When reading today for my Self and Modern Society class, taught by sociologist Leslie Irvine, I was struck by this passage about the Romantics by Roy F. Baumeister from his book Identity, Cultural Change and the Struggle for Self (1986):
The Romantic ideas about personal destiny apply to the potentiality aspect of identity, whereas the early modern period had dealt with the interpersonal aspect. But the approaches are similar. The early modern period developed the belief in the hidden self, which meant that the intentions and motives of a person had to be discovered. The Romantics made personal potentiality something that also had to be discovered, but discovered in a different way. Poetry, for example, had previously been regarded as arising from divine inspiration, but the Romantics began to think of poetry as deriving from the buried treasures within the self of the poet (62-63, emphasis original).
Immediately upon reading this, I remembered a Ted talk I love by author Elizabeth Gilbert (author of Eat, Pray, Love). In it she talks about our "elusive creative genius," and the separation that occurred in creativity from recognizing the genius as something that comes to visit us from that of some individual skill or ability that we must always care to cultivate within ourselves, etc.
She argues for a return to a sense of individuality where there is not so much emphasis put on our own ability to cultivate potential and personality. However, as Baumeister points out, before this modern-era assertion that "each person's actual character and innate potentiality were both unique" (not divinely inspired), and "the placing of value on that uniqueness, constituted the full measure of individuality" (63 [Weintraub 1978]), those living in the medieval period did not think of the self as an individual the way we do. Rather, they thought of themselves - even their salvation - as collective (Baumeister 1986:77).
As much as I love Liz Gilbert - she is one of my all-time favorite writers, and as much as I wish that we could return to this sense of a creative genius that is separate from ourselves, I don't know if it is possible considering the looming sense of individuality in our society. It also made me realize how often I view the past from a perspective of retrospective modernism. That is, I place my values and judgments onto the past, as if they saw the world the way I do. This was a massive wake up call for me, and made me realize just how hard history actually is - to study, to write, to teach, and to learn. Even more difficult, perhaps, is the combination, then, of history with social theory (as in comparative-historical sociology). If we aren't just trying to see the past from an objective, factual standpoint, but actually understand it by way of social theory, then it is even more important that we know these intricacies about how people and societies as a whole viewed themselves.
For further reading:
Leslie Irvine, ed. 2013. The Self in Society. San Diego: Cognella.
Roy F. Baumeister, "Medieval and Early Modern History of Identity," from Identity: Cultural Change and the Struggle for Self, Pp. 29-58. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
------ "Identity in Modern History," from Identity: Cultural Change and the Struggle for Self, Pp. 59-95. Oxford: Oxford University Press.