Individualism, relativism, and the most extreme form of idolatry

Freedom to choose between good and evil, right and wrong, the rational and the irrational, is the essential inalienable right of the individual. It is also the heaviest of burdens.

(Image: Mohamed Nohassi/Unsplash.com)

For God and country

Individualism has come under attack in recent years. It is often seen as self-serving and contrary to the common good. This runs contrary to America’s founding documents, which were designed to protect the individual from those who would usurp rights which cannot be usurped, rights bestowed on man not by man but by God. What God gives, only God can take away, and it was this sentiment the Founding Fathers, steeped in Judeo-Christian wisdom, had in mind when they shaped the founding documents.

Freedom to choose between good and evil, right and wrong, the rational and the irrational, is a central focus of Western tradition. Stripped of this freedom, Adam and Eve would be reduced to automatons incapable of sin. But sin they did. They did not have to. Choosing to love God or reject Him is necessarily an individual endeavor. Congregations gather in church to worship, but it is the individual who elects to attend services. Attempts to absorb the individual into group identity, be it political, ethnic, religious, or otherwise, threatens both the Church and our nation.

Radical individualism

There is, however, truth to the accusation that individualism can be self-serving and contrary to the common good. The radical individualism of the German philosopher Nietzsche, for example, advanced the notion that there is no absolute Truth. The impassioned heat of Nietzsche’s style germinated the seed of relativism that was planted before him, and the seed took root and then flourished in the twentieth century. Now it is in full bloom. The fragrance of this flower is anything but pleasant. Nietzsche was a dangerous thinker, boldly blasphemous. Take this infamous example:

God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?

Of course, God, by definition, is immortal and cannot be killed. That the absolute is not subject to the slings and arrows of man’s outrageous (and relative) desires is a valid criticism as well. Pointing out such flaws in Nietzsche’s logic, however, misses the point.

The real problem surfaces with the “we” to which Nietzsche refers. The question as to the existence or nonexistence of God requires an individual response. If a group says in unison “We don’t believe in God,” does the collective decision relieve the individual of responsibility? When it comes to divine judgement will it suffice for the individual to claim, “It was a group decision, a consensus. I was outvoted. I am innocent.”

With this mindset, one could go further and posit Charlie Manson was unjustly imprisoned for the actions of his followers. After all, Manson didn’t murder anybody. Or perhaps the charges against the murderers should have been dropped because they weren’t thinking for themselves? Who is to held accountable? When individuals are not held responsible for their actions, on whom is justice to be served? On political, ethnic, or religious groups? Does the individual exist outside the group that they have chosen, been born into, or assigned?

Nietzsche understood the consequences of his proclamation. Though numerous others had denied the existence of God before him, Nietzsche’s pronouncement was unique. It was his alone. Too weak to bear the consequences of his claims, he transposed the “I” to “we” so others might share the dark burden of his vision. A single madman yelling, “God is dead,” in the street is not analogous to a mob chanting the same. For example, as little as ten years ago slogans such as “Defund the police,” were fringe at best and for the most part ignored. A mob of BLM protestors chanting the same slogan today summons fear in many a law-abiding citizen. When mob rule becomes mainstream, rumors of revolution brew.

Like Lucifer, who rebelled against God in the attempt to become God, Nietzsche sought revenge on the Almighty to claim the title for himself. “Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it [killing God]?” The blasphemous claim that men might will themselves to god-status flung open the floodgates to relativism. In Nietzsche’s realm men create themselves. There, man is truth, not God.

Transhumanism, posthumanism, transgenderism, sex-change, and abortions become normative terms. Creating oneself, however, is an extreme form of idolatry. Individualism gone wild invites hell to earth. And this is why, for many well-intentioned people, it must be stomped out, even if this means sacrificing the individual to the state. This is exactly what the U.S. Constitution was designed to protect each citizen against.

