Imagine a large series of overlapping circles: a Venn diagram reflecting all human beings. The full set of mankind exists within the rectangle. Draw a circle around Christians. Now narrow it to Protestants. Draw a circle around Anglo-Saxons. Draw a circle around North Americans. Draw a circle around all those whose ancestors lived in Tennessee in 1861. Draw a circle around fathers. Draw a circle around intellectuals. Continue doing this and eventually you’re going to get down to a very specific person like myself.
Wipe away the circles and do this for yourself: draw a series of Venn circles until you are able to zero in on you and you alone. Only use circles which relate to your identity, are definitive of yourself, and are valid throughout your life; don’t use your address, office number, or irrelevant facts which change like belt size.
Now read the list of circles that you created. You probably have religion, ethnicity, sex, and profession as circles. You might have sociopolitical identities. You might have circles with something to do with your ancestors and your descendants, if any. You may have circles representing your home town, high school, or regional identity. In order to make a Venn diagram which only includes yourself and excludes every other person on earth, you probably need a very complex interaction of multiple variables. If any one of these variables were removed, the diagram would no longer represent you.
The purpose of this thought experiment is an attempt to formulate a new, sustainable, non-atomistic understanding of the concept of individualism. Modern individualism, as a product of the Enlightenment, has the function of isolating and alienating individuals from God, society, and eventually even from themselves. From Putnam’s Bowling Alone to the transgender movement, modernity loudly proclaims the inability of people to belong, even to themselves. It instead offers a vision of individualism, in which the person creates themselves in their own image, as if Adam were to form himself in the Garden.
Just as it is vain to think that a lump of clay will form itself into a man, so it is equally vain to think that an alienated, atomized person can create in themselves a personality out of the muck of consumerism and mass media. Modernity tells us that we can form our own personality with tattoos, body modification, consumerist consumption, and status objects like automobiles.
Ultimately, what is created is not human, however, but subhuman: one’s personality is merely a combination of external signifiers devoid of inner content. Ironically, in an attempt to form a personality out of the components provided by modernity, the end result is a kind of perfect conformity. As the cliché goes, the nonconformist is the greatest conformist of all, conforming to a pre-determined image of the rebel, complete with Che t-shirt, black beret, and canned talking points written years ago by some Red professor and distributed to all nonconformists.
Today, these nonconformists come equipped with multicolored hair and stretched earlobes, among other signifiers, but the changing fashion of nonconformity doesn’t change the nature of the act. Modernity’s alienated individual is all superficiality without substance, because the only tools provided to the individual are surface decorations.
Let us return to the Venn diagram above. In contrast to modernity, a healthy person and society requires a vision of individualism in which particulars and content are not rejected in favor of superficial distinctions which mask inner conformity. From the pre-Enlightenment tradition, we have resources to consider, but let me be clear: a return to the past is impossible.
We are incapable of simply restoring old notions of identity and personality as though they had never been rejected. What is required is a renovation of old concepts into a new vision of the Self by working off of principles, rather than simply copying old signifiers.
A beginning of this must be a multipolar vision of what it means to be an individual. Look again at your list of circles. These are the basic, most fundamental components of who you are, of your identity, and of your personality. Each of these contributes, in some way, to defining who and what you are, as well as your place in the world.
Summed up, the idea is basically that the human individual is located within a unique nexus point of a vast, interconnected network of identities and communities.
In other words, if you imagine a vast multipolar scale of identities and communities, you as an individual are located in a single point wherein each of your Venn circles intersect. The consequence of this theory is that each circle on your list is an essential part of your personality, and to be deprived of any one of these circles is to be deprived of your individuality.
Your family, your ethnicity, your national citizenship, your culture, your faith, and all other circles cannot be removed without grave psychological and spiritual harm to you as a person.
It doesn’t matter if someone else removes them by, for example, displacing you from your home, or whether you remove them from yourself by taking up a modern leftist ideology.
The latter needs to be seen as something akin to cutting; the purposeful self-mutilation of the person is no different, even if it is psychological and spiritual. When your Venn circles are stripped from you, you are less than what you were. You lose an essential part of yourself and are no longer whole. In this way, your membership in communities and identity groups is itself a substantial part of your identity and personality; we cannot fundamentally distinguish these spheres of being.
