One drawback of Leviathan is that Hobbes, the great theorist of the individual, doesn’t theorize the kind of individual that emerges in real life in the wake of, say, Napoleon. (This is a kind of individual different yet from the one we associate with the Revolution itself.) Already within Hobbes is the promise that great freedom awaits those savvy enough to surrender their political liberty. Yet the specific interests and passions of individuals ready to dump political liberty today, of course, look rather different than they did in Hobbes’ time. Now, the character of these differences could be summed up as, or chalked up to, certain developments in capitalism or technology — to the outworking of the relations between man and money on the one hand and man and nature on the other. On the other hand, we could consider that the rise of individuality as a moral ideal has been changing the way we relate to one another in a way that’s more cause than consequence of the man-money and man-nature relationship. It’s significant that this development remains only implicit in Hobbes.
To explore it, we’re better off turning to the French, where the bourgeois individual has long found himself with one foot in the gutter and one eye on the stars. The interplay among the best of all possible bourgeois hedonists and his vices and ideals should focus our culture-class analyses of contemporary life in the age of the democratic individual. We really could have benefited from putting Rorty’s feet to the fire on the ambiguous, dissolute, overheated, extremely contemporary individuals of 19th-century French fiction — the characters in Constant, Stendhal, and Zola (for instance) who are so more instructive on the topic of our predicament than (for instance) the poetically aristocratic Humbert Humbert. The key to understanding the strange combination of passivity and restlessness that we find in the rising generation of the under-30 set has extraordinarily little to do with the comprehensive idiosyncratic perfection of Humbert’s that Rorty sees as the last pitfall facing the bourgeois hedonist in pursuit of the End of Cruelty. Christopher Lasch’s analysis of the contemporary ‘self’ is problematic in places for an interesting and important set of reasons, but put against Rorty, Lasch convinces us that Humbertian beastly genius is too rare a flower of evil to typify the errant individual in contemporary life. Lasch’s characterization of that individual as the narcissist is itself partially out of date, however. The hallmark of the rising generation isn’t the minimalist solipsism of the late ’70s and early ’80s — a weird, failed world into which they were born and, as they well know, often miserably, incompletely raised. It’s an admittedly equally weird sharedness of what used to be intimacies, a psychology of self-conscious interchangeability — a fundamental disbelief in the irreducibile and integral character of the individual person.
An important task for people who think about this stuff today is understanding what kind of regime arises from such a culture. Fortunately, some smart guys, like Tim Carney , Gene Healy , and John Schwenkler , are on the case. Together, they help show us the dismaying affinity between individuality and statism in action — and the stakes involved in determining how much we’re stuck with Hobbes, and what we can do about it.