When Do We Take Individualism Too Far?

In this day and age, independence and being one’s own individual are seen as highly desirable traits to strive for. In the workplace, employees are valued if they can work as part of a team – but also work independently as well. And at the end of the day, we respect people more for earning things on their own rather than relying on the goodwill of others.

Individualism is a political philosophy and social outlook that emphasises the moral worth of the individual. People who are individualists promote the exercise of one’s goals and desires, value independence and self-reliance, and advocate the interests of the individual over the interests of the larger society or group. They oppose interference by society or government institutions. 

If there is one quality which sets the West apart from the East, it is individualism. The practical result of our individualism has been the explosion of wealth that we have experienced since the 18th century. Individualism has fuelled invention, the Industrial Revolution, and all the enterprise which has given us both necessities and luxuries. None of this would be possible without all of the many highly creative inventors, engineers, entrepreneurs, and knowledge-workers. Individualism allowed this to happen by encouraging people to create, and allowing them to keep some of the wealth that they accumulated. In short, individualism has been an enormous success in encouraging ordinary people to discover their potential and their inner depths.

However, like many great things, individualism can be taken too far. Rasmus, the protagonist in Matias Dalsgaard’s Don’t Despair, is a prime example of someone who is perhaps too individualistic. In fact, he is described as a worshipper of individualism. Rasmus believes that success means conquering the world, and being special in comparison to others. He has taken individualism a step to far, to the point where his existence is all about himself.

Matias Møl Dalsgaard

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It is natural to get wrapped up in our own successes and failures. The problem is when it is the only thing we concern ourselves with, allowing our individualism to become excessive. Individualism at this level which breeds selfishness, alienation, and divisiveness is not only the cause of our individual unhappiness, but it has been historically disastrous. These individuals live against the world, rather than with it. 

Individualistic ideals, such as independence, success, and happiness are rolled out with the underlying message that a successful, happy, and independent “you” is your authentic self. People feel that they have conquered the world when they become more successful, happier, and more independent than everyone else. But the individualism which is at play here is not a personal victory, people are just doing what they have been told to do. The individual has not defined these ideals, the world has. As ironic as it may be, we cultivate individualistic ideals collectively. The individualism represented here is impersonal.

In the case of Rasmus, he gathers his sense of worth and individualism from the approval others. He relies on others’ conception of him to feel good about himself, and he is constantly comparing himself to others. He is only happy when he is more successful and outwardly happier than others. The second irony of individualism arises when we gain our self-image from the perceptions of others.

“While it might seem natural at first to blame the world for becoming individualistic, one nonetheless ought rather to blame it for becoming collectivist.”

Dalsgaard equates this sort of individualism to a castle. The castle stands undisturbed but no one is inside – people admire it for its beauty but it is really just a facade. A person who has taken individualism too far has built an image of themselves – a successful career, a nice house, etc., and calls themselves an “independent individual” but what is to be said for their personal traits, does their personality shine through their individualism? As long as there are people there to admire it, the person will continue to build their self-conceptions around this “self-made” image, all while being completely devoid of any sense of their true selves.

The best way to avoid going down this road of individualism is through purity of heart. This is what Dalsgaard describes as the necessary factor to allowing yourself to step forward and let yourself shine through as a person.

The lesson to be learned here: Be your own individual. But don’t become so wrapped up in individualistic ideals that you forgo your personality.

Anna Guastello
23 Sep 2014

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