Monday, January 21, 2013

Why Individualism Poses A Problem

I need to come up with more creative titles for my posts...

My last post touched on the rise of individualism in our culture and its distaste for organized religion (or for any ideological institution that kindly asserts that we don't get to be the center of our worlds, no matter how badly we want to be).  However, there's a much more practical (and hopefully less elaborate) way of showing how ridiculous individualism is.

"Ja, ubermensche!"
To review briefly, Individualism is the assertion of the individual's authority over his life. Simply put, its the idea that we are in charge of our own lives and free from anything or one who thinks otherwise.  Its not just a freedom from institutions and oppression, but a freedom against institutions and oppression.  The Individualist denies institutions and hierarchies any purpose or authority apart from that purpose/authority which individuals give to them.  To the individualist, the heart of my life ultimately boils down to me, my freedom, and how I express it upon the world around me.  This is the ideology that gave us modern democracy and the free market.  This is the mindset that lead to phenomenology and existentialism, philosophies that focused on and examined the human experience and the fantastic (and horrifying) abilities of human freedom.  However, this is also the frame of mind that also lead to bloody revolution, ubermensche, and relativism.

Do not mistake me, individualism has its merits.  There is a fantastic quality in the self, in the mystery of one's own existence and experience of themselves and the world around them.  However, the radical individualism that pervades modern society poses significant problems.  We live in a world of sports cars and sex, of decadence and depression, and of wealth and weariness.  The prowess of empowered individuals is everywhere in our world, so obvious that we take it for granted, yet we find it overwhelmingly insufficient.  We've never been so empowered or so enabled as individuals, nor have we been so profoundly lonely and miserable.  As we set out into the universe and seek to delight in our own individual-ness, we often shun anything that can limit or bind us.  We desire personal freedom and autonomy, even more than life itself at times, and in that desire, we forget one paradoxical truth:  Never is man so free as when he is totally captivated.  Though it sounds absurd, it is when we give ourselves over completely that we are at our most free.  Case in point, true love.  True love is captivating.  When a person truly loves another, they desire the good of the other more than they desire anything else, even life itself.

Love, by definition, is selfless.  Most human interactions are useful, typically mutually beneficial, business transactions that vary in purpose and degrees of formality.  Love, on the other hand, is purposeless.  Love, true love, is entirely without regard for one's self, the acts of a lover are for the sake of the beloved, and often require him to disregard his own will for the sake of his beloved.  This flies in the face of individualism.  Where the individualist asserts his freedom and will upon the world around him, the lover surrenders his freedom and will to his beloved, and it sets him truly free.  He does not act for his sake, but for hers, and in that selflessness, that utter rejection of his own desires, that he experiences absolute liberation.

This is why individualism fails.  Man's greatest ability and highest aspiration is not to be free, but to love and be loved.  He does not fulfill himself in pervasive self-obsession, but in self-gift, in willful captivation.  Modern man asserts himself as much as he can, he stakes a place for himself in the universe, only to find himself alone there, lost in the cosmos.  It is only when he releases himself to truly love and truly be loved by God and fellow man that he finds himself.

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