Consequences for Historical Research
Some results from research on the present age are helpful in this situation. In an examination of religious behavior and religious convictions in the United States of America, Richard Madsen has shown that individuality is not a general feature of “modern” religion but has itself the character of an option. “Individuality” as a framework of interpretation as well as a form of behavior is primarily located among mobile members of the white middle class. For these persons individuality is affirmed by their own religious commitments and the social consequences of these. Individuality is not an arbitrary option, though; it carries a hegemonic character. It is a lifestyle that is dominant and endowed with the claim to dominance in the eyes of the entire society. This insight should be taken into account whenever analyzing biographical processes in which individuals acquire “individuality” as full members of their society. Such a process of “individuation”—as I would term the biographical development of a single human being from a point of view that supplements the perspective of socialization—is a process of appropriation. It is dependent on ideals that are communicated and on realities experienced through these perceptual filters. It is also dependent on there being space available for individual lifestyle and experiences of difference. Of course the latter in turn influence communication and perceptions.
This has important consequences for the analytical use of the concept of individuality in my approach, but also generally for historical disciplines such as classics, history, and the archaeology of religion. It seems less fertile to examine specific situations and persons for the existence of a religious individuality. What might be described as individuality in each case encompasses different phenomena; these range from unusual combinations of different divinities through ritual innovations and competitive donations to reflections about one’s own relationship to traditional behaviors. It is an empty claim to insist that all these phenomena are simply different expressions of the very same feature, “individuality.” Such a claim is merely the result of a theory of modernization that demands a uniform scale of individuality as a yardstick of modernization.
If, on the other hand, one understands individuality primarily as a concept of differences, it is necessary to analyze the space between collective and individual protagonists as well as how the individual structures this space. One might start by locating the forms and variables in processes of individuation. The description of individuality then is informed by differences in individual behavior and the social necessity to justify choices that are made, or the simple existence of such justification, even if it concerns conformity or traditional actions. For example, an ancient person might pursue animal sacrifice despite philosophical criticism of this practice. Whether or not different forms of such individuality strengthen each other and become long-term institutions or reproducible models or discursive formations that are subject to transmission is historically contingent and can be examined under the heading of “processes of individualization.”
Again, it is an empty claim that such processes are uniform and unidirectional. Late antiquity saw reflections about individual religious alternatives and real choices. At the same time, the period was marked by increasing legal standardization and violent enforcement of local religious conformity. Past processes of individualization are not incipient forms or precursors of “modern” individualization, nor is modern individuality categorically different from such premodern forms of individuality. Once more, this is not a plea for renunciation of the concept. Its use enables comparison between epochs and cultures and thus offers new interpretative frameworks. Such a revision is desperately needed in the study of a period characterized by a scarcity of coherent sources, a field in which the counterstereotype of collectivity has too often been imposed onto the evidence.