Cary J Nederman. New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. Editor: Maryanne Cline Horowitz. Volume 3, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2005.

Individualism endorses the principle that the ends or purposes of the human individual possess dignity and worth that take precedence over communal, metaphysical, cosmological, or religious priorities. While individualism may appeal to certain metaphysical or epistemological schools of thought such as nominalism or empiricism, it will be treated here as primarily a moral and/or political doctrine. Individualism is commonly seen by both its proponents and opponents to be the creation of the modern Western world, a development of Enlightenment liberal values.

The term individualism was first coined in the nineteenth century, initially around 1820 in French, and then quickly spread to the other European languages. In its origins, the term’s connotations were pejorative: Joseph de Maistre (1753-1821) equated “individualism” with the “infinite fragmentation of all doctrines,” and Félicité Robert de Lamennais (1782-1854) treated it as indistinguishable from anarchy. The language of individualism was picked up and widely spread by the followers of Claude-Henri Saint-Simon (1760-1825). In Germany, England, and the United States, however, the negative overtones were soon stripped away. In Germany individualism became closely associated with the aspirations of Romanticism, in England, with utilitarianism and laissez-faire economics, and in America with the core political and social values of democracy and capitalism.

Concentration on the linguistic diffusion of individualism overlooks the fact that many cultures outside the Atlantic world at many times before the nineteenth century have promulgated doctrines that were individualistic in inclination. Moreover, it should not be forgotten that many who champion individualism count tendencies inherent in modernity itself among the chief threats to the individual. Thus, a full study of the history of individualism requires a survey of a broad range of thinkers and writings.

Ancient Sources

The major schools of classical Indian religion and philosophy generally upheld the doctrine of karma, the idea that an individual’s status in the present life is a function of one’s deeds in previous lives. This entailed not only that the soul was separable from the body—indeed, any body—but that it had a specific identity that transcended even corporeal death. Karma thus implied deep individual responsibility for one’s actions and a system of assigning merit and demerit in the future depending on how one lives one’s life in the present. That moral judgment is embedded in dharma—a universalistic system of absolute moral duties—is irrelevant. It still remains central to Indian thought that individual deeds are the wellspring of the moral system. For many Indian schools, and especially for Buddhists and Jainists, spiritual purification and eventual union with the Ultimate stem solely from the personal efforts of the individual. The right path is laid out, but it is up to the individual to follow it.

China produced doctrines that echoed the Indian emphasis on the individual. Confucius (551-479 B.C.E.) challenged both egalitarianism and hierarchical naturalism as explanations of human character. Although people are born with equal capacities, only some achieve superior moral standing because the individual’s moral qualities are dependent on practice and education. Confucius’s follower Meng-Tzu (c. 371-298 B.C.E.; romanized as Mencius) elaborated this position by stipulating that environment and instruction are insufficient as explanations for why only some individuals attain superiority; in his view many simply “throw themselves away,” choosing not to adopt the path to righteousness, beneficence, and wisdom. Attainment of superiority thus rests in part on something like self-determination. Daoism, particularly Neo-Daoism, also evinced respect for individuality. The Daoist belief that each thing possessed its own nature could be interpreted not merely to pertain to natural species or types but to individual characters. According to the Daoist Chuang Tzu (fourth century B.C.E.), the freedom and peace of the spirit occur solely through knowledge of one’s own inner nature, a position that, in turn, requires equal recognition and respect on the part of each person for the nature of one’s fellow creatures. This focus on the nature of the individual was crystallized in the Neo-Daoist concentration on the particularity of human natures.

Self-knowledge was also the path to one’s individuality for the Greek philosopher Socrates (469-399 B.C.E.), who sought to live by what he claimed as his personal motto, “Know yourself.” Accordingly, he maintained that virtue and other forms of knowledge cannot be taught or communicated directly from one person to another. Rather, each individual must discover what is true for him-or herself. But if wisdom is incommunicable, the philosopher may still question other human beings in order to prod them to realize the falsity that they embrace and to stimulate them in the process of self-questioning that yields self-knowledge. In Plato’s Apology Socrates describes himself as a “gadfly” who annoys fellow Athenian citizens with his difficult and embarrassing questions and reveals their ignorance. Socrates’ trial and death at the hands of the Athenian democracy has often been held up as a noble self-sacrifice in the cause of individualism against the conformity of the masses.

