Editorial. On individualism

Joaquina Pires-O’Brien

I had two reasons to choose individualism as a theme for the current issue of PortVitoria. The first is the disturbing revelations of Operação Lava Jato (Operation Car Wash) in Brazil. The second is the upcoming centenary of the Bolshevik Revolution (or October Revolution) of 1917 in Russia, which resulted in the establishment of the world’s first Marxist experiment and 74 years of oppressive collectivism. These two motives have a common denominator in the populist collectivist tint of the majority of the political parties in Brazil. Individualism is contrary to collectivism and also the antidote for the vice of not owning up to one’s responsibilities. However, due the populist collectivist rhetoric of politicians, individualism is often portrayed negatively as a form of egoism. The sophistry goes more or less like this: ‘If you are against the collective then you are an egotist’.

Is individualism a form of selfishness, as the populist collectivist mindset claims, or is it a simple preference for the individual, as opposed to the collective, as the liberals assert? These are some of the questions I try to answer on my essay on individualism. In it, I stress the fact that individualism is not a kind of egoism but a recognition of the importance of taking responsibility for what we do with our lives and how we act as citizens. Although the word ‘individualism’ only appeared at the start of the 19th century, the idea of the self is frequent in ancient Greek mythology, literature and philosophy. Socrates’ statement that “the unexamined life is not worth living” resonates well with the concept of individualism.

Brazil needs to build a culture of integrity if it wants to tackle corruption effectively. It needs good citizenship, which boils down to responsible individuals with the habit of thinking for themselves. The best way one can learn how to think for oneself is by learning the kind of things that matter to humanity, general things that are not connected to any specific occupation, otherwise known as liberal education. The British philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote in his essay ‘Philosophy for laymen’ that the knowledge of general things that are not connected to any specific skill or profession, such as history and philosophy, could improve enormously the way people think, not only about practical things but also about polemic topics. A Portuguese translation of this essay is offered in this edition of PortVitoria.

Finally, there is a small contribution to history in general, in the two book reviews selected for this edition. David A. West’s book is Darwin’s Man in Brazil: The Evolving Science of Fritz Müller (2016), is reviewed by Amy Cox Hall, while Simon Winder’s book Danubia: A Personal History of Hapsburg Europe (2013), is reviewed by Andrew Wheatcroft. West’s book is about a German physician turned naturalist who immigrated to Brazil and ended up as a collaborator of Charles Darwin. In it, one learns how Müller was attracted to Brazil, to join a new German colony established in the 1850s by Hermann Blumenau and F. Hackradt. West notes that Darwin believed that Müller’s book was “perhaps the most important contribution in support of his ideas”, an example of which being the scientist’s testing of whether butterflies are born knowing exactly which flower had nectar, or if this skill was learned. Another example was Müller’s research on predation in butterflies. Winder’s book describes the lands in Central Europe that were once under the Austrian Hapsburgs, a dynasty which played a great role not only in Europe but also in Latin America. Brazil is the common denominator of both books, namely the German immigrants it received during the nineteenth century, which, in addition to Germans proper, included other peoples from the Austrian Hapsburg Empire such as various minorities from the Galicia–Volhynia region and Pomeranians.

July 2017


Pires-O’Brien, J. Editorial. On individualism. PortVitoria, UK, v.15, Jul-Dec, 2017. ISSN 2044-8236.