Throughout history humanity has struggled to define the difference between the “we” and the “I”. Humans are indeed unique yet baffling creatures, simultaneously social but driven by individual ego. Consequently major battles have been fought and innocent people have died to give succour to the vain egos that appear to run world affairs.
The struggle for the “we” is often a noble one, an attempt to find unity and commonality in a diverse world. However every single attempt to achieve this has proven to be oppressive and deadly. Similarly the struggle for the “I” has had noble intentions as it derives from a need to assert individuality where conformity has crushed dignities and aspirations. However overt individuality leads to behaviours that are unkind and antisocial, and can if unchecked destroy communities.
Ayn Rand was a writer and philosopher who exemplified modern western capitalist notions of individuality. She believed in ambition, responsibility and freedom but castigated despondency, dependence and repression. She was familiar with political systems that kept people in undignified servitude as she was a Russian refugee but determined to succeed as an American citizen.
In her dystopian novella “Anthem” every citizen has been stripped of their individuality. They are reduced to mere numbers, their rich cultural history has been erased and they are forced into demeaning work in factories until they are sent tired, ill and demoralised to state institutions where they reside until death.
However one person is strong enough to realise that individual life has meaning and that people are not machines in a state apparatus. Her version of “ego” is strictly metaphysical rather than pejorative, in that every human is a conscious thinking subject.
Frank Herbert also pondered this subject in his series of “Dune” novels. He contrasted the experience of conscious thinkers striving to exist in a desert empire dominated by religious fanaticism. The only reason why this society remains successful is due to the wealth generated by a resource called “spice”.
However this is an empire riven with division, wars are continually waged between rival factions. The quest to acquire complete homogeneity is always at the expense of the personal freedom of individuals and it is a life fraught with misery. Dune is an allegory that alludes to the historical religious and political struggles between Eastern and Western traditions. These struggles were painful and unfortunately still resonate today.
It remains a fine balance to honour the virtues of having profound religious beliefs while respecting the dignity of individuals who seek their own path and wish to find unique meaning in their lives.