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.