Fag: ENG 2570 American National Ideology

Oppgavetype: Hjemmeoppgave

Tidspunkt: Våren 2004



2. Discuss the concept of individualism in American life, drawing mainly on Habits of the Heart but feeling free to use other sources among the readings for this course. In your analysis, explain clearly what you consider positive and negative aspects of individualism as described in the course readings.

            The term individualism was first used in the early 19th century, by French counterrevolutionary critics of the Enlightenment. It was filled with negative connotations, as French thinkers of the day thought individualism would undermine society and produce egoism and anarchy. Alexis de Tocqueville, one of the most influential social analysts of the 19th century, believed that the Americans were able to avoid these consequences only if they remained loyal to the free institutions and the tradition of active citizenship found within American society. In America, individualism came to denote an entire set of social ideals and exercise enormous ideological influence. These ideals were largely incompatible with the ideals of the collectivism, socialism and communism of the Old World. Although it was imported from Europe with negative connotations, the term acquired a positive meaning in the USA and was a new way of understanding the American past and the country’s ideologies. In this essay, I will describe and discuss the most important aspects of individualism, pointing out both its positive and negative consequences.

            First, we must take a look at the historical conditions for the development of individualism. On the one hand, there are the biblical and republican strains of American society. The former is perhaps more important than people today realize. Many of the earliest immigrants who arrived in America were strongly religious people, often called Puritans, who believed that success was ultimately not a matter of material wealth, but a healthy community of truly ethical and spiritual inhabitants. The most influential Puritan thinker and statesman was John Winthrop, who coined the phrase “city set upon a hill,” one of many illustrations of the utopian feeling that permeated their life in America. The Puritans’ moral perception of success also influenced the way they thought about freedom. The freedom to do whatever one pleases was denounced in favor of a “true” freedom, a “moral” freedom, which emphazised the relationship between God and man and was a liberty “to that only which is good, just and honest.”1 Also, their understanding of justice was focused more on substance rather than procedure. The latter strain, the republican, is most typically embodied in Thomas Jefferson. He strongly emphasized the notion of political equality and believed that in order to make a republic function, all citizens must be involved in and participate in the governing of society. The principle that each man should be able to influence and control his existence was very important. Jefferson also concerned himself with the principle of freedom, but in a different way from Winthrop. He did not so explicitly link freedom to morality, but instead dwelled on freedom of religion, speech and press, and freedom from arbitrary government action. But both Winthrop and Jefferson denounced the idea of freedom as being allowed to do whatever one wants to.

            On the other hand, we find the strains of utilitarian and expressive individualism. The first of these kinds finds its roots in the legendary Benjamin Franklin. He clearly expressed what both contemporary and later Americans have felt to be the essence of the American dream, which is the possibility for everyone to succeed on his or her own initiative, and to be able to constantly improve one’s own situation. This emphasis on success also became the basis of Franklin’s thinking about freedom and justice, and like Jefferson, he realized the importance of an egalitarian society of participation in order to secure the well-being of its citizens. However, many of Franklin’s followers failed to understand the relevance of this social perspective, and hence focused solely on the idea of self-development. Thus emerged utilitarian individualism, which can be summarized in the thought that a society in which every individual pursues his or her own interests will automatically be blessed with a common social good. This way of life, with its constant focus on material growth and prosperity, became too restrained and too unfulfilling for a number of Americans as the 1800s progressed. Instead of a searching for material wealth, a cultivating of the self became the ideal. The standard for a successful life was a life rich in experience and intense sentiments and feelings. These thoughts formed the basis of expressive individualism, whose most classic exponent was Walt Whitman. To him, freedom was more than anything else the freedom to express oneself.

            All the different strains discussed here to a greater or lesser extent influenced the American notion of individualism, which Tocqueville wrote elaborately about in his Democracy in America. Then what constitutes this individualism?

            An appropriate point of departure would be to discuss self-reliance, since this term is very prominent in American thinking (and in Habits of the Heart). In the biblical and republican tradition, this term was firmly placed in a social, collective context, but this context virtually disappeared with utilitarian and expressive individualism. Ralph Waldo Emerson pointed out the essence of individualistic self-reliance in the idea that we only deserve what we work for and that we are responsible primarily only for ourselves. This idea also involves the process of “leaving home”, which means that you must free yourself from reliance on your parents, you must become independent. This process is taught to American kids generation after generation. To ensure the possibility for an individual to get along self-reliantly, a lot of attention has been given to provide all citizens with equal rights and opportunities through fair laws and political procedures that are applied to everyone in like manner. It must also be mentioned that Americans generally do not think that a good life can be lived all alone, but only through some sort of connectedness.

            A positive consequence of self-reliance is that you get a nation of diligent, hard-working people, which in turn creates prosperity and material well-being. Even if one does not consider this to be the most important thing in the world, everyone would agree that it is better to live in a prosperous country than in a poor one. And America has always had a remarkably industrious workforce, and has been the richest country in the world for generations. Another positive trait of self-reliance is that you are able to pursue abstract phenomena like self-fulfillment and self-realization. In the Old World, with its rigid class society and hierarchy, it was impossible to step out of the crowd and make something of yourself. You had to accept your place in life. In America, of course, the object of life has always been to become all that you can be, to become your own person, and to excel in as many ways as possible.  This helps you to create and find your own personal identity, and this self-awareness is often felt to be an important part of a satisfying existence.

