This Dark Age

A manual for life in the modern world.

By Daniel Schwindt

Individualism and egalitarianism produce ignorance

 “I discover that, in the majority of mental processes, each American has but recourse to the individual effort of his own reason…perceiving in not a single person in their midst any signs of undeniable greatness or superiority, [Americans] constantly return to their own rationality as to the most obvious and immediate source of truth…Each man thus retreats into himself from where he claims to judge the world.”

~ Alexis de Tocqueville[1]

To return ‘constantly’ and exclusively to oneself as the preeminent ‘source of truth’, is not simply to risk ignorance, but to race after it full speed. Bacon observed that the self is ‘the arch-flatterer, with whom all the petty flatterers have intelligence’,[2] and I believe it was Samuel Johnson who said that the self-taught man has had the worst of all possible teachers.

There is no real excuse or justification for this mentality, although the explanation of its rise and popularity is not hard to understand. Having once adopted the individualist mindset, everything else follows naturally: for if all knowledge can be reduced to the effort of the individual and unaided reason, if all truths are in the reach of each of us in isolation and without recourse to the collective body of truth that is tradition, then there is no need to seek the counsel of a friend, a master, or a priest. Everyone can discern for himself, and life is perspicacious to the American in the way that the Bible is perspicacious to the Protestant. Indeed, Luther’s solas were but the application in the religious field of what Descartes had done in philosophy and what Americans have done to political participation. In each case, we find the search for wisdom reduced to the confines of individual effort, wherein the individual is “the most obvious and immediate source of truth.” The rest is history, whether we are looking at the handful of platitudes to which Protestantism has been reduced, or the great waste that has been post-modernist philosophy, or the storm of incoherence and frustration that is contemporary public discourse.

Equality aggravates the issue, of course, but individualism is its root, for equality always accompanies it in one way or another, even if we are speaking of socialism, because the view of man as an isolated and autonomous molecule (individualism) or as one atom in mass of like atoms (collectivism) are both examples of having reduced man to atomized homogeneity.

The effect of this process on knowledge has been that, while it was once perhaps true to say that ‘we stand on the shoulders of giants’, it is not true any longer. We’ve severed our connection, and one man’s opinion is as good as anyone else’s. We’ve climbed down from the giant’s shoulders, and we find that we cannot even see over a blade of grass.

[1] Tocqueville, Democracy in America, p. 494.

[2] From Bacon’s essay On Praise. He returns to this same subject in On Friendship, saying that “a man were better relate himself to a statue or picture…for there is no such flatterer as is a man’s self.”

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