Landmarks in the Emergence of Individuality in Western Civilization

History can be viewed from many perspectives. The following chronology examines various steps and stages in the evolution of Individuality in Western Civilization. The ordering of the steps can only be approximate since most of them occur over a long period of time and gradually spread from a small initial footing in society until they eventually permeate the entire population, sometimes many centuries after their initial appearance. This list of contributing factors is arbitrary and incomplete, for on closer examination it becomes evident that virtually every new development in society has some impact, direct or indirect, on the eventual emergence of individuality. This is also true of other aspects of social development, such as knowledge, organization, technology, skill, values, culture, etc. Viewed from a historical perspective, it appears that the entire trend and evolutionary aim of the subconscious social movement has been society’s long preparation and progressive unfolding of the extraordinary powers and capacities of the individual.

I. Dawn of Civilization

  1. Physical Leader: The outstanding warrior is made leader of the tribe and given power to decide on behalf of the group. He has to take responsibility for others, think on behalf of the group and consider their wider interest, not merely follow others or consider his own welfare. The physical leader develops attributes of individuality which later spread to those at lower levels of the emerging social hierarchy.
  2. Agriculture: Agriculture is born when early man carefully observes natural processes and thinks of creatively imitating Nature. Agriculture frees the individual from dependence on hunting and gathering, provides a more secure year-round source of food, enables him to settle down, create a family and community, acquire home and property that he identifies as his own. It also frees up a portion of the population for other types of work, the first stage in the division and specialization of labour which is the physical basis for development of individual capacities.
  3. Family:  Sedentary agriculture gives rise to the rise of rural communities and emergence of the family. The role of father, son, wife, husband, daughter become differentiated and formalized, an early example of individual differentiation, each governed by different norms of behavior, values, and attitudes.
  4. Property: The first tangible human right may be the right to own property – be it a tool, a hut or a plot of land to call one’s own. The right to possess personally accords a degree of individuality to each person and it stirs aspirations for higher and higher levels of accomplishment.
  5. Physical Skills: The skilled craftsman acquires a unique physical ability which distinguishes him from others, wins him a secure place in the collective and becomes a means of his economic survival without total dependence on others. Whereas agriculture is initially a collective activity in which all work as a group, crafts enable each person to produce on their own. It provides an incentive for higher productivity. It also imparts a measure of independence from the collective. The farmer is tied to the ancestral lands. The craftsman can migrate to urban areas which offer greater opportunity, like the stonemasons of Europe who travelled widely constructing churches throughout the continent.
  6. Inventor: The inventor creates a new tool or device which are products of his ingenuity and make the individual more productive or effective. The capacity to invent demonstrates that the exercise of human ingenuity can improve upon the natural inventions of Nature. Agriculture imitates. Invention creates afresh.
  7. Wise-man: The skilled healer or village wise-man acquires and exercises a unique knowledge drawn from observation, experience and past generations. That knowledge gives him a power of people and circumstances and gains him respect and authority over others who accept his advice, judgment and decisions. This is an early version of the sense of accomplishment and individuality which modern education has extended to the masses.
  8. Folk Tales: Folk literature immortalizes the common and unique characteristics and actions of individuals, recording for posterity both the high achievements and fatal consequences of individual variation. Folk tales and later forms of literature awakened in man the dreams of individual heroism and high personal accomplishment.
  9. Old Testament: No longer was it sufficient for man to do as others did. The commandments set forth a code of personal conduct by which each individual should act and be judged on the basis of their individual merit.

