Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
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New York: Maynard, Merrill, and Co.
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Includes articles by Frédéric Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, Henry George, J. B. Say, Francis A. Walker, and more.
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INDIVIDUALITY. This word suggests a problem which our age is compelled to propound if not to solve, namely, the respective parts which should be assigned to the individual, to the state and to society. This problem has undoubtedly existed from the very beginning of civilization, but only in a latent state. The three interests, when confronted with one another, have not been slow to conflict, each of them exhibiting considerable strength and corresponding with some one of the human passions: egoism in the individual, affection in society, ambition in the state.


—For the harmonious development of humanity it is necessary that no one of these forces should destroy the others. This necessity has at all times been instinctively felt, but it is only in our day that men have become conscious of it. So also is it only in our day that the problem has been formally propounded, and the attempt been made to bring direct influence to bear upon its solution.


—As Lapalisse would say, it is better to understand the problem clearly than to guess at it blindly. However, we are tempted to believe that a clear understanding of the problem will render its solution all the more difficult. In fact, an interest which is conscious of its own legitimateness is much less disposed to make concessions than a mere tendency whose action we feel perhaps while disproving it.


—But it is rare to find men such perfect masters of their inclinations that their reason is not affected by them. And was reason ever found wanting in arguments to serve human passions? Hence it follows that a passionate man is apt to become a more exclusive individualist, socialist or adherent of the government than one of a different disposition.


—What we have just given expression to, is merely an apprehension; but by consulting certain famous works from the "Leviathan" of Hobbes to the "Icarie" of Cabet, it will be found that this apprehension is not entirely without foundation. However this may be, let us endeavor, if not to define the part of the individual, in relation to society and the state, at least to collect the principal elements of a definition.


—The individual can, strictly speaking, exist without society, but he could not improve without it. It is society that makes of man "a two-legged animal without feathers." Nature likewise has endowed man not only with all the selfish inclinations which constitute his instinct of self-preservation, but also with the affection which attracts him toward his like. But affection is often weaker than egoism; in other words, interest often prevails over morality; this is unfortunate, but experience proves that it is true. The élite of men endeavor first of all to strengthen society, and the more brutal and ignorant nations are, the more ingeniously the eminent minds of the period try to increase social tendencies and forces.


—Among the manifestations of this tendency, we will mention, in the economic order, art and trade organizations and castes, and in the spiritual order the rule of the church. But at a given moment a part of society becomes too large, the various institutions which were intended to protect it separate from it and form themselves into individual establishments which possess a collective egoism; and a reaction becoming both necessary and inevitable, the part of the individual increases. The force of this reaction spent, we are now no longer over passionate, and it will be possible for us to examine the question coolly.


Mens sana in corpore sano. In like manner society is sound when the individual is not corrupt. Man, like water, becomes corrupt by stagnation. Advancement and progress are what the body needs as well as the mind. Man, if his faculties have not been compromised by domestic education, or by social and political influences, is naturally progressive: an invincible curiosity urges him to acquire knowledge; an insatiable avidity prompts him to appropriate to himself all that he possibly can. When we build air-castles, do we not begin our dreams with the most modest desires, and behold them increase before our eyes until they surpass the bounds of the marvellous?


—Such is man And we should congratulate ourselves that he is such. Without this stimulant how would our will overcome the inertia which characterizes the purely material part of our being, the clay of which we are made? how would we overcome the pain which labor causes? But, without labor, there can be no progress. Hence it follows, that the individual, in order to prosper, must have the fullest possible liberty to work, materially and intellectually. It would not be at all difficult for us to deduce from this proposition the necessity of enjoying all the political, religious, civil and other liberties which this age so energetically claims. But the developments would oblige us to repeat what has already been said elsewhere.


—Society should therefore restrain the individual as little as possible, and ask of him only such sacrifices as are indispensably necessary. This is, at bottom, really to the interest of society. In restraining man's inclination to injure his neighbor or to appropriate the fruit of his labor, society protects the weak, without really giving the strong any reason to complain. It teaches him so to direct his efforts that humanity will profit by them, either against his evil passions, or against the brute forces of nature. The object of society is par excellence the moral and intellectual culture of man. To it we owe the development of our sentiments of affection, as well as all our scientific discoveries. Without society there can be no morality, and without morality man would become the most relentless and formidable enemy of his fellow-man.


—From these propositions one might be led to infer that society should take precedence of the individual, just as the mind rules the body. We willingly admit this formula, for the very reason that it is vague. In these matters it is impossible to be very precise. But we must be on our guard against the abuse which may be made of it to oppress the individual. It must ever be borne in mind that the individual is the raw material of society, and that whatever is injurious to one is injurious to the other. In like manner, the thought is assuredly infinitely more precious than the brain in which it is elaborated, no one knows how; but be careful not to injure the brain, if you would preserve the thought.


—The individualistic and social tendencies of men, when left to themselves, are often the first to prevail. We have already said that egoism is stronger than affection. It was necessary that some institution should come to the aid of society, and this institution was found in the state. In fact, many states are formed by means of which morality does not approve, but time purifies almost as much as fire; and in a word, the state has become the frame-work of society, and to a certain extent the body in which it has become incarnate.


—The state was not slow to constitute itself the arm of society. If it had stopped with the fulfillment of this task, all would have been well. But the more society became incarnate in the state, the more the state became incarnate in men, and these men, say what we will, have not always been the élite of our species. If not their personal interests, at least their views and opinions always exerted more or less influence over their public acts, and as they had the power, they circumscribed the liberty of the individual, first for the greater good of society, then for that of the state, and finally for his own benefit: some of them would willingly have made man a mere automation. Did they not oblige him to believe what the authorities believed, to work according to methods prescribed by law, to adapt his clothing and diet to rules, to retire at sound of the curfew bell, and not to take a step except in official leading strings?


—It is against these exaggerated pretensions that we contend. Let us give to society and to the state what belong to them, but let us maintain the rights of the individual. We are ready to make every possible sacrifice for society and for the state: we will open our purses, we will shed our blood, we will restrain our passions for them; but in return, leave us the right to use and abuse our individuality. We wish to belong to ourselves; protect us against others; it is each one's own duty to protect himself against himself. Are we not responsible agents?


—We will not insist any further; but will merely propound our theory, and demonstrate how it can be applied in a very few words. Whatever belongs exclusively to the domain of individual interest, should be left entirely free. Society should use only moral force; public opinion and human respect are, besides, powers of the first order. The duty of the state is to watch over the general interests of the nation, political, legal and moral; and as to the province of economy, it should occupy itself only with things that are beyond the power of the individual, or which the individual could not reach without its assistance; this does not clash with its duty to maintain order and respect for morality, and to protect the weak.


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