Individualism Vs. Collectivism in Antiquity: Stones Speak

As those of us who have studied Mediterranean antiquity know, there was a great emphasis (much greater than in 21st-century America!) on collectivism; community was of the utmost importance. The "group" took precedence over "self". But I fear that many scholars who have acknowledged this fact often forget that individualism was certainly on the rise during the era consonant with early Christianity. I was reading a portion of a book today that I found quite interesting. The author was claiming that one can tell, by simply looking at ancient architecture, that individualism was pushing full-throttle ahead in those days. Here's a snippet:

"A change came with the new philosophy and the new politics of the Macedonian era. The older Greek City-states had been large, wealthy, and independent; magnificent buildings and sumptuous festivals were as natural to them as to the greater autonomous municipalities in all ages. But in the Macedonian period the individual cities sank to be parts of a larger whole, items in a dominant state, subjects of military monarchies. The use of public buildings, the splendour of public festivals in individual cities, declined. Instead, the claims of the individual citizen, neglected too much by the City-states but noted by the newer philosophy, found consideration even in town-planning. A more definite, more symmetrical, often more rigidly 'chess-board' pattern was introduced for the towns which now began to be founded in many countries round and east of the Aegean. Ornamental edifices and broad streets were still indeed included, but in the house-blocks round them due space and place were left for the dwellings of common men. For a while the Greeks turned their minds to those details of daily life which in their greater age they had somewhat ignored."

- F. Haverfield, Ancient Town-Planning (New York, NY: Oxford Clarendon Press, 1913), 11.


  1. individualism was pushing full-throttle ahead in those days

    Absolutely. But individualism only flourished among the wealthy classes, and there were many practical reasons for the Hippodamian (grid) plan. The masses [whose collectivism sprung from mutual dependence for survival] could all pray to Tyche (Fortune) but they couldn't afford Epicureanism.

    Besides, another trend during the Hellenistic Age was that the rich got richer and the poor got poorer. See Peter Green, Alexander to Actium, esp. chapter 22.

  2. Bill,
    You make some very good points here. Your point about survival and dependence is quite astute. Still, I would disagree with you that individualism "ONLY" flourished among the wealthy. Even the Cynics were quite poor but very individualistic. Clearly, many of Paul's Churches were self-serving and seeking, even though there may not have been much cash flow among them (yes, I am aware of economic differences in many of his congregations). Still, to say "ONLY" is to make too much of a statement, I think. All-in-all, though, good thoughts...and thanks for the reference. Blessings.

  3. You're right again, Michael. I should have said mainly. But it's pretty far towards the "only" side of the spectrum. And remember, it doesn't take sweeping historical trends to get a person to act selfishly. It's ingrained cultural selfishness that becomes normative, acceptable, prosperous and virtuous - that's individualism. The Enlightenment raised it to a zenith, but it took the industrial revolution to begin it's full transferrance upon the masses.

    On the cynics - I'd love to wrong here, but where & when do you see masses of poor cynics? Random ascetics might survive off very little, but that wasn't extremely common.

    Also, where do you see whole churches acting in self-serving ways? Which ones, at what points?

    The philosopher-mooch sitting on the hilltop at Thessalonica waiting for the Lord to come back was individualistic in a way, but still entirely dependant on his community for bread. Likewise, so I've heard, Thoreau used to trek out of Walden to swipe meat pies off Mrs. Emmerson's sill. Or something like that! ;)

    Blessings in return.