Since the sixteenth century, European civilization has mostly valued individual differences in wants and beliefs, an attitude that long distinguished it from other cultures and helped foster centuries of growing prosperity and personal autonomy. However, recent changes in views about individualism—exemplified by the rise of the entitlement state—raise questions about the future of the West.


My concern in this article is to explore what I take to be the essence of freedom and to locate it in the context of our civilization. Described thus, the idea is insanely ambitious, and all I can do is sketch a position. I shall identify freedom with individualism, discuss first its emergence and then its established character in the eighteenth century, and finally say something about its paradoxical place in the world today.

Individuality is a universal characteristic of objects, but individualism is the practice that accords to some personal acts, beliefs, and utterances a legitimacy that may conflict with the dictates of custom or authority. Today, this practice is usually formulated as “self-interest,” which makes it clear that individualism may liberate some individual wants from customary controls.