Groups may display the same individuality and sense of self hood as is exhibited by individuals. And the members of the group may come to regard the group life as something quite as important and inalienable as their own personalities and possessions. Indeed in defense of the integrity of the group life, as in the case, for example, of national honor, the individual life and possession may come to be reckoned as naught. Man's gregariousness and his instinctive sympathy with his own kind make it easy for the individual to identify his own life with that of the group. What threatens or endangers the group will in consequence arouse in him the same emotions as are aroused by threats or dangers that concern his own personality. An insult to the flag may send a thrill of danger through the millions who read about it, just as would an insult to themselves or their families.
Group feeling may exist on various levels. It may be nothing more momentous than local pride, having the tallest tower, the finest amusement park, the best baseball team, or being the "sixth largest city." It may be a belligerent imperialism, a "desire for a place in the sun." While a group does not exist save as an abstraction, looked at as a whole it may exhibit the same outstanding traits, or the same types of self hood as an individual. It may be fiercely belligerent and dogmatic; it may, like literary exponents of the German ideal, desire to spread its own conception of Culture throughout the world. It may be insistent on its own position, or its own possessions or its own glory. It may be fanatic in aggrandizement. It may be interested in the welfare of other groups, as in the case of large nationalities championing and protecting the causes of small or oppressed ones, such an ideal as was expressed, for example, by US President Wilson in his address to US Congress on the entrance of America into the Great War.
Throughout the nineteenth century (indeed throughout the history of political theory), the pendulum swung between individualism and complete socialization. Like the contrast between egoism and altruism, an emphasis on either side is bound to be artificial. The individual can only be a self in a social order; the individual is only an individual in contrast with others. It is doubtful, for example, whether a man living all his life alone on a desert island would discover any individuality at all. A man's character is displayed in action, and his actions are always, or nearly always, performed with reference to other people. And a man's best self-realization cannot be achieved save in congenial social order. A man will not readily grow into a saint among a society of sinners, and unless the social order provides opportunities for the highest type of life, it will exist only in a very fortunate and favored few. One of the charges that has been laid against democracy is that it fails to encourage the highest types of scientific and artistic interests, that it is the gospel of the mediocre.
It is too often forgotten, on the other hand, by those who emphasize the importance of society, that society is, after all, nothing more than an aggregate of selves. The "state," the "social order" is nothing but the individuals who make it up, and their relations to each other. The group exists, after all, even as the most completely socialized political doctrines insist, for the realization of individual selves, for freedom of opportunity and initiative. It is when "individualism" runs rampant, when self-realization on the part of one individual interferes with self-realization on the part of all others that individualism becomes a menace.
Individuals differ, it must further be noted, not only in specific traits, but in that complex of traits which is commonly called "intelligence." In the broadest terms, we mean by an individual's intelligence his competence and facility in dealing with his environment, physical, social, and intellectual. This competence and facility, in so far as it is a native endowment, consists of a number of traits present in a more or less high degree, traits, for example, such as curiosity, flexibility of native and acquired reactions, sociability, sympathy, and the like. In a sense an individual possesses not a single intelligence, but many, as many as there are types of activity in which he engages. But one may classify intelligence under three heads, as does Thorndike: mechanical intelligence, involved in dealing with things; social intelligence, involved in dealing with other persons; and abstract intelligence, involved in dealing with the relations between ideas. Each of these types of intelligence involves the presence in a high degree of a group of different traits. Thus, in social intelligence, a high degree of sympathy, sensitivity to praise and blame, leadership, and the like, are more requisite than they are for intelligent behavior in the realm of mechanical operations or of mathematical theory. A person may be highly intelligent in one of these three spheres and mentally helpless in the others. Thus, a brilliant philosopher may be nonplussed by a stalled motor; a successful executive may be a babe in the realm of abstract ideas. But what we rate as a person's general intelligence is a kind of average struck between his various competences, an estimate of his general ability to control himself in the miscellaneous variety of situations of which his experience consists.
Individual differences are, therefore, seen to be not simply differences with respect to given mental traits, but differences with respect to general mental capacity. Experimental investigation points to a graded difference in mental capacity, ranging from idiocy to genius, the largest group being normal or average, the size of the group diminishing with further deviation from the average in either direction.
An individual, again, to a certain extent, makes his own environment. What kind of an environment he will make depends on the kinds of capacities and interests he has to start with. Similarity of original tendencies and interests brings men together as differences among these keep them apart. The libraries, the theaters, and the baseball parks are all equally possible and accessible features of their environment to individuals of a given economic or social class. Yet a hundred individuals with the same education and social opportunities will make themselves by choice a hundred different environments. They will select, even from the same physical environment, different aspects. The Grand Canyon is a different environment to the artist and to the geologist; a crowd of people at an amusement park constitutes a different environment to the man who has come out to make psychological observations, and the man who has come out for a day's fun. A dozen men, teachers and students, selected at random on a university campus, might well be expected to note largely different though overlapping facts, as the most significant features of the life of the university.
The environment is the less important in the molding of character, the less fixed and unavoidable it becomes. If an individual has the chance to change his environment to suit his own original demands and interests, these are the less likely to undergo modification. This is illustrated in the animal world by the migratory birds, which change their habitations with the seasons. Similarly human beings, to suit the original mental traits with which they are endowed, can and do exchange one environment for another. There are a very large number of individuals living in New York City, in the twentieth century, for example, for whom a multiplicity of environments are possible. The one that becomes habitual with an individual is a matter of his own free choice. That is, it is choice, in the sense that it is independent of the circumstances of the individual's life. But an individual's choice of his environment must be within the limited number of alternatives made possible by the original nature with which he is endowed. We do originally what gives satisfaction to our native impulses, and avoid what irritates and frustrates them. We may be trained to find satisfactions in acquired activities, but there is a strong tendency to acquire habits that "chime in," as it were, with the tendencies we have to start with.
Where a country is ostensibly democratic, a few informed citizens will govern the many uninformed, unless the latter are educated to an intelligent knowledge and appreciation of their political duties and obligations. Furthermore, the citizens of a community who are prevented from using their native gifts will be both useless and unhappy. Certainly this is an undesirable condition in a society where all individuals are expected, so far as possible, to be ends in themselves and not merely means for the ends of others.
(Extract from The Project Gutenberg E Book of Human Traits and their Social Significance, by Irwin Edman)