In defence of egoism – TheArticle

Posted: December 21, 2020 at 2:56 am


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There are two mind-blowing moments in Jean-Paul Sartres 1944 play No Exit (Huis clos). The first is when we realise that the three well-dressed, well-mannered people, conversing in a living room in the style of the Second Empire are dead souls gathered in hell. The second is the famous line lenfer, cest les Autres or hell is other people.

I dont believe that man is, by nature, a social animal. To be honest, I believe the opposite. Not my quote Albert Camus. Heres another: All existing societal structures are artificial and inadequate for an individual being. Also not me, but the remarkable Russian philologist Mikhail Bakhtin, the forefather of intertextuality. I agree with both views, however, and I believe that society, even the most liberal and advanced, restricts our individuality to such an extent that we can only ever hope to realise a tiny fraction of our authentic selves.

Lets consider one of the most important decisions of our lives: choosing a profession. This is how the process is supposed to work. First, I look deep into my heart and decide what my dream is. Once Ive identified this dream, I set out to find a job that represents its perfect embodiment. Then I look hard and I persevere and, unfailingly, there comes a day when I find it. If this sounds like rubbish, thats because it is. Anyone who has looked for a job knows that the process is exactly the reverse: I dont start with a dream, I start with a list of available options. I see what jobs are out there, how much they pay, what their prospects are, and where my limited abilities might realistically fit in.

Now, for arguments sake, lets consider a scenario where I do have a dream and a talent to go with it. I am a prodigious orator: I have a gift for rhetoric, I can rouse the crowd to fever pitch and I have the power to convince. I am determined to make a living out of this gift, and so resolve to become a trial lawyer. I feel elated: from now on, my life will be one long, uninterrupted realisation of a dream.

So what are my next steps? Oh, a minor matter of seven years of studies, more years of junior legal work, nights in the archives, meetings, admin, office politics. All worth it, you might argue, as, one day, I will get to stand in court and stun the jury with the power of my word. Except that, by the time I do this, my original passion would have been trimmed and moulded to a barely recognisable shape. The consummate trial lawyer I may one day become will no longer be me, but a product of extensive compromise between me and the societal structures in which I operate.

In The Ego and its Own the German philosopher Max Stirner writes that thousands of years of civilization have obscured to us what we are. If you think thats pessimistic, wait until you read Mikhail Bakhtin, who posits that society was built without the knowledge of the fact that I exist, and, as such, it annihilates me.

Although annihilates may be too strong a word, society certainly restricts me most obviously through its laws. The laws that, I hasten to add, I did not vote for. But the country voted for these laws, you might retort. Yes, but I didnt, so how does this help? Law is the product of peoples will, you might go on. But is there really such a thing? As people, we are just an assortment of contradictory consciousnesses, each pursuing her own interests and beliefs.

If laws restrict me, morality does it more. Be good, be kind, save the world, work hard, love your family, your neighbours and your fellow human beings. Through the imperative to comply with moral codes Stirner referred to these as higher essences, absolute ideas, bigger truths society creates an artificial we and forces us to act (and think, and feel) in ways that are not our own. Because do I really owe anyone my love? And does love work through obligation?

Unlike the laws, I dont have to abide by moral codes: they wont lock me up for not loving my fellow men. But God forbid that I should admit it! Because can you imagine what they will say? They, other people, les Autres.

I cannot think of an influence more malevolent, more poisonous, more corrupt than the influence of other people. Our need for their approval, our wish to look good in their eyes is the single most powerful instrument of distortion of personality. Bakhtin writes that another is a source of infinite violation of my own I. Each day, l live in anticipation of her criticism, her mockery, her contempt and so my actions, my thinking, my whole presentation to the world bear the painful marks of her opinion. Eventually, I stop being myself and I become other peoples definition of me.

And if only these were the people who mattered. But no, when it comes to external validation, anyone is fair game. After meeting death by the firing squad, on his first day in hell, war deserter Joseph Garcin (No Exit) looks down on earth and sees his old newsroom, his comrades pulling on their cigars and talking about him. They call him a coward and they smirk with contempt. He cannot live with this, Garcin, not even in hell. So he turns to Estelle. He asks her to believe in him, to tell him that he is good and brave. He begs her, he implores her, he promises her his love. Thats right, Garcin turns to Estelle, the woman who tied a stone around her newborn babys neck and drowned it in the lake. Trust in me! Garcin implores her. Estelle refuses, and his hell begins.

Is there a solution? A way to resist societys evisceration of my authentic I? Not according to Bakhtin who, towards the end of his life, became resigned to the hopelessness of our situation. Max Stirner was more optimistic, however, as he thought he had found the answer in egoism.

I do nothing for Gods sake, I do nothing for Mans sake, but what I do I do for my sake, Stirner writes. Love, virtue, common good, family, patriotism, kindness, respect for fellow men an egoist does not care. For him, these are abstract ideas, distant theories invented by someone else. What have they got to do with him? The only power that motivates an egoist is himself: he is his own guide, his own justification, his own truth.

