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A comprehensive and logical definition of this term is not easy to obtain. Individualism is not the opposite of socialism, except in a very general and incomplete way. The definition given in the Century Dictionary is too narrow: "That theory of government which favours non-interference of the State in the affairs of individuals." This covers only one form of individualism, namely, political or civic.

Perhaps the following will serve as a fairly satisfactory description: The tendency to magnify individual liberty, as against external authority, and individual activity, as against associated activity. Under external authority are included not merely political and religious governments, but voluntary associations, and such forms of restraint as are found in general standards of conduct and belief. Thus, the labourer who refuses on theoretical grounds to become a member of a trade union ; the reformer who rejects social and political methods, and relies upon measures to be adopted by each individual acting independently; the writer who discards some of the recognized cannons of his art; the man who regards the pronouncements of his conscience as the only standard of right and wrong; and the freethinker -- are all as truly individualists as the Evangelical Protestant or the philosophical anarchist. Through all forms of individualism runs the note of emphasis upon the importance of self in opposition to either restraint or assistance from without. Individualism is scarcely a principle, for it exhibits too many degrees, and it is too general to be called a theory or a doctrine. Perhaps it is better described as a tendency or an attitude.

Religious Individualism

The chief recognized forms of individualism are religious, ethical, and political. Religious individualism describes the attitude of those persons who refuse to subscribe to definite creeds, or to submit to any external religious authority. Such are those who call themselves freethinkers, and those who profess to believe in Christianity without giving their adhesion to any particular denomination. In a less extreme sense all Protestants are individualists in religion, inasmuch as they regard their individual interpretation of the Bible as the final authority. The Protestant who places the articles of faith adopted by his denomination before his own private interpretation of the teaching of Scripture is not, indeed, a thorough-going individualist, but neither is he a logical Protestant. On the other hand, Catholics accept the voice of the Church as the supreme authority, and therefore reject outright the principle of religious individualism.

Ethical Individualism.

Ethical individualism is not often spoken of now, and the theories which it describes have not many professed adherents. Of course, there is a sense in which all men are ethical individualists, that is, inasmuch as they hold the voice of conscience to be the immediate rule of conduct. But ethical individualism means more than this. It means that the individual conscience, or the individual reason, is not merely the decisive subjective rule, but that it is the only rule; that there is no objective authority or standard which it is bound to take into account. Among the most important forms of the theory are the intuitionism, or common-sense morality, of the Scottish School (Hutchinson, Reid, Ferguson, and Smith), the autonomous morality of Kant, and all those systems of Hedonism which make individual utility or pleasure the supreme criterion of right and wrong. At present the general trend of ethical theory is away from all forms of individualism, and toward some conception of social welfare as the highest standard. Here, as in the matter of religion, Catholics are not individualists, since they accept as the supreme rule, the law of God, and as the final interpreter of that law, the Church.

Political Individualism

Considered historically and in relation to the amount of attention that it receives, the most important form of individualism is that which is called political. It varies in degree from pure anarchism to the theory that the State's only proper functions are to maintain order and enforce contracts. In ancient Greece and Rome, political theory and practice were anti-individualistic; for they considered and made the State the supreme good, an end in itself, to which the individual was a mere means.

Directly opposed to this conception was the Christian teaching that the individual soul had an independent and indestructible value, and that the State was only a means, albeit a necessary means, to individual welfare. Throughout the Middle Ages, therefore, the ancient theory was everywhere rejected. Nevertheless the prevailing theory and practice were far removed from anything that could be called individualism. Owing largely to the religious individualism resulting from the Reformation, political individualism at length appeared: at first, partial in the writings of Hobbes and Locke; later, complete in the speculations of the French philosophers of the eighteenth century, notably Rousseau. The general conclusion from all these writings was that government was something artificial, and at best a necessary evil. According to the Social Contract theory of Rousseau, the State was merely the outcome of a compact freely made by its individual citizens. Consequently they were under no moral obligation to form a State, and the State itself was not a moral necessity. These views are no longer held, except by professional anarchists. In fact, a sharp reaction has occurred. The majority of non-Catholic ethical and political writers of today approach more or less closely to the position of ancient Greece and Rome, or to that of Hegel ; society, or the State, is an organism from which the individual derives all his rights and all his importance. The Catholic doctrine remains as always midway between these extremes. It holds that the State is normal, natural, and necessary, even as the family is necessary, but that it is not necessary for its own sake; that it is only a means to individual life and progress.

