Front Page Titles (by Subject) The Self in Political Thought - Literature of Liberty, Summer 1980, vol. 3, No. 2
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
Also in the Library:
The Self in Political Thought - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, Summer 1980, vol. 3, No. 2 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
The Self in Political Thought
“The Concept of the Self in Political Thought.” Canadian Journal of Political Science 12(December 1979): 689–725.
The concept of the individual is a central characteristic of modernity, separating our times from the Middle Ages as clearly as the concepts of God, sin, and salvation separate the Middle Ages from antiquity. What elements comprise this pivotal component of modern political and social thought?
The concern for human individuality emerges as the typical consequence of the breakdown of a highly integrated society in which each person receives his identity from his assigned place in the social hierarchy. The Middle Ages offers the historian a fine example of such an organically structured society. Once the mystique of this kind of civilization begins to wane, however, an awareness of the autonomous, differentiated, self-starting individual emerges.
McCormick examines five conceptions of the individual as they have existed at various times in Western history: the agonal self, the liberal ideal, the hidden self, the essential self, and the manufactured self. He does not claim that his typology exhausts the possibilities of individuality, but it does serve to point out that the concept is not a simple one and that its complexity deserves close examination.
The notion of the individual first arose in ancient Greece (especially in Athens) after the decline of the earlier Greek city which based itself on religion and tribalism. The view of the self which evolved to fill this vacuum differs radically from modern conceptions. Instead of beginning with an inner self which gradually reveals itself in actions, the Greek “agonal” (“competitive”) self becomes an individuality by the utterance of great words and the performance of admirable deeds. The Greek individual is thus created from without rather than from within. More than all other types, the agonal self requires an audience for its gestation, birth, and maturation.
The final vestiges of medieval civilization took many centuries to disappear. As a result, the Enlightenment stands as the formative period of modern individualism. The first type which it produced was the “nonproblematical” or “liberal” self. This directly comprehensible child of the social contract thinker needs no genesis, since it arises spontaneously from simple human motivations such as self-preservation (Hobbes) or pleasure versus pain (Utilitarianism). No unconscious desires or unfelt appetites cloud the liberal self's confident understanding of its motivations. In addition, while it may cooperate with others to establish varying forms of social existence, the self of liberalism remains impervious to social conditioning.
The reductionist naiveté of the liberal conception gradually gave way to subtler insights. Among the utilitarians, for example, J.S. Mill postulated a hierarchy of higher and lower pleasures, while Jeremy Bentham observed that, since no individual can know directly the appetites of another, all men are inscrutable to their fellows. This growing awareness of difficulties and ambivalences gave rise to the anguished and problematical “hidden” self. Here, as in Max Stirner and Friederich Nietzsche, the individual must engage himself in a painfully heroic quest for his authentic individuality. Society, so necessary to the realization of the agonal self, usually obstructs the discovery of the hidden self through its rules and hypocrisies.
To put an end to the eternal question mark and ambiguity of the hidden self, some thinkers resorted to choosing artificially one of the formulated elements of individuality and calling it the “essential” self—as in Hegel's Geist or Marx's laboring self. In this new form of reductionism, development of one particular quality becomes the goal of the wise man and the just society.
Finally, in the twentieth century, a new view emerges which completes the circle and brings the individual to the verge of extinction: the “manufactured” self. Both the Fascist “new man” (created through the activity of an inspired and willful elite) and the Skinnerian “conditioned man” (produced by appropriate rewards and punishments) undermine the elements of uniqueness and inner-inspired motivation so crucial to modern notions of the individual.
Prof. McCormick concludes his study with the observation that the scope of his paper does not allow him to answer two questions relevant to his theme: (1) Does the five-item typology presented here exhaust the potentialities of a philosophy of the self? and (2) Is it possible to look forward to a finalresolution to the problem of the individual?