Romantic Individualism, However Seductive, Cannot Undo the Individual's Profound Dependence on Social Structures
This post is adapted from my book in progress, The Polycentric Republic: How a Pluralist Civil Order Can Support the Freedom to Flourish Without a Sovereign State.
Like it or not, we human beings are thrust into a variety of social networks. We might like to dream of living a completely independent life, unshackled by social bonds, but this would be a denial of our very nature.
The fact that we would die as infants without the warmth of a family already gives a strong indication that we are destined to live in relationship with others. The fact that we fall into a deep depression when we feel disconnected from community or bereft of meaningful friendships is another clear indication that we are hard-wired for living in close contact with others, and would live very impoverished and frankly, dysfunctional lives disconnected from society.
The capacity to participate in associational life is essential for human development because it is simply not possible to meet one’s vital needs, develop one’s deliberative capacities, and grow into a mature human being, without participating in some form of community with one’s peers.
Living an asocial life we may be either “gods” or “beasts,” as Aristotle put it, but we are not living a fully human life, a life in which distinctively human capacities, such as the capacity for rational deliberation, love, and friendship, are given a chance to develop.
For this reason, the structure and dynamics of social groups are critically important for our rounded development and happiness: a well-structured association may prove a formidable asset to the individual who seeks to grow into a more mature, thriving, and virtuous human being; whereas a poorly structured association may place significant impediments in the path of moral growth and rounded flourishing.
Romantic individualism - the notion that each of us can just build a life to our own taste if people would just “leave us alone” - is an unrealistic fantasy. The quality of our lives depends profoundly on the quality of our social ties.
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