home > archive > 2002 > this article
By Eric Miller
The concept of individualism is one that has long appealed to me. If I said it didn't, it wouldn't matter much because if I didn't value individualism, I couldn't very easily value individual opinion.
Individualism is long engrained in the American psyche, but still we are confused about where to go to become or be an individual. The colonists who arrived in the new world more often that not were those who somehow didn't fit in with the social structures of the old world. Settlers moving west into the land acquired through the Louisiana Purchase and on to the coast often did so with a desire for more freedom to do what you want to do.
From the colonists to the Western settlers, these weren't as often "individuals" as they were sects of people who wanted to deviate together or make others deviate like them or with them. Those who were individuals in the literal sense often likely found confinement and social pressures from the small communities that then dotted the plains and countryside.
Throughout the centuries and today, individualists have not sought the countryside, the "Wild West," and more recently country and suburbs. They have instead headed to the world's cities, where they found the most freedom to do what they want and become who they want to be. While many people today may visualize a person living alone atop a mountain when they think of an "individualist," the reality is it's hard to be an individual alone.
It certainly makes sense. That mountain man growing vegetables and hunting wild game doesn't have the time or opportunity to do the things that really distinguish someone as an individual. Likewise, the social pressures from a small community don't often create the room necessary to become much different than those around you.
Let's look at a few people certainly considered individualists and get a glimpse of how much they did alone:
Take Frank Lloyd Wright. He designed houses for very individual clients and more than expressed his personality in his work. But he was usually within arm's reach of the Loop. His clients were there, as were the necessary financiers, draftsmen, and craftsman necessary to take his ideas and make them reality.
How about Thomas Jefferson? He occasionally lived away from the city, but depended on countless people to help provide the necessities he needed to be able to spend the time it takes to start revolutions and found Republics--things he regularly traveled to cities to do.
Industrialists like Andrew Carnegie and Commodore Cornelius Vanderbuilt certainly wouldn't have gotten very much done had they stayed in the countryside. Steel needed scientists, technicians, and countless workers before it could be turned into rails and girders. More than just additional people, railroads and steamboats needed places--cities to go to, to link together.
Writers and artists may have used both the cities and countryside for inspiration, but unless the art is kept selfishly personal, only the cities-- which contain the dealers, critics, publishers, and patrons--could provide the markets and mechanisms necessary to share their craft.
There are at any given time countless other individuals in a given city. Besides the famous architects, lawyers, engineers, politicians, and doctors heavy on personality, each bakery, corner store, barbershop and tailor shop allows its proprietors to express themselves in a very individual way.
But there's more to being an individual than just doing what you want to do. Whether we're looking at dress and mannerisms or the freedom to act outside of prescribed social and sexual "norms,"--to deviate in many other ways from whatever the people around you are doing--the deviations are most possible and acceptable in an urban environment.
Of course large corporations in the world's financial districts have thousands of workers who seem anything but individual. For many white-collar workers, a small town environment can offer freedom from this big business structure. But even here, some of these workers who seem to have little chance to express individuality in their repetitive, predictable tasks work their way up through the ranks and often find new, creative, and more efficient ways of doing things. If not while on the job, certainly off the clock.
Isn't that true of a farmer?, you might ask. Yes, but not true for someone who lives alone without benefiting from the labor and creativity of other people, without the potential for free and unforced exchange between diverse individuals. The farmer, especially in this age of highly marketed techno-agriculture, relies as much on the city as the city does on the farmer, and he requires the efforts of countless city dwellers to let him concentrate his efforts almost exclusively on productive farming.
Without the cooperation of individuals in a city, where such cooperation is efficient and practical, most of our collective lives would be mundane. There would be no time left to pursue individual pursuits like philosophy, architecture, painting, medicine, or business, to act strange, or, most importantly, to think differently.
To be individuals in a true sense, it is only practical to be individuals together.
"The concept of a 'right' pertains only to action--specifically, to freedom of action. It means freedom from physical compulsion, coercion or interference by other men." Ayn Rand
"Do not make the mistake of the ignorant who think that an individualist is a man who says 'I will do as I please at everybody else's expense.' An individualist is a man who recognizes the inalienable individual rights of man--of his own and those of others." Ayn Rand
Eric Miller is editor of The
Get weekly updates about new issues of ESR!
© 1996-2019, Enter Stage Right and/or its creators. All rights reserved.