Socrates was not alone among Greek thinkers in proposing a version of individualism. Democritus (c. 460-c. 370 B.C.E.) emphasized the atomic nature of all matter and, thus, licensed a conception of humanity that emphasized the discrete character of individual creatures. In turn, this theory of individuation has been shown by recent scholars to have direct political overtones that favored the Athenian democracy. The Sophist Protagoras of Abdera (c. 485-420 B.C.E.) upheld the doctrine that “man is the measure,” which he interpreted as a moral principle, as well as an epistemological one, that supported the individual as the source and standard of human virtue.

Revealed Religion

Christianity contributed doctrines of the freedom of the will and personal salvation that added a further dimension to human individuality. Created as equal persons in God’s image, human beings enjoy inherent dignity by virtue of the divine flame that burns within their souls. Christian moral teaching replaced status, race, gender, occupation, and all other markers of social difference with one’s individual orientation toward God as the determinant of the ultimate disposition of one’s soul. While Judaism had conveyed some overtones of personal salvation, the dominant relation with God was conditioned by the divine covenant with the Jewish people as a whole. In contrast, Jesus’ message was directed to all people who were open to his words and treated them as individuals capable of receiving divine grace and blessing. Every person, as one of God’s created, could, through individual effort and renunciation of worldly concerns, render him-or herself worthy for salvation.

The implicit individualism of early Christian moral theology was reinforced by later thinkers such as St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430 C.E.). According to Augustine, all human beings possess the capacity to choose between good and evil and to choose to accept or to turn away from the divine will. Of course, the objects between which one chooses are not of equal worth. Rejecting God by preferring one’s own desires yields dissatisfaction and unhappiness in one’s earthly life as well as the misery of eternal damnation, whereas submitting to God properly expresses one’s divinely granted freedom, the correct use of the will with which human beings have been endowed. Nevertheless, it remains up to the individual (even up to the moment preceding death) to decide whether to submit to or renounce God’s offering. The individual is the final and ultimate source of the destiny of his or her own soul.

Islam did not entirely share Christianity’s affinity for personal freedom of the will, emphasizing instead a strict adherence to religious law, namely, shari’a. Yet the Koran did uphold human freedom, so Muslim teaching maintained that it was the individual, not God, who was responsible for sin. Likewise, the Koran offered a vision of personal salvation that was far more embodied and carnal than Christianity’s. Thus Islam, too, adopted important elements of individualism.

Despite the common perception of medieval Europe as monolithic and hostile to expressions of individualism, the period did much to extend the idea of human individuality. In law, the concept of human beings with personal rights and liberties was expressed in both secular and religious documents. In public life, the principle of individual consent to the imposition of political power (captured in the ubiquitous phrase “What touches all must be approved by all”) was articulated. In moral philosophy and theology, the conception of the rational will, which defined the individual as the primary unit of analysis, was elevated to axiomatic status. Regardless of the institutional and ecclesiastical barriers to individualism, scholars have repeatedly looked to Latin Christian Europe as a source for individualism.

The Reformation and the Aftermath

These medieval tendencies came to fruition during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, so that individualism in the modern world deserves to be understood as a culmination of far earlier intellectual trends. The Reformation brought not only a challenge in practice to the unity of the Christian Church but also a transformation of important theological categories. Martin Luther (1483-1546) insisted on the unique presence of God alone in the conscience of believers, with the implication that the faithful Christian is responsible directly and immediately to God. The consequence of this teaching—while perhaps recognized only fleetingly by Luther and his followers—was that salvation did not depend on submission to the authority of the priesthood or the church. Nor did it fall to the secular power, to which pertained the control of bodies and behavior, to discipline the souls of subjects. Thus, whether intentionally or not, Luther opened the door to claims of public respect for liberty of conscience and eventually individual freedom of worship.

