'You are not a beautiful, unique snowflake'
'You are not a beautiful, unique snow-flake...You are not your bank account...You are not the clothes you wear...You are not your grande latte...You are not your fucking khakis...' Tyler Durden
The philosophy of communitarianism involves a rejection of the Romantic cult of the self, and particularly of the values of the Post-War 'me generation', and its abandonment of traditional ideas of community and the common good.
The key book for modern communitarianism's engagement with and rejection of the Romantic cult of the self is Charles Taylor's The Ethics of Authenticity.
Communitarianism rejects Romanticism's cult of the self, its idea of the self as a unique snow-flake, by suggesting instead that the self can only be understood in a social and communal framework.
Communitarians like Alasdair MacIntyre often go back to Aristotle, and his definition of man as a social and political animal - MacIntyre suggests it would have been impossible for the ancient Greeks to imagine the self separate from their community.
We need, the communitarians suggest, to move beyond the Romantic cult of the self, to move beyond the 1960s' obsession with 'finding myself', and to return to the idea of serving something higher than the self: the community, the common good, and so on.
Quite often, communitarians argue that the cult of personal freedom ('I do whatever I want to do, who are you to tell me different?') is mistaken, because humans have a common nature, and you need to understand how this nature works, understand its impersonal laws, in order to achieve happiness. You can do whatever you want, but to be truly fulfilled, you have to understand your nature as a human, and how to develop and fulfil that nature. So all models of living are not equally good.
Given that, some communitarians argue, politics should be built on the models of the Good Life that 'fit' our biological nature. I call this 'natural communitarianism'. Alasdair MacIntyre is an example of it, so is the RSA's Matthew Taylor.
I think we are at an interesting moment in history where the Romantic cult of the self turns into the Communitarian cult of the common good. It is not that the latter rejects and replaces the former, it is that the former turns into the latter.
The search for one's true self leads from the personal to the impersonal. Eventually, after staring at your navel for long enough, you get bored and look for something beyond the personal self, for something transcendent.
A good example of this is Rousseau (pictured above), who was the father of the narcissistic cult of the self in modern culture. But he ended up, in The Social Contract, advocating a form of civic engagement so total that the personal self would be entirely obliterated by the public self, or the 'citizen'.
That's an extreme example of the shift from the cult of the personal self to the cult of the impersonal self, but there are modern counterparts.
Cognitive behavioural therapy and Positive Psychology grew out of the world of self-help. That's to say, they gained a lot of their popularity because they promise to make the self 'happy'. In that sense, they very much appeal to the 1960s 'me generation', and are themselves products of that generation.
But they discover that the way to achieve happiness is not to 'do what you feel like' but instead to follow what are, on examination, impersonal laws or guidelines that 'fit' with our rational nature.
Both CBT and Positive Psychology are based on ancient Greek psychology, on the idea in Socrates and his followers that humans have a rational nature, that we can use our rationality to know ourselves, to rationally scrutinize our beliefs, and to replace irrational beliefs with more rational beliefs.
In other words, there is a sort of 'natural law' to our minds, a natural rationality, and becoming happy and fulfilled people involves understanding and following this natural law.
Ancient philosophy was very much based around the idea that finding fulfilment, finding and fulfilling your 'real nature', involves obeying a set of impersonal laws and practices. It involves a moving from the personal self to the impersonal self, which is God, or the Logos.
The search for the personal self becomes, ultimately, an understanding of the impersonality of the self: an understanding that the self is not this cognitive habit, or that cognitive habit, but is instead the reason and awareness that is capable of considering each habit and choosing it.
It is the light of reason or awareness that shines through the lenses of different thoughts and beliefs. Not the belief itself, but the awareness of that belief. This awareness is not 'you'. It just is. There is no stable, permanent entity called 'you', only the light of awareness, shining on your transient thoughts and habits, like a torch shining on a river at night.
One can compare this to the idea in Hinduism that the deepest Self is impersonal - it is God. the search for the self leads to the Self.
The question for modern communitarianism is: can one order society politically, so that it cultivates the impersonal self, rather than merely providing a legal space for our private cultivation of the personal self?
Rousseau tried to create a society that would engineer the impersonal self of the 'citizen'. It ended up being a totalitarian society. Plato likewise tried to create a society that would cultivate our 'natural', impersonal self. It also ended up a model of a totalitarian society.
The movement from the Romantic cult of the personal self to the Communitarian cult of the impersonal self and the common good is a dangerous moment in history.