and the clergy and establish a regime where all men obeyed the same laws, paid taxes on the same basis, enjoyed the same career opportunities and prosperity on the same terms.” [2] The underlying principles and resentments found in the origins of the French Revolution can seem reflected in its American equivalent. Alexis de Tocqueville noted the stark contrast between the democratic society of America—a society that prided itself on the divine inherent right of each man to pursue a course of action and conduct that would inevitably result in the attainment of his/her own personal happiness—and the aristocratic-theological hierarchy that required express subservience to the greater will that wielded a greater force. In short the very existence of America was a victory for "non-conformist Protestants over established...powers,” echoing Luther. [1]

The underlying rationale behind this statement was the same one that drove Luther to publish his 95 Theses: namely, that an individual (or group) regardless of how justifiable the cause may be, or appears to be, cannot simply act in accordance to their desires without first understanding the implications and consequences of their actions on the rights and responsibilities of others.

Indeed, the first internationally recognized document produced by the government of the newly formed United States of America emphasized the right of a nation to "dissolve the political bands" that bound them to a government, if it imposed tyrannical measures that resulted in unfair treatment of its subjects. The leaders of the Revolution maintained that:

All men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it.
— Jefferson, 1776

The right to Autonomy is clearly present, as is the notion of Mature Self-Responsibility. In the opening statements of the document it is clear that Jefferson sees the implications of the actions undertaken by the colonies, writing that they reflect, "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation” [3]. The underlying rationale behind this statement was the same one that drove Luther to publish his 95 Theses: namely, that an individual (or group) regardless of how justifiable the cause may be, or appears to be, cannot simply act in accordance to their desires without first understanding the implications and consequences of their actions on the rights and responsibilities of others. Although the thirteen States were escaping the bonds of proclaimed tyranny, "the Declaration's reference to the opinions of mankind was almost precisely the opposite of a call for other nations to emulate the rebels." [7] The Declaration demonstrates that the Founding Fathers were not only aware of how their actions may be construed, and they took responsibility for the potential impact their actions would have inciting other rebellions in destabilizing the empires of Western Europe.

              By observing the actions undertaken by men and women who have subscribed (knowingly or unknowingly) to individualism, it becomes apparent that a balance must be maintained between the three component of individualism for the philosophy to be beneficial to society and also individuals themselves. Both proponents and detractors of individualism have acknowledged the difference between individualism and selfishness, with de Tocqueville himself referring to selfishness as, "a passionate and exaggerated love of self that brings man to relate everything to himself alone and prefer himself to everything." Ayn Rand an avid supporter of individualism and the capacity of man to achieve any goal, warned people to "not make the mistake of the ignorant who think that an individualist is a man who says: “I’ll do as I please at everybody else’s expense.” An individualist is a man who recognizes the inalienable individual rights of man—his own and those of others" (Rand, 1962). To deprive individualism of one of its components is to alter the very nature of the ideology Autonomy and Uniqueness, while without Mature self-responsibility one would create the mindset of a petulant child who incessantly demands their own needs and desires to be met without regard for the desires and needs of the people around them. 


[1] Callaway, H. (1994). Liberalism and the Moral Significance of Individualism :A Deweyan View. Reason Papers, (19), pp.13-29.

[2] Doyle, W. (1999). Origins of the French Revolution. Oxford [England]: Oxford University Press.

[3] Jefferson, T. (1776). The Declaration of Independence. National Archives Building, Washington DC.

[4] Rand, A. and Branden, N. (1964). The virtue of selfishness. [New York]: New American Library.

[5] Rand, A. and Schwartz, P. (1998). The Ayn Rand column. New Milford, Conn.: Second Renaissance Books.

[6] Realo, A., Koido, K., Ceulemans, E. and Allik, J. (2002). Three components of individualism. Eur. J. Pers., [online] 16(3), pp.163-184. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/per.437 [Accessed 3 Mar. 2016].

[7] Tushnet, M. (2006). A Decent Respect to the Opinions of Mankind: Referring to Foreign Law to Express American Nationhood. Albany Law Review, 69, pp.809-815.

[8] Unam Sanctum. (1303). [Letter] Vatican Secret Archives, Vatican City.

[9] Williams, R. (1970). American society: A Sociological Interpretation. 2nd ed. New York: Knopf.


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