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Individuality and Mass Democracy: Mill, Emerson, and the Burdens of Citizenship

reviewed by Ki Su Kim - April 29, 2010

coverTitle: Individuality and Mass Democracy: Mill, Emerson, and the Burdens of Citizenship
Author(s): Alex Zakaras
Publisher: Oxford University Press, Oxford
ISBN: 0195384687, Pages: 264, Year: 2009
Search for book at Amazon.com

Democracy, or government by the demos, is everywhere. Yet many believe that the demos in today’s mass democracy are incapable of governing. They are “politically ignorant, apathetic, and self-involved,” (p. 3) so they are incompetent as citizens and thus subject to elite manipulation. One may infer from this that democracy is failing. Zakaras disagrees, however, and launches a project of envisioning a healthy democracy based on an “ambitious ideal of citizenship.”

Zakaras defends democracy and citizen competency by asserting a reconstructed conception of individual responsibility. In this version, the citizen takes responsibility by acknowledging that he is responsible; that is, he can legitimately be praised or blamed, for his government’s behavior. Zakaras sees both John Stuart Mill and Ralph Waldo Emerson as proponents of this ideal of individuality, believing that the ordinary citizen is actually more capable and more powerful than we often assume. Notably, the citizen’s acknowledging this type of responsibility leads to his feeling capable of responsible action, and the latter, in turn, leads to his being actually capable.

Individuality is a noble concept embracing some privately-cultivated habits of mind, such as receptivity and imagination that are apt to be threatened or enforced in political participation. It is a character that does not begin with “a model of civil, reasonable, or reciprocal deliberation” as often seen in mass democracy. Rather, this character begins “with the urgent need to extract oneself from mass conformity and from the ideologies that render [one] quiescent in the face of public injustice” (p. 17). A man of this character does not speak as one in the mass but as a distinct person. His speech is unique and creative, and his personality one of self-authorship. As a citizen, this self-authoring person, together with other equally self-authoring citizens, contribute to democracy’s principled operation.

Zakaras builds his project from the works of Emerson and Mill. He examines Emerson’s often contradictory and inconsistent essay to reconstruct his ideal of individuality. In this reconstruction, self-authorship is brought forth by Emerson in reaction to a docile individual, who is characterized by conformity to mass society and mass politics, as well as stultifying deference to the past (history, traditions, and institutions). This docile individual is one in the mass indistinguishable from another, and his indistinct character marks “the end of intellectual activity, the suppression of individual creativity” (p. 44). In contrast, the self-authoring individual is one who can “cast off authority and become attentive to [his] own experience” (p. 45) This individual possesses power and character to live by his own lights and is “capable of choosing against the ‘torrents’ of social, historical, and temperamental tendency” (p. 53) He can live within the limitations set by his society and be governed by its practical goals, yet, as well, he can transcend those limitations and “understand that there are other ways of beholding the world” (p. 62).

Interestingly, especially to the reader who is a teacher, transition from docility to individuality was to commence in private life “with the disruption of complacent, habitual perception and belief” by “aesthetic receptivity, friendship, and conversation” (p. 65). The latter were qualities to be cultivated privately and “awaken us from complacency and help us discover our capacity for self-authorship” (p. 65). As well, individuality as the final attainment was not to be “an exercise in willing oneself to conform to some stable and given ideal of virtue or excellence” but “a constant effort to figure out what form(s) of excellence we should pursue and to cast about for new possibilities” (p. 81). The citizen does not defer to authority but runs democracy on moral judgment and action.

Zakaras’ reading of Mill’s writings seems focused on finding echoes from Emerson’s ideal. His starting point is On Liberty, in which Mill indeed discussed individuality as reason for advocating liberty. Like Emerson, Mill considered individuality “as an ideal of democratic citizenship.” In his consideration, conformity, which he rejected, was a form of docility, and individuality its antidote. His reason too was that of Emerson:

Like Tocqueville, Mill saw in modern democracy both tremendous potential for moral improvement and serious risk of moral stagnation and dystopia. He worried that modern citizens had become docile and conformist, had become obsessed with profit-making and petty respectability, had lost the capacity for independent judgment and action . . . Mill’s own ethics and politics, like Emerson’s, . . . points the way toward what he hoped would be a moral and intellectual (and democratic) “regeneration.” (p. 125)

Conformity here means “unreflective deference to others in ethical and political matters” (p. 134) and, as such, it is “a form of unreflective group identity that create[d] mistrust and intolerance . . . involving suppression of self and forfeiture of personal dignity and happiness” (p. 133) In contrast, individuality emphasizes “man’s mental and moral nature, where the appeal [was made] to internal consciousness and self-observation, or to the experience of our common life interpreted by means of the key which self-knowledge alone [could] supply” (p. 150) This nature enables the individual’s active mind to gain moral competency and defy deference to authority. A man of individuality in this sense is “someone who, through education, come to trust his own faculties of observation and judgment” (152). Like Emerson, Mill perceives education as essentially private and internal, and he expected little of the state in this regard. For Mill, as well as for Emerson – Zakaris argues – individuality does not require academic sophistication, because individuality is “something quite different than book learning or formal schooling” (p. 221) Formal education could just “as easily close as open the mind” (p. 221)

Thus summarized, Zakaris’ discourse may disappoint the teacher, for it denies, under the joint authority of Emerson and Mill, the usefulness of his citizenship education. That is not the case, however. Emerson might be a Romantic, but Mill was different. While defending liberty for the sake of individuality, he worried about those who could not attain the power of independent thinking at a time when universal suffrage was imminent. Thus, he stressed the moral value of the rules set by the men of superior intellect and the importance of deference by the ordinary citizens to such men. His works on parliamentary reform envisioned a bicameral system where the elected MPs would conduct legislation under the guidance of the enlightened few. As well, his Inaugural Address proposed a system of national education comprised of higher education for the leaders and elementary education for the mass. In discussing the latter, Mill stressed that the education of character should include teaching rudimentary knowledge and the habit of deferring to those in the know. Zakaris’ project does not give this aspect of Mill’s thinking sufficient attention.

Saying so, however, does not mitigate the importance of his project. This book is challenging, and it challenges us to rethink our understanding of democracy and citizenship education.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: April 29, 2010
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15963, Date Accessed: 5/26/2022 7:49:05 AM

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About the Author
  • Ki Su Kim
    Memorial University
    E-mail Author
    KI SU KIM is Professor of Philosophy of Education and Educational Policy at Memorial University, Canada. He has published numerous scholarly papers, books, and commissioned research reports, all on philosophical and policy issues in education. Recently, he has been exploring ways to make sense of educational policies in light of liberal philosophy and modern “political economy.”
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