In considering the meaning of the word individualism, it is important to remember that words change their meaning. The word farmer, from before Chaucer’s day to Shakespeare’s time, meant tax-collector. The word parasite, in its original Greek, meant one who partook of the sacramental feast. And, not too long ago, if a man spoke of his wife as silly, she was pleased, because it meant she was both good and happy. Certainly, a wife is not likely to be flattered today if called silly. The word is the same, but the meaning has changed. Dictionaries report established changes; they do not always record changes in process.
The word individualism is a fairly new one. When Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America was published in the United States in 1841, it was necessary for the English translator to add a lengthy footnote to explain the word, derived from the French individualisme.
In the century that followed, the word gained increasing currency and popularity, with two main meanings. First of all, individualism was seen as that doctrine or practice which holds that the chief end of society is the promotion of individual welfare, and that this constitutes also the end and purpose of moral law. In other words, society exists for the sake of its individual members. Second, it is theory or policy having primary and essential regard for individual rights, asserting that the political and economic independence of individual initiative, action and interest over-rules all other concerns, that, politically, the state exists for the individual, and, economically, laissez faire must prevail. Individualism, in this sense, still continues as a doctrine among those who hold to philosophical anarchism and to 19th Century liberalism.
However, in recent years, the term individualism has come into a new usage, and by people clearly opposed to the older usage. Conservative Catholics, conservative Protestants, political and philosophical followers of Edmund Burke’s concept of the warfare between Christian civilization and the French Revolution, and others, all use individualism as the antonym of collectivism, i.e., of theories which hold that man is a social animal and that true morality is in terms of society rather than God or a transcendental law structure. In this sense, individualism means a doctrine of personal responsibility, that man must give an accounting of himself before God and man, that sin is personal, not a natural or social product, and that social regeneration must begin with personal regeneration and is not attainable by social planning.
In the older sense, individualism is alien to Christianity; in the newer sense, it is alien instead to the French and Russian Revolutions and increasingly draws its sustenance from Christianity. Because this is a transition period, the word is used freely in both senses today. A blanket condemnation or approval of the word is thus impossible and unwise. The context of usage must determine the sense. And, in the past three years, Borkean studies have stimulated the newer usage.
R. J. RUSHDOONY