The individual is not a person

I realize I’m prone to these kinds of statements about Moltmann, but honestly, the paragraph below is absolutely mind blowingly fantastic. It’s so good, I’m not going to say any further commentary about the content itself, other than encourage you to read it, and think about the vast amount of application it has for our lives and the way we structure them if we want to live into the “social program of the Trinity.”  It is, to use a term I’ve coined for just such a moment, a Moltmann WWF Smackdown.  I have read thousands of pages of philosophy on human identity. None of them describe the problem with modern individualization and the true purpose of human identity and personhood as powerfully as Moltmann does here…in one short paragraph, no less.  Philosophers of the modern and postmodern age, consider yourselves smacked down.

For the last 200 years Western industrial society (and now modern society in general) has experienced one thrust towards individualization after another. The last of them bears the name ‘postmodern’. The opportunities for choice open to individualized men and women are enormously increased, and anyone who has the means can also take advantage of these opportunities. But this power is paralleled by the growing powerlessness of the individualized people, who can certainly look on at events and the world through the media, but can do nothing to change them. An individual is not a person, but–as the Latin word individuum says–something that in the final analysis is indivisible; it means the same as the Greek word ‘atom.’ As the end-product of divisions, the individual has no relationships, no attributes, no memories and no names. The individual is unutterable. A person, unlike an individual, is a human existence living in the resonant field of his social connections and his history. He has a name, with which he can identify himself. A person is a social being. The modern thrusts toward individualization in society promps the suspicion that a modern individual is the product of that age-old Roman principle of dominance: divide et impera- divide and rule. Individualized people can easily  be dominated by political and economic forces. There is only resistance for the purpose of protecting personal human dignity if people join together in communities and decide their lives socially for themselves.

These few pointers may suffice to show the public relevance of the trinitarian concept of God for the liberation of individualized men and women, and the relevance of the trinitarian experience of community for the development of a new sociality.

– Experiences in Theology, p.333

4 Comments

  1. This actually helps me explain why in this age where freedom of individuality is encouraged and embraced, we seem to be as a society less skilled at interpersonal relationships and behaviors.

  2. –But this power is paralleled by the growing powerlessness of the individualized people, who can certainly look on at events and the world through the media, but can do nothing to change them.

    A growing powerlessness? Really?

    Now, if he were talking about people in the past, maybe. How many kings and emperors of old, for example, really went out of their way to make sure their decisions were approved by the common guy on the streets.

    Today? Eh…nope, sorry, not buying this argument.

    –There is only resistance for the purpose of protecting personal human dignity if people join together in communities and decide their lives socially for themselves.

    So…only communism produces persons?

    Sorry, but I’ll not allow any community, no matter it’s virtues, to decide for me. I proudly say I am a person and an individual, and neither are mutually exclusive. I will NOT let your community tell me how to think and make decisions for me.

  3. Audie,

    I think you are greatly misreading the paragraph. The sentence about “growing powerlessness” can only be understood in the context of the sentence which precedes it. There is a strange irony between our current age, in which “everything” is made available to us, and the subsequent reaction of “powerlessness” we have when overwhelmed with such an avalanche of choices. In simplest terms, one becomes so overwhelmed that one chooses to do nothing at all, be nothing at all. It’s in this tension that there is a fear of becoming a shell of oneself- an individual who has no real connection to relationship, place, or culture. To further Moltmann’s argument, it is this kind of universalizing individuation that leads to groupthink, apathy, indifference.

    The antidote to such a thing is to strive to be not an individual who moves further and further toward self-aggrandizing isolation but a person who is known in relationship, because personhood requires a richer network of meaning- family, friends, geography, culture, history. And, as Moltmann says, we know this because this is how God is made known to us- not through individualization but through the community of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

    As for your comment about communism: If you truly do not believe that communities are a form of resistance and are a way to decide our lives socially for ourselves, you should also stop attending a church, aligning with a political party and considering yourself a citizen of a particular nation. Moltmann’s point is not to state the obvious- that sociologically, this is the reason people form communities- but to discuss how and in what form we as Christians should understand our role in communities.

    And to your last point, my community is not attempting to tell you how to think or make decisions for you. That would require you to be a willing part of our community, where your voice would be part of the process in determining the structure of our life together. :) Also, that would go directly against what Moltmann is advocating for in this passage- relational life in a community of shared persons.

    You may still choose to disagree with Moltmann’s argument. I just think it’s important to disagree with what he actually means.

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