In the generation after Luther, inferences about personal freedom of religion were deduced by reforming thinkers. Sebastian Castellion (1515-1563) published pseudonymously a treatise entitled De haereticis, an sint persequendi (On heretics, whether they are to be persecuted) in response to John Calvin’s organization of the burning of a fellow Christian theologian for heresy at Geneva. Castellion argued that Christian belief must be held with sincere conviction. Hence, clerics and magistrates must refrain from persecution of convinced Christians who cling to doctrines that do not coincide with official teachings. Castellion maintained that the individual Christian’s duties extend to forbearance of the free and honest faith of one’s fellows even in the face of disagreements of understanding and interpretation.

In the seventeenth century, the individualism implicit in confessional pluralism would become more pronounced. For instance, Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) claimed a broad application for the right to liberty of thought and belief without interference from a sovereign power’s (or a church’s) determination of the truth or falsity of one’s ideas. Pierre Bayle (1647-1706) asserted that all forms of persecution (innocuous as well as harsh) of religious diversity encourage hypocrisy and erode social order. An erring conscience, if it be held in good faith, deserves as much protection as a correct one—a principle that Bayle extended even to atheists.

John Locke (1632-1704) proposed liberty of individual conscience as justified in the case of most Christian (and perhaps some non-Christian) rites. For Locke, the role of the magistrate should be confined to the maintenance of public tranquility and the defense of individual rights rather than the care of the soul. Hence, Locke’s Letter concerning Toleration (1690) defended a vision of the church as a purely voluntary association that a believer was free, according to conscience, to enter or leave at will. Locke crystallized a key Reformation shift: the idea that one’s religious confession is a matter of individual choice rather than institutional imposition.

The evolving acceptance of individualism paralleled changes in other European cultural, social, and political practices and attitudes. The invention of the printing press and movable type in the mid-fifteenth century immeasurably enhanced the ability of individuals to spread their ideas and made it possible for a larger public to access the written word. Demands were heard for freedom of the press (literally and figuratively) from censorship by clerical and secular authorities alike. While republican values that promoted civic virtue over personal choice retained a hold on public discourse, political liberty in geographically extensive regimes with monarchic institutions tended to be conceived in terms of individual freedom rather than civic populism. Hence, it is at this time and place that the origins of the bundle of individualist doctrines known as liberalism are found.

Liberalism and Individualism

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) generally is identified as the most important direct antecedent of modern individualist philosophy. In his Leviathan (1651), Hobbes ascribed to all individuals natural liberty (as well as equality) on the basis of which they are licensed to undertake whatever actions are necessary in order to preserve themselves from their fellow creatures. Hobbes believed that the exercise of such natural liberty logically leads to unceasing conflict and unremitting fear so long as no single sovereign ruler exists to maintain peace. The exchange of chaotic natural freedom for government-imposed order requires renunciation of all freedoms that humans possess by nature (except, of course, self-preservation) and voluntary submission to any dictate imposed by the sovereign. Yet, even under the terms of Hobbes’s absolute sovereignty, individuals are deemed to remain at liberty to choose for themselves concerning any and all matters about which the ruler has not explicitly legislated.

Locke begins his mature political theory in the Second Treatise of Government (1689) with the postulation of the divinely granted liberty of all individuals, understood in terms of the absolute right to preserve one’s life and to lay claim to the goods one requires for survival. Arguing against the patriarchal doctrine of Sir Robert Filmer (1588-1653), Locke insists that no natural basis—neither paternity nor descent—justifies the submission of one person to another. Rather, each individual is the proprietor of his or her (divinely endowed) physical and mental talents, abilities, and energies. The individual thus constitutes the basic unit of social and political analysis for Locke, who is sometimes considered the proponent of the doctrine of “possessive individualism” par excellence.

In contrast to Hobbes, Locke maintains that the natural condition of individual proprietorship can be maintained tranquilly because human beings are deemed sufficiently rational that they can and do generally constrain their free action under the terms of the laws of nature. Hence, should people choose to enter into formal bonds of civil society and authorize a government in order to avoid the “inconveniences” and inefficiency of the precivil world, the only rule worthy of consent is that which strictly upholds and protects the liberty they naturally possess. According to Locke, any government that systematically denies to its subjects the exercise of their God-given liberty (as Hobbes’s sovereign would do) is tyrannical and cannot expect obedience.

