The most important invention in the history of Western Civilization is: the individual.
Everything that makes the Western project unique; everything that elevates us above other civilizations in human history; is attributable to the invention of the individual.
Up until the late Middle Ages, the understanding of the individual as a unique entity was limited to isolated parts of ancient Greece. The clash between Socrates and his political environment was in part caused by his attempts at being an individual in the fullest sense of the word. The Greek society, however, was not built around the concept of the individual.
It was not until the 13th century that Italian philosophers began pursuing a line of thinking that eventually led them to “the individual”. In the introduction to The Renaissance Philosophy of Man, an excellent collection of essays, Renaissance scholar Paul Oskar Kristeller explains how philosophers at Italian academies at the time questioned the established notion that every individual is just a part of a big lump of “matter”. This lump, said the prevailing Aristotelian philosophy of the time, was God’s creation and each one of us was only borrowing our existence – our body and intellect – from this big lump. After death we all returned to the lump and were molded in to it.
Any trace of our individuality would vanish, it was said, and therefore our individual existence was merely a transition between two stages of being “lumped together”.
Early humanists began questioning this theorem and developed a partly new view of what God’s creation looked like. Their path breaking notion was that the soul – the personality and the intellect of a human being – does not at all vanish into some collective entity after death of the body. Quite the contrary, the humanists claimed, the soul is immortal and lives on, carrying with it our individual uniqueness. (See Kristeller, pp. 10-12)
Why is this so important? There are two answers to this question. The first answer remains on the philosophical level and has to do with the meaning of the individual. If a soul is immortal, then he prevails beyond the temporary collectivist structures in which he lives while occupying a human body. In plain English: the individual is more important than the collective – the state in modern terms – and has the right to exist as a recognized, separate entity.
This means that the individual has rights, and that those rights are self evident and derived directly from God. There is a direct line from the humanists’ invention of the individual to the Preamble of the Constitution of the United States: the concept of the individual serves as a foundation of the boldest, most successful nation in human history.
It also means that the individual has responsibilities. From this we derive some elements in modern jurisprudence, such as the idea that every man is equal before the law. But the responsibilities also mean that an individual can now be held accountable in other ways, such as when elected to a government office. The modern forms of Western government, parliamentary democracy and constitutional republic, came about because of the discovery of the individual, his rights and his responsibilities.
In short: the philosophical reason why the invention of the individual is important is that it allowed for the conceptualization of accountable government – and limited government. Prior to the invention of the individual, virtually the only form of government that mankind knew was one that put collective above individual. There were attempts in other directions, but they never succeeded in proving themselves like modern, Western forms of government have.
The second answer to the question why this invention matters has to do with the economy. Once the individual was invented, it would not be long before the modern concept of property rights and contractual freedom were established. Especially the Lockean formulation of property rights made an enormous difference here: the individual, unique as he is, has the right to distinguish the proceeds of his own labor from other matter. If Joe plows an acre of land that no one has ever plowed before him, he becomes the owner of that land and has the right to dispose of it as he sees fit. No one else can come and claim that acre as his property, unless Joe voluntarily transfers the property right.
And so, the modern, free-market economy was born.
The rest is history.
America is the first nation in history to be constructed around the concept of the individual. Over time we have allowed this concept to be contaminated – in a philosophical sense – by collectivist ideas. That contamination, however, is not lethal – not yet. We can still restore America to what she was meant to be. But in order to do so we need to understand, in a profound sense, where we came from and what brought us to where we are today.
That soul-searching begins with the recognition that the individual is the most important invention in the history of Western Civilization.