A Place to Stand

I have been a member of North Carolina Yearly Meeting conservative for over twenty years. I am currently the clerk of our small Monthly Meeting. I am a recorded elder and presently serve as the Recording Clerk of our Yearly Meeting's Ministers, Elders and Overseers. My name has been put forward to be the next clerk of North Carolina Yearly Meeting Conservative. By trade I am a philosophy professor.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007


Think about the difference between a really good marriage and a merely acceptable one. In a merely acceptable marriage there will be an absence of verbal and physical abuse, the two parties will tolerate each other and learn to live together without getting in each other’s way. In a really good marriage on the contrary a much deeper unity comes into existence. The life of each is no longer a purely individual life; it is a shared life. It becomes a life from which neither can become separated by anything less than death. What is this mysterious union? It’s not so mysterious really. A life isn’t something that just happens. A life is something that a person creates over time by choices large and small. When two people come together and make their choices together the life they create is more one than it is two. Together they decide what careers to pursue, where to live, whether to raise children and how to raise them. Trivial decisions are still made as individuals but all the major ones are made by the couple. For a good marriage to happen the two individuals must share, or gradually come to share, their deepest values and beliefs.

An action is the result of both values and beliefs. Two people with different values and beliefs simply cannot act as one, though from an outside point of view they may look as if they were in unity. Take some trivial example. Suppose the wife wants to create a beautiful home that will be welcoming to friends and family. Suppose the husband wants to create an impressive home that will signal to the world that he earns a good income. They might both agree on which sofa to buy but these two people are not sharing a life together. They are cohabiting.

Aristotle wrote that friends hold all things in common. People crave true friendship and do not feel truly whole without it. A good marriage is a kind of friendship but society requires a wide array of different kinds and depths of friendships to bind people together and help them live rich and satisfying lives. A person can be happy without being in a good marriage but a person cannot be happy without friends. Modern society as it has developed is not a healthy environment for cultivating friendships of any kind. It encourages an excessive individualism that is toxic to true friendship.

Once more the Enlightenment is to blame. The Enlightenment sought to free the individual from the tyranny of oppressive tradition and authoritarian power structures. The struggle to free people from oppressive institutions isn’t finished but the momentum in the direction of individualism has gone so far that it is turning people into isolated atoms unable to connect with each other in deeper ways. Individualism is good insofar as it creates space for the free development of the individual’s understanding of their own beliefs and desires. But like many good things when taken to extremes it becomes destructive. Excessive individualism destroys the possibility of the shared beliefs and values that make true friendship possible. It takes a truly strong and independent mind to resist the temptation of excessive individualism.

The problems facing us are not merely a matter of an ideology of individualism. The problem is also very much a matter of societal structures that keep tearing people apart and atomizing them despite their best intentions. But I do think that ideology matters. If we understand that excessive individualism is part of the problem we can look for ways to resist it. If we fail to understand this, we will continue to go with the flow.


Anonymous christine said...

Richard: I keep coming back to this post of yours. I think I find something new to chew on each time I have read it. When you write: It takes a truly strong and independent mind to resist the temptation of excessive individualism.

I also want to add that it takes practice to achieve this as well. Many years of practice; maybe one's entire life and then we only begin to see a glimmer of what it must be like not to be acting and thinking and feeling merely from within ourselves as individuals.

10:54 AM  
Blogger RichardM said...

Thanks, Christine. Your comment makes me feel that you really understood what I was trying to communicate.

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