Individualism and Modern Society

The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries witnessed an emerging role for the individual that culminated in the appearance of the language of individualism. One strand in the intensified interest in the individual was the rise of capitalism as an economic system that emphasized the individual both as the holder of self-interest and as the foundation of all legal rights. Perhaps the most famous early advocate of economic individualism was Adam Smith (1723-1790). Although Smith is sometimes labeled the first great economist of capitalism, he preferred to describe his system in terms of “natural liberty,” arguing that the welfare of society is best served when every individual seeks his or her own advantage without reference to any overarching scheme of goodness or justice. When individuals are left to their own devices, Smith held, the ensuing system possesses an inherently self-adjusting quality that will ensure the maximum satisfaction of individual desires.

The apotheosis of individualism may be found in the utilitarian doctrine, formulated most clearly by Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), that social policy should promote the greatest good for the greatest number of people. This idea rested on the principle that all individual estimations of utility deserve equal treatment and respect in comparison with all others. Hence, no person could claim that his or her calculation of happiness counted for any more or less than another’s. A truly democratic society should treat the wishes and desires of each of its individual members with the same dignity, without regard for moral judgments concerning the content of those aims. Bentham elaborates the basic insight of Smith to cover the full range of political and social programs and institutions.

Although liberalism could seem to take individualism for granted, the extreme egalitarianism of the utilitarian position, coupled with the events of the French Revolution (1789-1799), made many thinkers (including those of a liberal stripe) nervous. Edmund Burke (1729-1797) was concerned that the spread of democratic equality and the breakdown of the organic social order would lead to the fragmentation of persons into atomized individuals lacking any sense of identity or place. He scorned the individual’s “private stock of reason” in comparison with the wisdom of history, fearing that the glorification of individuality presaged the crumbling of regard for the tradition-bearers of social authority, such as the monarchy, the nobility, and the church. Under such circumstances, Burke predicted (presciently, as it turns out) that authoritarian forms of government would step into the breach and provide an artificial identity for individuals as a remedy for their extreme alienation.

The French social commentator Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) similarly believed that an excess of democratic equality bred individualistic isolation in which people retreat from public life into families and small groups of interested combines. The unavoidable results of individualism are egoism, the suppression of all virtues, and the concession of political deliberation to the “tyranny of the majority”—conclusions reached on the basis of his observations of American as well as French modes of democracy. In Tocqueville’s view, America’s avoidance of the corrosive effects of individualism (at least in the early nineteenth century) stemmed from its valorization of liberty over equality as the basis of social relations. Note that true liberty is not, for Tocqueville, individualistic.

Karl Marx (1818-1883) occupies an interesting position in the history of individualism. Although Marx is commonly regarded as a holistic social thinker, he in fact repeatedly asserted that individual self-realization was the standard against which social relations should be judged. In his early writings, he condemned capitalism for the alienating and dehumanizing impact that it exercised on individual workers, while in the Communist Manifesto (1848) he called for a system of equitable distribution of the fruits of labor on the grounds that the precondition of the liberty of each is the liberty of all. Like his predecessor Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) and his contemporaries, such as the anarchist Jean-Pierre Proudhon (1809-1865) and the utopian Charles Fourier (1772-1837), Marx believed that communal equality constituted the necessary prerequisite for the flourishing of free individuals.

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) shared some elements of nineteenth-century skepticism about mass democratic society, but his writings crystallized the understanding of individualism still widely shared in Western societies. According to Mill’s important essay “On Liberty” (1859), the interests of humanity are “progressive,” in the Enlightenment sense that human beings seek material and moral improvement. Mill holds that the societies that are most likely to promote this goal—societies that he terms “civilized”—share the common factor of defending and promoting individual liberty. Individualism—understood as experimentation with lifestyles and ideas—challenges uncritically received sureties and broadens the basis of human knowledge. Borrowing from Tocqueville, Mill admits that democratic society contains the potential to dampen or even forbid many expressions of personal liberty that stand at odds with mass tastes or beliefs. In contrast to Tocqueville, however, Mill maintains that individualism stands on the side of liberty, not equality. A free society supports individualism.

