Mythology of Self:

Individualism in Western Culture

Prior to the Greeks, primitive people had perhaps a limited sense of self outside the notion of tribe. For instance, in The Epic of Gilgamesh(2500 B. C.), we see the pitfalls of a King's arrogance and isolation, the destructive effects of living life without recognizing our connection to others. In early Greek thought, as far back as Homer, the highest achievement (telos) was achieved primarily as an active member of the body politic (city/state or polis).

How do we become an active and responsible member of our community? In Greek culture individuals were encouraged to think, act, and create according to their talents and their genius with the qualities of a free man--abhor stupid, cowardly, and selfish ways that in fact enslave us all.

In Greek tragedy, playwrights exalt the human as "knower," regardless of the personal suffering involved in knowing. The dramatic light focuses on the seer. Greek thought clarified and dramatized the standing of the individual--know thyself. Socrates said, "the unexamined life is not worth living." The Greeks insisted that each person take responsibility for his actions and his life by learning to make correct choices--thus the power of individualism is defined in relationship to a community that defines "correct choices." Ultimately, according to Aristotle, "Man is a political animal."

When politics became so large and complex administratively, radical individualism developed. "Man's fate is solely a personal matter." A sharp departure from Plato's academy, the autonomous individual becomes more the modern citizen--preoccupied with personal concerns. We have an obligation to public good, yet when totalitarianism exists, people need an outlet for restless impulses, creative yet idiosyncratic energies, which are innate to human nature. How does mythology create such a narrative release?

The Chosen One--charter mythology.

Christian tradition elevates individualism: Jesus's question: "What is a man advantaged, if he gain the whole world and lose himself, or be cast away." Being "born again" certainly had no necessary connection to the earthly polis and political life.

In Christianity, the myth of state played its part only in the larger design of salvation. The polis was no longer the end and therefore downgraded as the concern shifted to the individual's soul. The sense of individualism was strengthened by the city of god.

AMERICA: Thomas Jefferson saw the dignity of the individual in the active participation in public life. The spirit of Henry David Throeau and Martin Luther King--the private life and the upholding of individual right against cultural conformity and public injustice is integral.

The question is not whether the private, individual or the public, social ideal is the more conscientious or humane, but rather which one might need emphasis in the present circumstances of American life. In his Inagural Address, JFK said, "In your hands, my fellow citizens, more than in mine, will rest the final success or failure of our course. Since this country was founded, each generation of Americans has been summoned to give testimony to its national loyalty." Indeed, each generation will have to redefine its loyalty to the state.

What is the Greek contribution to the process of redefing the individual's loyality to the Civilization in which he or she lives? Reason is a signpost. We are rational animals. This is a "Root Idea." For Instance, look at Plato's theory of human nature: the soul is divided into three parts--reason, spirit, and appetite. The function of reason is to rule the appetites. The spirit is ally to reason. Reason is the highest personality by proof that only humans have it. Anthropocentric perspectives arise out of human nature itself. (Today we would perhaps be better off to use some objective or cosmic standard.) We are nobler because we seem to rule. Reason thus leads to balance--and knowledge for knowledge sake.


The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin
The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass


An Anarchist by Any Other Name: Albert Parsons and Anarchist Socialism


John Locke, The Second Treatise of Government. "To understand political power aright, and derive it from its original, we must consider what natural estate all men are in, and in this, a state of perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of Nature, without asking leave or depending upon the will of any other man."

Herbert Hoover--Hoover gave his Inaugural Address on Monday, March 4, 1929, which is a precursor to his eventually insisting that the road to progress is paved by reducing, not increasing, government interference in business. Unfortunately for Hoover the stock market crashed seven months after he was elected. He became the fall guy for the Great Depression. Once the crash came, Hoover worked furiously to curb the crisis, but he was hamstrung by his beliefs that the Constitution prohibited the federal government from mandating economic changes. Instead, he pushed voluntary initiatives. To people who were hungry, out of work, and desperate, this came across as so many hollow platitudes.

Henry David Thoreau--Civil Disobedience. Thoreau acknowledges the consequences of resisting the government. Yet no one can be assumed to have incurred an obligation to submit to the State. If the government "requires you to be an agent of injustice to another, then I say, break the law."

Greek Political Philosophy

In the Apology,Socrates says, "The unexamined life is not worth living." It seems that each person must take responsibility for his or her own actions by learning to make correct choices. The highest achievement is only as an active member of the body politic, but when politics becomes too large and complex administratively, radical individualism develops. Socrates creates a metaphor saying that he is the gadfly while the State is a noble steed which is tardy in its motions owing to its very size. The gadfly attaches itself to the steed and stirs it into life--the radical individual is then a necessary part of the ongoing development of civilization.

Greek Tragedy

Sophocles' character Antigone defies the State and carries individual resistance to an ultimate end--death.

The American West

Frontier--Theodore Roosevelt writes about the American frontier character, including the cowboy.
Masculinity and the American West--
Let's Rodeo: Essay on "Rugged Individualism" and mythic structures in the United States.
Frederick Jackson Turner--"Significance of the Frontier."
The Problem of The West"--Frederick Jackson Turner's 1896 essay in the Atlantic Monthly.
The Militia of Montana

American Culture

Breaking the fifties conformity: The Beat Generation
Henry David Thoreau, Wilderness