II. Urbanization & Commerce

  1. Rulers: The rise oflarger social units such as the feudal fiefdom, city-state, princely state and kingdom gives rise to a new ruling nobility which acquires a wide range of powers and authority over larger numbers of people. All higher human cultural achievements are first acquired by a small ruling aristocracy and only much later extended as privileges to the wider sections of humanity. Thus the aristocrats become the first real individuals with the freedom, rights, power and inherited capacity to think for themselves, decide for others and live according to their own will. A gradation of ruling families arises at the level of the community, township, principality and country.
  2. Urbanization: Agricultural surpluses enable a portion of the population to migrate from the land to towns and cities, which become the hub of emerging civilization. Rural life is quiet, secluded, provincial and unchanging. Life in the city is intense and ever-changing and provides a variety of experiences that educate the provincial mind, widens its conception of possibilities and awakens higher aspirations for higher accomplishment. The dreams of individuality are born in the city. The commercial town or city frees the individual from the social hierarchy of the rural community and enables him to thrive on his own industry and capacity.
  3. Trade: In agriculture and craft manufacturing, wealth is created by working with things. In trade, the source of wealth is interaction and mutually beneficial exchange between people. The productivity of the land is limited by natural factors. The productivity of trade depends only on human resourcefulness, good judgment, the capacity to win trust and confidence. Trade provides an opportunity for the individual to develop and exercise a wide range of social and commercial skills that distinguish him from others and can generate wealth that sets him apart.
  4. Law: Urban commercial life is founded on a substratum of laws to protect the life and property of inhabitants from arbitrary exercise of power or confiscation. Habeas corpus and property rights affirm the value and rights of the individual, enhance his sense of security and give him a status somewhat insulated from the whims of the collective.
  5. Money: Money empowers the individual by enabling him to convert his own labor and productive capacity into savings for future use or exchange it for any other product or service or social benefit. Money imparts economic privilege to those who possess it, regardless of their class or caste. Historically, the demand for human rights comes to protect private wealth from taxation or confiscation by the ruling powers.
  6. Athenian Golden Age: For a period of brief spanning less than two centuries an astonishing efflorescence of mental culture emerged in ancient Athens, which was to become the foundation for much of Western civilization over the next 2000 years. A tiny group of remarkable individuals – Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Archimedes, Pythagoras and their like – freely exercised the power of mind to think freshly and creatively about the nature of the universe, humanity, ethics and life, and became the forerunners in Western art, science and intellectuality. Even at its initial birth, intellectual thought met opposition from established beliefs and the tragic death of Socrates foretold the fate of many individuals who venture too far beyond the current boundaries of social tolerance.
  7. Roman Empire: Rome gave rise to the rights of citizenship and the basis of law that became the legal framework for modern society.
  8. Epic Literature: The epics created a historical record of kings and nations, immortalizing the acts of individual heroes. 
  9. Christianity: Christianity personalized and humanized the relationship between man and God and depicted God as an individual with human form who deeply values every individual human soul.

III. Renaissance & Reformation

  1. Entrepreneurship: Trade over distance expanded rapidly in Europe from the 12th Century onward. The rise of urban commercial centers led to the founding of new ventures created by enterprising individuals with the courage to take risks and capacity to exercise responsibility and authority over men, productive activities and materials.
  2. Banking: The capacity to borrow money, whether from bank or moneylender, extend to the individual a new capacity to live or act beyond his present means on the strength of another’s accumulated wealth. The moneylender who exercises his judgment and strength to lend and retrieve money given to others is the forerunner of the modern banking industry which provides credit to support the rising aspirations of the world’s middle class.
