It pains me when I think that my neighbours living next-door aren't really interested in fraternising with us, though my wife invited them on a number of occasions to come to our place and exchange pleasantries.
It wrenches my heart the most when I observe with trepidation that passers-by are more interested in filming an incident of accident or crime, instead of lending a hand to the victims. All these point at our growing ego-centrism, an attribute that stems from a sense of individualism.
Individualism is a moral stance or ideology that emphasises the worth of the individual only. It advocates the principle that the interests of the individual should achieve precedence over social groups or state. In other words, individualism creates 'separateness' when a person or a group of people separate themselves from others, focusing on his or her own necessities and aspirations.
The initiation of the idea of individualism can be traced back to the late classical period, when the Greek city-states were assimilated into the Hellenistic Empire. Towards the end of the 4th century BC, a new state called Hellenistic Empire was formed, which was quite large. Consequently, the inhabitants got detached from each other and discussions in large assemblies became difficult.
This transition from the city-state to an empire entailed changes on both the institutional and intellectual levels that turned the attention towards securing the individual's happiness.
It created a general tendency among denizens to refrain from philosophical speculation about society and to concentrate on only one thing: how a person can secure his or her own happiness. People, later on, became relatively more self-centered and this is how the doctrine of individualism found its silent entry into society.
In the later periods, there evolved two schools whose focal concentration was to ensure the individual's happiness -- one is Epicureanism and the other is Stoicism. There was also another group of people following the same kind of people like these two schools, and they were widely recognised as hedonists (Hedonism). But the hedonists and epicureans differed from each other regarding some of the ideologies, and thus followed quite different ways of life.
On the other hand, regardless of how great the variations were between Epicureanism and Stoicism, it can, to simplify, be said that both of these philosophies, which were dominant during the Hellenistic-Roman period, focused on the question of how to guarantee the individual's happiness.
As a general hypothesis, it can be stated that there was a universal change from the concern for man-in-community to the concern for the isolated and private self (individualism).
While hedonism instigates people only to seek pleasure of all kinds, Epicureanism held back its followers to a limit and laid emphasis on calculated pleasure and happiness. Such calculation did not mean that one's happiness will be cut short, rather it signified that one should not involve himself in any such activities that may bring worries or trouble, and, therefore, disturb his or her happiness.
That means people were being shoved into themselves, indifferent to others and society. To put it bluntly, people did not get involved in politics or other matters that entail worries and risks; instead, they lived in a protected cocoon.
Later on, another doctrine widely known as Stoicism came into existence which rejected all external factors of life like society, status and so on. The stoics, therefore, recommended that each person become independent of external factors, and if we want to secure our happiness, we must learn to become independent of these uncontrollable external things and learn to live in our inner selves, which we can 'control'.
Though none of these ideas were widely followed by people, these thoughts have transcended through the centuries, and people, maybe unknowingly, have accepted these beliefs, and so they happened to be more and more self-centered.
In the meantime, later discussions on these ideas and a modified interpretation of the doctrines presented these beliefs to people in an updated perspective. In the 18th century, Adrien Helvetius, a French philosopher, mirrored almost the same kind of ideas of individual interests.
For Helvetius, the most important thing was the maximisation of pleasure of the individuals. Everyone actually, as Helvetius says, seeks to maximise his or her pleasure, and that is good because when everyone seeks to maximise the individual's pleasure or happiness, we have the greatest possible happiness for all.
While the debate over the priority of individualism continues for ages, the doctrine has found its strong place in modern civilisation. The people in modern civilisation are so self-oriented that their nature can easily be perceived by the ideas of individualism.
The past has not witnessed the extent of extremity of individualism which we see now. It is the age when people are constantly refraining themselves from saying hello to their neighbours, working together for the greater welfare of society, having warm conversations with others and so on.
It is really distressing to see that people are so individualistic nowadays that they do not even know anything about the family living next to their houses or flats. Many people do not even dare to approach their neighbours because of an uncertainty over whether they will be treated congenially. This is how individualism is not only turning ourselves into egocentric people, but also giving shape to a fear for the unknown inside our minds.
In a sense, the individualists of this age do not lend credence to any philosophy that requires the sacrifice of self-interest of the individual for any social cause. This kind of behaviour can be more vividly illustrated by the 'theory of action' of Talcott Parsons, an American sociologist.
Talcott Parsons, in his 'theory of action', implies that humans always choose between different alternatives. So, Parsons has introduced five dichotomies; and 'ego-orientation-collective orientation' is one of them.
Here, the choice is between taking care of ourselves only and taking care of others. So, people, in general, select the first one ignoring the second one as modern society (modernisation) is inculcating a sense into humans that prioritise ego-orientation over collective-orientation. As a glaring reflection of such parochial mindset, we have read news about neighbours ostracising families with corona-infected patients during the pandemic.
Apart from all these discourses, the burning question now is whether there is really any society in this modern age. A society is a group of people involved with each other through persistent relations. If we go by the definition, people no longer can be regarded as social as they are not attached to others by relations.
In this situation, how can we define ourselves? "Man is by nature a social animal. Anyone who either cannot lead the common life or is so self-sufficient as not to need to and, therefore, does not partake of society is either a beast or a god," says Aristotle. Then, to which group do the individualists of modern civilisation belong?
Md Morshedul Alam Mohabat is a philomath who likes to delve deeper into the human psyche with a view to exploring the factors that influence it.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.