Reigning In Hermits: The Conflict Between Individualism and Participation

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Reigning In Hermits: The Conflict Between Individualism and Participation

In the wake of Enlightenment thinkers like Hobbes and Locke, who asserted the primacy of the individual as the possessor of rights and emphasized the resulting legal equality of all men, the question arose of how an individual who originates in a state of nature interacts with society. Early 19th Century writers had an advantage in answering this question over the original thinkers in the form of a grand experiment in Enlightenment theory currently being conducted in America. Here, for the first time, was a democracy run by consent of the governed, all of whom were equal individuals before the law and, according to the dominant religious tradition, before God. The more thorough this leveling, Alexis de Tocqueville argued in Democracy in America, “the less [men] are inclined to believe blindly in any man or any class…all having the same means of knowledge, truth will be found on the side of the majority” (Tocqueville, 435). At the same time that the power of self-styled authorities fades in both public and religious life and people are more apt to simply tow the line, he sees the ties that once created interdependence in aristocracies—economic dependency and social hierarchy—weaken, resulting in the isolation of the individual from public life, or, “individualism” (Tocqueville, 506-7).

Tocqueville’s apprehension towards individualism was not merely a passing worry—he saw in its extreme form the potential for despotism to replace democracy. “Despotism, by its very nature suspicious, sees isolation of men as the best guarantee of its own permanence” (Tocqueville, 509). This tension between personal isolation and participation in civic life surfaced in other contemporary works as well, including Charles Finney’s “Lectures on Revival of Religion” and Ralph Emerson’s “On Self Reliance,” in which the former argued in a vein similar to Tocqueville’s that the nature of democracy will always create this conflict, and the latter disposed of democracy in favor of the individual.

Tocqueville’s own reconciliation of the individual’s natural inclination toward isolation is found in his analysis of the nature of knowledge in democratic societies. On a purely practical political level, there must, he argued, be certain beliefs held in common by all citizens in order for common action to be taken to administer government (Tocqueville, 433). Local government is the individual’s closest connection to the public sphere, and the same selfish impulse that leads to individualism will make it necessary for him to form political associations to secure his interests.

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