Let me add a caveat: I argue that individuality is located within that point of intersection, not that the point of intersection comprises individuality. I certainly agree with Aristotle that there is a certain spark of something ineffable in the nature of Man, which defies classification. This is the Imago Dei in Man, and this is the unknowable essence of the individual which protects us from complete self-destruction. While we can fundamentally alienate ourselves, demolishing our identity through left-wing ideology, self-hatred, or mindless consumerism, we are never truly capable of becoming beasts, only of becoming like beasts, because this spark of divine creation cannot be extinguished by mere human works. Whether one can become spiritually reprobate and lose this spark in a soteriological context, however, is a different question for better theologians than myself.
Let me end this with a contrast, what this theory is meant to oppose. I argue that the individualist theory of modernity is this: individuality is the act of stripping the person of all elements except a single, paradigmatic, universal circle wherein all mankind are united. When all of mankind is within a single circle, then man is “free” of all identities which limit his autonomous selection of his own identity within the greater identity of the paradigmatic circle.
The root of this idea is that man must shed himself of everything which defines him so that the choice of identity can be absolutely and completely unrestrained. Modern individuality sees man as his own creator, making himself in the image of his own mind. He alienates himself from everything and everyone so that his choice has this character of unrestraint. Then, having chosen his identity from a full and free marketplace of identities, the paradigmatic identity serves to reunite these freely chosen personalities under the banner of universal brotherhood. This is the basic model, I argue, of modern individualism, which I hope I articulated in a more or less reasonable and fair manner.
The classic example of this notion is found in the Second Treatise on Government. Locke reduces all society down to the market and all relationships down to that of citizenship in his model of the Social Contract. Man begins totally atomized and essentially separate, forming his own identity through participation in commerce which leads him to unity under the new contractual Government. It is through the act of citizenship, which unifies these alienated men, that their personalities can emerge in the form of economic interests within an unrestricted market and monadic society. On that basis they become capable of participating in politics, understood to be the extension of themselves as pursuers of economic self-interest, which Locke makes the fundamental element of personality.
The central flaw of modern conservative thought is that it accepts this reductionism, making the bond of citizenship the preeminent bond and abolishing or devaluing all others. The vast majority of meaningful relationships among individuals are exclusionary or closed communities – kith and kin, church, ethnicity, geographic community, and therefore are demeaned with the hate-words for exclusionary groups. Only citizenship is fundamentally and axiomatically valid to many conservatives, so all relationships must mirror citizenship in their nature and scope or they infringe on what they think is freedom. Citizenship is the paradigmatic identity, the only one which can be permitted in order to allow “true freedom of association.”
Liberal Christianity does the same thing, but elevates the Corpus Mysticum Christi to that status, rejecting all other relationships. The Church is considered to be the paradigmatic relationship, and all others must be destroyed in order to permit the “freedom” to define oneself within that unity. Thus, the Southern Baptist Church’s adoption program demeans the family, which is exclusive and based on heredity, and seeks to transform it into the corpus mysticum by radically opening it, thus destroying it through the introduction of the alien into the unit.
The monomania of liberal Christianity’s approach to the corpus mysticum makes it a mirror of the same totalitarian democratic impulse of secular society. All relationships which do not mirror the corpus mysticum are seen as fundamentally opposed to the Church and therefore are ungodly and sinful relationships. They barely even try to justify this policy on scriptural grounds any longer, making open appeal to the doctrines of political liberalism, pluralism, and democracy. In this way, the liberal Church is nothing more than a colony of the dominant secular ideology, expressing the same flawed perspective with a coat of Jesus paint slapped on the outside. To paraphrase Eric Voegelin’s critique of the Lutheran Church, they offer the same products as the secular world, only better quality. This should not be surprising, since as mentioned, the modern notion of individuality is superficial only and devoid of content or inner substance, just like liberal theology.
A non-reductionist political theory of individuality must accept and acknowledge the multiplicity of human relationships which diverge in character and nature, yet all maintain value and status, despite the different levels of inclusion and exclusion among them. The nature of the free individual is that he is a nexus of relationships, not all of which are voluntary or chosen. The character of political life is the experience, not of freedom, but of obligation, and it is through the embrace of obligation, of the involuntary parts of human life, that one manages to experience freedom.
“We make ourselves slaves unto the law in order that we might live free.”
For the future – we have the seeds of a new theory of human liberty in the last paragraph, one which appeals to the nature of Being as it exists in actuality rather than the arrogance of the unrestricted human will as the foundation of a free life. The interaction of obligation, liberty, and the mature Man, the spoudaios of Aristotle, requires an essay of its own.