Individuality and the Whole

Long before Nietzsche, the Franciscan philosopher and theologian John Duns Scotus (1266-1308) forwarded the concept of haecceity, or thisness, that which distinguishes the individual from the species or group. Socrates, for example, belongs to the species homo sapiens, but what distinguishes him as Socrates, a unique individual? For Scotus, the uniqueness of each individual is a testament to the infinite capacity of God’s creative freedom. For humans, who are created in God’s image, this allows the individual to reflect the inexhaustible creativity of God.

In Nietzsche’s vision, each man has the potential to become an artist who creates truth for himself. Ironically, here truth is a muddle because each version of the “truth” is potentially trumped by the “truth” of the next individual. If, for instance, a confused woman claims she is actually a man trapped in a woman’s body, and the next person says the woman suffers from a psychological disorder, and yet another person insists that the concepts of “man” and “woman” are social constructs and therefore fictions, where is truth? Is it to be found in each of the individual claims? Group consensus? A mob’s chant as they commence to riot in the name of a nebulous justice?

When all men are artists, there is no art. Where all men consider themselves as gods, God is forgotten and rationality is eclipsed into madness. Nietzsche spent the last years of his life in a catatonic state. It may have been, as many claim, a consequence of syphilis. Or it may have been related to his years of ingesting metal-based pain killers. It is possible, too, that the absurdity of Nietzsche’s claims caused him to climb the walls in the prison of his own mind.

In Scotus’ depiction, we find the healthy individual who is rational and free. This gels with the vision the Founding Fathers. They envisioned a nation where all men are created equal in that they are made in the image of God and therefore require equal justice under the law. Diversity in this scenario is located in the uniqueness of the individual and no two are alike. This uniqueness reflects God’s infinite capacity to create and the divine freedom required to do so.

The distinctiveness of the individual is inescapable. Even identical twins are identical only in a biological sense. One may be extroverted, the other an introvert. One might be athletic, the other bookish. They hold different perspectives and have singular reactions to shared experiences. Each is unique. There can be no equity, no equal outcomes, where no two people are alike. Rewarding all participants blue ribbons at a track meet strips the event of significance. Imposing the equity of equal outcomes on a diversity of individuals defies natural law and leads to disaster.

As Scotus well understood, we live in a fallen world. The best we can do is guard human dignity and celebrate the individual as a testament to God’s infinite creative capacity. In Scotus’ vision, each individual plays a significant part in an unfathomable whole created by God.

Pilgrims on the road

In the Franciscan way, individuals share something sacred: pilgrimage toward the divine. Here the individual is not imprisoned in a self-created solitary confinement of self-consciousness. Instead of being reduced to an ultimately impotent will-to-power, as Nietzsche would have it, individuals sojourn together toward a greater good. The shared experience of the pilgrimage allows each individual to aid others in the unfolding of God-given potential. This is love of God and neighbor at once.

Scotus’ conception of haecceity leads not to relativity but to a wholeness comprised of unique individuals governed by the Absolute. Dom Bruno Webb, a Benedictine monk, put it like this, “For man bears a twofold character: he is truly an individual, but he is no less truly a member of a higher unity.” Like art, this unity is beauty in the making. The Both/And approach of Webb is in opposition of Nietzsche’s All-or-Nothing. The Founding Fathers knew little, if any, of Nietzsche. They were, however, steeped in Judeo-Christian wisdom.

The claim, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” is saturated with Judeo-Christian wisdom. The framers did not seek to overthrow God but to allow the individual to glorify Him through the unfolding potential unique to each. This is human dignity and no man can take it away. It aims at excellence, not the mediocrity inherent in current notions of identity politics. The individual, made in the image of God, is beautiful. Without God, the individual is cast into the ugliness of the absurd where the only freedom is to conform.

Human dignity is born with the individual. We protect the individual by rejecting relativism. Freedom to choose between good and evil, right and wrong, the rational and the irrational, is the essential inalienable right of the individual. It is also the heaviest of burdens. It is this freedom that makes us human.


