Properties of Blood, I.3: The Disappearing Individual, Part F

Socrates and Christ

Greek ethical conceptions underwent a transformation, it goes without saying, between the time of Homer and the writings of Plato and Aristotle.  One important development that affected this evolution was the rise of the polis, which challenged the ethical primacy of kinship and friendship.  As Gabriel Herman summarized this development:

"…the ancient world was criss-crossed with an extensive network of personal alliances linking together all sorts of apolitical bodies (households, tribes, bands, etc.).  The city’s framework superposed itself upon this existing network—superimposed itself upon it, yet did not dissolve it."

Tensions between one’s loyalty to family and friends and the demands of the polis are a frequent subject of Greek tragedy, as seen most dramatically in Sophocles’ Antigone, where a young woman’s loyalty to the demands of religion and family are viewed as a challenge to the claims of the city and its rulers.   

Socrates and Plato, as has been argued earlier, did a great deal to undermine pre-rational loyalties, but they did not deny the significance of family and friendship, much less deny the claims of the commonwealth: Plato’s Socrates preferred death to exile.  As we shall see, when we take up the subjects of kinship and friendship, neither pagan Greeks nor pagan Romans ever liberated themselves from these ties, and Livy, writing in the enlightened age of Augustus, portrays Coriolanus as a nobleman whose willful pride makes him a traitor to his people and his family.  Then, if there is any case to be made for ethical individualism before the Renaissance, it must be found in the Christian Scriptures and Tradition.

In reading the Gospels, we are struck over and over by Jesus’ radical demand that his followers pursue a course of perfection, which seem to include a blanket rejection of family ties:

"For I am come to set a man at variance with his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.  And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household.  He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. [Mat 10:35-37]

This radical language—and this is into isolated passage— accords rather poorly with “conservative family values.”  But, like so many of Christ’s apparently radical pronouncements, it must be balanced against other and more numerous passages in which the institutions of marriage and family are taken for granted or praised—His first miracle at the wedding in Cana, the habit of calling his disciples “brothers,” the depiction of the Holy Family, etc. etc.

There is also the question of context.  Christ is sending his disciples into the world to preach and declaring to them that love of God and his Son and preaching the Gospel take precedence over even the most important of human relationships.  This is a well-worn rhetorical formula, sometimes designated by the German word “Priamel.”  Sappho offers a simple example:

"Some say an army of cavalry, others foot soldiers

and still others a fleet of ships

is the fairest thing on the dark earth, but I say

it is whoever one loves.. "

Sappho, who lived in a society that loved weaponry and war, is far from denigrating the beauty of Greek warfare; in fact, she is taking it for granted but putting it second to the beloved.  When Pindar wrote, at the beginning of his First Olympian Ode, that “water is a very fine thing, and gold, like a fire blazing in the night, overtops all noble wealth.  But if… you wish to sing of athletic contests,” … let us not proclaim any contest greater than the Olympic Games,” water and gold, so far from being deprecated, are at the pinnacle of the the natural and social worlds, excelled only by the joy that a man has in gaining an Olympic victory.

Christians are required to put their love of God and hope of salvation above all lesser goods, but such an aspiration in no way diminishes the positive value of kinship and friendship, much less elevates the Christian “individual” above his social obligations.  I shall take up each of the New Testament’s apparent renunciations of everyday obligations in the appropriate place, but the notion that Christianity is a religion of separate individuals, each “bound for glory” on his own private pilgrimage, is easily dismissed.  From the beginning, the Christian faith had a corporate existence, whether known as “the brothers” or the Ecclesia (Church).  In standard Greek, an ekklesía is the assembly of citizens who are corporate members of a commonwealth.  Only acknowledged members can participate fully in the meetings and exercise the privileges of citizenship.

Individualism as Naiveté

To speak in very rough terms, we are exploring two moral worlds so different as to seem opposed.  One is the world of corporate responsibilities to kinfolks, friends, neighbors, and fellow-citizens who owe each other certain duties; the other is a world of detached individuals, either competing ruthlessly for success or living quietly under the control of a vast governmental system that speaks in the name of their rights.  The first world is that of those pre-modern societies from which our modern world developed; the second is the declared ideal—though hardly the reality—of our own world.  Though modern Christians have tried to import individualist and Marxist theories into the Church, the very language of Christianity—whose members are “brothers” living in “communion” within the “assembly” known as the church—gives the lie to these distortions.

If men have never or only rarely been individualists, that is not because they have not been selfish and competitive.  Mankind from the beginning—long before the self-assertions of Achilles—in the days of Adam and Eve, Cain and Able, Eteocles and Polyneices, Romulus and Remus—has been a contentious species, whose members are often unable to get along with each other, even within the little community of the household, but even in their striving with each other for supremacy and driven by greed and ambition, they have hardly ever succeeded in liberating themselves from the ties of blood and love.  This does not mean, however, that there is nothing good to be salvaged from liberal theories of human individualism.

In an age dominated by theories of collectivism and statism, a sense of individual dignity, reinforced by skepticism of political ideology, can be an indispensable weapon in resisting tyranny.  Even the modern distortions of Antigone’s resistance can have a wholesome effect.  For someone who has not thought through these questions, a simple refusal to accept the state's justifications for its destructive policies may be the beginning of wisdom; however, skeptical individualism can also damage one's sense of connection with friends and family and be used to justify immoral and illegal behavior.  I once told a leading libertarian that a journalist we both knew was describing himself as a "libertarian."  What is he, I was asked, a tax-evader or a child-molestor?  "No one becomes a libertarian except to justify some crime or vice."     The generalization was much too broad, but there was a germ of truth.

