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On Identity - Alain de Benoist

On Identity - Alain de Benoist



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Published by Nicolas Mx
Originally appeared in Éléments 113 (Summer 2004). Translated by Kathy Ackerman and Julia Kostova.
Originally appeared in Éléments 113 (Summer 2004). Translated by Kathy Ackerman and Julia Kostova.

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Published by: Nicolas Mx on Jun 12, 2008
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On Identity
Alain de Benoist
It is always difficult to talk about identity because it is
aproblematic concept. Rather than an answer or a statement, it is primarily aquestion. The problems of identity only become
conceivable with the ques-tion: “Who am I?” which has not always been an obvious one. Therefore, itis not an overstatement to say along with Zygmunt Bauman that the prob-lem of identity appears to be first of all a questioning, i.e., the wording of aproblem. “Identity never ‘became’ a problem, it has always been a
it started as a
Any serious reflection on identity involvesan investigation into the conditions of appearance of this questioning, intothe process that allowed the question about identity to be asked.Somewhere in between psychology, sociology and social anthropol-ogy, the problem of identity is actually representative of the modern age.In traditional societies this question does not and cannot exist. Individualidentity in particular was not a conceptualized thought, since individualsmostly thought about themselves as members of a group and this was notconsidered to be a sufficient factor for self-determination. “The word‘identity’ itself is anachronistic in pre-modern cultures, which does notmean that the need for moral and spiritual direction was not absolute, butthe problem was not related to the individual as it is for us.”
 In pre-modern societies, identity was mainly related to filiations, both
1.Originally appeared in
113 (Summer 2004). Translated by Kathy Ack-erman and Julia Kostova.2.Zygmunt Bauman,
 La vie en miettes. Expérience postmoderne et moralité 
(Rodez: Le Rouergue/Chambon, 2003), p. 34.3.Charles Taylor,
 Les sources du moi. La formation de l’identité moderne
(Paris:Seuil, 1998), p. 65.
in the private and in the public space. Identity depended on the placeattributed to each individual by his birth, his lineage or his group. InGreece, for instance, each individual had a double identity: a personalone, expressed by a name and a surname, and a second one, related to thecommunity, which appeared with the creation of the city. These two typesof identity are not equal. “In antiquity, the former, designed to character-ize an individual, was subordinate to and overshadowed by communityidentity; very few traces of it remain. Individual identity became personalmuch later in time
Individuality is not denied, but it is grounded in thecommunity. Subjective identity originates from a sense of being,expressed in the language of the myth of origin. For the Greeks, going tothe theatre was like attending a
of their uniqueness. Com-plying with the nature of things becomes a measure of self-fulfillment.Other peoples’ identity is represented by their customs, as described bytravelers. Each people know that different people exist.This is still true in the Middle Ages. In a society of orders and stateswith immovable limits, the question of identity can hardly be posed.Believed to be objective facts, they constitute most of the social structure.Legal recognition, i.e., the confirmation that one is a member of society,and as such enjoys certain liberties and guarantees, starts with those lim-its. In medieval societies the prevalent virtue is loyalty. Therefore, thequestion is not “who am I?” but “to whom am I loyal,” i.e. “to whom do Ipledge allegiance?” Identity is the direct result of that allegiance. Societyis then divided in groups, which interlock but at the same time remainseparate. This separation limits hostility between castes and states, untilthe Nation-state attempts to homogenize all this diversity.
 It is easy to understand why the question of identity appears, first, as areaction to the dissolution of the social network and the disappearance of tra-ditional points of reference brought about by modernity, and, second, in con-nection with the emergence of the notion of individual in the Western world.In the 18th century, as well as today, referring to someone as a person means
4.Christel ller and Francis Prost, eds.,
 Identités et cultures dans le mondeméditerranéen antique
(Paris: Publications de la Sorbonne, 2002). This concept is stillcommon nowadays in most traditional societies. In New Caledonia, for instance, thenames of individuals are also clan titles related to land ownership.5.Zygmunt Bauman illustrated well in his
 Modernité et holocauste
(Paris: La Fab-rique, 2002), pp. 72-77, that the Jews were the first victims of that tendency to homogeni-zation, as modernity could no longer accept particularities, which, paradoxically, medievalsociety, as an aggregate of distinctive groups, contended with. In other terms, modernityabolished a group of distances, which were considered dismissible, but which were alsoindirectly protective. In the Middle Ages, otherness did not prohibit integration.
that he has individual freedom and can rightly be regarded as independentfrom the groups, to which he belongs. There is then a connection betweenthe question of personal identity and the development of individualism. Thelatter has two different meanings: the value attributed to the individual withinthe group, and the intensity of the relationship of the person to himself.
Bythe same token, the notion of identity is particular to the Western world.That is why Tocqueville attributed to Christianity the idea of a substan-tial identity of human beings. It meant that all men are basically identicaland their differences randomly derive from birth or history. The recogni-tion of the unity of mankind comes from omitting those differences that arenot essential in the eyes of God. Nevertheless, with the rise of Christianity,influenced by Greek philosophy, the idea of “self-concern emerges,” asMichel Foucault argues. A person was not only a legal or civic entity, butalso a moral being with an individual soul, able to stand independentlyfrom his community, and even be disconnected from it. As early as thethird and fourth centuries, the individual became a being irreducible exceptto himself, with an intimacy with himself, theoretically able to think byhimself without any references. Finally, thanks to Christianity, moralitywas no longer a matter of how good one should be, but how just one shouldbe. Morality is no longer substantial; it becomes a perfunctory obligation.The ideal of disengagement finds its original expression in the Pla-tonic, Stoic and Christian ideas according to which one should no longerlook for virtue in public life, but rather one should strive for self-controlthrough reason. But above all, as Charles Taylor demonstrated, the notionof 
was the first moral source of the modern age, and it was to alarge extent brought by Christianity. According to Saint Augustine, theway to God does not lead through an outside source, i.e., the visibleworld, but through reflexive conscience: “Instead of going outward, goinside yourself” (“
 Noli foras ire, in teipsum redi
”). The heart becomes aself-sufficient, secluded space for meeting God, and social relations areno longer essential. That means that the proof of God’s existence is foundby experiencing interiority. At the same time, free will is redefined as theability to consent. Consequently, individuality becomes a private affair.
76.Cf. Hubertus G. Hubbeling, “Some Remarks on the Concept of Person in West-ern Philosophy,” in Hans G. Kippenberg, Yme B. Kuiper and Andy F. Sanders, eds.,
Con-cepts of Person in Religion and Thought 
(Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1990), pp. 9-24.7.Cf. Louis Dumont, “Christian Beginnings of Modern Individualism,” in MichaelCarritgers, Steven Collins and Steven Lukes, eds.,
The Category of Person. Anthropology,Philosophy, History
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), pp. 93-122.

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