Individualism and Character

Individualism and Character

The Dragon Cave near Stans, by Caspar Wolf (1775)

Continuing with my discussion of character, in this article I would like to explore reasons why the idea of “classical individualism” promotes and fosters the proper foundation for the full manifestation of human character. For one to fully blossom into one’s calling in life, the genius, the innate destiny of a person requires an environment that will facilitate one’s unfolding. 

A child is thrown into this world, but not as a tabula rasa. Yes, we are all thrown, but not into a nihilistic abyss. We have a companion to guide us. James Hillman writes,

. . .why is it so difficult to imagine that I am cared about, that something takes an interest in what I do, that I am perhaps protected, maybe even kept alive not altogether by my own will and doing?

Despite this invisible caring, we prefer to imagine ourselves thrown naked into the world, utterly vulnerable and fundamentally alone.1

This is true of all human beings, regardless of religion or ethnicity. Of course, not all cultures have the freedom for one’s character to unfold fully. We will always be the product of both our innateness and our environment. In this article, I am proposing that a culture where classical individualism and classical liberalism  are prevalent is a better environment for the full emergence of one’s calling and destiny than one where the rule is authoritarian or totalitarian. The limiting of freedom is the limiting of imagination, and it is through human imagination that the genius manifests.

In 1870, Joseph Hayne Rainey, a Republican, became the first African-American to be elected and seated to the United States House of Representatives. Others had been elected prior to this, but Rep. Rainey was the first to be seated. Joseph was born in 1832 in Georgetown, South Carolina. His parents were slaves, but his father purchased his family’s freedom, hardly a simple task in those days. In 1846, he moved them to Charleston. Rainey traveled around quite a bit and ended up getting married in Philadelphia in 1859. In 1861, he was conscripted into the Confederate Army, where he served as a cook and laborer on a blockade runner, as well as working on fortifications in Charleston. In 1862, he fled to Bermuda with his wife, where he took up a trade his father had taught him: he became a barber. Joseph and his wife returned to South Carolina after the war had ended, in 1866. No doubt guided by his daimon, He promptly joined the Republican party. He was ambitious and rose swiftly through various positions until he was elected to the House in 1870.

Rep. Rainey had a calling on his life. His companion, his genius, was united to him throughout all his hardships. It is apparent that Rainey’s father also had the guidance of his guardian spirit, for it was through him that Joseph that was able to accomplish what he did. The guardians apparently work together, bringing to mind the Biblical passage, “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.”2

My point in relating this story is that, even though the genius can help work out one’s destiny in life, unless there is at least a modicum of individual freedom, one’s destiny can only be partial and incomplete. I view this as a great tragedy. Many have missed a life’s calling because of too many mistakes made, or a lack of freedom. Rep. Rainey was able to fulfill his because of the individual freedoms that opened up to African-Americans after the Civil War.

Individualism is a companion of classical liberalism. This is not the liberalism we hear of nowadays–that is more akin to Marxist socialism. Classical liberalism is defined as “the ideology advocating private property, an unhampered market economy, the rule of law, constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion and of the press, and international peace based on free trade.”3 Basically, it’s the philosophy of our Founding Fathers, as described in Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. Classical individualism, writes Tibor R. Machan, professor emeritus at Auburn University,

. . . focuses on individual human beings. This humanist individualism, which I call classical individualism, recognizes that there is in nature a class of human individuals. And their human nature has a lot to teach us about social life and personal ethics. It seems there are indeed good reasons to classify human beings as a distinct class of entities in nature. There is, however, also good reason to regard their individuality as one of their essential, central characteristics. . .when we carefully examine what it is to be a human being—we arrive at the conclusion that one of the crucial characteristics of human beings is that they are individuals. Instead of saying, with Hobbes, that there is no human essence, we can say, in opposition to both Marx and Hobbes, that the human essence is the true individuality of man. This may appear paradoxical, especially to an existentialist, but it is not if the Aristotelian idea of potentiality is sound, since something could have as one of its distinctive attributes a potential to be unique. 4

So, our essence as human beings is our individuality. Freedom is a necessary accompaniment for that individual essence, one’s character, genius, daimon, or guardian spirit to guide one successfully into his or her destiny. And what is this essence if not the human soul?

More to come on this. I discovered some wonderful things Carl Jung said concerning individualism. I’ll share that with you in the next article.


Works Cited

Hillman, James. The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling. Warner: New York, 1996.

Machan, Tibor R. Classical Individualism. Routledge: New York, 1998

  1. The Soul’s Code, p. 12
  2. Romans 8:28, KJV
  3. What is Classical Liberalism, by Ralph Raico
  4. Classical Individualism, p. 7, emphasis mine

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