by John MacBeath Watkins
David Brooks' wonderful column today brought to mind an issue I've been thinking about a lot. There has always been a strong strain of individualism in our culture, which perhaps achieved its first peak in the Gilded Age of the 1880 and 1890s, with its philosophical expression being social Darwinism.
We now seem to be at another peak in this trend in thought. But what is the individual? If we are not introduced to language at the right age, we have difficulty mastering it, as demonstrated by the problems of children raised in isolation. Language is a social enterprise. The sounds we use to express meaning are arbitrary. It doesn't matter whether we use the word water or eau, what matters is that the people we are talking to agree what the word means.
As a result, to lead a human existence requires that we be social beings. What would the individual be without the rest of society? A clever animal without language or culture. With society we can do things no one person can accomplish -- cultivate rubber trees, refine metal, drill for oil, and drive down the street thinking nothing of the fact that these things and much more complex things were done to make the car we drive. We are a part of something larger than ourselves, and part of us comes from it.
Yet there are those who would have us believe that those who, through talent, hard work, persistence and, yes, luck, are solely responsible for their success, and owe nothing to the society that nurtured them. This seems as silly as thinking that success shows no merit at all. As Brooks points out, we are all made more capable by our participation in society, and we all contribute to it and make others more capable.
What are we made of? In large part, each other.