In the 1950s, Robert Nisbet summarized the effects of nineteenth-century individualism on modern humans in the book The Quest for Community: “[Nineteenth-century] individualism has resulted in masses of normless, unattached, insecure individuals who lose even the capacity for independent, creative living.” His brutally honest assessment is only more true today; our public universities are busy cushioning a generation of young people so insecure that they’re unable even to hear mention of controversial things without needing a “safe space,” and creativity is defined as carrying a mattress around campus.
The wound that was open in the 1950s has scabbed over, and many of us struggle to imagine an existence besides the individualistic one Nisbet describes, where we are responsible for our own self-definition, accountable to no one for what we choose to become—and bereft of social grounding in a community.
But we haven’t stopped trying to imagine something different. Nisbet goes on: “Of all symptoms of the impact of power upon human personality in the contemporary Western world, the most revealing seems to me to be the preoccupation…with community” (emphasis added). Community is the catchphrase of our day, a rallying point for people with wildly varying backgrounds and who agree on very little besides its importance. Without bothering to define community, everybody agrees that we all want it—so long as we do not have to give up the apparent freedom that comes with individualism. Can we have both, or do we have to choose?
Nisbet summarizes our individualistic exile this way: “Moral estrangement and spiritual isolation…pervade our age.” Against this estrangement and isolation, as Nisbet predicted, we raise the undefined flag of “community,” loosely explained as “doing life together”: Saturday morning at the farmers’ market, happy hour with friends, a book club.
But for very few of us does “community” mean what it originally meant: communitas, or holding things—creative property, moral standards, liturgical traditions—in common, a holding that entails, in fact necessitates, the sacrifice of our personal inclinations. The contemporary interest in community is a reactionary impulse, pushing against the nineteenth century claim that each of us is ultimately alone in the universe. It is not, however, a healing impulse, because it is not prepared to reject the contention that each of us is capable of supreme fulfillment only as we cast off the bonds of morality and tradition (usually religious tradition) and define ourselves.
If anything, radical and aggressive individualism is tightening its hold on us, often promoted by groups that are simultaneously calling for stronger community. Consider the attempts to enshrine self-definition in law by prohibiting any attempt to restrict someone’s actions based on his or her biological sex, up to and including allowing grown men to undress and shower with young girls. Radical individualism of this kind unmoors us (in fact bans us) from any shared standard of reality, which is absolutely indispensable for establishing true community.
The problem in a nutshell is this: The modern soul consists of two contradictory impulses, an ache for community and an obsession with self-definition. Our attempt to have community without dealing with this contradiction diagnoses a symptom but ignores the disease. We recognize that we are alone and that we are in existential dread. But we confuse the causality; we believe that by surrounding ourselves with people, all of whom individually experience this existential dread, we will overcome it. We do not recognize that we are alone because of our existential dread, which is an indication of something much more profound than social isolation.
Pascal wrote about this dread in the Pensees, as he reflected on the anguish one can feel looking up at the night sky and sensing simultaneously his own minuteness and the inability of the cold, vast universe to comfort him. It is a beautiful passage and worth reading in its entirety:
When I see the blindness and wretchedness of man, when I regard the whole silent universe, and man without light, left to himself, and, as it were, lost in this corner of the universe, without knowing who has put him there, what he has come to do, what will become of him at death, and incapable of all knowledge, I become terrified, like a man who should be carried in his sleep to a dreadful desert island, and should awake without knowing where he is, and without means of escape.
This is the true root of the problem: We live in a world that seems to give us no clues as to who we are or why we are alive. The solution to this problem cannot be “doing life together,” for living a life that we believe is ultimately meaningless, even if it is with all the liberated, self-defined individuals in the world, will not give it meaning.
Authentic Community Demands Sacrifice
For Nisbet, the gravest threat to real community is the destabilization and dislocation of “established centers of function and authority.” Any wholehearted quest for community must grapple with the implications of this assertion: There are legitimate centers of function, or purpose, and authority that can (and ought to) demand accountability—and they are found neither in the individual nor the government.
The only escape from existential dread is moral tradition, which through faith allows us to answer the questions raised in the Pensees. Later, Pascal recognizes that this is the only escape from the island of individualistic despair: “Considering how strongly it appears that there is something else than what I see, I have examined to see whether…God has not left some sign of Himself.” True community, a mutual striving after a noble life, depends on such a tradition (the recognition of signs of something more) with such an authority (God Himself). Until we grasp that to enter into a community requires sacrifice, not merely of time or of money but of ourselves—our preferences, our opinions, even (unthinkable!) our identities—we will never fully live in lasting community.
So we find ourselves in a bind, for the individualism we hold dear requires us to reject moral traditions, to deny and defy this established center, to define our own function and be our own authority. We want to have it both ways: Throwing off all the structures, limits, and traditions that give our lives meaning while also engaging in “community.” But no matter what the culture may say, we cannot have both. We must make a choice, the same choice all humans have made before us: Do we seek happiness through the relentless assertion of self, or through the willing and sacrificial denial of self in communion with a timeless moral tradition?
In the spirit of the individualism that got us here, the choice is ours.
Republished with gracious permission from The Intercollegiate Review (Spring 2016).
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