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.