When you look back at the intellectual history of the West over the last 500 years what is striking is the dominance of one particular principle. It is an underlying principle as it has been developed and acted on in a variety of ways.
The gist of the principle is that people should be subject only to their own individual will and reason, so that they are free to create themselves in any direction. Human dignity and freedom are identified with an absence of impediments to the will of the individual.
The first clear expression of this principle that I have come across is by an Italian Renaissance philosopher by the name of Pico della Mirandola (late 1400s). He imagined God saying to man that,
You, constrained by no limits, in accordance with your own free will ... shall ordain for yourselves the limits of your nature ... We have made you ... so that with freedom of choice, as though the maker and moulder of yourself, you may fashion yourself in whatever shape you shall prefer.
In 1651 we find the principle restated by the English philosopher Hobbes, who wrote that,
By LIBERTY, is understood, according to the proper signification of the word, the absence of externall Impediments: which impediments, may take away part of a mans power to do what he would.
... a FREE-MAN, is he, that in those things, by which his strength and will he is able to do, is not hindered to do what he has a will to do.
In 1819 Thomas Jefferson asserted the same thing more simply when he declared that,
Rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will.
The poet Shelley upheld the principle a year later in 1820 in his poem Prometheus Unbound. The poem was an ode to those who would be:
Sceptreless, free, uncircumscribed, but man
Equal, unclassed, tribeless, and nationless,
Exempt from awe, worship, degree, the king
The prominent British sociologist Herbert Spencer described the principle as a fundamental law in 1851. He held that,
To enforce the fundamental law - to take care that every man has freedom to do all that he wills, provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man - this is the special purpose for which the civil power exists. Now insuring to each the right to pursue within the specified limits the objects of his desires without let or hindrance, is quite a separate thing from insuring him satisfaction ...
In 1911 Leonard Hobhouse spoke of the principle when asserting that,
Liberalism is the belief that society can be safely founded on this self-directing power of personality.
What these quotes demonstrate is the continuity of the principle, which is sometimes referred to as liberal individualism, across many centuries of Western thought.
Why is it important to understand the importance of the principle of liberal individualism? Because there is, unfortunately, a negative side to the principle.
If you believe that human dignity requires the removal of impediments to individual will and reason, then you will, by force of logic, eventually be required to reject the very things which give individuals much of their core identity (and which societies need to survive).
For example, it becomes difficult to uphold the principle of an inherited national tradition, particularly one based on ethnicity, as individuals are born into such traditions, rather than choosing them freely by their own individual will and reason.
Similarly, it becomes difficult to allow people to organise society around their identity and talents as men and women, as our sex is something we are born into rather than being individually chosen.
What happens is that intellectuals who follow the principle of liberal individualism, and that means nearly all Western intellectuals, will be led to the belief that it is right to oppose traditional nationalism, or traditional ideals of manhood or womanhood, even if their own instincts, experiences or preferences tell them otherwise.
Liberal individualism has unfolded to the point where it is hurting the West. It is undermining a positive sense of our own national traditions, and it is undermining the real instincts and drives of men and women which are necessary for a stable family life.
It's important now that we jettison an unhealthy part of our intellectual culture. The West needs to decisively break from the underlying principle of liberal individualism; we need to repent from what is self-destructive within our intellectual and political tradition.
(First published at Conservative Central 13/07/2003)