What is the source of our inner strength? Some seem to possess it in abundance, and others not in the slightest. Is it, as modernity contends, simply a matter of being an individual rather than being one of the “sheeple”? Or is there something else? “[W]hen the individual faces torture or annihilation,” says Eric Hoffer in The True Believer, “he cannot rely on the resources of his own individuality. His only source of strength is not being himself but part of something might, glorious and indestructible.”
Similarly, Yuri Bezmenov – a defector from the USSR – told audiences in America that only belief in the non-rational — in God — could give the individual strength to endure months or years of torture, and indeed, to be able to fend off other types of attacks on the individual and the society itself. Atheists – who had often been communists, and often remained so up until the moment of execution – separated from the state they had served, did not last long once they had been accused of thought crimes by the apparatus of the USSR. But those of faith managed to survive or, at least, died with composure.
The most damning critique of “individuality” comes, perhaps, from the controversial occultist, political theorist, and author Julius Evola, who condemned the notion of the “individual,” which he thought had to be distinguished from the true “person,” since the former represented merely “an abstract, formless, numerical unity.” While the term originally referred to something that could not be divided — and hence could have a more positive interpretation — Evola’s comment is in line with the etymology of the term, which has meant, until recently, a single human being, a single unit more generally (an individual can of beer or an individual stick of gum, for example), or an atom, etc. One individual is indistinguishable from to another, and all individuals are equal.
This must shock us. In the West, the individual is sacrosanct. We are constantly told that there is nothing more important than to break out of oppression (of the family, convention, work, society, etc.), to “be ourselves” and become “an individual.” The individual, it is suggested, contrasts and stands apart from “sheeple” and from the backward-thinking of society.
If Hoffer, Bezmenov, and Evola are correct, then this is a problem. How can we, as an individual, stand, for example, against a state that unexpectedly, suddenly, wants to oppress us? Indeed, how can the individual even withstand disapproval or criticism of his views, personality, physical body, or lifestyle? (Notice the fashion for “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” in universities.)
We must, of course, understand that, as Hoffer implies, a mere mass of individuals is a mass that can be easily manipulated. The individual wants approval. In a consumer society, he finds his meaning in shopping and in the act of selecting one brand over another (including choosing media channel A as opposed to media channel B, which gives him his beliefs, and choosing political party A or B so that he can “exercise” those beliefs).
And, yet, there is a conviction among those who genuinely do not accept the status quo (on either a societal or personal level) that the “individual” has shaken off the pressures of society. A closer look shows that such spokespeople generally also endorse some or other type of tribe or community of the like-minded, however. Achieving individuality in such a case seems (1) to be the transitional phase between rejecting mainstream society and joining the alternative community and (2) finding one’s place in the latter – e.g., being an artist rather than a physical trainer, builder, or leader, etc., in the community and its project. Yet, in each case, the “individual” is a “Brother,” “Sister,” or is known by some uniform term used by the in-group.
We should not doubt that while most take it for granted that the individual has attained a certain power over society, the pure individual – such as is championed by modern society – will always be the most vulnerable to it, and the most likely to seek meaning in whatever is the latest fad – in style, music, or politics, and in one mass or another – since he has no source of strength or resistance outside of himself. (We have all seen that those who rant and rave about a social or political issue remain silent when their normally passionately held views risk courting the disapproval of their own side due to some technical exemption (e.g., criticism about certain “rights” made about a non-Western culture (offensive to “the Left”), or about Western culture (offensive to “the Right”).)
Yet, even if we feel the term is wrongly used in some cases, we must acknowledge that there are different types of “individuals.”
The Individual (Modern):
This is the individual who takes pride in his “individuality,” which he cultivates through carefully purchasing only certain brands, watching certain types of television, and making sure to agree with whatever the media says about social and political issues, etc. He is, in essence, a consumer, and, although he prides himself on his one or two unconventional opinions (which he gives up the second they are challenged or at the risk of them being challenged) or his unconventional sexual practices (which are usually nothing stranger than is taught in any contemporary liberal arts college curriculum, or that is suggested in the antics of contemporary pop song videos), he wants little more than to fit in while having the feeling of being different. His opinions are not original, and his rebellious talk is usually little more than hackneyed slogans strung together, often used to impress the opposite sex, no matter how passionate or manic he seems when spouting them.
The Individual As Amateur:
At the lowest level of potential, the individual is an amateur. (In a certain sense, amateur and individual are synonymous.) When I started painting, many years ago, to some degree, I did not want to be influenced by other artists or schools of art. I wanted to create art that was unique to me. I wanted to be an individual in the realm of art.
Such a frame of mind is normal in practicing any new art but its weaknesses should be obvious: Without studying and learning from the masters that have gone before them, the individual repeats the mistakes of history, and cannot learn from either these or the successes of those who have gone before them.
The amateur individualist cannot learn skills or techniques properly, since this will require studying how others have used them.
