When we look at European history through a modern lens, it seems apparent that Western culture has always placed great value on personal achievement. Recent discourse in some historical circles has pointed out the persistently individualistic nature of Western attitudes—many events tied into colonialism, for example, were rooted not only in a desire to better one’s nation, but first and foremost to make a lasting name for oneself. It’s only magnified in the modern era. Western cultures in general are migrating toward the increasingly self-oriented.
But that same trend starts to look a bit muddled when we examine it through literature. Heroic figures in various European traditions demonstrate a sense of obligation to family and society over individuality—an obligation we don’t necessarily see reflected in the broad cultural sense. Does literature reflect contemporary ideals, which may not actually have been put into practice? It’s possible. So how exactly has the individualism of European cultures evolved, and what does their literature tell us—or fail to tell us—about the cultural attitudes of Western Europe through the ages?
One might look at modern governments and begin to suspect that the individualistic attitudes of modern Western cultures is rooted, perhaps, in democracy. After all, democracy, at its core, values the individual opinion. But individualism was a complex issue in Ancient Greece, where the idea of “man as a political being” was inherently tied to obligations to one’s city or polis, an issue noted by Aristotle in his writing. And Rome’s interest in individualism waxed and waned, seemingly placing more emphasis on individualism when it was under empirical rule than when it was a republic.
So where else might we see some of the origins of individualism in Western Europe?
The next obvious answer is religion. If we look back to before widespread Christian influence, we see hints in many of the native belief systems of Europeans of a sort of individualism—a desire, in Germanic paganism, for example, to achieve personal wealth and fame. But these ideas are foggy and muddled by the fact that most of our manuscripts referencing them date to the Medieval period, by which time most of Western Europe had already come under significant Christian influence.
And even within paganism, we see something of a contradiction. Many of the stories coming out of Anglo-Saxon England, medieval Germany, the Netherlands, and Scandinavia place significance on familial ties and loyalty to others above oneself. According to R.E. Kaske, the Germanic hero was expected embody the ideal of Treue, a modern German word most often translated as “loyalty,” and a cognate of the English “true.” This usually took shape in the hero’s relationship to his family or kingdom, but regardless of form, the ideal of Treue is largely believed to be a remnant of earlier Germanic tribal cultures; it emphasizes the importance of one’s identity as part of a group, and calls upon the individual to put the welfare of the group before his or her own. But was that put into practice? In this case, it seems likely that it was. Various extant texts purport to be true or semi-mythologized accounts of the various feuds that erupted between families born of this sense of loyalty or tribalism. In shorts, events reflective of early Germanic collectivist thinking are well-documented.
Celtic cultures, at their core, have also historically looked to be more collectivist than anything. Similar to the feuding Germanic tribes, Ireland and Scotland both have a long history of defining themselves by clans—rooting their identity in belonging to a greater whole. The work of Robert Burns and subsequent Romantic poets saw perhaps the rise of more individualistic notions throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. But at the same time, much of Burns’s work was intertwined with his identity as a Scot. And while not necessarily incongruent with individualist thinking, so much of his work was steeped in what the modern reader might perceive as an early form of identity politics that it becomes almost impossible to separate it from his desire to contribute meaningfully to his nation.
When considering Western European cultures on a case-by-case basis, we face something of a problem. The rise—or lack thereof—of individualism in one culture can’t necessarily explain how it gained popularity in another, or why it seems to be so widespread in various and diverse Western cultures today. Which brings us back to an ideology that has managed to impact virtually every aspect of modern Europe: Christianity. Could the spread of an Abrahamic religion have prompted the societal shift toward individualism? Early medieval Europe saw the rise of chivalry, a varying code of conduct for knighthood that was largely rooted in Christian values. Some common tenants of chivalry included a loyalty to one’s nation and a devotion to the Church, both of which are reflective of more collectivist thinking. The most well-known incidence of this in literature, of course, takes form in the various depictions of the Court of King Arthur. And while chivalry as an ideal may not have always been put into practice, it was demonstrably a code that reached beyond literature or oral tradition, and into what was supposed to be every day practice.
But is a sense of loyalty or obligation to one’s nation—patriotism or possibly nationalism, in modern terms—necessarily at odds with individualism? Some nationalistic movements have in fact pushed back against individualism, seeing collectivism as a pillar of their movement. Nazi Germany encouraged the German people to place the Volksgemeinschaft—the “people’s community” or “national community”—above individual interests. Literature that was perceived as pushing individualism was banned because it was seen as a threat. The United States has a reputation for being a hyper-patriotic Western nation, but almost in contradiction with that, its citizens are often perceived as extremely individualistic (perhaps, in part, a result of cultural heterogeneity). Nevertheless, there’s a strong argument to be made for modern individualism as incongruent with patriotism, which raises the question: can a patriotic or nationalistic culture ever be truly individualistic?
There are also exceptions to the rule. Not all modern European cultures have experienced the shift towards individualism. The Danish Janteloven, for example, upholds a sense of collectivism into the modern era. When Dano-Norwegian author Aksel Sandemose observed a tendency toward conformity and a dislike for highly individualistic attitudes in Scandinavian cultures, he satirized it in literature as the ten rules of Jante Law (this was very helpfully explained to me recently by my friend and fellow writer A.R. Frederiksen). Possibly, this is a remnant of the collectivist thinking present in earlier Germanic cultures, but whatever its origin, it’s been argued that the Janteloven way of thinking might be partially responsible for the high happiness scores in Scandinavian countries.
Which leaves us to wonder: which is more beneficial to cultures as a whole? It’s a tricky question to answer. The trend towards individualist thinking means people are free to believe what they wish and pursue what they desire without worry of large-scale judgement or a sense of societal obligation hindering their decisions. And individualist thinking often seems to produce greater innovation, a trend possibly intertwined with some of the core ideas of capitalism, which as a system incentivizes individual achievement. Conversely, collectivist thinking may contribute to the success of social welfare programs and encourage a greater sense of empathy among the general population—viewing one’s neighbor not as the other, not as a competitor, but as part of a greater whole to which we all belong and contribute.
Of course, trends in literature might not always be reflective of the impact these ideologies have on society. When we look back at the trend toward collectivist ideals in European literature up until the 18th century or so, we might be led to believe that Western culture was staunchly collectivist until relatively recent times. And perhaps it was–at least on paper. As with any ideology or moral guidelines, the standards we preach and the way we actually live our lives are two different things. Even today, in modern fiction, we see a tendency to glorify the intensely loyal, the self-sacrificial, the everyman driven by a desire to do things for the good of his or her family, or community, or country. Is this reflective of some subconscious value we place on collectivism, even when living individualistic lives? It’s hard to say. Perhaps what Western culture has always been seeking to find–in our literature, in our politics, in our everyday lives–is a balance between two extremes.