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Friday, September 6, 2013

The Perils of Individualism

Replica of Thoreau's cabin near
Walden Pond and his statue

The principal political danger of individualism is the lust for anarchy it can engender. The principal religious danger of individualism is the lust for self-idolatry it can inflame. Those with anarchistic fantasies admire Henry David Thoreau’s secluded life at Walden Pond and his assertion "'That government is best which governs not at all'; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have." But he wrote as well: “I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government.” Inveterate individualists tend to ignore the fact that Thoreau was an abolitionist and participated in concerted organized actions to free slaves—actions that required intense social cohesion. Even his stay at Walden on property owned by his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson inherently reached beyond individualism. No doubt inconsistencies with strict individualism and cohesive action were resolved in Thoreau's mind through the door of paradox.

The paradox of individualism is that pristine individualism cannot be realized in a state of anarchy because in such a state strong-willed thugs and their gangs end up in charge—totally shredding any idealist fantasies of freedom born through anarchy. On the other hand, democratic governments thrive only when integrity of individual conscience is highly revered. Thus, the highest form of individualism becomes possible only under the most inclusive and responsible form of government. As this quandary's solution is through paradox, we can trust it as reliable and true.

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