The rise of the Individual

Have been working on a (one of many!) report for a class that Im doing this semester, and in one of them I have tried to try and get a feel for how humans got to be ‘civilized’, which in our times means asserting the rights of the individual and placing him into prominence. Just posting a few intersting things that I came across during this work. It is necessarily speculative considering the scope, so please adjust maadi.

First of all, we recognize that humans live in at least two worlds – the internal or mental and the external or material. Without doubt, these are inextricably linked, but the demarcation is very much present. The mental world is a world of possibilities and the material world one of actualities. However hard we try, not everything that we imagine can be realised in the material world, and this results in a tension between these worlds.

In the pre-Industrial times, the fact that malnutrition, disease and war were part of the daily life of every common person, and that it required the effort of a large number of people to sustain each one of them, it should not be surprising that the individual was not accorded the status that she is given nowadays. Even to this day, a villager in our own hinterland is referred to as ‘X’s son/daughter Y’.Whatever name is given to the group – clan, caste, village – the group was important simply because it provided security and shelter against the vagaries of nature and the kings above. Obedience and Commitment should be valued over Talent and Thinking if a group under severe pressure is to survive.

There undoubtedly would have been people who tried to stand apart from or rise above the group – that is not a peculiarly modern line of thinking. The complete lack of change in the basic social structure for millenia shows how little influence such people were able to exercise. Kings and administrators, however enlightened, were simply unable to change this pattern of life and this bears testimony to how strongly the group identity
was (and is) stressed over the individual.

The reasons for this are obvious: the individual simply was incapable of leading a life on his own. Clothes, food, shelter were not available without the collective labour of a larger group of people or commerce with this larger group. Remuneration was proportional to manual labor done, and manual labor required to lead a proper life was more than what would have been possible by a single individual. To go against this mode of life would imply becoming a thief, beggar, ascetic or king.

This behavior was thoroughly exploited by those in power, temporal or spiritual, to gain benefit for themselves and their kind, and their travails are the subject of most history. However, for the majority, the material basis for a society which preferred individual excellence instead of (or inspite of or at the cost of) group excellence does not seem to have been available – Liberty simply implies the absence of restraints, not the presence
of a good life.

In the post-Industrial revolution times, however, the tension between the inner and outer worlds of the individual that we mentioned earlier would have been considerably reduced. What Man could imagine, he could create. Of course, this applied only to those groups with money and power. The majority now had to get used to the excesses of the
industrialist as well as nature.

The individual rose to prominence, no doubt helped by the wonders of coal driven technology which enabled her to perform feats which were not possible before.With the easy availability of surplus labor or its mechanical replacement, limitations on what could be achieved was simply a function of what could be dreamed up (and sometimes paid for). With the expanding geographical extent of a single activity, the main challenge was no longer the availability of raw material or motive power, but of organization. It is therefore not surprising that the principles of ‘scientific’ management were explored in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century.

With information and not material being the main roadblock for progress, the so-called tertiary sector of society became dominant as well as desirable as a viable career choice for those who were born poor but had no intention of staying that way. With most traditional blocks to social mobility now gone, the tertiary sector provided the respectability and possibility of material wealth that previously was the domain of the landed or the wealthy. It is the dominance of this sector that has shaped the present world. Universities multiplied, with the intention of preparing high quality individuals who were capable of discerning efficient from inefficient, if not right from wrong. In fact, the race to industrialization was eventually won by the USA and Germany simply due the fact that they invested more in the development of engineers and technicians rather than philosphers and artists.

The rise of the heroic individual winning in the face of all odds was given an evolutionary twist by Herbert Spencer, who actually originated the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ in the context of his Social Darwinism. Emancipation from manual labor was exemplified by the growth of amateur sport, which was a way of exercise for the sedentary tertiary sector of society (along with the rise of the gymnasium in the mid-19th century), with the now famous Oxford-Cambridge rowing contests, the Ashes Cricket series representing the ideals of heroism rising above mere material concerns. This trend was of course crowned by the revival of the Olympic Games, whose motto ‘Faster, Higher, Stronger’ perfectly matching the prevailing spirit of the age.

The middle class household was another centre of emancipation from manual labor. Piped water, electricity, the pressure cooker, the vacuum cleaner being typical inventions from this era. The nuclear family was also probably materially viable only in this stage of societal development. The now considerable leisure time available was spent in exploring recently developed mechanical wonders like the Ferris Wheel and the roller coaster as well as the incredible moving picture.

It was very rarely that the average, emancipated middle class person ever experienced a material world that was not imprinted upon by the internal world of another human. The line between actuality and possibility was blurring, and is almost completely absent in the present day wonders in the desert like the Burj Dubai.


4 thoughts on “The rise of the Individual”

  1. Something to concider in this is the natural systems. Being Man has developed through a system charactoristic of a pack this pack often developes a dominant charactor through play or fight of the youngsters as they develop thier skills for survival. Man is essentially a pack animal or if you prefer communal. In the developement or evolution of our species we had to compete with creatures not only within the struggle of resources but in the sustanance of our own lives. For each creature we won this struggle against we became that much closer to the dominant animal on the planet if not physically, in our own mind. Once Man had become the dominant species on the planet for the most part and was comfortable with who our preditors are and our control of their influence in our lives we had a problem. Our evolutionary programing of our fight for survival does not turn off and we turn inward. You dont need to look to far for evidence of this. Just allow a situation where bordem is allowed to set in in a social situation. Often times you will find unrest, inward reflections leading to unrealistic thoughts of circumstances, Gosip, and so on. The real challenge for Man kind is not the environment, we have already tamed that, but our inner instincts. Unfortunately that concept may be two or three steps beyond what our programing may allow at this point and we may have to conquer ourselves before we conquer our inner instincts.

    Going back to the dominant “pack leader” developement origin. It may have also developed in early Man. This may sound simplistic but it may have been all in observation, experiance, and learning capacities. The faster you learn in a fight or flight incident the more prepared you are for future conflicts leading to experiance and longevity. The off spring of the more experianced parent has a greater time to learn the various techniques to survival including charactor traits associated with it and one day becomes that dominant figure in the group. Ones aspirations whether it is through simply the need for survival or todays economic and social conditions often stems around the envirnment they are raised. Simply put thier exposure to experiances. I had a friend of mine who grew up with thier mom in a trailer park in a single wide home. I asked them one day what thier furture plans and dreams where. They said they one day wanted to get a trailer of thier own. I reflected on this and asked a co-worker who I well knew lived in a stick built home the same question and thier reply was they wanted a house on a farm area like they grew up in. Niether was wrong or lower or inferior to one another but their perspective stopped short to thier experiances. But it is that dominant personallity which pushes further than thier experiances whether forced through necessity or curiosity or some other factor and it takes the next generation along with them. Primarily thier offspring than those who break through that barrier called thier comfort level and civilization advances…..Or….maybe life is just dumb luck!

  2. While dominance has always been there, I don’t think each individual in a group had a strong sense of identity which was not linked to the group itself. Whatever may have been the reasons for individualism to appear, I would bet against it happening in any other time but after the Industrial Revolution.

  3. Althought in a “Pack” social structure similar to a wolf pack the social structure has been there long before the industrial age and found in many animal groups. it would suffice to say early man being much more vulnerable and with few physical defences would have utilized this social structure as evidenced archologically. As there are often a pack leader the off spring imprint on them and emulate them developing an inherited hierarchy. As far as the modern age. I think “pack leaders” are learned. The social structure is the same just the tools have changed.

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