Monday, 15 November 2010

On the primacy of the individual



Me, Aged Three!
My philosophy is no more complex than my politics: I believe in the primacy of the individual; I believe in personal freedom and autonomy. I tolerate the state though I distrust it; distrust its importunities, the natural reaction of a natural conservative. I hate all collectives, all ideologies, all institutions, everything that would reduce me to a mere cipher, a token or a counter. History for me is the history of the individual, ever striving towards a higher understanding, a more complete self-realisation. I think therefore I am; I believe therefore I am; I act therefore I am; I create therefore I am.

“Society exists only as a mental concept; in the real world there are only individuals.” Does that sound familiar to you? Who do you think said this, Margaret Thatcher, perhaps? Actually, it was Oscar Wilde. Now, I find it difficult to imagine two people less philosophically and politically compatible that the Divine Oscar and the Blessed Margaret but they both, in their individual ways, arrived at exactly the right conclusion.

Thatcher’s words to the effect that “there is no such thing as society” are, in the way of these things, always taken out of context. The point she was making, and making with absolute clarity, is that we each have a responsibility for our own destinies, that it will simply not do to lay one’s problems on the alter of an abstract god; to say that when things go wrong it is not my fault; I abdicate – I pass it all on to society, the state, the government, the institutions. I do not exist; I am not responsible; I have no personal significance whatsoever.

Last May I wrote an article touching on Der Einzige and sein Eigentum- The Ego and its Own – by Max Stirner, an nineteenth century German philosopher, one who contributed to such varied strands of thought as existentialism and anarchism (The Divine Ego, or How I so love Max Stirner). It’s an exciting book, one that certainly excited me, in its demolition of the settled features of social existence. Here is part of what I wrote;

Stirner’s basic argument is that the institutions, concepts and structures one takes for granted, as ‘fixtures’ in one’s life, so to speak, in all of our lives, are simply illusions; things like the state, ideology, organised religion, even society itself are all ghosts, to use his term, intended to circumscribe each individual’s freedom and understanding of freedom.

We are each, then, faced with a task, the deconstruction of all artificiality, the road, if you like, to a personal emancipation. To achieve this end we are entitled, to put it another way, to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The only possible basis for action is egoism, self-interest, however one wishes to define things. The individual is the only creative force, the only true meaning. It’s a kind of anarchism, yes, but then I’ve always believed that libertarians, free spirits of all kinds, are natural anarchists, anarchists of the spirit. The assumption that this is a philosophy of the left is utterly mistaken. Karl Marx hated it, as he hated Stirner, which should be corrective enough.

It’s the variety that makes life exciting, the discovery of oneself, the discovery of others through the free exchange of things, of emotions and of ideas. Ideas, yes; the shape I give to my thoughts, the translation of my thoughts into spoken language, part of the currency of existence, endlessly flowing, endlessly changing. My communication is not just with the present, with people I know and love, but with the past, people who speak to me indirectly, in letters, in diaries and in notes that I may have been the first to read in centuries. Oh, how important these things are, these traces, these little lives rounded in a sleep. There is an intimacy here that is difficult to explain to someone who has not been through a similar process of discovery, an intimacy that brings the past to life, removing the sediment of centuries.

So it’s simple: without individuality there is no history, there is no poetry, there is no culture, there is no philosophy, there is no meaning, there is no art and there is no beauty; there is nothing but aridity.

All greatness of character is dependent on individuality. The man who has no other existence than that which he partakes in common with all around him, will never have any other than an existence of mediocrity.

61 comments:

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  4. I think that’s rather a nineteenth century definition of liberalism and conservatism, Adam. To refer to someone as a ‘liberal’ now has quite different connotations. It would be more accurate to describe me as a libertarian. The conservatism comes from a natural cynicism, a distrust of all collective solutions, a determination to retain a unique perspective.

    I have to say this - your notions of feudalism, the worst kind of state serfdom, really, repel me in every degree. I don't accept any of it. But if freedom is a curse for you, then it is a curse.

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  7. That’s an awfully bleak view, Adam, but so be it. I think you can really only speak for yourself here. I imagine most Chinese people, to take but one example, would prefer their present economic freedoms than the dreadful serfdom they suffered under Mao. I imagine most people in Zimbabwe are desperate to see the end of Mugabe’s feudalism. You are fortunate not to have been born in a place like Cuba, where people long for freedom, any kind of freedom. But if you define yourself as a serf then I am not going to argue the point.

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  12. I don't see that much difference between feudalism and communism.

    Anyway, how can you tell me you're lonely, and say for you that the sun don't shine? Let me take you by the hand and lead you through the streets of Havana. I'll show you something to make you change your mind. :-)

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  15. "A hundred men together are the hundredth part of a man." Ana, individuals are born, not made. Some of us just can't see any sense to the rules, to stringing along. We like our freedom too much.

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  16. Society is a collective of individuals.

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  17. I've got some doubts about Adam's class-talk, but I think I know what he might be getting at here. Freedom can be a curse, and the philosophy which Ana is sketching has a dark side. I'm not sure what the emancipation Ana is talking about actually is - beyond seeing things without illusion - and this can be a pretty frightening, bleak view. Ana, I love what you say about communication (and language is far from being an individual thing even if it can be individualized).

