The Tyranny of the Moderns

The Tyranny of the Moderns

Translated by Martin Thom
Copyright Date: 2015
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 224
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  • Book Info
    The Tyranny of the Moderns
    Book Description:

    In a well-reasoned and thought-provoking polemic, respected political theorist Nadia Urbinati explores a profound shift in the ideology of individualism, from the ethical nineteenth-century standard, in which each person cooperates with others as equals for the betterment of their lives and the community, to the contemporary "I don't give a damn" maxim. Identifying this "tyranny of the moderns" as the most radical risk that modern democracy currently faces, the author examines the critical necessity of reestablishing the role of the individual citizen as a free and equal agent of democratic society.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-18995-7
    Subjects: Political Science, Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[iv])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [v]-[vi])
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-11)

    The identification of individualism with a vision of life that is reflected in the maxim “I don’t give a damn” is virtually a truism. I suspect that Italy, the original inspiration for this observation, is no exception. This maxim can be read in two different ways, that is to say, either as the heedless expression of deplorable sentiments like egoism and a supreme indifference to the fate of others, or else as the plucky and all-but-heroic demeanor of persons able to laugh in the face of misfortune, to pick themselves up and to dust themselves down. Yet in this latter...

  4. I Democratic Individualism
    (pp. 12-27)

    Democratic individualism stands upon two pillars: the civil culture of rights and the political culture of the equal dignity of persons. The long-term history of the political culture of rights began with the seventeenth-and eighteenth-century revolutions against the absolutist monarchies fought in the name of, and by means of, a constitutional strategy founded upon the division of powers and the claim that electoral consent was the basis for creating legitimate governments. The descendants of Adam and Eve, wrote John Lilburne in 1646, are and forever were “by nature all equal and alike in power, dignity, authority, and majesty, none of...

  5. II Private Happiness
    (pp. 28-36)

    As a political category, “individualism” is polemical in its character and meaning. As I shall explain in the next chapter, this category was originally employed to express a negative state of society and, consequently, of the individual: a condition of tyrannical egoism, atomism, anarchy, and social disintegration. In this guise the term made its appearance in post-Napoleonic Europe among conservatives, republicans, and even liberals, subsequently becoming from the end of the nineteenth century onward perhaps the object most studied by sociologists, who sought to understand how it was possible for a society of individuals to cohere, and how it was...

  6. III An “Ism” to Be Used with Caution
    (pp. 37-48)

    Individualism is an “ism,” and for this reason all too prone to simplifications that tend to mask the different ideological elements of which it is composed or to exalt some of them above others. A great historian of ideas, Arthur Lovejoy, has suggested that we handle “isms” with caution, and think of them as chemical compounds orunit-ideasthat combine under a single term a number of distinct doctrines which, if considered separately, are often in conflict.¹ If we apply Lovejoy’s suggestion to the analysis of individualism, we find that it contains at least four distinct families of doctrines, religious,...

  7. IV A Brief History of Individualism
    (pp. 49-69)

    The time has come to give a brief account of the history of this “ism,” to explain where and when it was coined, why it was given a negative meaning, and by whom, and why a political, not a moral, nature was attributed to it. The thinker responsible for showing individualism to be a “misguided judgment” and a defect of the citizen and not a quality of man as such was Tocqueville, who had also insisted on the fact that it was a modern and new concept, and one that was hard to understand for those who, like his French...

  8. V The Individual against Politics
    (pp. 70-87)

    In every generation freedom is threatened by those who regard the individual person as inferior to some supposed collective whole . . . the intellectual battle between the individualist and the collectivist is never won, but it remains important to fight it.”¹ This battle is inflected in different ways, as the polemical objectives alter. As we have seen, in the first half of the nineteenth century, individualism was in the dock. Conversely, in our own day, society has been indicted, and in the name of individualism. In the present chapter we shall be concerned with this more recent battle, that...

  9. VI Economic Individualism
    (pp. 88-108)

    Antipolitical individualism nurtures a realistic conception of justice that strips of all meaning the very idea of a just society, a pragmatic utopia, to echo John Rawls’s telling phrase, based upon arguments from principle that are also constitutional (equal liberties) and guided by the idea of respect. This form of individualism destroys the function of democratic politics. While it might find the first paragraph of article 3 of the Italian Constitution to be workable—“All citizens have equal social dignity and are equal before the law, without distinction of sex, race, language, religion, opinion, and personal and social circumstances”—it...

  10. VII Apathy and Solitude
    (pp. 109-124)

    If, to take up Tocqueville’s thread once again, egoism is a moral shortcoming as old as the world itself, a vice from which the passion for ownership, and hence economic progress, derives sustenance according to the logic of the heterogeneity of ends, individualism for its part is a political phenomenon that may result in indifference toward society and public affairs. From the tyrant individual one thus passes to the invisible and apathetic individual, a totally private individual not because he would wish to subjugate the public to his interests but rather because he avoids taking part in public life in...

  11. VIII Identitarian Community
    (pp. 125-139)

    Isaiah Berlin said that it is more stimulating to engage with ideas that are remote from, different from, and even opposed to our own than with those that resemble them, if only because acquaintance with the former helps us to keep the critical spirit alive and to be on our guard against the temptation to treat our own convictions as dogmas. This is sound advice, and especially helpful when ideas at variance with our own are endorsed by majority opinion. Of particular interest in this regard is the official website of the Movimento giovani padani, an epitome of communitarian ideology...

  12. IX Regeneration
    (pp. 140-166)

    In both the old and the new critiques of individualism, which frequently intersect with the critiques of modernity, there is often a mistrust of the dimension of research or of experiment, a state of mutability and subjectivism that has been held to blame for the relativist character of moral life in the democracies and, ultimately, for the subversion of every anchorage of the duty that transcends individual evaluation.¹ Charles Taylor has accused the universalist politics of democratic liberalism of tacitly presupposing an individualist metaphysics, despite the fact that the individual postulated by democratic society is not utilitarian and “possessive” but...

  13. X Judgment and Disagreement
    (pp. 167-186)

    We are now in a better position to clarify the implications of the distinction between egoism and individualism with which we began, a distinction that places in question the relationship between private and public, between morality and politics, in democracy. It was not by chance that Tocqueville had defined the former as a moral “shortcoming” (of the individual), and the latter as a political “shortcoming” of the citizen. Individualism was a political shortcoming because it shifted the focus of interest, transferring it from the public to the private; and since it followed the trajectory of equality, to which it was...

  14. Notes
    (pp. 187-206)
  15. Index
    (pp. 207-217)