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What
History?
The George Macaulay Trevelyan Lectures Delivered at the University of Carnbridge January-March 196r

by

Edward Hallett Carr
Fellow of Trinity College

Vintage Books
ADivision of Rondom House
New York

I
36 I
soclETY AND TrrE

TNDTVTDUAL

37

CHAPTER II
SOCIETY AND THF INDIVIDUAL
Tnn question, which comes first-society or the indi vidual-is like tle question about the hen and the egg. Whether you treat it as a logical or as a historical question, you can make no statement about it, one way or the other, which does not have to be conected by an opposite, and equally one-sided, statement. Society and the individual are inseparable; they are necessary and complementary to each other, not opposrtes. "No man is an island, entire of itself," in Donne's famous words; "every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main."' That is an aspect of the truth. On the other hand, take the dictum of |. S. Mill, the classical individualist: "Men are not, when brought together, converted into another kind of substance." " Of course not. But the fallacy is to suppose that they existed, or had any kind of substance, before being "brought together." As soon as we are born, the world gets to work on us and transforms us from merely biological into social units. Every human being at every stage of history or pre-history is born into a society and from his earliest years is moulded by that society. The language which he speaks is not an individual inheritancq but

socal acquisition from the group in which he grows :p. Both language and environment help to determine :he character of his thought; his earliest ideas corne to :isl from others. As has been well said, the individual apart from society would be both speechless and mindress. The lasting fascination of the Robinson Crusoe nlth is due to its attempt to irnagine an individual ndependent of society. The attempt breaks down. R"obinson is not an abstract individual, but an Englishnan from New York; he carries his Bible with him a-ud prays to his tribal God. The myth quickly bestows ,on him his Man Friday; and the building of a new society begins. The ather relevant myth is that of Kirillov in Dostoevsky's Devils, who kills himself in order to demonstrate his perfect freedom. Suicide is the only perfectiy free act open to individual man; *'ery other act involves in one way or another his membership in society.' It is commonly said by anthropologists that primitiye man is less individual and mcre completely moulded by his socieW than civilized man. This contains an element of truth. Simpler societies are more uniform in the sense that they cail for, and provide opportunities for, a far smaller diversity of individual skills and occupations than the more complex and advanced societies. Increasing individualization in this t

r

D*kh.t*j"

his well-knorrn study of suicide, coined the word

aomie to denote the condition of the individual isolated from hir society-a state especially conducive to emotional disturbance and suicide;

'D^rtl"* "W Emergent Occasiotrs, No, rvii. 2fohn Stuart Mill: A System ol Ingic,vii, l.

but he also showed that suicide is by no means independent of social conditions.

I
I

A8

WIIAT rs srsroRY?

SOGETY AI\TD THE

INDTVIDUAL

39

of modern advanced society, and runs through all its activities from top to bottom. But it would be a serious error to set up an antithesis between this process of individualization and the growing strength and cohesion of society. The development of society and the development of the individual go hand in hand, and condition each other. Indeed what we mean by a complex or advanced society is a society in which the interdependence of individuals on one another has asrumed advanced and complex forms. It would be dangerous to asume that the power of a modern national community to mould the character and thought of its individual memben, and to produce a certain degee of...
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