Epicurus, expressive individualism, Immanuel Kant, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Johann Gottfried Herder, John Duns Scotus, Michael Allen Gillespie, modernity, Petrarch
Along with rethinking the term for expressive individualism, I’ve also lately been rethinking the history of the phenomenon. The idea that one should be one’s own true self is part of the air we moderns breathe: we don’t think about it because we assume it. (Some of the deeper thought on the matter comes from Christian conservatives, because they need to think about expressive individualism in order to oppose it.) Very few expressive individualists do the work that they should to defend the ideal philosophically. More attention has been paid to the idea’s history – but this, too, is something that I think we often get wrong.
The big question I want to revisit today is: when does expressive individualism begin? When do people first start thinking that every person has her own unique purpose in her individuality, and that following that purpose is a proper ethical ideal? I’ve argued there are metaphysical precedents for the idea in John Duns Scotus‘s distinction between whatness and thatness, but I don’t think there’s any inkling of individualist ethics in the pious thirteenth-century monk Scotus. Expressive individualism comes later – but how much later?
Charles Taylor attributes the origin of expressive individualism primarily to Johann Gottfried Herder, but I think he’s wrong about that: Taylor only ever quotes one sentence from Herder as evidence, and that sentence is within a context that isn’t about individualism. So my own previous account credits the 18th- and 19th-century German Romantics as a group, putting Herder together with Humboldt, Goethe, Novalis. Others go back a generation to Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Alessandro Ferrara gives Rousseau the credit for expressive individualism, some conservatives give him the blame. But I’ve recently come to believe that that’s not going far back enough – not nearly far back enough.
I changed my mind when I read Michael Allen Gillespie’s brilliant The Theological Origins of Modernity. Gillespie’s concern is with the origin of modernity in general; he doesn’t focus on expressive individualism specifically. But his work on modernity excavates a number of neglected thinkers, and in so doing convinced me of the earth-shaking importance of one in particular: the 14th-century Italian scholar Francesco Petrarca, known in English as Petrarch.
Petrarch gets his place in the history books as the founder of Renaissance humanism. When we think Renaissance we usually think invention, literature, above all visual art; we don’t pay attention to the period as philosophy. But Gillespie has convinced me that we should. For it is in Petrarch’s 1356 Of the Solitary Life or Solitude, I think, that we first find ideas that can clearly be classed as expressive or qualitative individualist. Consider: Petrarch advises a quasi-Epicurean withdrawal from public affairs into one’s own solitude, because those involved in public affairs
are ruled by the power of another man’s nod and learn what they must do from another man’s look. They claim nothing as their own. Their house, their sleep, their food, is not their own, and what is even more serious, their mind is not their own, their countenance not their own. They do not weep and laugh at the promptings of their own nature but discard their own emotions to put on those of another. In sum, they transact another man’s business, think another man’s thoughts, live by another man’s grace. (Solitude 122)
You could imagine Goethe or Nietzsche saying something like that; maybe you could even imagine Kant saying it. But as far as I can tell, this is not a sentiment you would find anywhere before Petrarch, anywhere in the world – and I’m not even aware of anywhere you find it in the couple centuries after him, before Rousseau. It’s not something Confucius or Śaṅkara or Augustine or Epictetus or even Zhuangzi would say. Epicurus, and the Disengaged Buddhists, would be in sympathy with the advice that Petrarch is offering here – but not with his reasons. Epicurus and Aśvaghoṣa would agree that we should avoid public affairs – because they interfere with our tranquility of mind. But Petrarch’s reasons in this passage are quite different: for him, the important thing is for our minds to be our own. In saying that, I think, he is likely the first to advocate a sentiment that would centuries later be echoed by Sting: “Be yourself, no matter what they say.”.
