The Individual and the Community
It is no secret that human beings need (or at least have a strong desire for) community. We want to connect with others, to feel like we belong.
Belonging, however, comes with a price. Socialization and social conditioning train the individual to define himself in social and communal terms rather than in his own terms. The group, the community, teaches the individual to say yes, to conform, to be agreeable.
(See my related article, Nietzsche on the Bound Spirit)
The way we see the world is greatly influenced by the dominant perspective and tacit beliefs of our community. We are taught to see the world a certain way, and the picture of the world we take for granted is reinforced by our social interactions.
The problem, then, is that while society and community satisfy a need to belong, to fit in, they are potentially deleterious to the individual and can hinder his full self-expression. He defines and understands himself as a member of his community, he thinks as the group thinks.
The individual himself is lost in the group. He adopts the group’s values, beliefs, and practices without ever thinking about why he accepts them, if he should accept them.
“The bound spirit assumes a position, not for reasons, but out of habit; he is a Christian, for example, not because he had insight into the various religions and chose among them…Christianity [was a given], and he accepted [it] without having reasons.”Nietzsche
When a person conforms and defines himself in terms that are not his own, he burdens himself with ideas, beliefs, and values that he hasn’t internalized, that he didn’t choose. In short, he doesn’t think for himself.
(See my related article, Perspective – In pursuit of truth)
“From becoming an individual no one, no one at all, is excluded, except he who excludes himself by becoming a crowd.”Kierkegaard
A common theme in existentialism is that of the solitary individual, the outsider. Alone, without the comfort and familiarity of community, the individual is free to discover himself.
(See my related article, The World We Create)
For example, at the very outset of Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, we are told that Zarathustra leaves his home, his community, and retreats to a cave in the mountains to enjoy his solitude for 10 years.
“When Zarathustra was thirty years old he left his home and the lake of his home and went into the mountains. Here he enjoyed his spirit and his solitude and for ten years he did not tire of it.”Nietzsche
High up in the mountains, alone in his cave, Zarathustra exists outside the boundaries of community. It is alone, as a solitary individual, that Zarathustra is truly able to be himself, to realize himself.
Like Zarathustra, in Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, the underground man is an outsider who exists in a space beyond the reach of the crowd. We discover the underground man literally lives underground. He, like Zarathustra, chooses his solitude, his underground dwelling, over the noise, social pressures, and homogeneous crowd above.
(See my related article, What we can learn living underground)
Zarathustra and the underground man choose to exist, at least for a time, outside the social world, beyond its boundaries. As an outsider, the individual cuts his ties to the group, severs his dependence on the group, and frees himself to explore, discover, and realize the individual he is.
The Authentic Life
For existentialists, the path to a meaningful, fulfilling life is in the pursuit of an authentic life. The authentic individual makes himself and is able to realize his full potential. He has the strength to be alone, to think for himself, and he holds himself responsible for who he is and who he becomes.
(See my related article, What is Strength of Will?)
The theme of solitude, of isolation, reminds us that to live authentically we need to step back from the crowd, from the pressures and demands of the community. It reminds us that we need time alone to reflect, explore, and to discover ourselves.
The authentic individual defines himself. He is an individual who has his own reasons for acting, his own values, and his own beliefs. He is an agent, one who holds himself completely responsible because he is free and has his own reasons for the choices he makes.
(See my related article, Defining a Life Project)
It takes strength not to get lost in the crowd—to exist on the outside. It takes strength to resist the comfort and simplicity of conformity, of finding validation in shared beliefs.
The existentialists teach us the value of being outside. Our decisions, beliefs, and values are important because they define us, because they establish the picture of the world we accept.
They teach us to take our freedom, our agency, and our beliefs seriously—to take our life seriously. It is only as an outsider that the individual has the freedom to make himself, because he chooses his freedom, his agency, over conformity.
“We, however, want to become who we are–human beings who are new, unique, incomparable, who give themselves laws, who create themselves!”Nietzsche
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Please check out these related articles: Creating Opportunities, Comparisons and the Mistakes We Make, Kafka Before the Law, Freedom & Responsibility, Understanding Our Relationship to Suffering, Nietzsche & Nihilism, and Accepting Death as a Part of Life.
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