Brett Williams's Reviews > Essays on Individualism: Modern Ideology in Anthropological Perspective

Essays on Individualism by Louis Dumont
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it was amazing

I’ll never think the same way again

“We have become aware that modern individualism – when seen against the backdrop of other great civilizations – is an exceptional phenomena.” So writes Dumont to begin his book. As we track his arguments, exceptional it is – both the idea of individualism we take for granted, and Dumont’s text. Though he inserts a chapter on Marcel Mauss that reads like Ivory Tower jargon, this volume was first in a series that forced me to doubt fundamentals of my beloved Enlightenment philosophy.

Dumont separates civilizations into “individualistic,” like the modern West, and “holistic,” like the ancients (or modern day Amish, Mennonites, Orthodox Jews). In the former, the individual is paramount, their rights, equality, freedom, liberty. For the later what matters is the community and its member’s duty, responsibility, and virtue that maintains the community. Individualism, says Dumont, springs from its opposite in holism. This mutation of individualism is seen to begin with the Greek Cynics, absorbed and modified by Roman Stoics, absorbed and modified by Christianity. (This whole process may have begun with Buddha, communicated to the Cynics by the Indian Gymnosophists.) Christianity then deposits a form of individualism into the Enlightenment where it takes off with abandon. The old way elevates that side of us that wants belonging (with restraints). The new way elevates that side of us that wants autonomy (with no restraints).

Dumont shows how these early groups devalued the material world (though accommodated it) for the higher plain of a superior spiritual universe. Jesus makes this point repeatedly concerning wealth, the rich, and things (making this one of the great cultural contradictions in the US – an overwhelmingly Christian, yet materialist nation). Dumont terms such figures as “renouncers” who are indifferent or opposed to earthly concerns. To seek ultimate truth they largely forgo social life and its practical distractions. What they value is beyond the reach of events – “an emancipation of the individual through personal transcendence,” writes Dumont. This all gets turned around by Popes meddling in secular affairs and competing with kings. Then comes the Reformation, followed by stern Calvinism’s retreat from mystical and emotional aspects of the old way for down-to-earth correction of the profane world we live in through a Puritan “calling.” What we create, writes Dumont, is “Not a value derived from our belonging in this world, such as our harmony with it, but a value rooted in our difference from it, and the identification of our will with the will of God.” This turns the focus of concern from the spiritual plain to the inferior affairs of everyday life on the ground. It eventuates in making man’s relation to things (whispers of capitalism) more important than man’s relations with other men. One can readily see Enlightenment’s capitalism just around the corner. A really good report on the evolution of individualism from Rome to the Enlightenment. (Dumont goes beyond Enlightenment with his volume, “From Mandville to Marx.”)
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January 19, 2015 – Finished Reading
March 9, 2015 – Shelved

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message 1: by arnoldK (new) - added it

arnoldK Great review, also a great introduction on the book. It is going to be a thrilling read I guess


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