Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Renaissance: The Triumph of Individualism

One of the gravest obstacles to the fulfillment of Utopia has been the development of individuality. It brings too much incertitude and too much resistance to the calculations of authority. But the Swedes have been spared that burden; among them the concept of individuality and the development of personality have been grossly retarded down the centuries. The Swede has never emerged from behind the veil of the group; he is conscious of himself only through some general category, as a member of a people, a clan or a party. He has preserved untouched a devotion to an hierarchical order of things and an unprecedented devotion to corporate organization. Sweden has remained a country, not of individual citizens, but of groups and guilds. The industrial revolution found a receptive environment in Sweden and did not have to grapple with the inappropriate mentality of Western Europe. Sweden is a country in which modern institutions have been grafted onto a medieval frame of mind. This is connected with the absence of the Renaissance from Sweden. The Renaissance is all things to all men. It is an art movement, the revival of classical learning, the rise of humanism, the advance of knowledge or the opening of the age of exploration. The sum of its parts is that force which has created modern Western man. Its heart is the discovery of the individual. That is the real distinction between the Renaissance and the Middle Ages. Medieval man, with his instinct for the collective, existed solely as a member of some group. Renaissance man discovered that he was an individual, with an identity all his own. In that sense, the Renaissance was confined to Western Europe. It was absent from Sweden, as it was absent from Russia, and Swedes share with Russians the distinction of undeveloped individuality. Escaping the discovery of the individual, the Swedes continued to think and act in groups. They have preserved their medieval core intact, where Western man is heir to the Renaissance. In this lies the fundamental difference between Sweden and the West. The hierarchical view of society was a vital part of the medieval mind. It was sapped in the West by the Renaissance, but in Sweden (as in Russia) it had survived more or less intact. Related to this, personal pride was the most reprehensible of medieval sins and, in Sweden today, it remains one of the worst transgressions. Self-effacement is the obligatory virtue. (The New Totalitarians by Roland Huntford)

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