dinsdag 22 januari 2013

Collectivity and Individual

The relationship between collectivity and individual can be complicated. In the film Life of Brian the crowd shouts out oudly “We are all individuals” and so precisely confirms its herd character.

With (other) Jews it may be the other way round. They belong together in a shul or in Israel and pretend to be linked to each other by a shared tradition but then don’t miss an opportunity to emphasize their own individual positions.

It is interesting to observe the relation of the individual versus the collective through history for both the Jewish and the Christian tradition. Then it appears that the two traditions on this theme often are out of phase with each other, but at other times nicely match.

For the period - some two thousand years ago - in which the equation can be made for the first time, I would say that they are out of phase with each other. In the Jewish tradition learning is strongly emphasized, as a duty incumbent upon each individual. In the Christian tradition collective confession of the new faith is promoted under the leadership of clerics who tell the people what that faith must entail.

From the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance Judaism and Christianity in these matters moved towards each other. In the West humanism came to blossom, with great attention to the development and independence of the individual. This trend was only strengthened by the Enlightenment in the 18th and Romanticism in the 19th century.

Many Jews felt attracted by this development and joined with enthusiasm in the pursuit of greater individual freedom and fuller citizenship of the surrounding culture. The struggle for emancipation of the Jews was matched by that of other groups in society and the bourgeoisie as a whole.

In our own time, the developments seem to be somewhat out of phase again. Christians complain that the collective story is lost, that society consists only of loose individuals. What exactly connects these individual citizens to each other, according to the philosopher Marcel Gauchet, and how they relate to the state has become subordinate to the defense of their individual freedom. Which is not to be limited in any way.

Conversely, in the twentieth century Jews rediscovered, already before the Holocaust, their collectivity. This resulted in the Zionist movement and the creation of Israel. It may be true in general that, still, Jews don’t easily allow others to tell them what to do, not even their fellow Jews. But meanwhile, the Jewish tradition is alive and Israel, with all its shortcomings, is a thriving country. Paradoxically a certain connectedness stands out there.

Maybe it’s the connectedness of everyone who does not let himself be silenced: that creates a bond. But if that’s the case, then the Christian and the Jewish world at one point will be back in line with each other. Because, to wish that your voice is heard, isn’t that a universal human desire? Or as I heard say David Grossman recently: the least which must be awarded to each human being is the opportunity to speak in his own words about his own things.

Also see Parrhesia