The Operating Principles of the Contemporary Social Imaginary 1. Freedom and Individualism

As mentioned in my last post I now want to identify and define the six principles that provide the basic operating principles that govern the contemporary social imaginary. I will look at them in terms of their Enlightenment antecedents, that is, I will review the basic ideas seeded by the tinkers of the enlightenment and then show how those ideas were expanded, changed and popularized.

The most fundamental of all Enlightenment characteristics is, of course, the idea of human freedom. For some thinkers, like Immanuel Kant, this concept was primarily associated with the free and public use of reason. His concern is not simply rationality as such, but its unfettered use, that is, the freedom to form and express one’s own opinions. In Chapter III of his 1859 work On Liberty John Stuart Mill echoes that sentiment by stating that there are obvious

reasons which make it imperative that human beings should be free to form opinions, and to express their opinions without reserve; and such the baneful consequences to the intellectual, and through that to the moral nature of man, unless this liberty is either conceded, or asserted in spite of prohibition…

In my judgment, every human being should take a road of his own. Every mind should be true to itself—should think, investigate and conclude for itself.[1]

During the intervening centuries the idea of individual freedom has been embraced by the masses and is today so widely accepted, enthroned in so many constitutions, and protected by such an array of institutions, that it is simply taken as a given, beyond discussion, already established. Because this idea is now so well established, that is, because there is no longer a need to argue the case for individual freedom, the focus of public attention has now shifted away from making the case for personal freedom to finding or devising new ways of conceiving of that freedom. Of particular interest to this discussion is the fact that this continued universalization of freedom is now taken to imply an absolute “right to choose,” that is, to have a personal opinion about any and every area of human endeavor. Because this right also defines, in part, the personal identity of its agent, this sense of entitlement becomes so powerful that simply having an opinion, simply articulating it, one makes it “true.” So, as it has filtered down into the contemporary imaginary, freedom to think for one’s self has morphed into an absolute right to choose between options that once adopted and/or expressed are considered true, no matter the topic. But the development of the idea did not stop there. Mill went on to ask “whether the[se] same reasons do not require that men should be free to act upon their opinions—to carry these out in their lives, without hindrance, either physical or moral, from their fellow-men, so long as it is at their own risk and peril.”[2] What is being called for here is not simply a noble idea, freedom, it is rather a necessity that grows out of human existence itself.  One thinker, Holyoake, justifies his stance by insisting that

each and every person, from his cradle to his grave, must necessarily form his own conclusions; because no one else knows or feels, or can know or feel, as he knows and feels, the desires and necessities, the hopes, and fears, and impulses of his own nature, or the pressure of his own circumstances.[3]

What we are looking at here is a refusal to place any limits on individual thought, desire, or opinion. It amounts to an unfettered license to act on whatever desire an individual might have. Some constraints might be placed on individual action, basically that we do not harm others or interfere with their rights.[4] But that might be easier said than done. For as the prophet Jeremiah points out that because of sin “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked (17:9). If left to its own devices it will gravitate to itself, that is, it will love itself and not be too worried about harming others or violating their rights. Describing this dynamic St. Theodorus writes that “Self-love, love of pleasure and love of praise banish remembrance of God from the soul. Self-love begets unimaginable evils. And when remembrance of God is absent, there is a tumult of the passions within us.”[5] That is probably why we see so little that is noble and is why, in a world devoid of any imitations on individual freedoms, we are confronted with “the individual scramble for wealth, the cash nexus, and purely material relations, instead of sentiment between men.”[6] That does sound rather selfish and it is probably the case because “over time, …individualism tends to degenerate into pure egoism, because it ignores the civic virtues on which society depends.”[7] It seems then that the prevailing desire for freedom is not just some vague inclination to promote one’s self but, as it is implemented in our society, but amounts to a desire to express and act upon “unbounded self-love” and “there can be no doubt, of course, that in the language of the great writers of the eighteenth century it was man’s ‘self-love,’ or even his ‘selfish interests,’ which they represented as the ‘universal mover…’”[8] the very foundation of human being.