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About Jack Gist 12 Articles
Jack Gist is a professional writer and teacher who has published essays, poetry, and fiction in journals such as Catholic World Report, Crisis, Galway Review, First Things, The Imaginative Conservative, New Oxford Review, Academic Questions, St. Austin Review, and many other national and international venues. He can be reached at Revival Writing.

11 Comments

  1. Thank you for writing and publishing this article. Though our founders betrayed a half-million of their enslaved fellow citizens when they wrote those words BUT FAILED to follow them, the words themselves are exquisitely pure. It is up to us…this generation…to restore their meaning to all Americans. With aggressive public policies and statements and with individual acts which reflect them…We had better live them out or the government of the people will CEASE to endure. God help us in this hour of existential crisis.

    • BETRAYED half a million enslaved people?? Many of us are SO tired of hearing this whine. Slavery is long dead. American was NOT the inventor of slavery. It has been alive as an institution since the beginning of mankind. Rome, Egypt, and many indigenous peoples kept slaves. In fact it goes without saying it could not have flourished here as it did without the cooperation of many blacks in Africa who profited from the same system by providing captives for sale. So, lets move on. At the time of the Declaration, most felt there was probably no real chance we were going to win the rebellion. In fact there was a greater chance it would fail and many of our people would die. In a situation where it was then every colony for themselves, unity of ANY kind came very slowly for the Americans. All bad omens. There would not have been a real chance in that moment in history to add the additional weight of trying to reconfigure the entire economy of the south after freeing the slaves. Indeed the south would not agree to the Declaration if Mr. Jefferson’s references to slavery were left included.Suppose we stop judging the past by today’s standards of thinking?? Lets instead think of what came after. The world’s first real hope of democracy on a planet ruled by kings, queens and where one’s life station was determined by birth.We changed that. A violent civil war to finally end the practice of slavery. We stopped that. Inventions like electricity, the car, airplane, mass production,not to mention conquest of many fatal diseases, changed the face of the entire world. WE did that. And a nation representing enough hope that each year people literally DIE in an effort to reach it. On balance between good and evil, the scale for good is WAY on our side. So, please, whiners about slavery. Enough. The rest of us will focus on the REAL result of America, and continue to thank God for blessing us as he did with an opportunity to make the world a better place for all.

      • Yes LJ “betrayed”…and the whine you hear is the continued denial of it. Of course, slavery existed before the constitution. Of course, as it did here, there were many reasons that it endured across time and cultural divides. Of course, America has been the best nation to live in, in history. Of course, America has been a singular force for good in the world.

        However, what you ignore entirely is the very unique premise for our founding. It wasn’t true in Rome or Egypt that…WE HOLD THESE TRUTHS TO BE SELF-EVIDENT that all men are created equal. We stepped up to the marketplace of ideas and declared these truths as unalienable and undeniable. However, like you, our founders refused to step up to the bar where the rubber met the road. Through their own declarations and their own statement of universal truth, they demanded freedom. Yet, they denied it WITH VIOLENCE to their black fellow countrymen. We must TREAT BLACK PEOPLE as equals. That begins with history and America’a part in it. Until YOU and I own this and reconcile HONESTLY with our neighbors you are going to see the country we love fall to pieces right before our eyes. On the balance between truth and lies the scale for lies is WAY on the side of your argument. No amount of “good” can overcome it. JUST tell yourself the truth and IT WILL MAKE YOU FREE. I hope you will.

