Thoughts for Thursday: Individualism vs. Collectivism (Part 1)

*This is not an academic piece – please see the disclaimer at the bottom

Tao Te Ching – Lao Tzu – chapter 29

Do you think you can take over the universe and improve it?
I do not believe it can be done.

The universe is sacred.
You cannot improve it.
If you try to change it, you will ruin it.
If you try to hold it, you will lose it.

So sometimes things are ahead and sometimes they are behind;
Sometimes breathing is hard, sometimes it comes easily;
Sometimes there is strength and sometimes weakness;
Sometimes one is up and sometimes down.

Therefore the sage avoids extremes, excesses, and complacency.

The First Step…

I sit here at my computer with my head in my hands because I’ve been thinking about this dichotomy, this duality, or dilemma – this juxtaposition of diametrically opposed forces laid out paradoxically in the foundation of the human condition – for years now. I’ve held off really writing about it for so long (I’ve mentioned it here and there, but I’ve never devoted a piece to it that I can recall) because I think it sits at the core of so many other huge existential and socio-psychological issues, that I have had no idea where to start. But, as my boy Lao Tzu (yes, I know I’m using the barbaric westernized spelling of his name, but for the purposes of SEO, that’s how it’s gonna be) points out in other parts of the Tao Te Ching, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step…” so, as I tell my writing students, I’m just going to start writing.

I Found Waldo in the Classroom!

Portrait of Ralph Waldo Emerson
Ralph Waldo Emerson

It was somewhere in the spring of 1995 when I was first introduced to one of the thinkers who would have more influence over my general worldview than just about anyone else. There have been many others since, but the first thinker who really spoke to my spirit was Ralph Waldo Emerson. I liked Thoreau, to be sure, but for me, it was always Waldo’s quotes that resonated with me more.

The first time I read, “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men,—that is genius,” from “Self-Reliance,” I was dumbfounded. Then, when I got to, “There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion…” Well, let me tell you, friends and neighbors, as a sixteen-going-on-seventeen-year-old boy in the mid 90’s at the height of the grunge revolution in Washington state, I may as well have been looking upon the words of almighty God himself.

Individualism and Me… We Go Way Back.

To put it mildly, I was, and as far as I can remember, always have been, a fierce individualist. At the risk of opening myself up to some attack here, I will say that I don’t always live up to my own standards, but as a general rule, I hold the following to be true:

  • We all have free will, and fate or destiny does not exist.
  • We are responsible, in nearly all situations, for our own reactions and decisions, and we must take responsibility for them. Notable exceptions include certain mental or physical deficiencies which may preclude such responsibility.
  • We cannot control what other people do, think, or feel. We can only control ourselves.

Now, those principles carry a whole book full of implications that I’m sure I’ll get to writing soon, but for now, suffice it to say, in most situations, I’m a “pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps” kind of guy. The older I get, however, and the more of the world I experience, the more I realize how much the culture one is in – and one’s standing in said culture – can affect one’s ability to get those bootstraps high enough for any shred of human dignity.

To Be an Individual Member of a Collective Species…

“Not all who wander are lost.” – Tolkien

See, I’ve already gotten off topic. The point of that last section was basically just to make sure y’all know that I’ve been on the individualist side of this paradox for most of my life, but now I’m not so sure…

I’m going to get back to Lao Tzu in a moment, but I want to stick with the Transcendentalists for just a moment longer, because I think there’s a correlation when you compare the relationship between the ideas of Thoreau and Emerson to the relationship between the ideas of Lao Tzu and Confucius.

Typically, when we discuss individualism vs. collectivism, we tend to stay on the surface, and look in broad terms at culture. We categorize “Eastern” and “Western” philosophy, with the former representing a collectivist worldview and the latter representing an individualist worldview, and that’s certainly a valid way to get started down the rabbit hole. What a lot of people don’t really get, however, is that the Transcendentalists of the American Romantic movement were very much “Eastern” thinkers in a lot of their metaphysical ideas, though they are so often held up as bastions of “Western” individualism.

Furthermore, even Thoreau and Emerson differed in their viewpoints on practical application of their philosophy. There’s an anecdote about the time that Thoreau was put in jail for not paying his taxes (during which time he wrote his famous “Civil Disobedience” essay), and Waldo came to visit him. Reportedly, he said, “Henry, what are you doing in there?” to which Thoreau responded “Waldo, what are you doing out there?” This illustrates perfectly the differences in the two men’s outlooks.

For Emerson, the cultivation of the self ended with the self. For Thoreau, the cultivation of the self was just the beginning of a larger responsibility to reform society. Thoreau went to jail in that incident because he didn’t want to pay taxes to support the Mexican-American war. He thought, famously, that it was his civic duty to go to jail peacefully in protest to bring attention to the issue. Another thing Thoreau did that differentiates him from his dear friend Waldo was that Thoreau wrote in defense of John Brown. If you’re unfamiliar with Mr. Brown, he was hanged for leading a violent slave rebellion by which he thought he could change Southern policy. This was all during the years leading up to the Civil War, and if John Brown did what he did back then today – even though the cause of freeing the slaves was just – he would be labeled a terrorist by somebody or other, because what he did was an unlawful act of violence in the name of an ideal in order to try and effect change. What Brown did, was antithetical in purpose to the bombing of the church in Selma nearly a hundred years laters by white supremacists assholes. What he did was parallel in its practical effects, however, because he used violence to try to achieve his political objective.