So, is there any room for common action, governance, organization, instruction? Indeed, there is, but whatever cooperative or social arrangements the individual does submit to has to be voluntary and lead to some obvious benefit. It can under no circumstances be imposed. For that reason, the any exclusive power used to bring about organization or association must be rejected.

This basic approach is enshrined in the American Declaration of Independence (1776), which, while on the one hand, insisting on certain unalienable, individual rights such as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, does, on the other hand, call for government to secure those rights. But it is to be a government deriving its powers from the (voluntary) consent of those governed. For this reason, many came to fear organized society and the government insisting that they must rely on themselves, on their own “private stock of reason” to assess the desir[ed] of traditional customs, values, and institutions,…”[9]

It is this radical form of individualism that has become the basic characteristic of North American society. Godkin insists that “individualism was a fundamental character trait of the American. It expressed itself in self-reliance,[10] abundant energy of action, ideals of unrestrained individual freedom, the capacity for organization and daring enterprise, and the belief in a free competitive economy.”[11] Indeed, that does sound quite American and why not? This has been our vision of ourselves since the very beginning.[12]

So, the doctrine of “freedom” has become the operating principle “individualism” (self-interest) and “among the Americans of our time it is universally accepted. One finds it at the root of most of our (inter)actions. It is woven into the things we say. You hear it as much from the poor as from the rich.”[13] So individualism plays out, governs and directs our actions across all three of the areas of society we will be looking at (commerce, public discourse, self-governance). By way of anticipating the discussion below, it must be obvious by now that American individualism is a danger to the Church and has already done a great deal of damage. On the surface of it, it has cause may people to reject the teaching and the authority of the Church and to move away from belief in God and practice in the Church. Unbelief is the default position in our culture. For those who have remained in the Church individualism threatens the very nature of Church itself by viewing it as a voluntary association for some mutual benefit, a completely free gathering in which no one has any particular authority over those participating. As one parishioner said to a priest, “your job is not to tell me what to do or how to live, but to make me feel good about myself if and when I choose to come.” It is, of course, true that active membership has its rewards, but it will never satisfy all human desire for health, wealth, happiness, and whatever else we may want. Moreover, individualism destroys the very fabric of the Church by isolating each member from the others such that, on the one hand, their own opinions are not developed in community, and, on the other hand, that their thoughts, opinions, actions are truly their own, cannot and do not affect, one way or the other, the other members of the Body (not withstanding 1 Cor, 12:12-19). A more detailed look at the many other ways in which individualism affects the Church through the practices and opinions it governs will be taken up later.


[1] Robert G. Ingersoll. “Individuality” as cited by George H. Smith and Marilyn Moore, Individualism : A Reader, Libertarianism Org Readers (Washington, D.C.: Cato Institute, 2015), Kindle Location 2333.

[2] John Stuart Mill. “Of Individuality, as One of the Elements of Well-Being” as cited by ibid., Kindle Location 522.

[3] Ibid.

[4] “Freedom of choice and self-determination are virtuous principles, but when selfish individual interests threaten to destroy the common good, the limits of individualism are exposed.” Peter L. Callero, The Myth of Individualism : How Social Forces Shape Our Lives (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2009), 18.

[5] St. Theodorus. “A Century of Spiritual Texts,” 92. In Nicodemus et al., The Philokalia : The Complete Text (London ; Boston: Faber and Faber, 1979), Vol II, 34.

[6] Henry Wilson. “A Catechism Of Individualism.” as cited by Smith and Moore, Kindle Location 2735.

[7] Ibid., Loacation 158.

[8] F. A Hayek, Individualism and Economic Order (Chicago: University of Chircago, 1948), 13.

[9] Smith and Moore, Kindle Location 128.

[10] Note the importance of this term in American thought especially since the famous essay by Emerson. Cf. Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Essay on Self-Reliance, (New York: The Roycroft Shop, 1905),

[11] Smith and Moore, Kindle Location 239.

[12] J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur. “What is an American?” as cited in ibid., Locaations 940-53.

[13] Alexis de Tocqueville, “Democracy in America,”–04_EN_1034.

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