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Winter is a bad time. Whether for a season or for a life, it dampens the self. Or so a recent writer claimed. “Mankind endured a long winter of the Dark Ages” for a thousand years, “repressing” the human spirit in a barren season that lasted centuries. The human individual, as fate would have it, was at last reborn in the sun-filled Renaissance. One can trace this common claim at least to Jacob Burckhardt, the nineteenth-century Swiss art historian. People still quote his assertion in The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy that, before the Italian humanists discovered the self, “Man was conscious of himself only as a member of a race, people, party, family, or corporation—only through some general category.” By contrast, as the cold cloud of medieval collectivist consciousness lifted in the fourteenth century, “Italy began to swarm with individuality; the ban laid upon human personality was dissolved.” From that time onward, as history strode along an ascending path, there followed democracy, human rights, expressive genius, personal worth—light.

Serious historians no longer accept this particular genealogy, despite its hold on the popular imagination. But other equally inadequate genealogies proliferate. If not the noble Greeks of Athens, then Augustine, with his peering self-scrutiny, invented the “Western individual,” dormant through those long dark winter ages but then awakened by the striving souls of Protestant reformers and their pietist progeny. Or perhaps the individual self awaited the gloom-dissolving Enlightenment and the unshackling of autonomous reason. Then again, perhaps it took a good British liberal such as Locke to give responsibility to the individual to construct knowledge, formed by personal experience. Despite the variation of histories, the consensus is that there is a “modern self,” distinct from a “premodern self,” and that something called “individualism” arose.

I disagree. I believe human beings have always been conscious of themselves as individuals. How else can we explain the laughter and tears of our ancestors? Or their desperate or joyous prayers to God? Ones with which we tremble in agreement. We have, all of us, always been selves, exposed to the world’s insistent and often grinding burdens; we have always known our selves in the illuminating flashes and anxious shadows of this landscape.

Not long ago, I came across a song from the 1950s by the popular French singer Léo Ferré, entitled “Pauvre Rutebeuf” (“Poor Rutebeuf”). The piece was named after a thirteenth-century troubadour poet, hardly known today. Ferré stitched together a few pieces of Rutebeuf’s confessional verses, and put them to a simple, wistful tune, accompanied by the piano and electric organ. The song became wildly popular and was covered by Joan Baez, Nana Mouskouri, and a host of other French and Latin singers.

Rutebeuf’s work ranged from sardonic social commentary and religious instruction to personal “complaints” over his treatment by patrons and acquaintances. In Ferré’s pastiche, Rutebeuf laments the loss of friends, his poverty, his loneliness: “Friends, oh what’s become of you, The ones that I was so close to . . . I think they’re scattered by the wind: All love is dead now.” Rutebeuf likens his life to living in the wake of a winter wind, which has blown away his companions and fortunes and left the branches bare. He counts the scant gifts that his “glorious God” has left him. The antique French refrain, “l’amour est morte,” comes back several times, as the poet quietly hopes for some reprieve “tomorrow.”

Ferré’s version of Rutebeuf’s sorrow no doubt resonated with many of the “modern” individuals who listened, drifting, regretful about their rootless existence in the fast-dissolving culture of postwar Europe. But Ferré was quoting a man who lived in 1250, whose work is filled with sentiments eerily similar to those of a twenty-year-old lonely youth of today, or seventy-year-old grandparents learning of a friend dying in a city five hundred miles away. Every self, when faced with the “winter roars,” as Rutebeuf puts it, knows who he is beneath the great high God of heaven.

There are differences, no doubt, between Rutebeuf’s lamenting self and our own today. But those differences are not fundamental; they are only ones of awareness, not condition. The awareness in question here is not of the self at all, but of the world. Rutebeuf saw his condition in a steady and honest way, while our own vision is masked or flickering. The scholar Michel Zink describes the writing of Rutebeuf and his contemporaries as “a poetry of real life in the form of a poetry of imperfect life, a poetry of a contingent reality which no longer hesitates to root itself in a season, and more particularly, in winter.” We often pretend otherwise, preferring to imagine ourselves able to retire to an endless summer.

Real life, imperfect life, contingent life. Anyone who feels this is an individual. Anyone who tells another, even God, that this is who he is, possesses a self that speaks to another self.

One used to hear that medieval parents didn’t feel the same emotional loss as modern parents do at the death of their children. The great French historian Philippe Ariès argued this at length, on the basis of the scant evidence of children’s graves in the Middle Ages and written laments from the period. Perhaps, given the high rates of infant mortality, people were simply socialized to steel or drain their feelings in the face of frequent loss. Subsequent historians have drastically revised Ariès’s conclusions. The evidence of parental sorrow, it turns out, is far more extensive, if less immediately obvious, than he supposed. Certainly, expressions of sorrow and loss often take conventional forms—medieval or modern, or something else. But the reality of their object remains consistent in its wrenching power. The objects and subjects of such sorrow remain individual selves, with a penetrating depth of identity that fuels the anguish of any poet’s, let alone any parent’s, tears.

One need only observe the expanded concern with a person’s “soul” in these long “dark” centuries to recognize the value of the self across the seeming divides marking the passage from antiquity to modernity: prayers for souls, careful pedagogy for the soul’s purification and renewal, images of the soul’s judgment or redemption. The language and images of soulcraft were aimed at every station and stage of life, from the goatherd to the king, paupers to princes. Each was a self with a distinct identity, each with a name, and each living with the infinite value of eternity hanging in the balance.

Rutebeuf’s images of gnawing disintegration borne by the cold winds of winter swirl up about the human race. In this condition we see our selves most clearly, naked and exposed to the world around us. This world of hardship has hardly changed over the centuries in its pressing assaults. But modern cultures have developed new methods to obscure these depredations, masking, for a time, the burden of sin and death in a person’s life. It’s but a trick of temporary displacement, of course. The philosopher Charles Taylor coined the distinction between the premodern “porous self” and the modern “buffered self” to indicate how we live today in a world where there is a clear boundary (a “buffer”) between our own person and the impinging realities of the Other, of spirits, of psychic powers, of God. The old “porous self,” open to the encounters and acts of the enchanted cosmos, was ever engaging this larger universe of movement and spiritual importunity. Taylor is surely right. But I am suggesting something yet more simple: the contemporary dimming of the “exposed self,” which foretells the loss of individuality, not its gain.

The exposed self is in fact the common self, the universal self. The exposed self is what we share across all cultures, ages, sexes, ethnicities, and income groups. Rabbinic tradition mentions Genesis 5:1 as the foundation for all human solidarity and ethics: “This is the book of the generations of Adam. In the day that God created man, in the likeness of God made he him.” Genesis tells the story and unfolds the reality of Adam’s progeny in the world outside of Eden. This is the world where the children of Adam wear clothing to protect themselves against the winter’s cold, toil in the hardened soil to survive, travail to give birth in a corner, and far too often battle at night to prevail over one another. In this unfolding story, they rely together and exclusively on the grace of their Maker, often basking in the joy and light of being made at all, of being a “self.” The exposed, unbuffered self knows its final dependence on the self of God, a dependence that charges an individual life with transcendent significance: “So Abram went, as the LORD had told him.”

Perhaps the season of winter returns, in its ceaseless round, to teach us this. There is much to learn from winter: the nature of humanity, the glowing embers of the soul, the divine gift of the self.

Ephraim Radner is professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College.

Image by Ted Moravec licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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