The question of identity haunts us, we inhabitants of the 20th and 21st centuries, underlying all our political excesses and extremes, playing a central role in the culture war tearing us asunder once again. From the irreconcilable political divisions that are dividing our societies to the violent demonstrations surrounding the Israel-Hamas war, we see the consequences play out almost every day.
As individuals, in the absence of a firm identity, we are adrift in chaos and longing, prone to decomposition and strife. Something must unite our attention and our action, so that we are psychologically integrated. In the same way, as we join with others, something must unite interests and endeavors, so that we can cooperate and compete peacefully, productively, reciprocally, and sustainably.
The modern world has increasingly understood identity as a duality between an ever-growing idiosyncratic individual and a more and more totalizing collective. These two tendencies have grown simultaneously in a strange dialectic. On the one hand, there is the worship of particularity, the worship of the exception, the worship of difference. On the other, a growing bureaucratic state, and now all-encompassing global systems with an authoritarian bent, necessary to protect increasingly fragmented individuals from each other. Whether individualists or collectivists, we often act as if these two vectors of identity are in competition with each other.
The effect of this increasing duality has been the slow but persistent erosion of intermediary identities, the family, communities, religious affiliations, clubs, and now even the nation itself—as the individual sees these intermediary identities as constraining his or her freedom. The growing collective, conversely, sees these intermediary participations as impure visions of the collective itself, competing with its own totalizing identity. Especially in the wake of the global pandemic, we are left with hopeless and lonely individuals facing an increasingly controlling and invasive state.
There is, however, another vision of identity, one which is reflected in many of the traditional societies of our world and closer to our increasing understanding of the fractal form of natural patterns. It is what we could call subsidiary identity. Subsidiary identity is understanding that, as individuals, we are already bringing into one all of the different thoughts, feelings, and psychological micro-personalities within us. Rather than opposing that unity to an abstract collective, it is our very capacity to join the multiple into one that becomes a mirror of how we are parts of higher identities, not an abstract collective, but rather dancing within a cascade of unities, most immediately within our family units, our communities, our cities, and our religious communion.
So too, our families are themselves unified agents in the building of cities, and our unified cities are real identities forming nations, with each level existing as its own level of reality and autonomy, but ultimately always giving itself up into higher participations. In this vision, we soon realize that the highest vision of identity and participation is not government (though it is necessary), not a totalizing collective, but rather the highest participation and identity are in the very virtues that make it possible to exist together in harmony in the first place. Ultimately, it is the transcendent Good itself.
To be a citizen is not to be a citizen of an abstract collective; it is to be a parent, a friend, a neighbor. It is not in the constant suspicion of any common identity, but it is in celebrating and remembering our immediate bonds, our stories and rituals, our holidays, our monuments, that we can be anchored properly in the world. Nonetheless, the subsidiary model always leads us higher. By always aligning our vision beyond particularities, the very ones we unapologetically celebrate, by aiming toward virtue, but also in full knowledge of difference, of strangers, and of exceptions—that is, in compassion to those who do not fit with our ideals—that is how we maintain our subsidiary identities in service of the highest Good.
Such an approach is the medication for existential angst, the source of the hope that abides. It is the shining star, beckoning in the distance. It is the only true alternative to lonely wandering in the desert and slave-like subjection to tyranny. It is the ultimate sacrificial gesture, the offering of our little stories to the harmony of the whole.
Jonathan Pageau is an artist, writer, and host of the podcast The Symbolic World. Dr. Jordan B. Peterson is a clinical psychologist and professor emeritus at the University of Toronto. This piece is adapted from a paper delivered at the ARC Conference in London.
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