The myth of society: Absolutism and the individual

Author’s note: This post is part of a series which explores the political mythos which encompasses modern conceptions of society. The first part can be read here, the second here and the third here.

There are no new ideas. So cultural critics argue. And, in a very specific regard, they’re not wrong. Truth is an absolute which exists outside of time. However, this is not to be construed as an argument for  the presentation of hackneyed platitudes plucked from across the breadth of human history and cobbled together to breathe life into tired truisms.

The timelessness of truth is not an excuse for intellectual collectivism- the copying of ideas from one generation to the next as a way of preserving the time-honored truth. Nor does it prove anything about the basic similarities of humanity.

Rather, it is an abiding affirmation of how individualism triumphs even against the destruction and changes wrought by the relentless progress of time.

Absolutism might dictate that there is nothing truly new in the universe, but the interpretation of timeless truth by individual vision is an inexhaustive wellspring for novelty and innovation.

As Adam Smith so astutely noted in the opening pages of The Theory of Moral Sentiments: “we have no immediate experience of what other men feel, we can form no idea of the manner in which they are affected, but by conceiving what we ourselves should feel in the like situation.”

This principle holds as true for the present as for the lessons mined from history. In the transmission of ideas from one person to the next, in the taking in of information and in self-expression, individual interpretation is the guiding principle.

The whole of human history is an amalgamation of individualist perspectives. There is the timeless absolutism of basic Truth, but there is also relativity in comprehension of these ideas and great variance in what individuals within societal constructs choose to do with this information. Thus, each act taken by the individual is a stamp of personality upon absolute truth and an act of self-sovereign rebellion against the yoke of society seen as a creature bred through centuries of historical trends.

Nowhere is this better illustrated than in certain artistic movements, each in their seminal moments seen as bombastic, reactionary and lacking in merit as they rejected conventional ways of doing things.

There were the impressionists and post-impressionists, derided for their abandonment of classical rules for painting governing proportion and form. It was not lack of talent that drove their freer style, but a desire to portray the world as they saw it through their creative efforts.


Then there were the architectural modernists, whose principle of “form following function” led to radical reforms in the design of public storefronts and private residences alike. Again, they took in the conventional wisdom and applied it in their own unique way, upending tradition.


Then there was progressive rock, which blended classical music’s structures and rigid time signatures with bombastic displays of technical genius, modern riffs of electronic instrumentation and elements of story, often steeped in philosophy.

This is not merely copying or rehashing the old, accustomed ways. This is innovation. There is an acknowledgment of the old, and the debt owed by the individual in its creation of the means of expression at hand, but there is also a stamp of individualistic refinement in the twisting of conventional modes of expression.

The moral here is one of the individual against all of time. Anytime tradition is upended, there will be blow back, as colloquialism accepts unchallenged the idea that ancient ways of doing thing must be the best simply because of their age. But talent fully developed and expressed without regard to social precedents and norms is what history is made of. Neither the impressionists nor the modernists nor the progressive rockers would exist if their artistic progenitors had not at some point stood against the social conventions of their time. It is on the backs of unrepentant individualists that history rests.

Also published on Medium.

All content protected by copyright. The Politics of Discretion, 2016.
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