From the 9th Century to the 12th Century: The Individualist Streak



In surveying the history of civilizations, we sometimes speak of objective and subjective cases. By an objective civilization we mean the civilization of a society in which every individual stands in his appointed niche and is subject, without reference to his tastes, to superindividual rules; a society that recognizes as universally binding a given ethical and religious code; a society in which art is standardized and all creative activity both expresses and serves superindividual ideals. By a subjective civilization we mean a civilization that displays the opposite characteristics; in which society serves the individual and not the other way round; in short, a society that turns upon, and implements, subjective tastes and allows everyone to build his own system of cultural values. We need not enter into the general question of the analytic standing of such schemes. But we are concerned with the sweeping assertion so often met with that, in the sense explained, medieval civilization was objective and modern civilization is (or until recently was) subjective or individualist, because this touches, or may be supposed to touch, upon the ‘spirit’ in which people conducted or conduct their economic analysis. There cannot be any doubt that some of the characteristics fit—religious life in the age of ‘One God, One Church,’ as compared to religious life in the age of hundreds of denominations, is the standard example. But neither can there be any doubt that as a whole those abstract pictures are ludicrously inadequate. Is it possible to imagine a fiercer individualist than a knight? Did not the whole trouble that medieval civilization experienced with military and political management (and which largely accounts for its failures) arise precisely from this fact? And is the member of a modern labor union or the mechanized farmer of today really so much more of an individualist than was the medieval member of a craft guild or the medieval peasant? Therefore, the reader should not be shocked to learn that the individualist streak in medieval thought also was much stronger than is commonly supposed. This is true, both in the sense that opinion was much more differentiated individually and in the sense that the individual phenomenon and (in speculations about society) the individual man were much more carefully attended to than we are apt to think. Scholastic sociology and economics, in particular, are strictly individualist, if we understand this to mean that the doctors, so far as they aimed at description and explanation of economic facts, started invariably from the individual’s tastes and behavior.

1. Schumpeter, Joseph A. History of Economic Analysis. New York: Oxford UP, 1954. Print. 86-87.



Filed under History of Economic Analysis

2 responses to “From the 9th Century to the 12th Century: The Individualist Streak

  1. Pingback: History of Economics Analysis | Irrepressible Thought

  2. Pingback: History of Economics Analysis | Gedanken zur Geschichte

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