The Individual and Society

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2015
Thomas Nemeth (ed.)Vladimir Solov’ëv’s Justification of the Moral Good10.1007/978-3-319-12775-0_11

Chapter 10 The Individual and Society

Thomas Nemeth 

Old Bridge, New Jersey, USA



Thomas Nemeth

E] The first version of this chapter consisting of eight sections appeared as (A). In the first edition of the compiled book (B), these sections form the first eight sections of Chap. 8, pp. 250–279, and the chapter bears the same title as in the second edition of the compiled book.


We know that the complete sense of the moral good, which also includes the concept of the real good or satisfaction, is ultimately defined as the real moral order. The latter expresses the unconditionally proper and desirable relation of each of us to the whole and of the whole to each of us. This is called the Kingdom of God , and it is quite clear that from the moral point of view only the realization of the Kingdom of God, as1 the highest good, satisfaction and bliss, can be the ultimate goal of life and of our activity. If we think about this matter precisely and concretely, it is just as clear that the real moral order , or Kingdom of God, is both a quite universal and a quite individual concern. For each of us wants it for oneself and for everyone, and only together with everyone can we reach it.2 Consequently, in essence it is impossible to set the individual against society. It is impossible to ask which of the two is the end and which is merely the means. Such a question would presuppose3 the real4 existence of the single individual as a solitary, closed circle, whereas in fact each single individual is merely the center of an infinite number of interrelations with another and with others. To abstract oneself from every actual thing in life would mean to transform the individual into an empty possibility of existence. To present [228]the personal center of one’s being as actually distinct from one’s surroundings and from the general sphere of life that connects one with other centers is no more than a morbid illusion of self-consciousness.5

As is well known, when a chalk line is drawn before a rooster’s eyes it takes this line as some sort of fatal barrier that absolutely cannot be crossed. Obviously, it is not in a position to understand that the overwhelming significance of the chalk line, which it sees as fatal, arises simply from the fact that it is concerned exclusively with what for it is an unusual and unexpected sight. Consequently, the rooster is not free with regard to it. A mistake is rather natural for a rooster, but less natural for a rationally thinking person. However, such a person too often does not understand that the given limitations of his subjectivity are insurmountable and impenetrable solely because one’s attention is concentrated exclusively on this limitation, that the fatal separation of one’s own “self” from everything else consists only in the fact that he or she pictures it to oneself as fatal. He or she is also a victim of autosuggestion, which, although it certainly has objective bases, is as relative and easily removed as the drawing of the chalk line.

It is by virtue of this self-delusion that an individual person considers him or herself to be a real person even when he or she is separated from everything and presupposes this pseudo isolation to be the genuine basis and even sole possible point of departure for all of the individual’s relations. The self-delusion of abstract subjectivism leads to devastation not only in the sphere of metaphysics (which from this point of view is quite simply eliminated), but also in the sphere of moral and political life. From this arise so many complicated theories, irreconcilable contradictions and unanswerable questions! All of this insolubility and fatality would disappear by itself if, without fearing famous names, we would take into account the simple fact that these theories could have been devised and these unanswerable questions could have arisen only from the point of view of the hypnotized rooster.


The human individual , and, consequently, each individual person, has the possibility of realizing an unlimited [229] reality, or a unique form of infinite content. In the human mind, there lies an infinite possibility for an ever truer and truer cognition of the meaning of everything, and the human will contains the same infinite possibility for the ever increasingly complete realization of this meaning encompassing all within a given vital environment. The human individual is infinite: This is an axiom of moral philosophy. However, abstract subjectivism here draws its chalk line in front of the eyes of the careless thinker, and the most fruitful axiom is transformed into a hopeless absurdity. The human individual, as an infinite possibility, is separated from all the actual conditions and the actual results achieved through society6 of his or her realization. It is not only separate from them,7 but even opposed to them.8 An insoluble contradiction turns up between the individual and society, and there appears the “unanswerable question”: Which of the two principles9 must be sacrificed? On the one hand, those hypnotized by individualism claim the self-sufficiency of the isolated individual, who has all of his or her relations stemming from oneself. Such people see social ties and the collective order only as an external limit and an arbitrary constraint that must be eliminated no matter what. On the other hand, those hypnotized by collectivism see in the life of humanity only social masses and take the individual as an insignificant and transient element of society who has no rights of one’s own and can be disregarded in favor of the so-called general interest. However, what lies behind a society that consists of impersonal wretches10 who lack rights, of moral zeros? In any case, would it be a human society? Where is its dignity? Where is the inner value of its existence, and where does it get that dignity? What would maintain that dignity? Is it not clear that this is a sad chimera, as unrealizable as it is undesirable? Is not the opposite ideal of the self-sufficient individual the same chimera? Deprive an actual human individual of everything that in one way or another is due to one’s connections with social or collective wholes and you get a brutish individual who is nothing but pure possibility alone or an empty form of a person, i.e., something that in reality does not exist at all. Those who happened to descend into hell or rise into heaven, as, for example, Dante and Swedenborg, did not find [230]solitary individuals there, but saw only social groups and circles.

