Victor Nuovo: American individualism
22nd in a series
“Everything is what it is, and not another thing,” or, to put it briefly, “a thing is itself and not another.” This is a statement attributed to the British philosopher Joseph Butler (1692–1752), who was also an Anglican bishop. But it is uncertain when he said it and in what connection. About its truthfulness, however, there seems little doubt; it is common sense, although there are reasons arising from contemporary physical theory that may give cause to doubt it, but they are beyond my competence to judge, let alone understand.
In any case, it seems to common sense, at least, that our universe is an organized collection of individuals, every one of which is unique, and, for all that is known, reality may be an infinite multitude of universes. This is an entertaining thought to contemplate at bedtime.
In the realms of morality and politics it is a fundamental truth; it is basic to belief in equality and social justice, when we substitute “persons” for “things.” Personal identity is the foundation of true equality in America.
The origin of the idea of personal identity has been located in the writings of John Locke (1632–1704), whose writings on politics gave us our leading political ideas, chief among them popular sovereignty. Chapter 27 of Book II of his “Essay of Human Understanding” is entitled “Identity and Difference,” and it opens with the question, how do I know that a thing is the same and not another? It makes for a good read, and it is no more difficult than a well-wrought puzzle. And it provides useful knowledge if ever you lose your wallet or your keys and go in search for them.
Locke affirmed the absolute uniqueness of everything that exists, and, accordingly, he denied that two things could be in the same place at the same time, but with this qualification — so long as they were not the same kind of thing. He believed that all reality consisted of three kinds of entities: God, spirits, and bodies. As a monotheist, who believed that God is the fountain of all goodness, he also believed that God is omnipresent, that is, God is everywhere. Thus wherever I am God is also. True piety consists for him in the cultivation of “the sense of the presence of God,” which is the title of a book by the Scottish theologian John Baillie (1886–1960), well worth reading.
Locke also believed that God is a spirit, and spirits, unlike bodies, do not take up space. He would have had a ready answer to the question, “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” As many as you can imagine and more, a number beyond counting, infinite. So, when in the middle of the night unable to sleep you rise from your bed and see an angel sitting in your favorite chair, don’t worry, you won’t disturb it if you sit in its place.
But I have strayed from my theme. Locke believed that all spirits, i.e., God and angels, are self-conscious beings, unlike mere bodies, even living ones, some of which are only conscious, and still others merely sensitive to external stimuli, and that human beings, although corporeal, are to this extent spiritual, although mortal. He believed that every human being stands on the boundary between two realms of being: matter and spirit. And the evidence of this is being conscious of one self, which is evident above all in one’s conscience, which is an awareness of all that one has done and a sense of responsibility for all one’s actions. It is this conscious self that greets me each morning when I awake, which I know to be my self, possessed of the same cares and responsibilities, the same hopes and fears, the same likes and dislikes, the same resentments and jealousies, the same burden of guilt and the desire to overcome it or to escape it. In this lies my uniqueness. It deserves no fanfare. The apostle Paul would describe this as waking to the same body of sin, although he was well aware that sin, the burden of moral wrong that we bear, does not reside in the body, but in the soul, the self.
This sense of oneself is what Locke believed constitutes being a person. And, fundamental to Locke’s social beliefs, he asserted that every human being is a person, a responsible self, which is at the root of human freedom and equality. To be a person is to be free, and equal, and responsible.
Could this be the meaning of American individualism? There is reason to hope so. Imagine the difference it would make if all who dwell in this land were to regard themselves and each other as persons, as responsible selves, over and above their ethnicities, race, gender and whatever else it is that divides us socially and politically. As responsible selves we would cultivate a mutual respect that would bind us together into one society under the rule of law. Instead of selfish resentment, and hatred of others, there would dwell in the hearts of each and all a deep sympathy for the other, a common good will, and an unquenchable desire for the common good, which is liberty and justice for all without reservation. Ideas do make a difference, and this is an idea whose time has come.
Postscript: I confess a fondness for the philosophy of John Locke, having spent 20 years of my life reading his works and writing about him, and this fondness has led me to think of him as America’s philosopher, and I believe with good reason. This nation is inconceivable without the ideas of popular sovereignty and personal identity. If you are interested in more, read John Dunn’s book on John Locke (“Locke: A Very Short Introduction”; Oxford University Press), which provides a brief and insightful introduction to his life and thought. Visit your local bookstore.
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