The trend toward the foregrounding of the individual continued in the work of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). Nietzsche reviled the “herd mentality” of modern mass society, which espouses conformity and mediocrity as the highest aspirations of humanity. He proposed, instead, that an individual might attain the “transvaluation of values,” by which he meant that one could generate authentically for one’s self the unique principles that would guide oneself and oneself alone. Principles of this higher sort cannot be imposed or taught by one to another. Rather, the authentic individual must discover in a radically individualized way those precepts that realize his or her own valuation. Nietzsche drew no explicit political theory from this because politics, as the realm of imposition of coercive authority over others (the “will to power”), was incompatible with the deep individualism that he advocated.

Persisting Debate

The twentieth and early twenty-first centuries have witnessed the spread around the globe of a culture that valorizes the human individual. Expressions of this individualism have been, however, extremely diverse. The philosophical and literary school of existentialism found a vast audience among both intellectuals and popular audiences during the middle of the twentieth century. The existentialists—the best known of whom were Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) and Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980)—proclaimed the radically individualistic situation of human beings. In particular they focused on the profound nothingness of death—the one element of human existence that each person necessarily experiences uniquely and individually, since no one can die another person’s death—as a way of clarifying the condition of human Being. Positing the nonexistence of God, existentialism asserts that each individual must create meaning in his or her life through acts of personal will. Dependence on other people or institutions—priests, philosophers, governments, or even family and friends—for meaning leads to inauthentic forms of existence. Because death cannot be escaped, inauthenticity ultimately reveals itself in the confrontation with one’s own mortality. Each and every individual must eventually face the question, “Why do I exist?” And only in the deeds one freely performs does an authentic response arise.

Under the growing influence of economic thought, individualism has also been promoted under the guise of the logic of market relations. Libertarians such as Friedrich von Hayek (1899-1992), Robert Nozick (1938-2002), and, more popularly, Ayn Rand (1905-1982) proposed schemes of society that radically limited the power of the state and permitted broad scope for individual choice in all spheres of life. Each adopted a different starting point for these doctrines: for Hayek it was a quasi-utilitarian model of laissez-faire economics, for Nozick Lockean natural rights theory, and for Rand an original philosophical system that she called “objectivism.” Yet, each thinker proposed that governmental regulation of the individual, and thus constraint on free choice and autonomy, amounted to a denial of authentic humanity.

In its avowedly neoclassic turn against Keynsian welfare economics, recent economic thought reinforces much of the individualism of the libertarian school (Hayek, of course, is well known as a leading economist as well as a political philosopher). Neoclassic economics holds that growth and efficiency within markets depends on the maximization of individual rational satisfaction. When political institutions (or presumably any other extrinsic factors) impinge on choice by limiting options or regulating competition, the perfect flow of information that the free market produces is impeded and inefficiency is introduced. The salient assumption of this economic theory is that individuals are rational satisficers or mazimizers; that is, they are the best (indeed, the only legitimate) source of decisions about what is best for themselves. Neoclassic economics, broadly construed, embraces rational egoism and hedonism as the only psychological premises that comport with the principles of free markets. The economic model has in turn been appropriated by other social sciences, such as political science, under the name of “public choice” or “rational choice” theory.

Of course, individualism remains a controversial idea. No less than Saint-Simon and his followers, modern communitarians worry about the socially corrosive effects of individualism, as evinced by rising levels of crime, political alienation, and unrestricted consumerism. In a widely acclaimed recent empirical analysis of social capital in America, Robert D. Putnam (b. 1940) has argued that the phenomena Tocqueville once identified as bulwarks against social decay in American democracy—in particular, local-level voluntary associations and community-based activities—are increasingly disappearing. Americans are “bowling alone” (to employ Putnam’s own central image of rampant individualism) rather than joining leagues or social clubs to pursue common interests. Leaving aside its empirical dimensions, Putnam’s provocative thesis raises for communitarians the specter of whether a social order composed of monadic units can sustain the values of democratic politics.