The transition from a condition of little autonomy to one that recognizes the individual is often gradual. This is evident in our own personal lives. When we were very young, our parents, in trying to guide us down the right path, pretty much dictated what we could and could not do and laid out all of our beliefs for us. As time passed and we worked our way from kindergarten to college, we were exposed to new ideas, providing us the motivation to seek more rights and allowing us to define and redefine ourselves as individuals.
This same ideology is true of societal transitions. By substituting Old Regime ideals for kindergarten and various revolutions for grades in school, this can be seen. In the early 1700s, the practices and ideals of European government, which came to be known as the Old Regime, offered society little individual freedom. Gradually, as Europeans witnessed the Scientific Revolution, the Age of Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and the reign of Napoleon, they were exposed to new ideas. The people of Europe took these ideas and incorporated them into society, ultimately leading to the birth of individualism.
The Old Regime was a time characterized by absolutism, both real and unreal, and an agrarian economy that grappled to produce enough to meet the needs of the general public. People felt they were powerless over nature. Because life was often "nasty, brutish, and short," family life centered on survival, and collective interest took priority over individual interest. Marriage, which took place at a young age, was normally the result of economic necessity rather than love, and after marriage, women became slaves to child bearing to ensure that they would have a male who lived until the age of inheritance.(1) The father was in charge of the household, and he exercised strict discipline, crushing the individual wills of his children at a young age and thus preventing autonomy.
With these practices, it was difficult to see the world as anything but an arena of limited good. Life seemed to have gone on much the same forever, and people did not think of themselves as individual Frenchmen or Austrians, but rather as citizens of small, centralized communities. People had few individual rights because rights were subordinate to survival. The grimness of life was visible in the acceptance of absolutism and social orders, or estates. Kings made the argument that God picked their bloodlines and placed them on the throne. More importance was therefore placed on heredity rather than merit in determining one's social standing. Citizens were categorized into one of three estates: clergy, nobility, or Third Estate. Economic reality, Christian thinking, and the biological theory of royal blood justified these social orders. Individual liberty, although there was not much for anyone, depended on estate status. Money gave the clergy and especially the nobility, power and privileges. Nobles had the privilege to judgment by peers,...