  3. Political Rights: The feudallords in the countryside and a rising wealthy class in the commercial towns both demand that their rights be enshrined in writing (e.g. Magna Carta) to limit the arbitrary authority of the ruler in return for their military or monetary support. Initially extended to a small minority, through successive centuries and periods, political rights accord an increasing measure of freedom and individual value to all citizens.
  4. Black Death: The plague wiped out a third of Europe’s population, striking randomly at both the nobility and the peasantry, creating a severe labor shortage that undermined the feudal system and liberating millions to become free citizens.
  5. Renaissance: In a marked departure from the established religious belief system and art forms of the Middle Ages, intellectual pursuits re-emerged into prominence. Copernicus, Galileo and the like revived the science of Athens but had to contend with established church doctrine. It demanded mental individuality to think freshly and social individuality to oppose conventional religious thought.
  6. Printing Press: The rapid spread of printing in the half century following the invention of the printing press democratized the power of knowledge and the means of communication so that it could be assessed by all who were literate.
  7. The Explorers: The great explorers who discovered the New World had to overcome the superstitious belief in a flat world and risk their lives venturing into uncharted territory. The masses cling to beaten tracks and dare not venture forth. Discovery is liberating. It imparts a powerful sense of accomplishment to those who do it.
  8. Divine Right of Kings: The king was the first individual. The whole society subordinated and sacrificed itself to obey the king’s will and satisfy his pleasure. Since then, the value and rights once accorded to a single individual have gradually spread to encompass large all citizens to some extent.
  9. Literature as History: The popularization of literature as history by writers such as Shakespeare enshrined for posterity the lives and historical actions of unique individuals (e.g. Henry V, Henry VIII), elevating the individual above the collective and giving him larger than life status.
  10. New World: The discovery and opening up of the new world opened up an unparalleled field of opportunity for the poor, disenfranchised and persecuted to escape the thralldom of rigid class structure and social oppression in the Old World and seek a fresh start as free individuals in the new. The New World came to embody for many a dream of unimagined possibilities.
  11. Pioneer: The pioneer gives up the security of homeland to start a new life in a new land where he is forced to be completely self-reliant. It requires great courage and independence of mind to give up the support of one’s native community and venture forth into a new world without possessions and security of success or even survival. Initially, few made the journey, but many shared their aspirations.
  12. Commercial Revolution: Rare enjoyments elevate the perceived value of those who enjoy them. The importation of sugar, tea, potatoes, spices and silk from Asia and the New World made rare luxury items more available and common-place, marking a very early phase of the consumer society that arose in the 20th century.
  13. Reformation: Although Luther’s primary objective was to reform the Catholic Church, the main result of the Reformation was to democratize and personalize religion. Over the next two centuries, literally hundreds of new forms of Protestantism arose, each representing a different shade of belief and religious practice. The absolute authority of the Church was undermined and distributed to the lay clergy and the individual worshipper was empowered to read and interpret the scriptures for himself. The Reformation brought individuality to religion.
  14. Literacy: Literacy and primary education enhance the individual’s perception of his own value and increase his capacity to think and act on his own knowledge and judgment.
  15. Enlightenment: Science came to free humanity from blind submission to superstition, fear of hell and the sense of sin. The spread of scientific experimentation, scientific societies and journals cultivated the habit of inquiry, spurred curiosity and promoted exchange of ideas as never before. Blind adherence to established doctrine gave way to a spirit of inquiry and independent thinking among the educated.
  16. Newspapers: The spread of printing and basic education spurred the growth of newspapers, which disseminated information near and far. Informed citizens began to think more about the world around them.
  17. Code of the Gentleman: The rise of a wealthy, educated landed gentry fostered the development of a cultured nobility, which at its best embodied high values of honor, courage, integrity, truthfulness and generosity. What began as the ideal of a tiny minority was to evolve over centuries into a wider ideal image of individual perfection.