Social life is not a condition that accompanies individual life, but is contained in the very definition of the individual, who essentially is both a rationally cognizing and morally active force. Both are possible only in the form of a social being. Rational cognition on its formal side is conditioned by general concepts that express a unity of meaning in the elusive manifold of appearances. However, the actual and objective commonality (or common meaning) of concepts is revealed in linguistic intercourse, without which rational activity, arrested and deprived of realization, naturally atrophies. Then, the very faculty of understanding disappears or passes into a state of pure possibility. Language —this realized form of reason—could not have been created by a single, isolated individual. Consequently, a single individual would not be a linguistic creature, would not be a person. With respect to the material, cognition of the truth is based on experience—hereditary, collective and accumulating experience. Even if a single, absolutely isolated creature could exist, its experience would obviously be quite insufficient for cognition of the truth. As for the moral determination of the individual, the very idea of the moral good or of a moral evaluation is not merely the consequence of social relations, as many think. It is quite obvious that the realization of this idea or the actual development of human morality is possible for a person only in a social setting through interaction with it. In this chief respect, society is nothing other than the objectively realized content of the individual.

Instead of an insoluble contradiction of two mutually exclusive principles, two abstract “isms,” we find in reality two correlative terms that both logically and historically presuppose and demand one another. In terms of its essential significance, society is not the external limit11 of the individual , but is one’s inner embodiment. Society is not the arithmetical sum or mechanical aggregate of individual people, but the indivisible whole of their social life. This life has already been partially realized in the past and preserved through the abiding social tradition, is partially being realized in [231]the present by means of social services and, finally, anticipates its future perfect realization in the best conceptualizations of the social ideal .

Corresponding to these three fundamental and abiding moments of the personal-social life—the religious, the political and the prophetic—there are12 three main concrete stages of human consciousness and levels in life. These stages consistently appear throughout the course of historical development and are: (1) the gens , which belongs to the past, although it is still preserved in a modified form in the family; (2) the nation-state , which dominates at the present, and finally; (3) universal intercourse in life conceived as the future ideal.

In terms of its essential content, society is, at all these stages, the moral embodiment or realization of the individual in a given sphere of life. However, the size of this sphere is not the same in each case. At the first stage, the sphere is restricted to one’s own gens; at the second stage, to one’s fatherland. Only at the third stage does the human individual, having achieved clear awareness of one’s inner infinity, strive, in the corresponding way, to realize this infinity in a perfect society with the elimination of all limitations not only in terms of the content but also in terms of the extent of interactions in life.


Each individual person, as an individual, possesses the possibility of perfection, or positive infinity, namely, the faculty to understand everything with one’s own reason and embrace everything with the heart, i.e., to enter into a living unity with everything. This double infinity—the power of representation and the power to aspire and act, which is called in the Bible (according to the interpretation of the Fathers of the Church) the image and likeness of God—is the indispensable possession of each person. Properly speaking, herein lies the unconditional significance, dignity and value of the human individual and the basis of his inalienable rights.13 [232]Clearly, the realization of this infinity, i.e., the reality of this perfection, is conditioned by the participation of all and cannot be the personal possession of each one taken separately, but is assimilated by each through interaction with all. In other words, by remaining in isolation and confinement, the single individual thereby deprives him or herself of the actual full scope of the whole, i.e., deprives oneself of perfection and infinity. Even the consistent assertion of one’s individuality or uniqueness would be physically impossible for a person. Everything that in life is held in common necessarily in one way or another influences single individuals. It is assimilated by them, and only in and through them reaches its ultimate reality, or completion. Moreover, if we look at this same matter from another angle, we see that all of the actual content of personal life is obtained through the social environment and in one way or another is conditioned by its given state. In this sense, we can say that society is a supplementary or expanded individual , and the individual is a compressed or concentrated society.