        • No one is denying it. It is HISTORY, over and done with centuries ago and affects no one now. It can’t be re-done or changed. Period. If you look hard enough at the history of almost ANY nationality you could find a whine, injustice or an ax to grind. Regardless of color. The slaughter of the Armenians comes to mind. Or the murder of 6 million Jews during WWII. I leave it to you to decide if death is preferable to slavery. For the most part these groups have decided to get on with living. Which is not the same as forgetting their history. They simply chose not to wear it as a badge or use it as an excuse to stand in place as professional victims. Black slaves were not unique in their situation. A point people like you prefer to dismiss. You chose to disregard the point I made about the situation that historically existed at that moment. “Americans” did not exist. Not until later in the war. We were British subjects. Each colony operated as its own state to the degree that at Valley Forge when some colonies provided urgently needed uniforms ( some soldiers literally naked in the snow) , they were to be distributed to THEIR colony’s soldiers alone, no matter the need of others. Every man for himself. These were untrained farmers facing the world’s greatest military power. Out trained, out supplied, out gunned. And you seriously expect that we were now going to simply free the slaves and by so doing destroy half the nation’s economy while we faced those odds? What would have been the expectation of success in the war then , do you imagine? Its often been said things need to move one step at a time. When constructing a house you do not build the roof first. Realistically the slavery issue could not be made a priority at that time. The social and economic upheaval would have guaranteed us certain defeat.( I assume you are aware that we DID have FREE BLACKS in the America who fought for the Americans. Including a company of free blacks in Rhode Island. Not every black in the US was a slave, even then.) Many of us are tired of being painted with the brush of racism, and reject the concept of CRT and institutional racism out of hand. Seeing a twice elected black president, a current black VP,many black congressional members, and black politicians at all levels of government puts the lie to accusations that blacks are not treated as equals. They are in every private and govt occupation our country can devise including astronauts. Some are multimillionaires. Our laws forbid discrimination. So again, please stop the whine. My final remark is to reveal that my family is racially mixed. It is an issue that neither I personally nor the rest of the family have any problem with.The black members of my family chose the route of getting an education, and making smart life choices and as a result are successful professionals. Doors in this country are only closed if you close them yourself. I am not “owning” anything, honey.I was never a slave owner nor am I a racist. And I resent being accused of being one. I grew up lower middle class with less opportunity than many and got to where I am because of hard work. My country provided me with this opportunity and I also resent the inane and inaccurate attacks upon it’s character. Your choice is to live in the past or walk into the future.

          • British (colonial) law had the freeing of slaves as a criminal offense. Note the history of founding fathers who willed their slaves be set free. It was the only way to freedom available in colonial times. Slavery was an economic driver for England.
            Guilting is a favorite tool of “woke” culture. Your explanations are accurate and adding to your thoughts, have the person who claims guilt is hereditary-look at the facts of the nations that still allow slavery. No outrage there, WHY? It isn’t a small number either, needs worldwide action.

            Facts are unsettling to those who believe that rhetoric creates them.

            Enjoyed your temperate replies to someone who does not know or care to deal with them. My family is colorful, as we would say to others.
            In business, when venturing out in uncharted waters, not those requiring actual boats, we chose partners based on characteristics of likelyhood to help achieve our goal, build a successful business in a new, certainly untried competitive industry.
            By using todays racial justification to pick partners, the wealth of unknown
            future families of color would have been eliminated. Of course that was in 1979 and noone knew the future of this newly exploding telecommunications industry but our Creator. We were all working toward one goal, the good of our families.
            A great partner, a woman of color, took joy in introducing me (as we ate in what you would refer to as fashionable eateries…great food to us) to those who were proud to say they had an influential, successful woman of color to be seen speaking to in public,she would reward them ,their “tolerance” by introducing her,obviously not person of color, as her son. Always a stunned
            look showed the obvious prejudice.

            Her business partner, a dear friend of ours, had a weekly call-in show and
            regularly challenged the belief that we had anyone other than ourselves to credit or blame for our actions. Personal responsibility alone allows us to
            take credit for our results. God rest them both in the only victory worth
            our lives, in the presence of God.

  2. Another fine reflection by Jack Gist. Two reinforcing comments:

    FIRST, responding to “the real problem surfaces with the ‘we’ to which Nietzsche refers.” Even in the Mass, why do we now counterpose the collective “our” sins to “the faith of your Church”?