IV. Rise of the Nation State

  1. Rise of Democracy: A rapidly expanding and increasingly prosperous, educated urban middle class gave rise to demands for greater freedom, legal protection and participation in government. Thus economic freedom generated the impetus for political freedom in England, France and other countries.
  2. Inalienable Rights: Europeans had been struggling for centuries to wrest greater power from the monarchy and redefine the relationship between rulers and citizenry. But in North America, the precedents and privileges of the past were gradually abandoned. The leaders of the American Revolution sought instead to base their claim on certain inalienable human rights founded upon the inherent value of the individual.
  3. French Revolution: The demand for freedom crossed the Atlantic and abolished the French aristocracy in revolution. Less dramatic but equally significant was the silent evolutionary impact that it had on other countries, especially Britain, which quietly relaxed the rigid boundaries between the classes to permit upward social mobility in a successful effort to avoid revolution.
  4. Colonialism: The spread of European colonial empires opened up unparalleled opportunities for the brave and the bold to make their fortunes overseas. Greater opportunity fostered greater self-confidence, self-respect and independent action.
  5. Industrial Revolution: The early stages of the industrial revolution were dehumanizing in some respects, especially with reference to the working conditions of industrial labor. But it also opened up enormous opportunities for entrepreneurial individuals to found new enterprises and for impoverished labor to escape from tenant farming on poor land. It also opened up cheap transport by steam ship and railway, replaced many forms of the harshest manual labor with machines, and produced a plethora of cheap manufactured products that became increasingly affordable to the common man.
  6. Cotton: Until the end of the 18th century, all but the wealthy in Europe lacked clean and adequate clothing due to the high cost of fabrics. The industrialization of cotton reduced the cost of fabric to one percent of its former cost, making cheap washable cloth available to all. Those who could now afford to dress well felt the self-worth of upper class status and began to act with a greater sense of self-respect and independence.
  7. Abolition of Slavery: The slave trade was abolished by most countries by the early 19th century but slavery itself persisted in America until the end of the Civil War. It would take another century or more for equal political and legal rights to be fully enforced as equal social rights. Yet the highly visible war for freedom and equality for the blacks became a symbol of the rights of the oppressed everywhere. Freedom from persecution does not automatically give rise to individuality, but it provides the essential social basis for individuality to flower.
  8. Cheap land: As population increased and the nobility consolidated its hold on property, free land became increasingly scarce and precious in Europe. Millions longed for a plot of farm land they could call their own. When they heard that in America 320 acre plots were being given free or for a mere $1.25 an acre, it sounded like a fantastic dream come true. Millions abandoned their native lands and family, risking everything to seek land in America. The very possibility raised the hopes of the common man in Europe. Those who attained it became living embodiments of a dream that the ordinary human being could live prosperously like the landed gentry of Europe.
  9. Scarce Labor: In the latter part of the 19th century, scarcity of labor in North America raised the earnings of workers to 10 times the prevailing level in Europe. Impoverished immigrants rose to middle class status in an average of 7 to 77 weeks. Rising achievements of the common man in America signaled a new age in which anyone could rise and everyone could prosper on the basis of individual effort. Those who accomplished on their own strength felt and demanded equal rights and status, affirming their value as individuals regardless of their nationality or class origins.
  10. 19th Century Novels: The literature of the late 19th century increasingly turned from preoccupation with the lives of the nobility to depict the lives and living conditions of the ordinary citizen and even the poorest of the poor. Novelists such as Dickens became forerunners of the social literature of the 20th century that condemned the harshness, cruelty and injustice to which the lower sections of the population were subjected.
  11. Feminism: Early expressions of the feminist movement can be traced back to the time of the French Revolution when European women were largely considered the property of their husbands, intellectually inferior and subordinate. The growing popularity of woman novelists and poets led during the 19th century to the appearance of social reformers who actively demanded equal rights and status for women.
  12. Political Reform: The English Reform Acts (1832-1884) gradually extended voting rights to previously disfranchised citizens down the social ladder until it included workingmen and agricultural labors.
  13. Industrialists: Most of the greatest economic achievements of the 19th century were the work of self-made millionaires who conceived of new products, established new types of manufacturing processes and built industrial empires. Since then, Carnegie, Edison, Ford, Marriot, Gates, Jobs and their like have served as the inspiration for millions of entrepreneurs who dream of similar achievements.
  14. Universal Education: Apart from the practical knowledge and skills it gives, education encourages critical thinking and opinion formation, imparts a sense of self-respect that raises aspirations, and reduces the tendency to blind conformity.

