London in April: the quandaries of modern individualism

There were two hundred or so of us all united for a moment by our common desire to get to London as quickly and comfortably as possible. But as soon as we landed at Heathrow, we each went our own way, modern individuals propelled by diverging interests and purposes. From where comes this individualism that motivates and propels us? Have we achieved a richer and more unique form of human life than our forebears? Have we got to a higher understanding of what it is to be human? Or are we, with the whole baggage of our modern individualism, only the unwitting products of new circumstances, ready-made and type-cast by a newly individuating reality?

Material conditions may not strictly necessitate the ways we think and act. But the outer, material conditions of life make certain kinds of thinking and acting easy and plausible. We slip into them and find them natural and true. And the natural truth that our material conditions engender in us is that of modern individualism: we have come to believe in ourselves as free, independent, autonomous, self-governing beings. We see ourselves as freely choosing between different goods, with our own individual values, as free members of a free society.

But the realities of modern individualism came home to us as soon as we stepped out of the airplane and found ourselves in a labyrinth of walkways and escalators, guided by blinking signs and cooing announcements, made to walk here but not there, following hundreds of bewildered others to the exit, to passport control, to baggage recovery, to a connecting flight or to ground transportation. The entire gigantic structure spoke of options and choices but it also controlled our every move. It divided us into cohorts, streamed, directed, and regulated, allowed and prohibited, searched and cleared. And we would have it no other way for without this elaborate mechanism we would have been lost, helpless, and utterly insecure.

London itself was bathed in a warm Spring sun when we finally reached it through another labyrinth of barriers and rules, pressed together in a train taking us to its determined stops. The inner city was bustling with tourists, consulting their maps, led about by guides, gawking at all the well-known sights, out shopping in the established emporia, or just lounging with many others in the afternoon sun. Their pursuits and pleasures all had their own possibilities and constraints. Could we have entered the city as an army of pilgrims or as conquerors on horseback or as wandering minstrels or as shepherds, or shamans? Perhaps, we could have imagined ourselves in these terms but, I assume, none of us travelers from San Francisco was likely to have been attracted to these options. And even if anyone of us had been, it would have been merely a private fantasy and nothing in the reality of the modern airport and the modern city would have matched it.

We like to think of ourselves as freer than our ancestors. But what truth is there in this? Yes, we have new and never previously imagined freedoms, but we also face multiple new constraints that go hand in hand with those freedoms. Our freedom is the freedom of the labyrinth; and that labyrinth is our prison.

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