Thoreau understood the rightness of Browns principles, and he didn’t care about the extremity of Brown’s methods to effect those principles. In Thoreau’s mind, Emerson’s words – “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men,—that is genius,” – meant that if one’s end was just, then any means to achieve that end were also just. Therefore, to Henry David Thoreau, one must act outwardlyaccording to ones convictions. He didn’t believe the U.S. should be involved in what he saw as a land-grab in Mexico, and he decided that he wouldn’t pay taxes to support it. He didn’t resist when they took him to jail, and then he wrote one of his most famous essays.

The exchange between he and his older mentor when they met at that New England jail, though, says so much about the differences in how the two men saw the just application of their ideas. Thoreau thought Waldo had a duty to stand up for what he believed in and make a public display of it, while I like to think that Waldo (perhaps because he was older) understood that if everyone decided to just not pay their taxes every time the government did something we didn’t like, then society would break down. And for all of his lofty ideals, Emerson was no anarchist.

Of course, these are very broad claims, and I could probably write a doctoral thesis about it, but that’s not nearly within our scope here. I only bring up Emerson and Thoreau as a “Western” philosophy springboard into a discussion about Lao Tzu and Confucius.

Digging Deeper

So, as I mentioned earlier, usually we just stop at the divide between east and west and say that east is collective and west is individual and that’s that. But as I just demonstrated, even between two very close friends who helped to develop a literary movement together, their ideas on how to best serve humanity were at odds. There’s a similar story in the East.

Unlike Waldo and Thoreau, Lao Tzu and Confucius never met one another – so far as I can find. They also weren’t ever really on the same “philosophical team,” in Chinese culture the way that their American counterparts were. In fact, in China the political divide between Taoism (Lao Tsu’s philosophy) and Confucianism was as stark as that between liberals and conservatives today.

Two Philosophies, One China

The split was not over individualism and collectivism the way that we think of it in those broad east/west terms – where in one culture the individual’s needs are more valued than the collective’s needs or vice versa – rather, it was over how best to perfect the collective.

In Taoist terms, the only way we can change the world (perfect the collective) is – as is stated in the quote at the top of this post – by not trying to change it. This seems paradoxical if you’re not used to “Eastern” thinking, but what Lao Tzu is really saying here, to the best of my knowledge, is that because we cannot control the actions or the thoughts of others, we should only focus on cultivating ourselves. And that, like ripples in a lake, if everyone makes themselves the best “them” they can be, then society will, as a natural consequence, become perfected.

Confucius, on the other hand, was all about imposing his version of virtue on society. Confucius had a career in politics, and his theories became the foundation of many ancient Chinese laws. For Confucius, it was not enough for one man to work on himself if the other three hundred men in the village were doing nothing. There had to be some order, and he came up with some brilliant philosophy regarding how to bring it about. An example from the Analects is this: “Filial sons nowadays are people who see to it that their parents get enough to eat.  But even dogs and horses are cared for in this way.” The implication here is that it ought to be the societal norm that children take care of and honor their parents as they get older – and indeed, this is considered by many to be a cornerstone of Chinese culture. Confucius wasn’t speaking to any individual, though, he was speaking to policy makers. Confucius, like Thoreau, thought that outward action was required in the name of inward principles in order to effect change.

The difference between these two, again, is not necessarily with the virtues they preach, but with the application of those virtues. For Lao Tzu – just as for Emerson, changing the world could only be done by changing the self, and making the self as perfect as it can be. For Thoreau and Confucius, their conviction demanded action on behalf of those virtues. In Thoreau’s case, it was about breaking laws he felt were unjust, whereas in Confucius’ case it was about putting order in where he saw none, but in both cases, it was about individual action directly affecting the collective condition. With Emerson and Lao Tzu, forcing their own convictions on anyone else would be unthinkable.

Initial Conclusion and Disclaimer…

So to summarize thus far… I believe that many of the “big” issues that we face as a species and a society stem from the opposition of forces between the needs or rights of the individual and the needs or rights of the collective. I’ve been thinking about this for at least twenty-five years in some way or another. Though for most of that time I’ve been firmly in the individualist camp, I have, in later years, learned that there is a lot of value to what we typically label the “collectivist” viewpoint. I have been wrestling on an intellectual and existential level with trying to find balance between the two concepts. After looking at the parallels and contrasts between western thinkers like Thoreau and Emerson and juxtaposing them with the parallels and contrasts between eastern thinkers like Lao Tzu and Confucius, I believe that balance lies somewhere in the ideas of Lao Tzu and Emerson. Stay tuned for more. I’m sure I’ll be on this for a while.

Disclaimer: I can speak with some authority on American literary topics, so I’m fairly confident about all of the claims I made in this piece regarding Transcendentalists. On the subject of Taoism or Confucianism I must confess that I only consider myself to be somewhat more knowledgable than the average American – which isn’t saying much. Therefore, this piece is not to be take as a serious academic inquiry or examination of any of the ideas of these thinkers. It is simply a way for me to try and organize some of my thoughts on the issue. I will probably write some kind of academic, or, at the very least, more well-researched piece on this subject in the near future, and there will be at least a part-two to this article. I think I’m close to coming up with some kind of controlling idea out of which I can make a good paper. Even so, I’d love to hear any thoughts you have on the subject – especially if you can fact-check me or send me things I need to retract – so please comment if you have something to say; even if it’s to call me an idiot for not fact-checking stringently enough.