            On the negative side, self-reliance has a tendency to isolate people from each other. When you do not feel any responsibility for other people, you are likely to start neglecting them and grow egoistic. The main purpose in life becomes the accumulation of wealth for your own benefit. You stop caring about your community and fail to partake in the governing of society. In addition to making numbers of individuals lonely and personally unhappy, this consequence jeopardizes the fundament of active citizenship upon which the USA was founded. This is something Jefferson and Winthrop would have emphatically denounced, and is exactly what Tocqueville feared could happen and strongly warned against, and it is one of the greatest problems facing American society today.

            Closely related to self-reliance is the notion of autonomy, which means the right of self-government and freedom of action: You can say what you want, you can believe what you want, and you can do what you want as long as you do not violate the rights and property of others. This is a highly regarded concept in American life. To Americans, however, freedom very often means freedom from - from governmental actions and limitations, from restrictions, demands and expectations etc. What to do with this freedom remains uncertain to a large number of people. The principle is often more important than the substance. Autonomy also involves what is called self-direction, which means that the individual must critically evaluate the norms and standards with which he is confronted, and then independently reach practical and rational decisions.

            The most clearly positive thing about autonomy, of course, is that it enables a truly democratic society. A society without freedom of press, speech, religion and political beliefs can never be the people-oriented republic that Jefferson and his like-minded wanted to establish. Autonomy also provides people with initiative and creativity, and it has stimulated tolerance and respect for other people and their opinions.

            The problems arise in the way people cope with this freedom. HotH claims that


it is an ideal of freedom that leaves Americans with a stubborn fear of acknowledging structures of power and interdependence in a technologically complex society dominated by giant corporations and an increasingly powerful state. The ideal of freedom makes Americans nostalgic for their past, but provides few resources for talking about their collective future.2


That Americans are more concerned with having freedom from than freedom to seems to weaken their ability to think and act constructively regarding the future of their nation. On a different note, we find a phenomenon that is present in the minds of almost all the interviewees and very important to the authors of HotH. This is the fact that autonomy is also partly responsible for the development of ethical and epistemological relativism, and has led to a kind of rootlessness. The objective absolutes of right and wrong and true and false have seemingly disappeared, and there is no longer any “wider framework” that determines a larger sense of the purpose of life. Ethical and moral questions become matters of technicality, subjective preference and practicality. Naturally, this invites to a great deal of opportunism and selfishness. This is quite the opposite of what Winthrop, Jefferson and Franklin would have approved of. Besides leading to individuals’ actions that are wrong and/or sinful in themselves, this also poses a threat to the USA as a nation, since immoral, opportunistic citizens take no interest in building and maintaining a country.

            A somewhat minor consequence (compared to the ones discussed earlier) of self-reliance and autonomy that nonetheless deserves some attention is the typically American form of mobility. Many of the interviewees in HotH have moved many times and are prepared to do it again. They do this in order to meet demands in their work, whether it is because of a promotion or restructuring within the company. The positive side to this is that it promotes the ideas of self-fulfillment and self-realization mentioned above. It allows you to pursue your dreams and goals through your career possibilities. The negative side is that it often creates loose relationships, restlessness and fragmentation. If you are not going to stay where you live for more than a year anyway, then the point of getting involved and contributing to the community gradually ceases to exist. The result is a society that is far from the all-including, all-depending societies idealized in the biblical and republican traditions.

            American individualism also includes an idea called religious individualism. This means that the individual believer does not need intermediaries in one’s religious life. One has the right and the (moral) duty to establish and nurture one’s own personal relationship with God (or whatever supreme being or force one believes in), which means that this is both a religious doctrine and a view of the nature of religion. This is often called “leaving church”, which may sound drastic, but implies only that one has to make a personal decision what to believe in and what to do about that belief. This idea, obviously, stems from the Puritans and their Protestant convictions, which were radically different from the collectivistic views of the Catholic Church around the time of the Reformation. This is all very good because it is true, the authors of HotH say. But they also point out some of the dangers of religious individualism. One of them is that people tend to forget or neglect the seriousness of the (biblical) message, and lead a rather religiously superficial life. Another problem is the threat posed by syncretism, which means the amalgamation of different religious beliefs, New Age religions, liberalized biblical beliefs and Unitarianism, religious influences and tendencies that all serve to undermine and destroy genuine biblical religion.

            To give some conclusive thoughts, I must say that it is quite apparent that the authors of Habits of the Heart believe that the best forms of individualistic expression and lifestyle are represented by the biblical and republican strands of American society. They believe that over-indulgence in utilitarian and expressive individualism will eventually erode the basis of “the American project”. An emphasis on biblical and republican individualism with careful explorations into utilitarian and expressive areas thus seems to be the golden mean on which to base one’s life.


1 Bellah et al. 1985. p 29.

2 Bellah et al. 1985. p 25.




·      Bellah, Robert N. et al. 1985. Habits of the Heart - Individualism and Commitment in American Life. University of California Press. Updated version 1996.

·      Lukes, Steven. 1973. “Individualism” in Philip Wiener. Dictionary of the History of Ideas Volume II. Pages 594-603.