It is true, of course, that copying another is to lose oneself and to become a plagiarist, a fake, a fraud, a poser. But, it is also to stop short. True creators learn from everyone and everything they can, in their own field and outside of it, and after the newly acquired knowledge gestates, the creator creates something new. This is what Pablo Picasso meant when he said, “Good artists copy, great artists steal.”
The Individual As Master:
While we tend to view masters in their field as “true individuals,” this is not the case. The further toward mastery one goes, the less of an individual (and closer to an archetype) one becomes. The master recognizes his debt to all of those he has learned from. Moreover, he notices that, even without meaning to, he manifests in “his style” influences that are obvious to him. (Long interested in Japanese aesthetics, I once commented to a friend of mine who was running a “Heathen” esoteric group that I liked the look of his website. There was a scene of misty trees and an emblem of ravens. It was in every way European, but when he told me later that he had practiced Karate, and once loved Japanese art and design, its influence on his site was strikingly obvious, though he certainly had not intended it.)
Having learned from them, the master represents a lineage (or lineages) of artists, martial artists, esoteric schools, philosophers, and so on. Moreover, as a leader, he naturally draws others to him that are attracted to what he has created or teaches, and a tribe is established. As a leader, he is the spearhead of the lineage(s) and the spearhead of those still living that are with him.
The Actualized Individual Within A Group:
Whether a corporation, tribe, training group, discussion group, fraternity, spiritual Order, commune, or music collective, etc., if a group is established, or establishes itself, each member will find, or be delegated, a function. He is an individual in the sense that he has a specific function, though in some cases — such as that of the ancient Greek Hoplite (foot soldier) within his phalanx — this may be identical to that of his closest Brothers.
I was once told by a Christan monk that earlier on in the history of the Church, those entering into monasticism had to give up their talents, but that this had changed over recent decades, and talent was now considered a gift from God that should be cultivated. If an organization is to succeed, then it will need to make the most of its members’ skills — mental, physical, and spiritual. If this occurs, then each member might truly be seen as an individual in the higher sense of the word — as a person with unique and uniquely valuable skills and insights. But in this case, he is also valued as a member of the collective who is able to benefit, strengthen, and guide it, and his skills and insights emerge only through his work in the unit.
Individuality, Ancestors, And Archetypes:
The omnipresent championing of the “individuality” within the confines of modernity creates an atomized, largely commercialized or capitalist society, in which individuals are, ironically, far more homogenous with each other, and far more easily manipulated, than they imagine. (Note that there are only two political parties with any power in the USA, for example, which has a citizenship in the hundreds of millions.)
While many renegades see sinister motives in every aspect of mass culture, including in politics, we should recognize that there are often more mundane reasons why things are packaged the way they are. Newspapers want to sell us newspapers, which requires shocking us, exciting us, making us want to buy the latest issue, click on the site, or share the story. Truth is obviously going to be a casualty, with such a consideration.
We want to become independent of the crowd, however, to forge ahead to becoming a master in some realm or other – especially in regard to self-mastery. Yet we also have to protect ourselves from being manipulated by mass culture. The master may give us some clue how.
When we talk about the practitioner attaining mastery through a lineage, we are talking, in a certain sense, about ancestors. Like Sufis and many Western esotericists, martial artists often pay homage to, or at least have respect for, those who came before them in their lineage. In Sufism, in particular, the disciple meditates on the image of his shaykh, who is regarded as the last link in a golden chain going back to Muhammad himself.
One study has shown what is easily confirmed to be true: that thinking about our ancestors, even for a few minutes, affects our mental state positively — boosting our confidence and possibly even our intelligence.
Unlike the peoples of the pre-modern world, modern man does not worship or even respect his ancestors. In many cases, he is ashamed of them (and, secretly, he is ashamed of himself — hence his desire to drag down others). Yet, traditions, lineages, and ancestors give us meaning, a direction, purpose, a way of living. Even if we are cut off from everyone else, and find ourselves alone, thinking of our ancestors gives us the sense of being “connected” to something beyond us; to the spiritual realm; to history; and to past, present, and future.
Whether we are thinking about our biological ancestors or those of our spiritual, creative, or martial tradition, if we go back far enough we will come to the archetypes themselves — Odin, Beowulf, Kali (worshipped in the Indian martial art of Kalaripiyattu), Ogoun (the Yorobu god of war), the Chinese General Kwan, etc — whose characteristics we embody, or can embody through developing our mind, body, and spirit.
But, while modern spirituality makes much of archetypes (perhaps because these can be absorbed into various theories, which tend to obsess modern individuals) we have almost forgotten about ancestors.
For a group, honoring the ancestors (which is most typical in traditional Asian martial arts) reminds each member that the work is one of inner development, as well as outer development, spiritual as well as mental and physical, and one of working together to cultivate the entire group rather than one of petty one-upmanship.
For the “individual,” remembering the ancestors can give him the strength to resist atomization and to cultivate and elevate himself, regardless of the peculiar pressures of modernity.