The Myth of Primal Individualism

by Benjamin Studebaker

There’s something that liberal theorists Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau all have in common–their theories about how societies should be organised or came to be organised are based on the notion that primal man was fiercely independent and had no social obligations, that he had to consciously decide, initially to exit this individualist state and choose to be part of a society or community. Today we know that early man was from the outset tribal–community was with us from the start. What implications does this have for these theorists? That is what I would like to discuss today.

All of these theorists have something called “the state of nature”, the way they believed life to be before society. It is in the contradiction between this theoretical “state of nature” and the reality for early man that we find problems in the assumptions of these theories.

First let’s talk about Hobbes. Hobbes believed that in the state of nature people in general are cruel, selfish, and brutish toward one another, so much so that the best available solution open to them was to surrender their individual freedom to a single individual who would rule them with absolute power. His magnum opus was Leviathan in which he compared the state to a giant sea monster, a horrible, malevolent entity, but one that was nonetheless better than the alternative, sheer anarchy. If individuals were left to themselves, they would do egregious and terrible things to each other constantly, making the excesses of the giant sea monster state preferable.

If we acknowledge modern archaeology, however, we soon discover that the fundamental assumptions of Hobbesian theory cannot accurately reflect real people. If people were inherently family and tribe oriented, it follows that they were never as individualist as Hobbes suggests. Broader communal loyalties from the inception of man makes for a more cooperative man, and it means that society did not arise the way Hobbes suggests, with numerous individuals clubbing together to make a social contract with one another to obey a sovereign, but instead organically and naturally, from natural social impulses and inclinations.That seriously undermines the Hobbesian world view.

But what did Locke have to say? Locke argued in his Second Treatise on Government that, once again, individuals left the state of nature and clubbed together to make a society, though this time they do not do it so much out of fear as out of a desire to fix and protect property rights. For Locke, individuals lay claim to property by mixing their labour with the land, and had claimed individual property before the inception of any society. The only real purpose of coming together was to protect those property claims, with the state having no other real responsibilities.

This is again undermined by modern archaeology. We know now that early man lived in tribes and that what was owned by a single man was owned by the tribe. If a man killed a mammoth, the mammoth belonged not to him exclusively, but to his tribe as a whole, with all members of the tribe benefiting. An individual who killed a mammoth and claimed exclusive property rights over it would likely be cast out for his selfishness, or even brutalised or killed. The communal property model of early tribes does not fit with Locke’s explanation of the origins of society at all, and consequently the assumption that, as the cause of the formation of society to begin with, property rights are sacred and inviolate, is also anti-historical.

So what did Rousseau say? Rousseau argued in The Social Contract that early man was independent, individualist, and noble, until he was corrupted by “amour propre”, the desire for the approval of others, at which point he lost his independence and became less than what he was. At this point man was, as far as Rousseau is concerned, somewhat ruined, and so had to resort to a society as the inferior alternative to the happy state of nature. Rousseau’s society of direct democracy, supposedly a “general will” would be discovered. The general will was not the majority opinion, but the opinion that the majority should arrive at–the optimal opinion. Thus, paradoxically, a majority of the members of a society could have an opinion that ran counter to “the general will”.

If we consider modern archaeology, however, it becomes clear that there never was an independent, individualist, noble early man, and that “amour propre”, if it did exist, existed from birth rather than from the corruption of formerly independent men encountering each other. In practise, the kind of direct democracy Rousseau advocates has led to ochlocracy, or mob rule, not the finding of some “general will”. Early man was led by patriarchs, matriarchs, chieftains, and shamans, and was not governed by consensus.

Why do these critiques of these old theorists matter? Because so much of what they thought remains intellectually embedded within the way modern political thinkers and politicians perceive society. It is perhaps most pervasive in Locke’s case.  Consider the following Locke quote:

All mankind… being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions.

Now compare that idea to this idea, from the US Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Interestingly, the “pursuit of happiness” bit originally read “property”, before it was determined that this wouldn’t play well with the public. There are quite a lot of people in American politics, including, evidently, Jefferson, who think like Locke–they think that the core function of society is the preservation of their property and the preservation of man’s essential individualism, free from social or communal responsibility wherever possible. This view of man is anti-historical, it ignores that our survival as a species has always been grounded in what people can do together as communities, societies, and civilisations. The individual cast adrift alone in the wilderness has little chance of living to any kind of substantive standard of living, and certainly has no chance of reproducing or carrying on a tradition or culture. Too often, our culture embraces the anti-social ethic of individualism at the expense of cooperation and all the various goods it brings, like industrial production, infrastructure, education, and so on. No one individual has the time to both obtain his own sustenance and learn about all the various technologies and innovations that are out there in the world, but if some of us farm and some of us study science, and some of us keep us organised and so on and so forth, we have a chance as a community and as a species to do impressive things. This Lockean self-absorption only serves to keep us small, and we must grow out of it.

Source List:

Hobbes’ Leviathan:

Locke’s Treatises:

Rousseau’s Social Contract: