Individualisms – 2

An earlier entry described the emergence of the individual, culminating in the 19th-century views of two disparate personalities, Max Stirner and Josiah Warren. The former was a German schoolteacher proposing egoism as a philosophy of life; Warren was an American Utopian writer experimenting with the notions of “individuality” and “self-sovereignty.”

Both writers lacked the keen psychological insight that would have described the individual fully, instead relying on external material factors such as property and commercial relations to define the individual in contrast to others, to institutions and to associations. They are counted as individualist anarchists in proposing social systems that would revolve around autonomous individuals — though not offering theories of society. This was inevitably the nature of their philosophies of life, and why they were labeled individualist anarchists rather than social or communitarian anarchists, who outnumber them and reflect a deeper level of reflection, for example, Kropotkin, Prudhon, or Bakunin.

In the United States especially, the writings and ruminations of 19th century individualist thinkers like Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, and John Chapman (“Johnny Appleseed”) hardly address society in terms of change or reform, ignoring this avenue of thought to more fully develop the individual, especially intellectually and creatively. A common threat has been identification with nature as an organizing philosophical principle, influenced by those unique American factors as secularism, wilderness, frontier, and the egalitarianism of the movement west. These writers extrapolate the absence of an inherited class system into an individual encounter with nature. Wordsworth would have been astonished at their autonomy from society, though he would have missed Tintern Abbey.

In the 20th century, the relationship to nature continues to dominate individualist thinking: John Muir, Robinson Jeffers, Jack Kerouac, Edward Abbey. A streak of individualist anarchism continues to underlie their thought, but the capitalism of Josiah Warren was left behind for a more authentic appreciation of nature. Where Muir was a formal naturalist, Jeffers uses nature as a confirmation of his individualist ethos expressed in poetry, what he called Inhumanism. Kerouac and Abbey are the closest to social radicalism, but they are conscious of nature as the backdrop to anything successful in thought and lifestyle. Nature curbs the intellectualisms of politics. All these American writers are close to solitaries but not hermits. They are busy exploring the boundaries of individualism but need to do so with others. At the same time, especially with Keruoac and Abbey, an absence of asceticism prevents them from true solitude — not that they seek it.

As a political and social doctrine, individualism in the 20th century United States is easily dominated by Ayn Rand, with her particular emphasis on what she calls the “virtue of selfishness.” Though as a fiction writer she echoes familiar themes about heroes battling tyranny and future worlds gripped by authoritarianism, her background as a Russian emigre of Jewish descent — and the fact of being a woman — makes her work divert from a relationship to nature to a strict ideology that consciously exhilarates the self, the ego. Where the previous American individualist writers project a relaxed and open perspective of life, Rand left fiction behind and established rigid philosophy she called Objectivism. As Leonard Peikoff, Rand’s closest disciple and her heir, notes:

Man’s self, Ayn Rand held, is his mind or conceptual faculty, the faculty of reason. All man’s spiritually distinctive attributes derive from this faculty. For instance, it is reason (man’s value judgments) that leads to man’s emotions. And it is reason which possesses volition, the ability to make choices.

But reason is a property of the individual. There is no such thing as a collective brain.

The term ego combines the above points into a single concept: it designates the mind (and its attributes) considered as an individual possession. The ego, therefore, is that which constitutes the essential identity of a human being. …

It is obvious why Ayn Rand exalts man’s ego. In doing so, she is (implicitly) upholding the central principles of her philosophy and her heroes: reason, values, volition, individualism. …

But all of these premises are bad exaggerations of rationalism and scientism. Human beings are not mental beings first and afterwards physical or emotional. It is the other way around: physical beings who have acquired a mind, have evolved a rational faculty, but who are still dominated by drives and instincts, emotions and feelings, which clearly precede reason and are emphatically not products of reason. Reason does lead to emotion, but emotion precedes reason. Reason does not possess volition, which is as much an expression of drives, instincts, and emotions as anything resembling reason. In short, ego is not mind.

Not ego but reason is enshrined by Rand’s individualism, for there is no collective ego anymore than a collective brain — though socialization and culture suggest a collective pattern of human behavior nevertheless. Reason separated from the self is both an abstraction and a broken tool. Ego is one of many composite pieces in the human psyche, and even the totality of pieces is not the sum of a human being, not the abstract “ego” that Rand proposes as an ideal. Even that ideal has a country, parents, shadows, fears, loves, hatreds, desires, and instincts. Better to be conscious of them than to suppress or deny them with “reason.”

An absence of philosophy and psychology in these tortuous arguments creates a determined path to a politics and economics that helps justify the “virtue of selfishness” that Rand calls capitalism but which in fact is corporatism. This was evident from her lifetime’s fierce defense of the status quo and the power of conventional and suppressive elites.

Rand lost the writers’ inspiration for mythic archetypes in embracing non-fiction and couching individualism as egoism, which was unheard of in other American individualisms and only remotely developed in Europe. Indeed, Rand could not stand individualisms of any but the most conventional sorts, dismissing as thugs, hippies, and degenerates any whom — along with her generation and class — smacked of the wrong sort of individualism. Her potential rivals she viewed as more inimical than Communists, liberals, and religious (whom she hated); those she singled out were libertarian or individualist anarchists and libertarian socialists or communitarian anarchists. What she must have thought of Eastern philosophy or of hermits in general!

The politics of eremitism is a patient process of sifting through the historical philosophies and spiritualities to identify where they stand with respect to nature, thought, self, creativity, and virtue, to their larger sense of identity with the myriad beings of the universe. Not taking these complexities into account — the great contests of living thought, the great forces and cycles of history and power, the breakthroughs of thinkers East and West — is bound to constrict the individual to a single frame of mind, and, worse, to bind the individual to a worldly philosophy of life.

The future

The psychology of the prophet originates in the shaman’s insight for healing the sick. The notion of predicting the future was simply the application of a remedy or change of behavior that would change the future. The sick could be physically ill or suffer a psychological modality. The function of the shaman as healer, which would be refined or sophisticated by herbalists, midwives, and wise elders, was not so much to change the future as to make one away of what the future would be without change in the present. On a mundane level, the function of problem-solving was a matter of experience; finding herbs, for example, called upon the shaman’s perception of where to optimize gathering. Perception, experience, reflection, integration, synthesis: the hallmarks of dealing with crisis and the future, be it one’s own or another’s.

With the evolution of shamanism into priesthood in complex societies, the augurs were arranged to reflect the values of the class in authority. Healing the sick was confined to healing the powerful, and predicting the success of crops or the outcome of battles was more relevant to the powerful than to the lowborn. Cicero argued, nevertheless, that augurs were demanded by the populace and were of “great advantage” to the state, and so should be retained (though he clearly was skeptical).

Today we have financial forecasters — though they have been dissipated from the temple by the global economic downturn — and sports, television, political elections, lotteries. Though the augurs have been otherwise banished, the games of fortune as augurs are still found to be in demand by the populace and of “great advantage” to the state.

All this is augury based on whim and amusement. But religious sentiment often borders on the fine line between what Cicero called superstition and religion. We might consider crass a prayer to get rich or get even, but that line is crossed when what is desired is reasonable, like rain during a drought. Even so, as the famous story of the two hillsides shows, there is contradiction in circumstance. The story is of two farmers on either side of a hill. On one side the farmer needed rain and on the other side, where the rain was ruinous, the farmer needed dryness. Who was God (or the gods) to satisfy? Both, perhaps?

The wisdom of shamanism, and forms of proactive future-changing rather than future-predicting, is in identifying the potential for positive change and pulling out for inspection all the factors involved. There is an empirical objectivity to the process, a high degree of vigilance and fact-gathering, all done with intuition as much as reason. For example, to cure a disease, the natural approach is to identify all the relevant factors, then make an estimate based on the conditions brought about by the factors. Modern medicine proceeds in the opposite way. After compiling a list of symptoms, the list is compared to a list of diseases, and a match made. Then the list of diseases is matched to a list of pharmaceuticals. Seldom are the organic factors of diet, exercise, energy, and frame of mind taken into account. Medicine, except in its grossest mechanical sense, is a reading of augurs, as superstitious as augur-reading in antiquity.

A perspicacious approach is what marks modern tarot as well. The cards are not supposed to predict the future but to identify underlying factors that the person is supposed to take into account. Or, more precisely, the cards stimulate the unconscious of the person to reflect on archetypes so that these factors begin to reveal patterns and issues in their lives to take into account. Taking these into account, the people can see what is coming in their lives. This is not divination or augury because the reader can change that probable future — if he or she addresses the underlying issues. (Of course, not all tarot users think of tarot this way.)

Another form of prophecy, actually closer to something like tarot, is religious prophecy. The shift from religions of sacrifice to religions of ethics is a substantial maturation of the relation of individual to nature, God, and self. The Old Testament Yahweh was satisfied with the “sweet savor” of burnt animal sacrifices, but by the time of Isaiah, it was a sacrifice of the heart and not of an animal that was pleasing to God, of course representing a spiritual advance. The same process took place in Aryan India with the transition from Vedic Brahmanism to Vedanta. The individual remarkably improves their ability to understand their future when taking into account more of the fundamental aspects of nature and spirit than when relying on others to interpret or predict the future.

Most religious prophecy however, intends to predict specific events, such as the Fatima prophecies, ignoring the Gospel injunction of Jesus (Mark:13:32) that no one knows the day nor hour — by which is meant a myriad of events from the mundane to death itself, which is what should matter, rather than political, economic, catastrophic, or apocalyptic events over which individuals have no control.

Similarly, cryptic prophecies declared by witches or Nostradamus or the like also pander the the desire to control not just the future but to control others, to have them live and respond in the same way as oneself, to remake the environement of time and space into a chaos, with oneself sufficiently compelled to react. An entire psychology of the occult prefers these nebulous forces to those of enlightenment and self-realization. Their augurs tend to overlap religion as much as politics.

There are more benign religious prophecies, such as the fictional Celestine prophecies, or the New Age prophecies about the winter solstice of 2012. These fall into similar categories, distinguished only by their sentiment of secular piety or presumed authenticity.

We do not control our lives in an absolute fashion, of course, but we have substantial input about how we spend our time and energy, and it is essential to control these in order to carve out a future that is in harmony with our values. Our knowledge of forthcoming catastrophe should be entirely in order to amend our lives — not as repentance or revelation but as will to power, power over ourselves.

We must be wary of the tone and structure we adopt in our speculations about the future. Forecasts about material and social conditions easily adopt a biblical phraseology that puts one on a godly plain, judging the world in terms of good and evil. The concern of sages everywhere has always been to transcend good and evil, to see good and evil as subjective intervention in the interests of human desires.

By transcending good and evil, we approximate to a harmony with nature and the universe that is not possible when we are concerned only about future outcomes of present deeds. Such a concern betrays our petty motives. If what we are doing here and now is right, then the future does not matter. The future unfolds according to the nature of its causes and effects, but our individual future is guided by what we identify as values and incorporate into our lives. How could events matter in this ultimate sense?

It is in this sense the sage would say: “Love God and do what you will.” But only in this sense.

Part of the temptation of prediction is the assurance it gives us, the power it seems to bestow on secular events. This is a false path, but understandable because modern society and culture are constructed on material achievement and cannot measure themselves in ways other than those. The modern world has constructed its values on this material plain and ignores the more subtle aspects of life, nature, self, spirit, and being.

Lao-tzu offers a different presentation of reality: as mystery. Note especially the off-hand advice of the last stanza about the future.

Looked at but unseen – it is beneath form;
Listened to but unheard – it is beneath sound;
Held but not touched – it is beneath feeling;
These depthless things evade definition,
And blend into a single mystery.

In its rising there is no light,
In its falling there is no darkness,
A continuous thread beyond description,
Lining what cannot occur;
Its form formless,
Its image nothing,
Its name silence;
Follow it, it has no back,
Meet it, it has no front.

Attend the present to deal with the past;
Thus will you grasp the continuity of the Way,
Which is its essence.

The future? It does not exist. You are an accumulation of the past. Deal with the past. Then attend the present. Thus will you enter the Way. There is no other way to deal with the future.


On first impression, philosophical Individualisms seem to be linked to eremitism. Both represent the individual following his or her own will, deciding for themselves that an interior or subjective view of the world is more important than an institutional or cultural consensus about how to live and think.

Although everyone is an “individual,” individuals did not emerge as social phenomena until after the devolution of the Western medieval world view, where a social model unraveled and identification with social and class roles began to blur.

There have always been “heroes” of one sort or another, assertive individuals efforts presented as historical and unique products of individual consciousness and will, but even heroic deeds were not individual deeds but carefully prescribed methods and channels of social expression. A knight was not heroic because he engaged in battle. A monk was not heroic because he spent hours in prayer. A woman was not heroic because she renounced her autonomy to the family.

The heroic archetype was understood in antiquity and the Middle Ages, but it was reserved to those already defined as “heroic” in capacity – hence the knight could go further, but not the monk, the peasant, or the housewife. The discovery of the individual, it may be said, was discovered early on in the East, as in Buddhism, rebelling as it did against the caste system, but the psychological and political implications were not drawn.

In the Western world, those implications were drawn, and the result was the emergence of the individual over succeeding centuries. This meant wars of nobles against nobles, wars of religion, wars of middle against upper, low against upper and middle, etc.

Indeed, war may be thought of as a pivotal factor in social jumps or shocks that set off new cycles, whether material or social. Even when war destroys the rebels, war nevertheless also destroys in the conscience of sensitive observers the moral legitimacy of the victors — and of the existing social and moral system. Wars represent a devolution of the moral “capital” of the powerful, further alienating from dominant culture that set of individuals who are thinkers, creators, and reflective personalities.

In times of crisis, alternative social expressions emerge, among them individuals, at least in modern times.

In 17th century England (and probably in mercantile Flanders, Holland, Italy, France, and other places throughout Europe where Protestantism was followed or accompanied by philosophical skepticism), the extrapolation of individualism to the economic order emerged, even before a full-blown philosophy of individualism. The notion that individuals should have autonomy in their social and economic lives was a product of devolution, opposed by the powerful who would control the new mercantilism. The autonomous economic activity came to be called “capitalism,” but it never flourished because the kings and nobles still owned land, food, shipping, credit, goods — and no individual could enter this field without the traditional social privileges of birth, rank, and social connections.

The hermit Roger Crabb is representative of an “English Protestant” form of individualism in this era, but his eremitism was partly derived from Christian tradition and his own personality, hardly to be imitated. The 19th century United States presented the optimum social conditions for the development of a unique secular individualism, from Dickinson, Thoreau, and Whitman to Muir. This intellectualized eremitism, mingled with the influence of transcendentalism and nature as a motive, reveals an individualism not dependent on the economic or philosophical theories of egoism that emerged from Europe.

The chief emergence of egoism in Europe was in the work of Max Stirner. Of Stirner, here is a Thatch entry of several years ago:

In his The Ego and Its Own, Max Stirner (1806-1856) proposed “egoism” as a model for society and individuals. His rejection of state and religion in favor of property and the will strikes a familiar chord in his successor Nietzsche. But egoism is a model for ruthless hedonism, not watchful solitude.

One can temper the identification of egoism with hedonism but the point is that Stirner was not motivated by solitude or interest in solitude.

Stirner was first to boldly proclaim that society is not an entity for the promotion of the individual but for the subordination of the individual to whatever people, institutions, or conventions were in power. As he argues it, the common weal is not his weal. Leave it to successors to state more explicitly that they will not accept the dream of a common weal or society that is altruistic, or even accommodating the pleasure of anyone. Stirner insists that anything one does must, after all, satisfy or fit the values of the self. He knows that this is the ego, and calls himself an egoist, and conversely dreams of a “union of egoists” that would be the counterpart to the union of powerful or altruistic forces in the world. This would be the only acceptable way for the individual to pursue commerce, trade, or social conviviality.

The pursuit of economic autonomy was what came to be called “capitalism,” as in the writings of American Josiah Warren (1798-1874). Warren announces his overall theory thusly:

Society must be so constructed as to preserve the sovereignty of every individual inviolate. That it must avoid all combinations and connections of persons and interests, and all other arrangements, which will not leave every individual at all times at liberty to dispose of his or her person, and time, and property, in any manner in which his or her feelings or judgment may dictate, without involving the persons or interests of others. That there must be individuality of interests, individuality of responsibilities, individuality in the deciding powers, and sense, [and] individuality of action.

Stirner had already argued that without property, the individual is nondescript and meaningless. Warren extended this theme, with an emphasis characteristic of the American experience, into a reduction of culture and society to economic and material relationships based on the individual’s production of wealth. In his essay on “equitable commerce,” Warren gets bogged down in the minutiae of a curmudgeonly storekeeper pricing his items, basically quarreling with any who haggle as equivalent to challenging his very well-being as an individual.

When Warren applies his individualism to principles of “true civilization,” he presents an ideal scenario in which each enlightened individual respects, tolerates, and cooperates with every other individual, a scenario based in part on the experience Warren had hoped would emerge from the utopian social commune of New Harmony, in which he had participated. How often do individuals overreact to disappointments and resentments!

Stirner and Warren are 19th-century representatives of what would be called anarchism, specifically individualistic anarchism, which would differ from European models based on social and political engagement, and thus called social or communitarian anarchism. One can see the vague similarities in individualistic anarchism to forms of eremitism, especially in the United States — but there is a significant psychological difference.

A future entry will explore 20th-century American expressions of individualism, and how they differ from a theory or philosophy of eremitism.