The task set for the world is not the creation of solidarity between each and all—such already exists by the nature of things—but the full awareness and then spiritual assimilation of this solidarity by all and each, the conversion of this solidarity from being a merely metaphysical and physical solidarity into a morally metaphysical and a morally physical one. Human life already in itself, both from above and from below, is an involuntary participation in the progressive existence of humanity and of the whole world. The dignity of this life and the meaning of the entire universe demands only that this involuntary participation of each in the whole become voluntary, be more and more conscious and free, i.e., really personal, in order that each more and more understands and embodies the common concern,14 as one’s own. Obviously, therefore, the infinite significance of the individual is realized only in this manner, or passes from possibility into reality.

However, this very transition—this spiritualization or moralization of solidarity, according to the nature of what exists—is also an inseparable part of the common concern. In terms of its actual progress, the fulfillment of this highest task depends [233]not on personal conditions alone, but is necessarily determined by the general course of world history or by the present state of the social environment in a given historical moment. In this way, the personal perfecting of each human being can never be separated from general perfecting, nor personal morality from social morality.


Actual morality is the proper interaction between a single individual and the given environment (in the broad sense of the term, embracing all spheres of being, both higher and lower, with which a person practically interacts). Undoubtedly, the actual personal dignity of each individual is expressed and embodied in his or her relations to what surrounds that individual. The infinite possibilities that lay in human nature itself—in each and all of us—is gradually realized in our personal-social reality. Historical experience finds the human being to be already supplied with a certain social environment, and all subsequent history is only an elevation and enlargement of this two-sided personal-social life. The three principle stages, or formations, in this process that we have mentioned—the gens, the nation-state and the universal—are, of course, connected by a number of intermediate links. In spite of this, a higher form does not replace and does not entirely eliminate a lower one but, absorbing it into its own sphere, only changes it from an independent whole into a subordinate part. Thus, with the emergence of the state the union of gentes becomes a subordinate, particular element of it, taking the form of the family. In the state, a family’s blood ties are not so much eliminated as morally extended, changing only their sociological and legal15 significance, ceasing to be the foundation of an independent power or serving as a jurisdiction of its own.

With the transition from the lower forms of collective life to the higher, selected representative individuals by virtue of their inherent infinite potential to understand and to aspire for the better appear as the principle of action and progress (the dynamic element in history). On the other hand, the given social environment, as the already attained reality, as the complete objectification of the moral content in its sphere and at its stage,16 naturally [234]represents the stagnant, protective side (the static element in history). In time, particular individuals who are more gifted and more developed than others begin to be aware that their social environment is not the realization and fulfillment of their lives, but only an external restriction and obstacle to their positive moral aspirations. They, then, will become the bearers of a higher social consciousness, which aspires to be embodied in new forms and new orders of life that correspond to it.

Every social environment is an objective manifestation or embodiment of morality (of proper relations) at a certain level of human development. However, the moral individual by virtue of one’s aspiration for the unconditional moral good outgrows the given limited form of moral content embodied in the society and begins to take a negative attitude towards it—not towards it in itself,17 but only towards the given lower stage of its embodiment. Obviously, such a conflict is not a fundamental opposition between the principle of the individual and that of society as such, but only between the earlier and the new stages of personal-social development.


Human moral significance and dignity are manifested for the first time in gentile life .18 Here we find a rudimentary embodiment or organization of the whole of morality: religious, altruistic and ascetic. In other words, a gens is the realization of personal human dignity in the most intimate and most fundamental sphere of society. The first condition of actual human dignity—reverence for that which is higher than oneself, for the super-material powers that govern one’s life—are realized in the veneration of ancestors or of dead forefathers. The second condition of personal dignity—recognition of the dignity of others—is expressed in the solid interrelations between the members of the gens, in their love and concern. Finally, the third (but, from another point of view, the first) condition of human dignity—freedom from [235]the predominance of carnal desires—is achieved here to a certain extent by means of some obligatory restriction or regulation of sexual intercourse through the various forms of marriage and also by means of the other restraining rules of the community life of the gens, which demanded the shame of which the19 ancient chronicler spoke.