The idea that our ideas should be our own does also appear in Kant. But for Kant, what is our own is the rational moral law, which is the same for all people (in comparable situations); that’s why Simmel takes Kant as a quantitative, rather than qualitative, individualist. Now even if all Petrarch was saying was that Kantian idea, it would be extraordinary enough – to create any kind of modern individualism at all in the fourteenth century. But Petrarch goes still further to say something I can’t imagine coming from Kant: in Gillespie’s paraphrase, “It is crucial that each man decide according to his own preferences, for it is impossible that a single road should suit all men.” (61) That is a core idea of expressive, qualitative, individualism.
I don’t think I can emphasize enough how early Petrarch is expressing this ideal that it is good for our thoughts to be our own and uniquely individual. It’s not just that he’s saying such things before Kant and Rousseau and Goethe. He’s saying it a century and a half before Luther, before Machiavelli. He is starting off the Renaissance, but only starting it. It was Petrarch who coined the term “the Dark Ages” – but to describe his present and not his past, the age that he was living in and hoped would soon end. For Petrarch’s world was not Renaissance but medieval: the Black Death had been a mere ten years before he wrote that passage on our minds being our own, Dante’s Divine Comedy completed two decades before that. He wrote while the Hundred Years’ War was being fought by knights. And yet, it was still in that world, the medieval world of chivalry and plague, that Petrarch managed to advocate the ideal of our minds being our own. Rousseau might have been a century or two ahead of his time. Petrarch was several centuries.
What is more: it is not just that Petrarch had these thoughts in a solitary isolation and then buried them, to be rediscovered centuries later. Wikipedia, citing Julia Conaway Bondanella, tells us that over 120 manuscript copies of Of the Solitary Life still exist, “which demonstrates its popularity through the centuries.” That suggests to me that Petrarch’s expressive individualist ideas were being thought about in the four centuries between him and Rousseau. If that’s so, it seems very likely that there were other people advocating this idea well before Rousseau. We just haven’t been looking for them hard enough yet.
Doug Bates said:
I suspect Epicurus would be in agreement with Petrarch’s reasoning. Petrarch seems to be expanding on what Epicurus said in Principal Doctrine #14
14. The most unalloyed source of protection from men, which is secured to some extent by a certain force of expulsion, is in fact the immunity which results from a quiet life and the retirement from the world.
Amod Lele said:
Interesting point, Doug. Petrarch clearly did draw from Epicurus. I think the question is: what are they seeking to protect from the influence of others? Petrarch seems strongly concerned that our thoughts be our own, which I don’t think Epicurus is; I think that for him we all should be aiming at the same ataraxia.
Ian Douglas Rushlau said:
A different thread of reasoning about the individual, from Hannah E. Hashkes in The Journal of Textual Reasoning:
“The complexity of freedom and religious communal affiliation can be addressed by conjoining Levinas’ and Peirce’s phenomenologies of human encounter with externality and their power to generate rational discourse. In Levinas’ terms, it is the force of the encounter with the human Other that gives birth to an ethical self. This encounter generates a discourse of justice that constitutes the humanistic aspect of reason. In Peircean terms, it is the force of “brute act” and its involvement in a community’s quest of knowledge that lends the elements of truth and objectivity to what we call thought. This encounter is what Levinas calls “Otherness,” and this is Peirce’s “secondness.” We can never describe this encounter in neutral terms because everything we can say or think about it is already an operation of our discursive reason upon this fact…
As argued above, the ego does not relinquish his or her autonomy as a lawmaker in consequence of allowing the force of the encounter to come home. Quite to the contrary, the responsiveness to the brutality of the non-ego is what defines the ego’s separateness and calls it to embark upon an adventurous course of reasoning towards self-governance…
It is clear why I claim that an experience of exteriority that determines the self does not oppose individual autonomy: Equipped with a sense of transcendence and our communal set of symbols, we are all lawmakers, we are all reasoners, and we are all autonomous, as Jewish selves, scientific selves, or ethical selves. The crucial point is that being part of a communal discourse is a condition for our ability to exercise thought and therefore freedom, not a hindrance to it.”
