by Augusto Forti, Vice President
International Institute for Opera and Poetry Fellow
World Academy of Art and Science Retired Professor of Geophysics
We are the child of our land and the concept of individuality has been shaped by the history of our culture.
In this exercise there are two preliminary remarks I would like to make:
First, despite the geographical distance, sometimes, there are great similarities in the definition of “individuality” among cultures, for example, between the Indian and the European ones.
Second, in our globalized world, we have to look for those elements, in the puzzle that compose “the concept of individuality” which are common.
In my paper I’ll try to sketch the history of “individuality” in Europe. In the ancient Greek and Roman world as well as in the rest of Europe, till the middle-ages which were dominated by the ideal of “aristocracy”, the status of recognized individual applied only to very few.
At the end of the middle-ages, the concept of the “individual” started to emerge. But it took a long time to become a formalized universal and accepted concept. We can say that this took origin at a time that goes back to a period between the late 1200s and 1400.
Transition from the civilization of the middle ages to the civilization of the Renaissance played a role in creating individuality. The actors were science, technology, the bourgeoisie … and mainly, the “individual”.
There are two preliminary remarks I would like to make regarding the subject of Individuality: First, despite the geographical distance, there are great similarities in the definition of “individuality” among cultures, for example, between India and Europe.
Second, in our globalized society we have to look for those common elements in the puzzle that constitute “the concept of individuality”.
If we try to provide a reasonably shared definition of an “individual” as we conceive it today, we could say that: The individual is a free human being with his own values and is “protected” by the “universal declaration of human rights” as adopted by the United Nations, applied by many but not all the U.N. member states.
Authoritarian regimes do not recognize the rights of the individual, particularly if the individual brings with him his or her values which are different from those imposed by the authoritarian power. I will not make a list of these countries “pro bono pacis”; but, as you know, it would be a long list.
I‟ll now try to sketch the history of individuality in Europe.
Not so long ago, the church was imposing the dogma of the “holy writings” and was ready to condemn or simply burn those men and women who had different ideas. There was no space for the recognition of individuality as in the case of Giordano Bruno and many others who were burned alive. It was the same story at that time, for the protestant world.
In the ancient Greek and Roman world, dominated by the ideal of “aristocracy”, the status of a recognized individual applied only to a few: philosophers, tyrants, priests, emperors, augurs and a few others. It was a society of privileged individuals, where few had all the rights and many had none at all. This type of society dominated Europe at least „till the transition from the Middle-Ages to the Renaissance‟.
At the end of the Middle-Ages, the concept of „individual‟ began to emerge. But it took a long time to become a formalized universal concept. We can say that it had its origin during the period between 1200 and 1400.
This was a time of transition between the end of the middle-ages and the onset of the renaissance. An old equilibrium was breaking up. This type of status, in thermodynamics as well as in society, tends to create turmoil and novelties with the tendency towards a new status, as Prigogine showed.
The concept of the individual could not but appear in a period of dramatic transition. It was the end of a phase that lasted nearly 2 millennia, if we consider the fundamental contribution of the Greeks to culture.
The European of the XV century found himself surrounded by the ruins of his/her old certitudes. The earth was no longer the center of the universe. Where was God? Christopher Columbus discovered another world with strange animals and human beings, so different from those described in the holy Bible and those we had known for centuries. All this took place around the time that the Black Death occurred between 1300 and 1400 AD, which drastically reduced the entire European population.
The Europeans, to escape country brigands and harassment by landlords, assembled in towns protected by walls: the “communes”.
The “individual”, the concept of “individuality”, emerged in fact during these troubled times, with the rise of the “commune”, a revolutionary new social aggregation, and with the birth of a new social class: the bourgeoisie.
There are many reasons to support this idea.
The disregard for practical and manual activities and the aristocratic attitude that went back to the mental habit of the Greek and Roman society (where, for example, Euclid refused to consider any practical application for his mathematical theories) were coming to an end.
At the end of the XIII century, many philosophers and thinkers began to recognize the importance of the “artes mechanicae”, craft activities, and manual labour. Roger Bacon (1214- 1292), a Frenchman, supported in his writings the “artes mechanicae”, experimental activities and experimental research, was critical about the traditional attitude of the church, and was particularly against the Aristotelian Thomas Aquinas. Bacon said about Acquinas: “How can this person without knowing optics, mathematics and alchemy, without knowing “le arti minori” how can he know “le arti maggiori” (philosophy, theology etc.)?
Now in a transition period so important for our history, focus was on human beings, the world around us, the earth, and on a series of activities that in previous times were disregarded.
Even the church, with thinkers like Bacon or the school of Chartres shifted their attention from the sky, to see the life on earth around with its simple manual activities in a new light. In the past, nobody would have dared to praise the technical progress and instruments, like Bacon and Petrus Peregrinus of Maricourt did.
Bacon says of Peregrinus: “He is shameful to ignore what is known to the ignorant, he is an expert in the arts of those that are working metals and minerals of any type, and he always gave attention to the enchantments of the old ladies and those of the witches”.
Bacon was an alchemist and an outstanding mathematician, and represents an important turning point in the attitude of the Church. Bacon, the technician and inventor of all sorts of ideal machines, was the one who was able to predict with intuition the technological destiny of men.
So now, the idea that a large part of the population, and those we would describe today as commoners, had their activities recognized as well as their status as individuals accepted.
It was a great cultural change: also time was secularized, with the bell of the church replaced by the clockwork of enterprise that marked the working hours during the day. And the “machine” suddenly appeared, another crucial actor and a further step, as we will see, towards the recognition of the individual.
Many hypotheses have been put forth regarding the appearance of the “machine”, a phenomenon which is called mechanization.
For nearly half a millennium, from the end of the Roman Empire, there had been no significant technical innovation and now suddenly “umpromtù” all sort of technical instruments, tools, mechanisms and machines were popping up. Why such a change?
Was it due to the lack of manpower? In Europe, at the end of the Middle-Ages there were practically no slaves left and the Black Death had wiped out a large portion of the European population. This may have resulted in the need and interest to mechanize work.
Continue reading History of the concept of the Individual and Individuality in Western Society (worldacademy.org)