On the face of it, Enlightenment individualism is far less repulsive than other modern ideologies — it is much more truthful and principled than racism, and makes more modest claims than utopian collectivism. Its “body count” of innocents seems much lower than its competitors’. Much of what is healthy in American culture and politics can be traced to a rugged individualism based on people fiercely defending their rights. Individualism is a medicine that Europe desperately needed to burn out the tangled mass of privileges, unjust social hierarchies, and economic absurdities that it had inherited from feudalism.
Let us not underplay the evils of feudalism, as illiberal Catholic thinkers are prone to do — especially those who damn Enlightenment liberalism, and many of those who fancy themselves distributists. Alexis de Tocqueville, no fan of social revolution, painted this picture of feudalism during the presidency of George Washington:
Imagine being born into such conditions, with no way out. Imagine that your entire family had lived this way for centuries, looking with longing at the freedom enjoyed by your countrymen who happened to be born in the upper classes, or born in a city where serfdom was banned. Now you understand the appeal of classical liberalism.
By the 18th century, serfdom had been rolled back from large parts of Europe, but the subjugation to arbitrary and paternalistic authority described above depicts the lives of millions of people in Europe, from the fall of Rome until the Enlightenment. For hundreds of years between the first barbarian invasions and the widespread establishment of order, such a social system was no doubt the best men could do, but it had far outworn its necessity by the end of the Middle Ages; the survival of feudal privilege after that can be traced to inertia and upper-class self-interest. The rise of early capitalism beginning in the 12th and 13th centuries began to undermine the hereditary order of society and free up the productive energies of the West — in part by dismantling the suffocating monopolies enjoyed by members of guilds, who had the legal power to fix prices and quash competition.
Although clergymen often defended feudal arrangements — indeed, many themselves were feudal lords and benefited from them — they are clearly incompatible with the Christian idea of the person. Insofar as the Enlightenment and its individualism were committed to clearing away such residual evils from Europe’s oligarchical past, they were indeed putting Christian ethics at long last into action.
But man cannot live on medicine. And if feudal survivals can be seen as a kind of cancer, the individualism that cured it contained its own toxins, whose dangers only really began to manifest themselves in the 19th and 20th centuries. Individualism freed the serfs and helped free the slaves; in its contemporary, radicalized form, it also provided the logic for legal abortion. Add up all the unborn victims of abortion in the West since the 1960s and radical individualism begins to rack up its own body count. Drive the devil out the door and he will creep back in through the window.
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