Amod Lele said:
Welcome, Ian. I agree that being part of a communal discourse is a condition for our ability to exercise thought and freedom – but also a hindrance to it. Others make us who we are – but having done that, can proceed to interfere.
“But as far as I can tell, this is not a sentiment you would find anywhere before Petrarch, anywhere in the world…”
Consider Socrates in the “Gorgias”, some 1700 years before Petrarch:
A person “should… give consideration to how he might live the part of his life still before him as well as possible. Should it be by becoming like the regime under which he lives? In that case you [Callicles] should now be making yourself as much like the Athenian people as possible if you expect to endear yourself to them and have great power in the city… Our choice of this kind of civic power will cost us what we hold most dear. If you think that some person or other will hand you a craft of the sort that will give you great power in this city while you are unlike the regime, whether for better or for worse, then in my opinion, Callicles, you’re not well advised. You mustn’t be their imitator but be naturally like them in your own person if you expect to produce any genuine result toward winning the friendship of the Athenian people… For each group of people takes delight in speeches that are given in its own character and resents those given in an alien manner…” (512e-513c).
Amod Lele said:
Welcome, J. I think those are very different ideas. This quote from the Gorgias is about how to persuade an audience rhetorically (a useful skill in any era), not about an ethical ideal – and the advice given in that ways is about conforming to that audience, becoming like them, even if it is being “naturally like them” rather than being an imitator. And if there’s one thing that is alien to the expressive individualist ideal it is conformity. It’s actually possible that Petrarch had this passage in mind when he urged his audience to avoid public affairs – because, as Socrates advises here, succeeding at public affairs requires that we “transact another man’s business, think another man’s thoughts, live by another man’s grace.”
Pingback: Mini-Heap | Daily Nous
Paul D. Van Pelt said:
I am confused. Again. Being yourself, in medieval times, must have been very different to being yourself now. This blog follows—is intended to follow?—most of the multilogue today on change. I can’t find a useful basis for comparison, can’t imagine one. It is not that I disparage antiquity. It is only that, in recognizing it, how were lessons learned; advices given then, gave much towards modern betterment? I can’t get a grip on the value of this historicism. Change pervaded these blogs today. I offered some thoughts. But, there are those interests, preferences and motives that drive matters. And those are different to what drove people, in earlier times. They could not know what they did not know. Until things changed…
Kathryn Norlock said:
Your mind being your own seems to me straightforwardly like Epictetus the Stoic, who was likewise no stranger to Epicureans and criticized them on some lines, but arguably shared a true-self view with them. His Handbook includes more well-known passages like “Whoever then would be free, let him wish nothing, let him decline nothing, which depends on others; else he must necessarily be a slave,” and I think even more pertinent are his less oft-cited observations that a good thinker would shun, as Petrarch says, another man’s nod, because it’s more important to be free to think rightly for oneself and to know oneself:
“When, therefore, you see anyone eminent in honors or power, or in high esteem on any other account, take heed not to be bewildered by appearances and to pronounce him happy; for if the essence of good consists in things within our own power, there will be no room for envy or emulation. But, for your part, do not desire to be a general, or a senator, or a consul, but to be free; and the only way to this is a disregard of things which lie not within our own power.”
And “keep steadily to those things which appear best to you… For remember that, if you are persistent, those very persons who at first ridiculed will afterwards admire you. But if you are conquered by them, you will incur a double ridicule.
If you ever happen to turn your attention to externals, for the pleasure of anyone, be assured that you have ruined your scheme of life. Be content, then, in everything, with being a philosopher; and if you wish to seem so likewise to anyone, appear so to yourself, and it will suffice you.
Amod Lele said:
Welcome, Kathryn. These are interesting passages and are very likely an inspiration for Petrarch, since he was strongly influenced by both the Stoics and Epicureans. What I’m not seeing in them is the idea that each person has a different good. You’re right to call attention to these passages: to me they look like Kant, who did have a strong Stoic influence, and they suggest to me that Kant’s own sapere aude may not be as modern as we think. The fundamental feature of Kant’s ideas is that while everyone needs to find out the good for themselves (the process is individual), the result, the good itself, is still the same rational/moral law for everyone. And I think that’s what I’m seeing here? We all need to turn inward to be concerned with inner virtue rather than external goods. Petrarch is adding something different when he insists that we follow the promptings of our own natures and that these are not the same for all.
