The major schools of classical Indian religion and philosophy generally upheld the doctrine of karma, the idea that an individual's status in the present life is a function of one's deeds in previous lives. This entailed not only that the soul was separable from the body—indeed, any body—but that it had a specific identity that transcended even corporeal death. Karma thus implied deep individual responsibility for one's actions and a system of assigning merit and demerit in the future depending on how one lives one's life in the present. That moral judgment is embedded in dharma—a universalistic system of absolute moral duties—is irrelevant. It still remains central to Indian thought that individual deeds are the wellspring of the moral system. For many Indian schools, and especially for Buddhists and Jainists, spiritual purification and eventual union with the Ultimate stem solely from the personal efforts of the individual. The right path is laid out, but it is up to the individual to follow it.
China produced doctrines that echoed the Indian emphasis on the individual. Confucius (551–479 B.C.E.) challenged both egalitarianism and hierarchical naturalism as explanations of human character. Although people are born with equal capacities, only some achieve superior moral standing because the individual's moral qualities are dependent on practice and education. Confucius's follower Meng-Tzu (c. 371–298 B.C.E.; romanized as Mencius) elaborated this position by stipulating that environment and instruction are insufficient as explanations for why only some individuals attain superiority; in his view many simply "throw themselves away," choosing not to adopt the path to righteousness, beneficence, and wisdom. Attainment of superiority thus rests in part on something like self-determination. Daoism, particularly Neo-Daoism, also evinced respect for individuality. The Daoist belief that each thing possessed its own nature could be interpreted not merely to pertain to natural species or types but to individual characters. According to the Daoist Chuang Tzu (fourth century B.C.E.), the freedom and peace of the spirit occur solely through knowledge of one's own inner nature, a position that, in turn, requires equal recognition and respect on the part of each person for the nature of one's fellow creatures. This focus on the nature of the individual was crystallized in the Neo-Daoist concentration on the particularity of human natures.
Self-knowledge was also the path to one's individuality for the Greek philosopher Socrates (469–399 B.C.E.), who sought to live by what he claimed as his personal motto, "Know yourself." Accordingly, he maintained that virtue and other forms of knowledge cannot be taught or communicated directly from one person to another. Rather, each individual must discover what is true for him-or herself. But if wisdom is incommunicable, the philosopher may still question other human beings in order to prod them to realize the falsity that they embrace and to stimulate them in the process of self-questioning that yields self-knowledge. In Plato's Apology Socrates describes himself as a "gadfly" who annoys fellow Athenian citizens with his difficult and embarrassing questions and reveals their ignorance. Socrates' trial and death at the hands of the Athenian democracy has often been held up as a noble self-sacrifice in the cause of individualism against the conformity of the masses.
Socrates was not alone among Greek thinkers in proposing a version of individualism. Democritus (c. 460–c. 370 B.C.E.) emphasized the atomic nature of all matter and, thus, licensed a conception of humanity that emphasized the discrete character of individual creatures. In turn, this theory of individuation has been shown by recent scholars to have direct political overtones that favored the Athenian democracy. The Sophist Protagoras of Abdera (c. 485–420 B.C.E.) upheld the doctrine that "man is the measure," which he interpreted as a moral principle, as well as an epistemological one, that supported the individual as the source and standard of human virtue.
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