This is not simply one more example of the danger of running to extremes.  The real flaw in theories of individualism is that they are not descriptions of reality but unrealistic aspirations.  It is not that men and women should not strive for some degree of moral independence—that is, after all, part of what it means to be human—but that they should not imagine that they came into this world as individuals free to pursue any dream, fulfill any destiny.

”The individual," in the extreme sense used by self-described “individualists,” is neither a human universal nor a stock character in the repertory of Western man.  Since the 18th Century, the individual—or something like it—has been an ideal human condition to which the philosophically minded can aspire, as people once aspired to holiness or virtue.  Setting aside the question of whether it is possible for anyone, much less everyone, to be truly an individual, we should ask, again,  whether such an ideal is an ultimate good, one among many goods, or a mixed blessing that may sometimes seem more like a curse.

In grappling with this question, let us try not to be seduced by mere words like “freedom" and "rights," "slavery" and "liberation."  Most of the changes rung on these themes are not only mere cant, but all too often they serve as trumpet calls for war, devastation, and tyranny.  Suppose some political idealist promised to set you free from your oppressors, but, after emerging victorious from many hard-fought battles, you discovered that you had only exchanged the devil you knew for the one you did not know and, in the bargain, had lost everything you had formerly possessed.  Such is all too often the fate not only of those who take part in armed revolutions but also of those who believe the promises of social reformers.

The seduction of minds begins with the abuse of words, and no one, not even philosophers, is immune.  In fact, philosophers and their students are too easily seduced by the glittering surface of words, and if they find their inherited vocabulary of jargon insufficiently bewildering, they coin some new term, such as “categorical imperative,” or “dialectical materialism,” or “neocolonialism" and treat it as a scientific discovery or a fundamental law of human society or universal human right.  This tendency to confuse the invention of terms with the discovery of truth is no recent development.  The founders of Stoicism, perhaps because they came from the fringes of the Hellenic world, coined all too many novel terms, provoking Cicero's complaints against philosophers who do not make the effort to write clearly and persuasively.  Modern theologians are among the worst offenders, and the fancier the lingo in which they cloak their platitudes, the greater is their imposture.

Political and ethical theorists, under the delusion that they are investigating human reality, seem to do little but quibble over traditional terms and invent new ones to impose on the unwary.  Even good old words, when they are given an academic varnish, can be just as misleading as the latest invention of a newly minted Ph.D. on the make.  In political arguments, both sides usually take for granted a basic set of concepts, such as the “individual” and the “state” and act as if these Latinate English words described a universal aspect of the human condition.  Both terms are, however, highly elusive.  If by “state,” we mean any form of political organization, then Adam and Eve lived in a state, but if we have in mind a permanent government that can act independently of the people it commands, the state is an historical invention that began to take rudimentary shape in the ancient world but was not truly formed, even in outline, until the Renaissance.  To describe the attributes of the ancient Athenian "state" is much like ticking off the color of eyes and hair qualities of the unicorn.

Similarly, the individual, conceived of as an independent and self-determined person who rationally makes decisions in his own interest, is an artifact (or illusion) of the 18th century.  Whatever the merits of individualism in modern political philosophy, it has scant relevance to ancient Greeks, who lacked (as I have been arguing) even the words to express such an idea.  The extent to which thoroughly modern and postmodern men and women can be regarded as individuals is not entirely obvious.   Most (all?) of what we believe about most (all?) things has been injected into us by some person or institution that influenced our development: a parent or teacher, a church or television show or pop song.  E.E. Cummings, an individualist himself, once made a skeptical guess about the percentage of individuals in human history:

there are possibly 2½ or impossibly 3

individuals every several fat

thousand years.  Expecting more would be

neither fantastic nor pathological but


We moderns, who regard ourselves as liberated individuals, name our children after mass-marketed pop stars, identify with name brands and commercial sports franchises, and spend most of our lives under the control of institutions, from daycare to dying hospices, from Rotary to NOW to Alcoholics Anonymous to the mega-churches we have been attracted to by their TV commercials.

Pre-modern men and women were—and are still—more realistic.  Far from seeing themselves as individuals, much less individualists, they were conscious of their position in an enveloping network of friends and relations.  To the extent they could conceive of individualists or even solitary men, they were horrified.  For the Greeks, the polis (city-state) defined the proper social life.  Homer’s Cyclopes, who lived as patriarchal shepherds, were bestial creatures, and his Achilles, although a very great hero, is also a monster who appears to despises the ordinary bonds of friendship.  He prefers to let his friends die in battle rather than accept Agamemnon’s offer of restitution.  When his best friend Patroclus chides him (Il XVI), Achilles tells him that he hopes all the Greeks and Trojans kill each other and that only they two will sack Troy.  Even Achilles in his madness cannot imagine life without his friend, and when Patroclus is killed, his rage is so extreme that even the gods are afraid to get in his way.

Then, if there are occasions and contexts where we simply must use words like “individual” and “individualism,” let us agree that they stand for an ideal of moral seriousness, of taking responsibiity for one’s own actions, no matter what excuse might be offered by our background or circumstances.  If rich men and poor men alike have become criminals, it does no good to excuse their crimes on the grounds of poverty or affluence.

We are, to some extent, trapped in a paradox:  On the one hand, we are saying that all human beings are to a great extent the products of the communities that have formed them, while, on the other, claiming that each of us has to accept responsibility for his own decisions and actions.  It is a bit like the arguments over the role of fate and free-will in Greek tragedy that were referred to earlier.  Was Oedipus destined, by a curse on his family, to kill his father?  Or did he, in a fit of temper all too typical of his character,  kill the men he met at the crossroads?  Which is true?  The answer is that both are true, that it would have blasphemous to suggest, as Oedipus and his Jocasta do, that the divine plays no role in human affairs, but equally blasphemous to blame them for our own mistakes.

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina