The one and the many is perhaps the oldest problem of human experience. In social thought, this problem manifests itself in the tension between collectivism and individualism.

Collectivists and individualists can be distinguished by the value they each put on individual goods relative to the common good. To put it simply: collectivists prioritize a flawed conception of the common good at the expense of individual goods, while individualists emphasize the importance of individual goods over and against the common good, sometimes even to the extent of denying the common good as a coherent concept.

We can see the dangerous extremes of these two ideologies in the writings of Madeleine L’Engle and C.S. Lewis, who show that a Christian perspective treads a constructive path forward between these two dangers.

Collectivists and the Common Good

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For collectivists, who claim to value the common good above all, the most salient category of social analysis is the general welfare. This is often understood in terms of the well-being of the poorest, most vulnerable, or otherwise most oppressed class in a society. Today, the civil government is the institution most often tasked with the realization of the common good. In fact, the good of government is often conflated with the common good itself.

This way of thinking tends to reduce the value of an individual in a society to what he or she contributes to the whole. One’s contribution is usually measured in quantifiable material terms, such as contributions to the government’s budget via taxation. Occasionally, there is more differentiation than the simple conflation of government and the common good to include another sector of society: the economy. But even in these cases, the division of labor in realizing the common good can be simply rendered in a dichotomy between the “for-profit,” competitive motivations of the market, and the beneficent “nonprofit” nature of government. This kind of perspective traps the human person between market and state, which is a precarious position indeed.

The force that animates collectivists is the drive to subsume individual goods in some definition of a greater good, whether defined in terms of ever-increasing GDP figures or levelling equalization of income.

A Collectivist Hell

One particularly apt characterization of this collectivist impulse comes from the well-known book (and now major film) by Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time. Siblings Meg and Charles Wallace Murry travel with their new friend Calvin O’Keefe to the planet of Camazotz in search of the Murrys’ father. In the course of their rescue attempt, the three children confront the creature IT, a disembodied brain that resides in the planet’s capital city and imposes, through the strength of its intellect and will, supreme order throughout the entire planet. L’Engle chillingly describes IT as

A disembodied brain. An oversized brain, just enough larger than normal to be completely revolting and terrifying. A living brain. A brain that pulsed and quivered, that seized and commanded. No wonder the brain was called IT. IT was the most horrible, the most repellent thing [Meg] had ever seen, far more nauseating than anything she had ever imagined with her conscious mind, or that had ever tormented her in her most terrible nightmares.

But IT’s tyranny over Camazotz is not merely aesthetically repellent; it is morally repugnant as well. At one point IT speaks through Charles Wallace, asking:

Why do you think we have wars at home? Why do you think people get confused and unhappy? Because they all live their own, separate, individual lives. I’ve been trying to explain to you in the simplest possible way that on Camazotz individuals have been done away with. Camazotz is ONE mind. It’s IT. And that’s why everybody’s so happy and efficient.

Just as individuals have been done away with, so have individual goods. IT is the consummate central planner. IT embodies—in a uniquely disembodied way—the ethos and the hubris of collectivism. IT is a mind completely given over to the libido dominandi, having impressed its personality over everything it can control, and thus Camazotz is a vision of the hellish existence of the collectivists and their emaciated conception of the common good.

Individualists and Individual Goods

Where collectivists subsume individual goods in their vision of the common good, individualists value only individual goods. To the extent that the common good is given any value at all, it is only as an aggregation of individual goods.

This approach to individual goods often arises as an intended corrective to the excesses of the collectivists. In the case of Friedrich Hayek, for instance, his doubts about the idea of social justice as a concept are linked to his preference for the society that arises out of the uncoordinated activities of free individuals, which he calls “spontaneous order.” We might say that Hayek’s strong preference is for “spontaneous” justice rather than “planned” justice. Criticism of the idea of “social justice” is often directed not at the idea of “justice” in itself but at the “social” element, which in such a view leads all too often and all too quickly to socialism.

The individualism characteristic of much economic analysis, both mainstream and heterodox, tends to express this reductive mentality. At least in its extreme forms, the homo economicus model, for example, tends to abstract the human individual from the concrete realities that exist in the real world in favor of an ideal, utility-maximizing rational actor. When models that employ methodological individualism are not properly bounded and delimited, then the individual qua individual becomes the entirety of economic analysis rather than a necessary but insufficient explanatory factor. We are thereby left with an ideal and utterly unrealistic picture of social life. Human existence becomes occasional, accidental, atomistic, and ripe for totalitarian tyranny.

An Individualist Hell

We have seen in L’Engle’s vision of Camazotz what a collectivist hell might look like. In C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce we see what an individualist hell might look like.

Hell, in The Great Divorce, is a series of individuals who have been given the ability to manifest their greatest internal desire: to define reality for themselves and have absolute sovereignty within their own realms. As Lewis writes, “every state of mind, left to itself, every shutting up of the creature within the dungeon of its own mind—is, in the end, Hell.” One of the more striking illustrations is the case of Napoleon Bonaparte, in “a huge house all in the Empire style,” marching around insistently “muttering to himself all the time. ‘It was Soult’s fault. It was Ney’s fault. It was Josephine’s fault. . . .’” Everyone in Hell has his or her own house, and they move farther and farther apart as time passes: “You can see the lights of the inhabited houses, where those old ones live, millions of miles away. Millions of miles from us and from one another.” Hell, in C.S. Lewis’s account, is a consequence of individualism run amok.

It should be apparent from even this brief sketch that neither approach, that of the collectivists or the individualists, is adequate. As their manifestations in social life demonstrate, collectivism and individualism are, in fact, mirror images. Both evince a basic dichotomy between the collective and the singular, giving too much weight to one or the other. In this way, the collectivist and the individualist are diabolically complementary. Radical individualism erodes the natural and organic bonds of society, clearing the path of collectivist tyranny and the imposition of a supra-individual identity onto the masses.

A Christian Way Forward

The basic teachings of orthodox Christianity can provide us with resources for moving beyond the binary thinking of the individual vs. the collective.

Human beings, created in the image and likeness of God, possess an inherent dignity arising from our responsibility before God and in relationship to the created order.

Genesis 1 and 2 give us an account of the human person created with dignity and corresponding responsibility, an individual who is inherently social and other-directed, in relationship with God, neighbor, and the rest of the created order. We have been created in relationship with God and placed as stewards over his good creation (Gen. 1:26-28). But in addition to the dignity attending the individual human person, there is a corresponding sociality that orients us not only toward God but toward one another; “male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27). This is, in part, captured in the reciprocity of obligation expressed in the two great love commandments, directed first toward God and secondly toward our neighbors (Matt. 22:36-40). It was “not good” for Adam, the first man, to be alone (Gen. 2:18).

These realities are what led Augustine, following Aristotle’s identification of the human being as a “social” or “political animal” (zōon politikon), to observe that “there is nothing so social by nature as this race” of human beings. So the collectivists are wrong: individual human beings and their goods are inherently significant. Each human person is created uniquely by God and has a corresponding and irreducible dignity.

But the individualists are also wrong. We do not exist as autonomous and self-sufficient individuals. We are unique individuals, in part, because of the concrete relationships and obligations that attend our birth at a particular place and time, to a particular family. Apart from one’s own individual talents and dispositions, there is no one else in human history who exists in the same complex of relationships—as son or daughter, spouse, friend, parent, worker, communicant, member, citizen—as anyone else.

Social Institutions and the Human Person

For Christianity, in contrast to atomistic individualism as well as to absolutist collectivism, institutions like the family, schools, for-profit firms, nonprofit charities, churches, and governments have great significance. They are important because they are, to a significant extent, both determinative of and determined by and for individuals.

The significance of social institutions is a hallmark of authentic Christian social thought. Frameworks that emphasize the family, culture, church, and government are shared by Christian thinkers across time and tradition. In the case of recent Roman Catholic social thought, for instance, the work of Michael Novak, particularly in his The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, emphasizes institutions like the church and the family, anticipating many of the themes that would be expressed nearly a decade later in John Paul II’s social encyclical Centesimus Annus. Likewise, one of the significant legacies of Abraham Kuyper and neo-Calvinism is the importance given to the integrity and responsibility of the social “spheres” or institutions. Similarly, the Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer employed a basic social-ethical framework consisting of family, work, church, and government.

Christianity’s emphasis on social institutions protects against the atomistic excesses of individualism, while its respect for the uniqueness of the human person and individual goods defends against the totalizing threat of collectivism.

In the end, the Christian quest for the common good is not reducible either to the simple aggregate of individual goods or to the promotion of the needs of the collective at the expense of the one. It is, rather, a call to love and justice pursued in humble faithfulness as human beings created in God’s image, a perspective that liberates us from the diabolical dialectic of collectivism and individualism.

Jordan J. Ballor is a senior research fellow at the Acton Institute and a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam as part of the Moral Markets project, as well as associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research