V. Century of the Common Man

  1. Woman’s Suffrage: Voting rights were extended to some classes of women in some of the British colonies during the 19th century, but full women’s suffrage was not achieved in USA and most parts of Europe until after WWI.
  2. Modern products: At first considered a luxury for only the very rich, Henry Ford produced the first car for the common man and sold 27 million of them in 20 years. More than merely a convenient form of transportation, the automobile became the symbol for economic and social equality in America and later around the world. Every modern convenience such as the sewing machine and washing machine liberates the individual from drudgery and thereby increases the value of the individual.
  3. Social Organizations: Every modern social organization such as telephone, public transport, media informs, protects the individual, multiplies his productivity and helps him develop his full potential.
  4. Insurance: Insurance provides an unprecedented level of security to the individual by spreading risks over a larger population. The popularization of life and other forms of insurance over the past century has eliminated much of the fear that pervaded life in earlier times. Security, absence of fear, is a precondition for the blossoming of individuality.
  5. World Leaders: The remarkable achievements of outstanding individuals (e.g. Churchill, Gandhi, Gorbachev, etc.) make humanity increasingly aware of the infinite significance and unlimited creative capacity of the individual.
  6. Decolonization:  As long as a nation is subject to foreign rule, self-respect and self-reliance are impossible. The final abolition of colonialism released the energy and elevated the aspirations of billions of people and finally affirmed the right to self-determination as a fundamental human right.
  7. Customer is King: When Sears introduced its famed money-back guarantee in 1900, it marked the dawn of the age of mass consumption in America. The products he purchases may be mass produced, but satisfaction is strictly a personal matter. Sears affirmed that personal satisfaction, not the objective qualities of the product, was the standard it would live by. In 20 years Sears became the largest retailer in the world and the model for modern retailing. More importantly, it announced the arrival of the fully enfranchised economic individual, replacing the age-old dictum caveat emptor (buyer beware) with the customer is always right.
  8. Leisure Society: In the 1930s Coca-cola was heralded as the common man’s champagne. For the first time in history, the masses could look forward to a life which included luxuries and enjoyments formerly available only to the elite. The notion of leisure, vacations, holidays, touring evolved during the century from the occupation of the wealthy to a privilege accessible to the middle and even the working class.
  9. Mass Entertainment: Shakespearean theater allocated standing room in the pit for the less well-to-do commoners referred to as ‘groundlings’. Apart from that symphonic music, ballet, opera and the visual arts were forms of entertainment primarily for the rich. The advent of radio, TV and motion pictures has ushered in an age of mass entertainment, accessible and affordable by almost all, as the huge popularity of Indian cinema testifies. Country fairs, seasonal festivals, travelling circuses and marriage celebrations were rare events. Today entertainment has become a daily occupation for a large portion of humanity. Although today’s entertainment is mass produced for the unrefined taste of the masses, it conveys the notion that every human being in entitled to the joys of entertainment. The right to enjoyment is one basis for emerging individuality.
  10. Fashion: A European gentleman could always be recognized by his garments, because only the wealthy could afford elegant apparel. Hand-made designer clothes were the hallmark of aristocracy. Today designer brands are mass marketed to millions. Mass fashion eradicates social stratification. The worldwide craze for fashion reflects the aspiration of humanity to live as freely and elegantly as the elite of yore.
  11. Technical Education: Historically, those who accomplished built on the accumulated capital, knowledge and skills inherited from family. Technical education enabled any individual to acquire the knowledge and expertise needed for economic accomplishment and upward social mobility. Today technical education is a passport for tens of millions to rise to middle or upper class status in a single lifetime.
  12. Hippies:  The 1960s gave rise to a widespread social movement affirming the value of the individual and rejected social authority and social conformity as dehumanizing influences. Though most products of that generation eventually settled down into conventional ways of life as their parents had before them, the ideal of free expression and individuality became deeply embedded.
  13. Welfare State: Social welfare affirms the value of the individual and provides a greater level of self-confidence and security to all citizens.
  14. Health & Safety Legislation: The progressive adoption and enforcement of a long list of safeguards for health, safety, the environment, consumer rights, and protection of minorities reinforced the increasing value accorded to every human being.
  15. Women’s Employment:  Throughout history woman has been economically dependent on man and therefore socially disadvantaged. Employment has given women a degree of economic freedom that translates as greater social equality and freedom than ever before.
  16. Yuppies: The vulgar outburst of outrageous social aspirations and conspicuous consumption in the late 1980s was offensive to those who regarded the life of the rich and famous as a sacred privilege of blue blooded elite. Elitism was democratized by the yuppies, placing economic extravagance within the reach of millions of aspiring youth.
  17. Sports: Professional sports has become an alternative pathway for thousands of disadvantaged youth to rise from the lowest to highest levels of society in a single lifetime. Though the number who succeed may be relatively small, stardom awakens the dream of success in the minds of tens of millions. Individual dreams are the basis for individuality to emerge.
  18. End of Cold War: The Cold War and particularly the constant threat of nuclear annihilation were among the most dehumanizing events in human history, threatening to eradicate all freedom of choice at a moment’s notice. Those who lived under authoritarian regimes were deprived of basic freedom for thought and expression, but even those in the democratic West were oppressed by fear, propaganda and forced to accept a world based on confrontation. The fall of the Berlin Wall liberated the human spirit from oppressive darkness.
  19. Globalization: Globalization makes us increasingly aware of common problems and capabilities and thereby , of the shared value of every individual regardless of race or nationality.
  20. Internet: The Internet empowers the common citizen with unimaginable freedom and power of action, enhancing his capacity, sense of self-worth, access to knowledge and opportunity for creative expression.
  21. Personalization of Technology: Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, people feared that machines would one day replace people and dehumanize society. Starting in the 1980s, a new movement has arisen humanizing machines to empower and better serve the needs of human beings. The user-friendly Macintosh computer, the ubiquitous i-Pod and multi-purpose i-Phone have become symbols of a future in which technology supports the flowering of individuality.
  22. Facebook & Twitter: Throughout history society immersed the individual in a cloak of anonymity and uniformity. Today 350 million human beings publish their own Facebook projecting their own favorite images, music, thoughts and preferences, tracking their activities by the minute or hour, and thereby proclaiming to all the world their individual importance and uniqueness. However trivial and superficial the content, the underlying affirmation of the importance of the individual shines through.
  23. Romantic Love: The ideal of romantic love has been around for centuries, but until recent times relationships between man and woman were governed predominantly by economic and social considerations rather than true romantic affinity. In an age when unmarried women, divorced women and working women were frowned upon, few had the luxury to pursue the dream of ideal love. Today social freedom and economic independence makes that possible. The high divorce rates reflect the increasing numbers who seek for it and the difficulties they encounter in trying to fulfill that dream.