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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.

Engraving of Petrarch, from Project Gutenberg

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.