By David Phillippi
For most of human history, in most societies, identity was not something one had to go searching for – it was given at birth. For most individuals, the socio-cultural space relevant to their lives was easy to map out, and directions for proper navigation were well understood from a young age. Life may have been extremely difficult in the physical sense, but at least it was not confusing – people knew their proper place.
As Greenfeld has demonstrated in her first major work, Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity, this changed in 16th century England following the War of Roses, which wrecked the nobility and left the rigidly stratified society of orders in disarray. In its place, a new consciousness emerged–nationalism–the modern consciousness, which redefined the possibilities for life in England and in the other societies to which it soon spread. We call this new consciousness nationalism simply because “nation” was the name given to the society in which it emerged by those 16th century Englishmen who first experienced its dignifying effects.
Nationalism is a fundamentally secular and humanistic consciousness based on the principles of popular sovereignty and egalitarianism. (Three distinctive features which most often take shape along with this consciousness are an open class structure, the state form of government, and an economy oriented towards sustained growth). At the beginning of the 16th century, someone among the newly elevated English aristocracy began equating the word “nation,” which had formerly referred to as a political and cultural elite, with the word “people,” which referred originally to the lower classes. This equation of “nation” and “people” both reflected and reinforced the new reality of English society, where the principles of popular sovereignty and egalitarianism made the nation and all its members an elite. No longer confined to a particular station in life by a closed societal structure ordained by Divine Providence, man became his own ruler, the maker of his own destiny. This elevation in dignity for every member of the nation meant that life in the here and now gained much greater importance–eternity was no longer the realm of the meaningful. This is the source of the secularism of modern society–God was not consciously abolished, but was essentially replaced by man.
For the first time in history, identity-formation became the responsibility of each individual, and this has proven to be a mixed blessing. With the opportunity to rise above the position of one’s birth comes the possibility of failing to successfully make the climb, or falling suddenly and senselessly from whatever height one is able to reach. The abundance of options in every aspect of life lets in a nagging suspicion that one has not made the best choice. The presence of circumstantial, or worse, socially-imposed obstacles to one’s advancement clashes with the belief in one’s equality and right to self-governance. Belief in equality becomes the idea of equality with the best, making it difficult to tolerate the sense that another person is better, or better-off. This inability of culture to provide the individuals within it with consistent guidance is called anomie–recognized by the great French sociologist Emile Durkheim over 100 years ago as the most dangerous problem of modernity.
The two new great passions of modernity–the ultimate expressions of the sovereignty of the self– were ambition and love. The opening of these two realms of choice, and their importance in the formation of individual identity is reflected in the growth of the vocabulary of related terms soon after the birth of the English nation.
While ambition was not a new word, before modernity it usually carried a negative connotation, meaning basically an overgrown (and therefore sinful) desire for honor. Over time, though, it became more neutral, meaning something like “a strong desire”. Thanks to the principles of nationalism, such a desire for attainment of an earthly goal was legitimized and even encouraged, making ambition in many instances a virtue rather than a sin. A positive or negative qualifier would introduce the word to denote which type of ambition was being referenced.
The language of ambition was bolstered by other shifts in meaning and new derivative words. The OED finds only one instance of the use of the word “aspire” in 15th century, with all its derivatives– aspiration, aspiring, and aspirer–appearing mostly in the late 16th century. The verb to achieve acquired a new meaning of gaining dignity by effort, (as in Shakespeare’s: “Some are born great, some atchieue greatnesse”), and from this were derived achievement, achiever, and achievance. The use of the verb to better, referring to improvement by human action, (e.g “bettering oneself), was another permanent addition to the language. Success, which was originally a neutral term meaning any outcome of an attempt, came to refer only to a positive or desired outcome, and its derivatives, successful and successfully, obviously carried this new meaning as well.
Love, (first defined as a passion by Shakespeare), became a calling, a means of defining, or perhaps more accurately, discovering, who one was. While the word love had been commonly used with a variety of meanings–from the ideal of Christian, brotherly love, to the divine love of God, to the essentially sinful sexual lust–the 16th century English concept of love—which is our concept– was dramatically different. “Romantic” love, as it is sometimes called, occurred between a man and woman–therefore it retained clear sexual connotations–but it was above all a union of two minds (or souls, for by this point, the words mind and soul were nearly synonyms). In love, one recognized one’s true self through identification with another, giving meaning and purpose to life in this strangely open world where God, formerly the source of meaning, was conspicuously absent.
The ultimate end of ambition and love was another modern concept: happiness. This word refers to a phenomenon distinct from many of the historically earlier ideas with which it is sometimes identified. It is not luck, which could be either bad or good and was beyond one’s control; not eudemonia, freedom from fear of death which depended in large measure on avoiding excessive enjoyment of life; not the Christian felicity of certitude of salvation, requiring denial of bodily pleasures up to the point of martyrdom. Happiness was rather conceived of as a living experience, a pleasant one, which was purely good and could be pursued. The OED shows the first instance of this general meaning for the word happy in 1525; the same meaning of the noun form–happiness– doesn’t appear until 1591.
Happiness was knowing who and what one was, being content with one’s place in the world–in other words, successfully creating a satisfactory identity. But what was to become of those whose ambitions were left frustrated and unfulfilled? Of those who lost, or failed to find true love, or were kept, either by circumstance or society, from experiencing true love once it was found? What happened to those sensitive minds for whom the responsibility of building an identity proved too great a struggle?
Note: For more, see Liah Greenfeld’s Mind, Modernity, Madness, Chapter 5.