Therefore, in this original circle of human life the moral dignity of the individual is realized in all respects by and in society. Where can we find an expression of the fundamental contradiction and hostility between the individual and society, and why does it appear? The relation between them is direct and positive. The social law is not something foreign to the individual, something imposed on it from outside and contrary to its nature. It merely imparts a definite, objective and constant form on the inner motives of personal morality. Thus, a person’s own religious feeling (already encountered in its rudimentary state in individual animals) prompts one to respect the secret causes and conditions of one’s existence—the gentile cult of ancestor veneration gives only an objective expression to this aspiration. It is precisely this same peculiar feeling of pity in the human being that inclines us to a just attitude and to a loving attitude towards our relatives. The social law merely strengthens this personal altruism with constant and definite forms and provides it with the means to its true realization (thus, the defense of the weak members of the gens from injury by someone else, which is impossible for a single person is organized by the gens as a whole and by a union of gentes). Finally, the modesty inherent in the human individual is realized in the social commandments concerning specific abstentions. How does one separate here personal from social morality, when the former is the inherent principle of the second, and the second is the objective realization of the first? Once the rules of the community life of the gens—such as veneration of the common ancestors, mutual aid to members of the gens, a limitation of sensuality by marriages—have a moral source and character, then clearly the fulfillment of these social rules leads not to a loss, but to a gain for the individual. The more a single member of a gens enters in fact into the spirit of the order of that gens, which demands reverence for the unseen, solidarity with one’s neighbors and moderation of carnal passions, the more moral this person obviously becomes, and the more moral, the higher his or her inner worth or [236]personal dignity. Therefore, submission to society is an elevation of the individual. On the other hand, the freer this submission, i.e., the more independently the single individual follows the inner inducements of his moral nature, which agree with the demands of social morality, the more such an individual can serve as a reliable and firm support for society. That is, the independence of the individual is the basis of the social union’s strength. In other words, there is a direct, and not an inverse, relationship between the actual significance of the individual and the actual power of society.

So, how, in fact, can the fundamental revolt of the individual against society and his superiority to it be expressed in the gentile way of life? Would this supposed fighter for the rights of the individual perhaps desecrate the tombs of his ancestors, outrage his father, disgrace his mother, kill his brothers and marry the sisters of his gens? Just as it is clear, however, that such actions are below the lowest social level, so it is also clear that the actual realization of unconditional individual dignity is impossible through a simple rejection of the given social order.


The moral content of gentile life is eternal; the historical process with the active participation of the individual inevitably severs the limited form of the gentile way of life. The original expansion of this primitive life is certainly caused by the natural pace20 of reproduction. Even within the limits of a single gens, the more distant degrees of kinship follow right behind the nearest, but moral obligations extend to them as well. This is why similar to the progressive division of the living organic cell there occurs a division of the social cell—one gens into many gentes, which, however, preserve the connection between themselves and the memory of their common origin. From a gens is formed a new social group—the tribe, which embraces several close gentes. For example, the North American red-skinned Seneca tribe, whose organization and way of life were studied and described by the well-known sociologist Morgan,21 consisted of eight independent gentes, which evidently arose from the division of a single original gens, because of which they preserved a definite relation to one another. Each gens was based on [237]a recognized blood kinship, and marriages within a gens were unconditionally forbidden as incestuous. Each such gens was treated as autonomous. However, this autonomy was in certain respects subordinate to the general authority of the entire tribe, namely, to the tribal council, which consisted of representatives of all eight gentes. In addition to this military-political institution, the unity of the tribe was expressed in a common language and in common religious festivals. The transitional stage between the gens and the tribe were those groups that Morgan, adopting a classical term, designated as phratries. Thus, the Seneca tribe was divided into two phratries with the same number of gentes in each. The first contained the Wolf, Beer, Turtle and Beaver gentes; the second contained the Deer, Snipe, Heron and Hawk gentes. The gentes in each group considered each other as brother-gentes, and the gentes in the other group as cousins. Clearly, the original gens from which the Seneca tribe descended was first divided into two new gentes and each of them divided later into four, and this gradual division has been retained in the common memory.22

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