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  18. Poor Adam. I imagine your perfect life would be that of an Imperial Chinese court eunuch: every action codified by tradition; no imagination or originality required - or tolerated.

    I was born of a different tradition - a tradition of "liberty and justice for all" - imperfectly realized, under constant threat, bought with the blood of my ancestors, I will continue defend and practice those ideals of liberty and justice until my dying breath.

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  21. adam, it's a slight adaptation of a verse of Ralph McTell's The Streets of London. I thought you would have known it.

    No, there are various types of feudalism, including the oriental or despotic variety, which communism recreated in a modern form, a system where people are literally the property of the state, to be disposed of if the occasion demands. Communism is not laden with vice; it is vice, the most murderous ideology ever devised.

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  22. Anthony, I have no argument at all with that.

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  23. Mark, for me it's liberating! Language, I agree, is a shared joy, or it should be.

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  24. Calvin, I think you must be a Minute Man. :-)

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  27. Adam, you may be the property of the state; I most assuredly am not. I don't really think you have a proper understanding of how civil society operates, of how a consensual democracy operates. In your taxonomy there would seem to be no difference whatsoever between systems of governance.

    I'm not sure what ex-miners have to do with anything. I would encourage them, and the rest of the unemployed, to adapt or die, if you take my meaning! Dinosaurs only ever head in one direction.

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  28. You most certainly don't understand the impact of communism.

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  34. A fascinating blog, Ana, as are many of the comments. When I was a small boy trying desperately to become well read and wise, and being thought of as rather strange by my peers, a thought came to mind that I scribbled down and which became my personal motto. "It doesn't matter where I am, or what I'm doing - the only thing that matters is what I think".

    That's freedom for me.
    :-)

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  35. To say freedom is a frightening thing is the same as saying life is a frightening thing. To say freedom is a curse is the same as saying life is a curse. You're free to think that way and live that way. But if you do, it's not life, it's not freedom, it's you.

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  36. I could not agree more with this sentiment. Empowering thy self to become reliant on his or her own means and not subject to anyone or anything else is true freedom.

    As for liberalism and conservatism, I don’t mind so much either of these ideals until they form in large groups and tell me how to live. I prefer conservatism but see less and less and of real conservatism these days.

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  38. @Ana: There's no better way of seeing how true what you've said is then to be out in the great Western desert, seeing the vastness of the land before you and knowing that no one will hear you scream, no one will hear you laugh, no one will hear you claim your land, and if you say a dirty word, no one will hear that either. The desert is there for everybody, and it showcases what really is true everywhere:

    "What do you think of me Rourke? 'I don't'" -Ayn Rand, from "The Fountainhead"

    @Adam, "Property of the State": Have you considered being a BDSM mate for aristocratic ladies? The reason why Anarchy does not abound is because people, INDIVIDUALS, do not want Anarchy to abound. Even the Aristocrats of Britain were a response to my pillaging Viking ancestors enslaving, raping and killing you. (Trolling. David made me do it.) Rationally, you elected to be only raped and enslaved instead, not to mention it's a much easier commute for Laird to be 2 miles away then to be carried across the North Sea to Vik and forced to work on my great-great-great-grandfathers land at Steinbo. And you got to avoid Lutefisk.

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  39. Ah, I was humming The Streets of London while reading the comments, Ana. ;)

    Excellent post.

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  43. Adam, you’ve presumably read some of my past blogs on the impact of communism according to me. I would refer you to my review of Mao’s Great Famine for a recent example.

    A good, effective functioning democracy is based upon government by consensus and the rule of law, by a whole variety of rules, practices and mores that constitute a civil society. British and American democracies both have strong roots because they have mature civil societies. Russian democracy is shallow and authoritarian because no such tradition exists in the country.

    I do not give a fig for unemployed miners, or anyone else unable to take their own lives in their own hands. The song, silly or not, was merely a shallow attempt to illustrate a point with a spot of humour, invariably lost on you. It’s not something I will attempt again.

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  46. Coloradocasters, there is a wonderful essay by Alistair Cooke about a Christmas he once spent in rural Vermont, I think, with members of his family, people who happened to farm the local land. Everything, even the wine, was locally made and sourced, nothing 'store boughten', as they said. It was just so wonderful, freedom in the most complete sense I can imagine. I'll try and locate the essay.

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  47. Jeremy, I've seen the Sahara in both Morocco and Libya. I know exactly what you mean.

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  48. Araminta, a sad song with a lovely tune. It's so nice to see you. :-)

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  50. @MGON: "Bondage and Discipline, Sadism and Masochism." ;-p

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  52. It more has to do with you then the aristocracy! :D

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  54. By coincidence I'm about to say something more on this!

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  56. "It’s a kind of anarchism, yes, but then I’ve always believed that libertarians, free spirits of all kinds, are natural anarchists, anarchists of the spirit. The assumption that this is a philosophy of the left is utterly mistaken."

    Gosh! All my life I've thought I was a left-winger, when I'm really a natural anarchist. I always wondered why I hated Labour's education policies.

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