Moderate political individualists would, as noted above, reduce the functions of the State to the minimum that is consistent with social order and peace. As they view the matter, there is always a presumption against any intervention by the State in the affairs of individuals, a presumption that can be set aside only by the most evident proof to the contrary. Hence they look upon such activities as education, sumptuary regulations, legislation in the interest of health, morals, and professional competency, to say nothing of philanthropic measures, or of industrial restrictions and industrial enterprises, as outside the State's proper province. This theory has a much smaller following now than it had a century or even half a century ago; for experience has abundantly shown that the assumptions upon which it rests are purely artificial and thoroughly false. There exists no general presumption either for or against state activities. If there is any presumption with regard to particular matters, it is as apt to be favourable as unfavourable. The one principle of guidance and test of propriety in this field is the welfare of society and of its component individuals, as determined by experience. Whenever these ends can be better attained by state intervention than by individual effort, state intervention is justified.

It is against intervention in the affairs of industry that present-day individualism make its strongest protest. According to the laissez-faire , or let alone, school of economists and politicians, the State should permit and encourage the fullest freedom of contract and of competition throughout the field of industry. This theory, which was derived partly from the political philosophy of the eighteenth century, already mentioned, partly from the Kantian doctrine that the individual has a right to the fullest measure of freedom that is compatible with the equal freedom of other individuals, and partly from the teachings of Adam Smith, received its most systematic expression in the tenets of the Manchester School. Its advocates opposed not only such public enterprises as state railways and telegraphs, but such restrictive measures as factory regulations, and laws governing the hours of labour for women and children. They also discouraged all associations of capitalists or of labourers. Very few individualists now adopt this extreme position. Experience has too frequently shown that the individual can be as deeply injured through an extortionate contract, as at the hands of the thief, the highwayman, or the contract breaker. The individual needs the protection of the State quite as much and quite as often in the former case as in any of the latter contingencies. As to state regulation or state ownership of certain industries and utilities, this too is entirely a question of expediency for the public welfare. There is no a priori principle -- political, ethical, economic, or religious -- by which it can be decided. Many individualists, and others likewise, who oppose state intervention in this field are victims of a fallacy. In their anxiety to safeguard individual liberty, they forget that reasonable labour legislation, for example, does not deprive the labourer of any liberty that is worth having, while it does ensure him real opportunity, which is the vital content of all true liberty; they forget that, while state control and direction of certain industries undoubtedly diminishes both the liberty and the opportunity of some individuals, it may increase the opportunities and the welfare of the vast majority. Both individualists and non-individualists aim, as a rule, at the greatest measure of real liberty for the individual ; all their disagreement relates to the means by which this aim is to be realized.

As in the matter of the necessity and justification of the State, so with regard to its functions, the Catholic position is neither individualistic nor anti-individualistic. It accepts neither the "policeman" theory, which would reduce the activities of the State to the protection of life and property and the enforcement of contracts, nor the proposals of Socialism, which would make the State the owner and director of all the instruments of production. In both respects its attitude is determined not by any metaphysical theory of the appropriate functions of the State, but by its conception of the requisites of individual and social welfare.

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The Catholic Encyclopedia is the most comprehensive resource on Catholic teaching, history, and information ever gathered in all of human history. This easy-to-search online version was originally printed between 1907 and 1912 in fifteen hard copy volumes.

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Copyright © Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company New York, NY. Volume 1: 1907; Volume 2: 1907; Volume 3: 1908; Volume 4: 1908; Volume 5: 1909; Volume 6: 1909; Volume 7: 1910; Volume 8: 1910; Volume 9: 1910; Volume 10: 1911; Volume 11: - 1911; Volume 12: - 1911; Volume 13: - 1912; Volume 14: 1912; Volume 15: 1912

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