    In “The Ratzinger Report” (1985), the later Pope Benedict pointed to the replacement of “my” with “our” in the original wording (Domini Jesu Christe…Ne respicias peccata men, sed fidem Ecllesiae tuae), still rendered today to read “Lord Jesus Christ, look not upon OUR [no longer MY] sins, but upon the faith of your Church.” He acknowledged that the “our” can also be understood as “my,” BUT then he explained:

    “…the use of the singular is an allusion to the necessity of a PERSONAL [italics] conversion which today is very often hidden in the anonymous mass of ‘We’, of the group, of the ‘system’, of humanity [….] the alteration here does nevertheless reinforce the contemporary tendency to diminish personal responsibility.”

    SECOND, “This [“individualism gone wild”] is exactly what the U.S. Constitution was designed to protect each citizen against.”

    But, we notice that during Senate confirmation hearings, candidates evade questions about the underlying Declaration of Independence (e.g., “endowed by their Creator”) and insist on swearing only to uphold the detached Constitution—-a mostly procedural document whose language is then that of a “living document” subject to devolution.

  3. From the virtuous mean as the Philosopher would say to the excessive radical, a happy median often the elusive goal. Lately those of us who hold to the mean betwixt the good of Vatican II and liturgical simplification v jettisoning all are called straddlers. That by some prominent philosophers, an outstanding prelate. Jack Gist outlines the good of that individualism that has great merit, the kind that founded a great nation. Gist attacks the radical atheist, amoral non atheist perhaps not as individual rather as collective. Social scientists show with stats that there is an enormous persuasion by the collective variety of radicalism. Part of which is the phenomenon of moral dispensation, guilt free mayhem [we recall Nuremberg]. Becoming gods by denying him is a given, as is ironically adoring him. The trouble is our human nature, since the Eden Fall we tend to be assertive and godlike and some very humble and again ironically godlike. The latter are quite few, some select as the Virgin Mother. Gist’s treatment of individuality and the Whole is revealing, Man’s creativity, his individual uniqueness. Added to this we look at the universal qualities of the Whole that speak to what we all have in common, the Natural Law Within by which we measure the truth of our individuality, whether excessive and grandiose or mediately human as in our divinely ordained humanness. As to the Franciscan Way I immediately think of Giovanni di Fidanza, Saint Bonaventure and his more Platonic sentient journey incorporating the beauty of existence with shades of the beauty of God. A contemporary of Aquinas he fashioned a unique and somewhat different pathway to the same delightful wonder that is God.

  4. A good perspective on the “we” versus “I.” For another take on this, look into the Rite of Baptism for children. Throughout the right the parents and god-parents are asked several questions to which the appropriate response is “we do.” However, when it comes to the key questions, the profession of faith, the faith that they are about to baptize their children into; the response is “I do.” To fit it into your narrative, we acknowledge God’s “life” through ours individually.

  5. An anecdote on individualism. A friend writing his thesis on Personalism, a philosophy of self referenced certitude, freely determined and relevant to our individual consciousness revealed a serious dilemma. His agony was the inability to determine with certainty what is considered evil, let’s say universally agreed upon as such, is in fact evil. Such a determination could not be made, he said with apodictic certitude. At the time long before my own intellectual and spiritual maturation I couldn’t adequately respond to his obvious pain. What is apparent now is that the very intractable torturous dilemma that eluded his ‘consciousness’ was actually the evidence that evil is evil. What our interior consciousness [conscience] tells us is invariably true.

  6. Agreed. It is best to focus our positive energy to continue our progress towards equality for all, including preborn persons. We have made great strides here in America, while slavery persists today in some tribes of African nations, where it has long existed. Remember, it was the English-speaking people who were the first to outlaw slavery. Let us continue our equality movement for all persons, born and preborn.

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