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  • On Modern Individualism
  • Pierre Manent (bio)

On the last page of the final chapter of Democracy in America, where Alexis de Tocqueville puts forth what he calls the “general survey” of his subject, he sums up the comparison that he has just made between the new democracy and the old order: “They are like two distinct orders of human beings.” In fact, this is indeed the feeling that both partisans and adversaries of the modern democratic and individualist movement have had, and still have today: a new type of humanity has left the old type behind and gone its own way, extending the gap between the two ever wider. In a certain sense, this shared impression is more important than the other points on which the two schools of thought disagree, for it suggests that there has been something like a radical change in the human situation.

Both schools of thought, moreover, are correct. As opponents of democracy have warned, the growth of the democratic tendency has acted as a solvent of community and “belonging.” To the degree that other communities and forms of “belonging” appear under democratic conditions, they do so on the basis of individual consent, which is the founding principle of the new regime. At the same time, defenders of democracy are also correct when they point out that this dissolution also constitutes a liberation, since henceforth no one need accept an obligation to which he does not consent. The hopes of the latter have perhaps been disappointed, while the fears of the former have not been definitively confirmed (a circumstance that certain “reactionaries” may view as a source more of disappointment than of relief). But the effectual truth of this liberation that is also a dissolution—or this [End Page 3] dissolution that is also a liberation—remains. The fact of emancipation is there.

The communities to which people belong in the democratic world no longer command them. In the domestic sphere, the law has abolished the power of the head of the family, and mothers and fathers (now coequal as parents) demand less and less obedience from their offspring, whom they tend more and more to see as likenesses and coequals of them-selves. In the national sphere, even a government that is legitimately (that is to say, democratically) elected dares not order citizen-soldiers to die for their country: if a state undertakes military operations that involve some risk, it entrusts them to a professional (sometimes “all-volunteer”) military. In the Catholic Church, the Roman magisterium, even while maintaining intact the place of “ultimate ends” in its authoritative teaching documents, has since the end of the Second Vatican Council ceased, in its ordinary pastoral ministry, to insist upon the urgency of salvation and the imperious necessity of obeying the Church’s commandments in order to obtain it. Officials of its hierarchy even meet in congress with representatives of other religions. Finally, the past itself, understood as the community of those who are dead, has lost all authority to command, whether it be in the moral, social, political, or religious sphere, and is no more than a collection of “memorable places” thrown open to historical tourism.

Searching for the State of Nature

These facts are well known. Some might say that they are difficult to interpret—too massive, as it were, to say much to us about how people really live under democracy. Fair enough. Let us then consider the domain in which modern humanity records its intimate life—indeed, where it ever more completely records its ever more intimate life. I am speaking, of course, of literature. Certainly it would be futile to try to summarize the thrust of all modern literature in a single formula; nor am I trying to elaborate some pet “theory of literature.” Yet in the final analysis, it seems to me that from Proust and Céline to the “theater of the absurd” and the nouveau roman, modern literature has sought to unmask the falsity of all human relationships, the illusory character of love, and the ludicrousness or fraudulence of language. The upshot is an exploration of what it means to become an individual. Modern literature pursues this enterprise...