Ralph Ketcham, Professor of History and Political Science at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs of Syracuse University presents the slowly evolving rise of individualism. This preoccupation with private existence has been defined by political scientist Alex de Tocqueville:

"Individualism is a mature and calm feeling, which disposes each member of the community to sever himself from the mass of his fellow creatures; and to draw apart with his family and friends; so that, after he has thus formed a little circle of his own, he willingly leaves society at large to itself. … Egotism blights the germ of all virtue; individualism, at first only saps the virtues of public life, but in the long run, it attacks and destroys all others, and is at length absorbed in downright egotism."

How did this moral predicament come about? Ketcham takes us on a ride through 2,500 years of Western history with side trips charting the limitations of feudalism, the institutionalized church, and tyrannical countries. He also covers contributions of Emerson, Darwinism, and the writings of James Stuart Mill. The essential ingredients of the stew of individualism are liberalism, freedom, and democracy.

Ketcham is convinced that this public philosophy leads to selfishness and self-centeredness masked as a lack of energy and zeal for citizenship, leadership, and decision-making. The end result is an ideology of anti-politics. Ketcham asks the right-questions as he wonders whether linking the "primacy of the private" and the absence of government in the lives of Americans can lead to anything but catastrophe.