The final of four autumn 2014 ‘Tetley Talks’ on the theme of ‘What does it mean to be human?’
Nowadays everyone is obsessed with themselves. People take life-affirming journeys and courses in self-discovery, cover themselves in tattoos, and talk about little else – the fear is that we are a selfish society, only interested in number one. But the preoccupation with the Self is a clue that the modern sense of identity is weak, not strong. We are a long way from the assertive self-confident individual of the eighteenth century, or the collective struggles of the nineteenth century. The contemporary idea of Self is fundamentally precarious, unsure of its goals, and without a sense of its mission in the world. Margaret Thatcher hoped that she could pull back the collectivist welfare-state and uncover a healthy individualism – but all that has been uncovered is a cautious and inward-looking individual. Looking at the situation of the individual and the collective today, what are the prospects for human agency?