Individualism and the Christian Mythos

Posted by in Ecclesiology, Political Theology

The 17th century French philosopher, René Descartes, is at least one of the fathers of what came to be known as modern individualism. Instead of receiving the tradition passed down as a gift, Descartes rejected it to find certainty in isolation.[1] His famous Cogito seeks to ground the foundation of knowledge in the individual. In this conception, community is rendered an accessory to the pursuit of knowledge. Thus began the modern attempt to free the individual from the shackles of community.

In the modern period, following Descartes, there are numerous expressions of individualism. Two very influential examples are the political theorists Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, and the existentialists. Rousseau casts the problem of the human race as bondage to one another. True freedom, in his account, is primarily freedom from the other.[2] Likewise Hobbes and Locke construe the state of nature as consisting of individuals independent of each other. For all three, the purpose of the social contract is to protect the individual and his property from the other.[3] This mythos starts from an atomistic view of human nature that prioritizes the “I” over the “We”.[4]

Similarly, the existentialists sought to define the human essence in terms of personal existence. On this view, personal freedom from others is necessary to make life meaningful. One will be defined only by what he does; he is free from his history and others to pursue self-authentication. Man must not allow others to get in the way of defining his own personal journey in life. Once again, the person is viewed as an isolated individual, not only detached from community, but also seeking to flee it.

In contrast to these views, the Christian narrative marks individualization as a result of the Fall. Before sin entered, Adam and Eve not only participated in God, but also in one another. Likewise, sin not only caused a separation between God and man, but between man and man. Man became hostile to his neighbor and sought to exalt himself above others. The desire to reject community in pursuit of individuality is contrary to God’s design for man. In short, modern individualism owes its origin not only to Western philosophy, but also and more fundamentally to Adam’s sin.

[1] I owe this formulation of Descartes to Dr. Peter Leithart

[2] William Cavanaugh, “Beyond Secular Parodies,” in Radical Orthodoxy (New York: Routledge, 1999) 186

[3] ibid 187

[4] Peter J. Leithart, The Baptized Body (Moscow, ID: Cannon Press, 2007) 8-9