The Strange Career of IndividualismrnChoice Is It!rnby Donald W. LivingstonrnWhat is individualism? John Stuart Mill answered thisrnquestion with a theory of rights. Mill looked for a “simple”rntheoretical principle that could distinguish the liberty ofrnthe individual from that of the state. Not only is there no suchrnprinciple, but we miss the full character of individualism if werntry to grasp it in terms of a philosophical theory of individualrnrights. What we value as individuality is not a theory but an historicrnpractice. Like all practices, it was a long time arriving, andrnits character has been quite different in different periods. Thernethic of this practice flows from a desire to live a life determinedrnas much as possible by one’s own choices. Every civilizationrnhas produced remarkable individuals who were self-determining,rnbut only the West developed an ethic demanding self-determinationrnfor all human beings. In its pure form, it becamernthe modern doctrine of moral autonomy: One is boimd only byrnthe laws he imposes upon himselfrnAlthough the ethic is not necessarily Christian, it is perhapsrnnot an accident that it developed in Christian culture. One wayrnto hold societ}’ together is through kinship, tradition, and extensivernritual. Jewish society followed this path. The gospel, however,rnprovided Christians with a different one. Attention shiftedrnaway from blood, custom, and ritual to the working of God’srngrace in the individual soul, whatever its historical origin mightrnbe.rnBut the modern ethic of autonomy did not appear until thern17th century. Nothing resembling the philosophical theory ofrninalienable natural rights of individuals appears before the laternMiddle Ages; nor is a counterpart to be found in the ancientrnDonald W. Livingston is a professor of philosophy at EmoryrnUniversity and the author, most recently, of PhilosophicalrnMelancholy and Delirium: Hume’s Pathology of Philosophyrn(University of Chicago Press).rnlanguages of Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. If there are naturalrnrights of individuals, self-evidently known to all rational beings,rnit is strange that the language needed to formulate them did notrnsurface imtil modern times. Natural rights are in fact merelyrnabstractions and idealizations from a particular way of life thatrnprizes choice-making. Those who first enjoyed individuality’rndid not invoke the language of natural rights because no suchrnlanguage had yet been invented. They boldly asserted their interests,rnand these later came to be transformed into legal rights,rnas, for example, in Magna Carta. Rights are the public and legalrnrecognition of interests.rnAs the ethic of individualism gradually spread from men ofrnnoble class to men of middle class and, in time, to men of lowerrnclass and to women, it seemed to many that tiie mairr part ofrnhappiness was choice-making itself, and that, consequentlv, anrnentirely irew conception of human nature, rationality, moralit)’,rnand politics was needed. The chief obstacle to making autonomyrnthe whole of the moral life was the Aristotelian-Christian tradition,rnwhich taught that n’hat is chosen is more important thanrntiiat the choice is one’s own. In this tradition, the first questionrnof reason, morality, and politics is. What is the highest good forrnman and what institutions are needed to educate the passions torndesire that good? By the 17th centur’, Thomas Hobbes had invertedrnthis understanding of moral and political life. There isrnno highest good that men pursue. There are only egoisticallyrndriven individuals, each disposed to pursue his own power andrnglor)’ without limit unless acted upon by an outside force. Governmentrnis to be that force and to establish conditions in whichrnindividuals can pursue their own ends, whatever those mightrnbe, with a minimum of collision.rnAlthough a number of refinements would be made, thernHobbesian state became the model for the modern state. Butrnthere was a catch. In order to secure the individual’s autonomy,rn18/CHRONICLESrnrnrn