Has anyone ever called you a “bright individual” or a “gifted individual”? What does that word “individual” mean? It means “undivided one.” Stop for a moment and consider this, you “undivided one.” Isn’t “undivided one” a strange way to refer to people?
Referring to people as “individuals” became common in European languages after 1600, especially in English. It’s a feature of the so-called Enlightenment.
Recall that the Enlightenment was that so-called Era of Light after the so-called Dark Ages of Christendom. For historical reference, the Enlightenment after the state establishment of the Protestant Reformation and ended with the bloody guillotines of the French Revolution…
The Enlightenment posited that the nation is divisible. The Church is divisible. The city is divisible. The town is divisible. The family unit is divisible. Even marriages were divisible. However, the person is not. He or she is triumphantly individual.
The problem, you see, is that viewpoint becomes a very individualistic way of looking at reality. Now all major intellectual shifts succeed after linguistic shifts have become previously established. The debate over the definition of “marriage” is a contemporary example. The move away from person to individual signified the enshrinement and idolization of the human individual. Man truly became the measure of all things.
You can see how the Reformation paved the way for this kind of language. To be an Enlightenment Christian all you need is yourself and the Bible. That’s it.
We traded in the old communion of the saints and the universal fellowship of Christendom of previous centuries for that new shiny title of individual. Denominations will divide, but the believer never will. And so the individual believer trumped everything.
Contrast “individual” with the word “person.” The term comes from the Latin personare meaning ”to sound through.” It refers to a mask or a face and the act of speaking to others. The term person is relational and this is why Catholic theology refers to the three Persons of the Holy Trinity as three divine Persons and not three divine Individuals. There are other important theological reasons, as well. See Thomas Aquinas Summa theologiae I, q. 29, aa. 1-4.
In my discourse with others (and especially when I teach a class), I try not to use the word individual at all. I speak of people as persons.
It reminds us that the three Divine Persons
of the Blessed Trinity are truly the pattern for proper interpersonal
relationships here on earth and beyond.
We can only truly find ourselves when we make ourselves a gift to others. There is no life, happiness, or salvation without personal and social relationships. I perceive that contemporary man is finally coming to undersand this. We don’t want to be individuals anymore. We want to be connected. I want to be a person with personal relationships.
Question for comments: Play with the ideas in your mind. Do you want to have a personal relationship or an individual relationship with other people? How do words transform the way we speak? I’d love to hear your comments about this below. What are other examples of “language wars”?
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