Today I confirmed something about individuality, which is that it hasn’t been around that long. An interesting thing to remind myself of less than three weeks before I marry.
My fiancé and I sat outside a cafe this morning working out what wedding vows we want. (It will be a humanist ceremony and we are enjoying the freedom it gives us). However, many of the suggested vows and readings were written by people who combine a tin ear for language and a sweetly romantic view of love, producing the verbal equivalent of a Thomas Kinkade painting. (Look for the positive in each other? For sure, but not in those terms). We had to trim and shape much of what we found.
It’s a truism that the newer the word, the more weasily it is. Shakespeare and Chaucer handled the big stuff like love and life and death and taxes just fine, so words that were good enough for them were good enough for us. We happily pruned away the jargon, psychobabble and bullcrap, drank tea and coffee and watched the world go by.
However, we struggled with one idea. We value each others’ individuality and are pretty good at not projecting our own neuroses on to each other, and we do at least know we shouldn’t lay expectations on each other. But could we find simple language for it? Could we ever.
In the end we realised that it’s because the idea of the individual, in particular respecting the rights of the individual, comes from the Reformation and the Enlightenment. Chaucer and Shakespeare lived in a world where people were subjects not citizens, where god was in his heaven and every now and again divinely appointed a king. So respecting the individual is not an idea that is easy to express in simple non-latinate English. Before Luther, no-one needed or used the words.