Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 May 2018
Individualism and the Middle Ages
When was the “individual” born? To be just a little more precise: when did the concept emerge of an autonomous free agent whose identity is primarily grounded in being a rational human rather than in communal groups? Responding to this question can reveal its twin: the birth of modernity itself, when the individual became free of all-consuming communities and selfconscious of oneself as an individual rather than merely a member of larger social groups.
It is no surprise that the medieval period has been central to attempts to locate the origins of the individual. In the last century and a half, there have been two prevailing narratives about the individual and the medieval. Put simply, the first narrative is that the modern conception of the individual is rooted in the medieval period: that medieval Christianity fostered the ideal of the individual soul and thus prioritized individual relationships with God. The second narrative (also put simply) is that in the Middle Ages the autonomous individual was either a totally unknown concept or at best a very hazy one. The first narrative offers a theological conception of the individual, and the second narrative constructs its conception along social and political lines.
An example of the first narrative can be characterized by the turn-ofthe- century progressive education reformer John Dewey, who spoke of the “spiritual roots” of the modern ideology of individualism as being derived from medieval religion, which “asserted the ultimate nature of the individual soul and centered the drama of life about the destiny of that soul.” Even if it appears as if the individual was obscured and subsumed beneath layers of entrenched communal institutions, Dewey argues that the Church ultimately desired the salvation of every individual's soul, and thus the notion of the value of every individual was born. An example of the second narrative – that no conception of the individual was known or even possible in the medieval period – can be characterized by Robert Nisbet, a leading figure of twentiethcentury conservative sociology. Following Jacob Burckhardt, Nisbet argues that the autonomous individual in the Middle Ages was an “indistinct” notion that was filtered and mediated through layers of larger communities. For Nisbet, “[T]he group was primary. It was the irreducible unit of the social system at large.