Popular Science Monthly/Volume 38/December 1890/What Is Individualism?

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SCIENTIFICALLY considered, individualism is the higher evolution of the atom or unit; viewed from a social standpoint, it is a process of intellectual development by which a man is marked out from his fellows. Individualism implies concentration of thought, tenacity of purpose, and a strong sense of self-reliance. It is the religion of the strong man, the master principle of his whole existence. Of this an old writer says: "As every machine has its mainspring, every animal body its heart, and the whole natural universe its sun, so, amid all the multiplied and intricate movements of our individual and social life, there must be one master principle—one all-regulating, all-impelling spring of action. If this be wrong, then, however fair and promising to ignorant observers, all is wrong. Human life should resemble a well-constructed drama. There may be variety, there may be episodes, but unity of action is indispensable, and all that is not in keeping, so as to swell the interest of the grand catastrophe, should be struck out as incompatible with all sound and wholesome criticism." If we seek a perfect exponent of this grand principle, we find it in the person of the Christus—that divine and human figure which men in all ages and in every clime have loved to contemplate. In him every power and every thought were developed and concentrated on one aim; he clung to the set purpose of his life with a tenacity which has never been rivaled; strong and reliant, he held the truth of his own teachings in the teeth of an opposing world.

The great enemy to individualism is laziness, and those who know anything of human frailties will, I am sure, bear me out when I say that "mental" laziness is far more common and far more difficult to overcome than that of the body. It is so much easier to accept dogmatic teaching, and to shift the responsibility of our views on to others, rather than to concentrate our thoughts and work out the lessons of our own observations; it is much more pleasant to butterfly from theory to theory than to seek truth with patient tenacity: why trouble ourselves to learn self-reliance, when natural indolence protests against the sacrifice? It is easier to imitate than to originate; plagiarism and mimicry are such prominent features in our lives, that their presence might almost be quoted as an argument in favor of our evolution in past ages from simian ancestry. How plausible are the excuses we make for our want of this individualism! We are so dreadfully afraid of being thought bumptious, we are so delightfully humble, we really do not wish to intrude our opinion, and yet all the brightest lights of our profession have been men of strong individualism. Harvey thought for himself, planned by patient investigation his theory of the circulation of the blood, and then, in the face of an opposition which cost him for a time his position, his reputation, and even his practice, dared to assert and stand by those views which we hold now as the fundamental principles of our art. Sir Joseph Lister stood very much alone, when, after deep research and careful experiment, he first promulgated his theory of antiseptic operating and paved the way for fresh and undreamed-of triumphs in the domains of abdominal and cerebral surgery. Ovariotomy had such a fearful death-rate at one time that its performance was held to be almost criminal; yet Sir Spencer Wells came forward, almost unsupported, and taught us that the operation was not only justifiable, but capable of being made the most successful of all the triumphs of surgical skill.

Names such as those I have just referred to may perhaps suggest the thought that individualism is another name for genius. The descriptions of genius have been many; thus Dr. Maudsley says, in his work on the Physiology of the Mind: "He who has what is called genius is in harmony with and assimilates the best thought of his own epoch and of preceding epochs, and carries it forward to a higher evolution. An age which lacks that impulse of evolution which the genius embodies is apt to harden in obstructive formula." For myself, however, I will define genius as the highest product of individualism, and I will add that, while few human beings reach genius, no human unit is without his share of individualism. Moreover, the more I study the life of a so-called genius such as Hunter or Newton, Faraday or Darwin, the more I am struck with the enormous amount of work which they contrived to compress into one short life. Longfellow probably had the same thought in his mind when he wrote:

The heights by great men reached and kept
Were not attained by sudden flight,
But they, while their companions slept,
Were toiling upward in the night.

I have stated that no human unit is without his share of the quality which we are considering; it needs only that he should be true to himself, and develop it. I have supported my argument by examples drawn from the highly educated classes, but I can with equal truth quote men engaged in what are termed the humbler walks of life. It is well known that for many of the great improvements in modern machinery we are indebted to working mechanics, men who, with no advantage save the education of experience, have worked out their individual conceptions and revolutionized the course of an industry. I may be allowed to quote one interesting example. In the days of the old Enfield rifle, a large manufacturing firm in Birmingham used to make the barrels of these rifles for the Government. The process was in the main a simple one, the only difficulty being in securing that the barrel should be absolutely straight and true. To secure this latter point often occupied some time, but it was known that one particular workman had some secret of his own, by which he was enabled to glance down the barrel and say at once whether it was perfectly true or not. The man was often pressed to reveal his secret, but always declined. At last, one day for a drink and some two hundred pounds he sold the mystery. It seems he had noticed the simple fact that, when the tube was absolutely straight, no shadow was formed on looking down it toward the light, but if the slightest deflection existed a shadow was thrown on one or other wall of the barrel. Our argument, then, so far as we have followed it out, has brought us to three principal conclusions. firstly, that every man, whatever his station in life, is endowed with a personal equation of thought; secondly, that he can either simply store the raw material of facts and ideas as they are presented to him by others, or he can digest them and reproduce them stamped with the seal of his own individuality; thirdly, that it rests with ourselves either to be mere echoes of knowledge, or else "living voices" recording our own gleanings of truth for the help of coming generations.

Let us now apply these thoughts to the special region of medical education. In his Moral Philosophy, Prof. Stewart puts down reverence for great names as one of the principal hindrances to the spread of real knowledge; I wish he had written "to the acquirement of real knowledge," for I am firmly persuaded that no student has reached the first stage of progress until he has subordinated reverence for great names to a profound respect for his own individual opinion. Pray do not misunderstand me: I am not advocating disrespect for our teachers, but I would rather a student formed an erroneous diagnosis and stuck to it, provided always he could give me his reasons for having formed such a judgment, than that he should accept my dictum as a teacher without challenging me for the grounds on which I ventured to differ from him. A man has made a tremendous stride when he has learned to have the courage of his own convictions.

[[w:The directors of the Montsouris Observatory, Paris, have found that the electrical disturbances produced by the passage of railway trains are a factor that has to be taken account of in the record of their observations. Two railroads pass close to the observatory, the trains of each of which produce peculiar and somewhat different effects.|The directors of the Montsouris Observatory, Paris, have found that the electrical disturbances produced by the passage of railway trains are a factor that has to be taken account of in the record of their observations. Two railroads pass close to the observatory, the trains of each of which produce peculiar and somewhat different effects.]]

  1. From an address On Individualism in its Relation to Medicine, delivered at St. Mary's Hospital Medical School, London, October 1, 1890.