Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Doing Our Individualism Together

In the recent issue of The City, the fine journal that comes out of Houston Baptist University, Wilfred McClay reflects on what cities mean for our souls ("The Soul and the City;" it's not accessible online but you can and should subscribe for free). Large urban centers are not unambiguously good things, but they are also far from unmitigated evils, or what Benjamin Rush compared to, "abscesses on the human body," which is to say, "reservoirs of all the impurities of a community." After first reflecting on the shape of our surroundings which not only we have shaped, but which then have shaped us in turn, he backs up and asks a fundamental question: Never mind cities; why do we bother with each other all?

Our reflections need to begin, then, with a consideration of what cities are, and are for, what they accomplish that can be accomplished no other way. Indeed, given the strong emphasis on the individual in our times, we would do well to begin with an even more fundamental question. Do we really need to dwell together?

That's easy: Yes, we do. It's a fundamental part of our nature. Aristotle argued that man is by nature a political animal, and that a man who lives outside of the city is either a beast or a god. For Christians, this emphasis on relationship is at the very foundation of things, because God Himself is, in the Trinitarian understanding, defined by relationship in his fundamental being. The Bible consistently relies on our human and natural relations to explain God's nature to us: as Father and Son, for example. Or as in the act of marriage, as laid out rather mysteriously in the Letter to the Ephesians, which explains and is explained by Christ's relationship with His Church, which is also His body, or the body of which He is the head. For our purposes, what this means is that relationship with others is not something we do but something we are--we may shape our relationships, but we are more fundamentally shaped by the need for them, and we cannot understand ourselves without reference to them (pp. 8-9).
Americans are individualists to their core, and, it seems, always will be. But that does not mean we are, or have always been, simply individualistic. Just as America has always been a mix of classical, Christian, and modern Enlightenment influences, though, as the United States, we were formed primarily by Enlightenment thought (Bacon, Locke, Montesquieu etc.), so too we have always thought and acted for the most part as self-reliant individuals, but humanized and civilized by Christian charity and classical notions of honor. As we have, on the one hand, thrown off Christianity, and on the other hand forgotten how to blush, our life together has become ever more unmanageably individualistic, resulting in both socially pathological solipsism and slavish submission to statism. Individualism needs the covenant life of Christianity as well as the ancient aesthetic appreciation for noble deeds and revulsion at what is shameful in order to correct it excesses and make its virtues sustainable.

Strangely, David Brooks wrote on the same topic in his column yesterday, "The Power of Posterity." Prodded by a blog he likes to read (Marginal Revolution), he attempts to think through the consequences of an imaginary pulse from the sun that sterilizes one side of the planet (let's assume it's our side). Essentially, it's nothing much at first, but with no hope of another generation to follow your children (if you have children), he reasonably projects that people would start living for the moment, i.e., for themselves. They would become ever more radically individualistic and for that reason unambitious. (We generally think for the most ambitious people being the most individualistic. But it's not simply so.)
Without posterity, there are no grand designs. There are no high ambitions. Politics becomes insignificant. Even words like justice lose meaning because everything gets reduced to the narrow qualities of the here and now.
If people knew that their nation, group and family were doomed to perish, they would build no lasting buildings. They would not strive to start new companies. They wouldn’t concern themselves with the preservation of the environment. They wouldn’t save or invest.
There would be a radical increase in individual autonomy. Not sacrificing for their own society’s children, people would themselves become children, basing their lives on pleasure and ease instead of meanings to be fulfilled.
Aristotle gave classic expression to that organic view of the meaning of the life we live together. After more than 2,300 years, we continue to see sage insight in his statement that,

[I]t is evident, then, that the city (polis, political community) exists among the things that exist by nature, and that man is by nature a political animal. He who is without a city through nature rather than chance is either a mean sort or superior to man....For it is peculiar to man as compared to the other animals that he alone has a perception of good and bad and just and unjust and other things [of this sort]; and partnership in these things is what makes a household and a city....One who is incapable of participating or who is in need of nothing through being self-sufficient is no part of a city, and so is either a beast or a god (The Politics, 1253a1-28).

Passing from general revelation through the mind of the philosopher to the special revelation that God gave through his Apostles, Paul wrote to the church in Corinth regarding how the covenant community of Christians, God's redeemed community of new humanity, is to view the life of the body politic in Christ.

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.

For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? 18 But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.
The seventeenth century poet, John Donne, wrote, "No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main" ("Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions").

Conservatives understand (I mean genuine conservatives, not just the surviving classical liberals among us) that if American individualism is not to undermine and defeat itself, then, as the Founders of our nation understood, we need to give proper attention to our natural and spiritual ties with one another, supplementing the commercial spirit and the concern for simple self-interest with biblical love for God and noble love for country.

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