Today, nothing solicits more applause than someone announcing that they are true to themselves or that they will be from now on. It is the stuff of prime time television. The assumption of society is, of course, that the individual has bravely freed themselves from the assumptions of society.
Today, “individuality” is, above all else, a collective act.
But what is such an individual in the contemporary sense? He or she is against certain constraints — constraints that have more or less disappeared anyway. There is little risk and little bravery. Those who are “against the system” seem always to be applauded by it.
To think for oneself is difficult. It means independence of the mind, not mere individuality.
Practically speaking, to think for oneself means trying to understand, and empathizing with, those you disagree with. Don’t like a particular religion, political movement, etc.? Read the most intelligent writers and listen to the most thoughtful speakers in favor of them until you find things that you agree with and see things from a different perspective.
Respect for a great leader or general, though an enemy, is noble, and ennobles the one who respects the other. Such an attitude has always existed in the best of cultures. Today, loudly disrespecting an opponent or enemy is normal. Yet, we cannot doubt that such people do not respect themselves either, no matter what they say. The louder and more hysterical the denunciations, the more cliched, and unoriginal they are.
Even if you largely agree with them, next time you hear someone, that you like or respect, ranting against this or that religious or political side, calmly — with the desire to inform, engage, and for the other person to experience empathy for those they currently dislike — put the other side to them.
To stop having “thoughts [that] are someone else’s opinions,” and to start having our own, we have to see things from different sides, putting ourselves, mentally, into other people’s shoes. We should be able to dispassionately argue both sides, come to our own conclusions, and then to pursue that line of thought.
To pursue your conclusions will mean going deeper, reading more, exploring strange and neglected lines of thought or history, perhaps at times doubling back or seeing a new line of thought open up. All the time, you will need to question if you are right or wrong. Such persistence may not make you popular, but this is the surest way to cultivate a spirit strong enough to keep you standing when you face the pressures of modernity and its collective “individuality” — an “individuality” that means we must to conform to whatever is passionately believed today (though it will not be tomorrow) especially in politics.