Doug Bates said:
Petrarch would have been aware that the Epicureans, Aristotelians, and Stoics disagreed with each other about what is good. He was probably familiar with Protagorean philosophy which held that individuals decide what is good for themselves. Surely he was familiar with differences of opinion in the Platonic dialogs about what was good. And if none of those informed him, surely he observed differences in what people thought was good.
Amod Lele said:
They disagreed with each other, but they disagreed with each other about what was good for everyone. The Stoics thought one path was good for all humans, the Aristotelians thought a different path was good for all humans. Petrarch is explicitly saying different paths are good for different humans, and that’s the innovation.
Kathryn Norlock said:
This does not sound quite right. Aristotle did not indicate that he spoke of all humans. He was, if anything, overly committed to differences in different individuals’ natures, including those of men and women, slaves and citizens, but also including those of certain talents. He was an attentive biologist who also believed there was such a thing as human nature, but he evidently did not believe the good for the students of his ethics was the same as the good for all others.
Amod Lele said:
That is a good point, and you’re both reminding me how hard it can be to identify what is new about expressive individualism relative to Aristotle. I’m pretty confident there’s something new there, and I still think it’s there in Petrarch.
When I previously wrote on the question, before having read Gillespie on Petrarch, I quoted Charles Taylor on the innovation: in question:
“the adequate human life would not just be a fulfilment of an idea or plan which is fixed independently of the subject who realizes it, as is the Aristotelian form of a man. Rather this life must have the added dimension that the subject can recognize it as his own, as having unfolded from within him. This self-related dimension is entirely missing from the Aristotelian tradition.”
I suspect that that inner dimension, that determining what the best life is for us as individuals is in some sense up to us as individuals, is what is new in Petrarch.
Doug Bates said:
Perhaps the solution is in the first paragraph of your article. Perhaps it was Christianity that drove out individualism. Petrarch was reviving individualism from pre-Christian norms.
Amod Lele said:
I’m not seeing what Taylor calls the “self-related dimension” in pre-Christian norms: the idea that the good is different for different people in a way that comes out of their natures.
Seth Zuihō Segall said:
Amod, thanks for your suggestion that if we are looking for the distant ancestry of expressive individualism, Petrarch is the place we might start. I can’t think of an earlier one, but I’ll keep looking. I have been reading Lionel Trilling’s (1971) Sincerity and Authenticity which certainly bears on this topic. He begins his exploration with Polonius’s line “to thine own self be true”—so we see an inkling of expressive individualism in Shakespeare—and then Trilling discusses how we could never ask the question of whether Achillies or King David were being true to themselves in the same way we can ask that about Hamlet.
Amod Lele said:
By all means keep looking! My guess is that Petrarch is the first to articulate it as an ethical ideal (centuries before Shakespeare) but that the metaphysical grounding for the ideal is laid for him by Duns Scotus.
Trilling is certainly relevant to the question – Taylor says that the reason he sometimes (inadvisably in my view) uses “authenticity” to describe expressive individualism is that that’s the term Trilling used. It’s an interesting question whether it’s there in Shakespeare, as in Kathryn’s comment below.
Kathryn Norlock said:
Seth’s comment above has me thinking of the dual threads at work in the post and this discussion. “To thine own self be true” can trace all the way back to Plato’s Crito, whereas the good being different for different persons really is more modern and might originate with Plutarch. Interesting to think about how these two threads can come apart!
Amod Lele said:
Interesting point, Kathryn. It is really tricky to identify where this begins! Can you spell out a bit more how you think “to thine own self be true” is in the Crito in a way that isn’t about different goods for different persons?