|Me, Aged Three!|
“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.