This is a fascinating proposition through sheer provocation, if nothing else (The Ego and its Own was published in 1844). But it has problems. For example, how do several billion egoistic truths interact in reality? Who decides which truth is right and which is wrong? Stirner has no answer to that, simply saying: take whats yours if you cant, you are weak.

Another problem is Stirners blanket egalitarianism. Everyone is unique, even the born shallow-pates, who, he happily concedes, form the most numerous class of men. The shallow-plates should also be left to do as they please, according to Stirner and it is easy to see just how bad this idea is. Then its the general feel of his prose. Stirners depiction of an egoist is not without literary talent, and the image he creates on the pages of The Ego and its Own is, frankly, that of an asshole whereas most of us would much rather deal with a nice guy.

The problem with nice guys, however, is that you never know at what point they will crack. Soaked in moral codes and doctrines, the nice guy tries hard to be good. I can always count on him to buy my raffle ticket, and to cover up for me when I mess up at work. But the raffle ticket costs two quid. What if it cost fifty? Would he be still committed to the cause? And would he still protect me if his own career were at risk? Its easy to be nice when nothing is at stake, we can all do it. But as soon as the nice guys own interests are threatened, watch his niceness quickly vanish and crude egoism take its place. As a source of motivation, egoism is really hard to beat.

If it looks like I have painted a gloomy picture of a world without decency, honour, kindness and compassion, this is not the case. Stirner writes: I love men too, but I love them with the consciousness of egoism; I love them because love makes me happy.

There is a passage in For Whom the Bell Tolls in which Ernest Hemingway explains Robert Jordans decision to fight for the Spanish Republic by his desire to join something bigger than himself. I always found this line surprisingly weak, as it comes in sharp contrast to everything else we learn about this masterfully developed character. Namely, that whatever Robert Jordan did, he did for himself.

And this finally brings me to Nietzsche, who picked up where Stirner left off in elevating egoism to the level of philosophy. In a welcome departure from his predecessors egalitarianism, however, Nietzsche writes that the value of egoism depends on the value of him who possesses it. It can be very valuable, it can be worthless and contemptible. In other words, there is egoism and there is egoism. There is the basic selfishness of everyday man whose fumbles are directed at getting a nicer job and a bigger house and there is the egoism of Robert Jordan, who lives with courage and honour, who fights for a cause and dies for a cause not out of respect for the concept of virtue but because doing so gives him joy.

For Nietzsche, egoism is an exceptional instinct of an exceptional individual, of the noble spirit strong enough and wise enough to devise his own rules, of the man who can rightly say: I serve the higher interest of mankind not for its sake, but for my sake.

Although the idea of living a decent life through inner compulsion, rather than a nod to morality, is strong and viable, the rest, I am afraid, is a fantasy. In my entire life, I met two people whom I would trust to devise their own rules. Two. The rest would quickly descend into Lord of the Flies. There are certain societal frameworks we simply cannot live without: laws, systems, standards, procedures. Nietzsche would argue that these are only required if man cannot know himself what is good for him and what is evil. Well, to be honest, many men dont. And even if we did, would we really want to live in complete, unbridled freedom, with no guidance, no benchmarks, devising our path from scratch every single day?

Does this mean that our only option is to side with Bakhtin and watch, in mournful resignation, how, year after year, society chips away at an ever larger chunk of our personality? Society lets us realise only a tiny fraction of our authentic selves: I said this before, and I maintain it.

At this point, however, I should probably add that this problem is largely theoretical simply because most selves do not possess much by way of authenticity, and, on a day-to-day basis, there is not a large pool of uniqueness for society to suppress. And for the majority who look at life and wish for a nice job, a nice family and a nice weekend hobby, the frameworks and structures that society provides can play a good organising role. Furthermore, if we take advantage of societys intellectual and creative heritage, we might not realise our authenticity but we could realise something better. Cicero would not need seven years of university studies to win cases in court: such is the nature of genius that it flourishes on its own but for everyone else, a top law degree could enhance their abilities in ways they could never manage alone.

For better or worse, we are stuck with society, its standards and rules, its collective les Autres (otherwise known as public opinion), and its general resentment of anarchy. So perhaps the wise thing to do is forget about Stirner and Nietzsche and limit our displays of egoism to basic day-to-day stuff. After all, we wouldnt want to get on the wrong side of other people.

And yet I find Nietzsches utopia of high egoism breathtakingly splendid. A spirit thus emancipated stands in the midst of the universe with a joyful and trusting fatalism. Nietzsche wrote this about Goethe. He might have written this about himself. Because he was, in fact, the perfect egoist, his own Dionysus, his own Zarathustra and there he stood, and there he fought, intrepid, unrelenting, oblivious to consequences, unheeding to any voice that was not his own, that fiercest of creatures, that rarest of men. A man with the courage to be himself.

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In defence of egoism - TheArticle

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December 21st, 2020 at 2:56 am

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