Sunday, January 15, 2012

Individualism and the State

Robin Waterfield's Dividing the Spoils focuses on the dawning of the Hellenistic Age after the death of Alexander the Great. He observes:
One of the most striking aspects of the Hellenistic period, by comparison with what came earlier, is its focus on the human individual. Social historians agree with historians of philosophy, art, and literature that this phenomenon is characteristic of the age.
Waterfield makes the link between this growth of individualism and the parallel rise in state absolutism:
By directing citizens’ energies toward the good of the state, the system allowed poleis to flourish, but the price was a higher degree of collectivism than most of us would find acceptable today. By contrast, we consider ourselves free the more we are able to avoid or ignore the state apparatus and remain within our private lives. A citizen of a Classical Greek polis had a far more restricted sense of privacy. Almost everything he did, even fathering sons and worshipping gods, was done for the good of the state—that is, for the good of his fellow citizens.
      The Macedonian empire, however, changed the rules. Although poleis retained a great deal of their vitality, the inescapable fact was that they had become greater or lesser cogs in a larger system....
The relative disempowerment of citizens as political agents that happened as the Hellenistic empires centralized power made it possible for people to see themselves, to a greater extent, as individuals, rather than just as contributors to the greater good. Rather than acting as a liberating force, it seems that the communitarian focus of Greek poleis was actually quite corrosive to individual self-expression. One thinks of Plato's Republic for one.

Waterfield goes on to observe how Hellenistic philosophers, like the Cynics and Epicurians, focused on individual esteem, as opposed to relationship between the individual and the state. Similarly, religious mystery cults offered personal emotional salvation. Women, too, saw large gains, enjoying far greater freedoms in the Hellenistic period than before. Even slaves seemingly were more often freed in this period.

Waterfield also connects these individual-level shifts with the broader political picture, which saw a host of post-Alexander successors contesting for territorial supremacy:
In the Classical period, this individualist form of greed was invariably regarded as a particularly destructive and antisocial vice, and it was expected that the gods would punish it or that it would arouse fierce opposition from other humans. The historian Thucydides, for example, thought that Athenian overreaching was one of the main reasons that they were defeated in the Peloponnesian War. The Successors trampled on such views. For them, and for all the Hellenistic kings who came after them, greed was good. Individualism and egoism are close cousins.
This reverses most of the typical associations. One typically thinks of political enfranchisement as going together with broader self-actualization; and greed as a corruptive force. We tend think of absolutism as the greatest enemy of individual agency. Waterfield suggests that, at least in one context, those relationships don't necessarily hold.

I find this a puzzling mix of strongly pro- and anti-libertarian attitudes. One one hand, this suggests that individual attachment to the state happens to the detriment of other aspects of individual flourishing; and that social mores encouraging egoism can promote individualism. On the other hand, it suggests that removing individual participation from the workings of the state is the best way to liberate people from this greater burden of being constrained by the forces of political participation.

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