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Individualism, collectivism and communitarianism

4 April 2013

When I was a teenager I read books that turned me into a convinced individualist.

Aldous Huxley’s Brave new world made a deep impression on me, and perhaps revived memories of a book I had read when I was about 7 or 8. It was about a society in which there were three kinds of people: square, round and triangular. One day the squares took over the government, and decreed that the proper shape of people was square, so they built a machine that would turn the round and triangular people into squares, and forced the round and triangular people into it to turn them into the proper shape.

The round and triangular people resented this, and had a revolution, where they seized control of the state and put the machine into reverse, to turn people into their proper shapes again.

Now, with a bit more historical understanding, I can recognise that the book was a bit of liberal indoctrination, a reaction to the totalitarianisms of left and right, communism and fascism, which so dominated the world of the 1940s.

But even though I recognise it as indoctrination, I remain indoctrinated. It set me on the path of liberalism, and I’ve been a liberal ever since. Reading Brave new world nine or ten years later simply confirmed it. Society likes to force people to conform to its dictates, and when society does that, individuals should resist.

This was perhaps a good preparation for university, where in Sociology I we learnt, from the then-fashionable American functionalist sociologists, that society was all, and that the purpose of all social institutions, including churches and schools, was to help individuals to “adjust” to society. It was a view I rejected, quite strongly. I was attracted to writers like Søren Kierkegaard, who wanted his tombstone to have the inscription “That Individual”. The English Department at Wits university also helped to undermine the Sociology Department by prescribing books like George Orwell’s 1984.

I read the Enlightenment philosophers, or at least the bits of them that supported my individualistic viewpoint.

My favourite Bible verse was Romans 12:2: Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Attempts by society to make individuals conform to its norms and mores and folkways (those were terms used by sociologists in those days) were, in my view, to be resisted and rejected.

Then I read a few other books that made me have doubts about my rigid individualsm.

One was The roots of heaven by Romain Gary.

It was set in a French colony somewhere in Central or West Africa, and in that period African colonies were struggling for independence. The French were probably more influenced by Enlightenment rationalist values than the other colonial powers, and the Africans struggling for independence generally accepted those values. They just thought that they could embody them in society better without French paternalism. And the book concerns a few white eccentrics who question these values. One is embarked on a crusade to save the elephants from extinction, another thinks that African values (such as ubuntu) will be lost in the Gadarene rush to modernity, and hopes, when he dies, to be reincarnated as a tree.

It wasn’t a very good book, and when I tried to read it again a few years ago, I didn’t manage to finish it, but it did make me question the value of pure individualism, and see that there was some value in community.

Then someone sent me a copy of The Catholic Worker, which introduced me to Dorothy Day’s communitarianism, which somehow seemed more Christian than either collectivism or individualism. This was reinforced by reading a book called The primal vision, on Christian presence amid African religion, and described Christianity, as brought to much of Africa by Western missionaries, as a “classroom religion”, cerebral and intellectual, and out of touch with the real life of most African people.

So I passed through the most of the 1960s with an unresolved conflict between individual and community. Which took priority? Was there a happy medium? But if so, what could it be?

For me the conflict was resolved when I discovered Orthodox Christianity. Orthodox anthropology makes a distinction between the individual and the person, and a person is always a person in community. In that it is similar to the kind of African anthropology espoused by The roots of heaven and The primal vision, summed up in the Zulu proverb Umuntu ungumuntu ngabantu — a person is a person because of people. Feral children, raised by wolves, never actually become human persons.

All that I have written above is by way of introduction to the following article. The way in which Orthodox theology, and in particular Orthodox theological anthropology, solves the problem I had in the 1960s has been very well expressed in this article by Fr Gregory Jensen:

American Individualism and Orthodox Asceticism

By Rev. Gregory Jensen | April 1, 2013

He has written for an American context, but much of what he says can be applied, mutatis mutandis, to other settings as well.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Irulan permalink
    5 April 2013 11:25 am

    Interesting post, as usual. Would you care to comment briefly on the following books that I’m sure you must have read: The tribe that lost its head (Monseraat?) [and its sequel], Things fall apart (Achebe), The Poisonwood Bible (Kingsolver).

  2. 5 April 2013 11:38 am

    I’ve read The poisonwood Bible, but I don’t think I’ve read the other two. I’ve mentioned The poisonwood Bible in a couple of other posts, but I don’t seem to have done a review of it.

  3. 5 April 2013 10:45 pm

    Oh my! I’ve solved a long standing problem for you! And in something over 1200 words! Goodness! 🙂

    Good natured teasing aside, thank you for the gracious introduction and link.

    • 6 April 2013 4:31 am

      Well, not quite solved the problem, but I like your explanation of how Orthodox theology did!


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