So far, we have been concerned with collectivist, not individualist ethical concepts. While Kant and Mill disagreed about whether or not we should always follow the rules, both believed in an ethos, an ethical theory, that applies equally to everyone as a collective.
This time we talk about individuality, as well as drive, desire and self interest, reading Frederich Nietzsche but also looking at a thinker important in American thought who takes this sort of thinking in an entirely different direction, Ayn Rand. “Ayn”, as the Randian Objectivist website most appropriately says, rhymes with ‘mine’.
With modern times and increasing technology that enables the individual comes new individualistic thinking and criticism of more collectivist traditional thought. Individuals are more enabled, and free to disagree with each other via media than ever before, and Americans are particularly proud of individuality and personal freedom. Recall that Mill’s preference to prevent pain rather than proactively make everyone equally happy is a central influence in American law.
While Nietzsche and Rand both believe the individual should try to create something in the name of the self, Nietzsche says this is because no one is simply right while Rand says that she and her school of thought, a group of right minded individualists who call themselves Objectivists, are right and rational. Recently, Paul Ryan, a Republican congressman from Wisconsin, has come out in favor of Ayn Rand’s philosophy, in spite of the fact, as many have pointed out, Ryan is a conservative Christian and Rand was an atheist who despised religion. Myself, I love Nietzsche, and hate Rand. Both are critical for looking at modernized society, which is increasingly individualistic.
There are many positive and negative things about individualism over collectivism. When individualism is a problem we call it ‘selfish’ to label it bad, but our society sees more than just evils in individualism and self-centeredness. As society has become modernized, it is up to the individual to regulate themselves and keep themselves in line, something we saw in ancient Egypt with the “heart guided individual”.
While America is very individualistic as a culture, with positive and negative aspects, it is important to recognize that ‘Western’ European people are not individualistic relative to other cultures starting with the ancient Greeks. This is unfortunately how it is often presented, that individuality and self-consciousness were born in ancient Athens, and that’s why the West is so the West compared to the rest.
Anthropologists have found that people in the simplest and remotest of tribes have individual opinions they debate with others, and are as logical as anyone in thought. Also, Athenians were quite brutal towards slaves and women compared to other ancient cultures. In all cultures, individuality is in tension with the collective, what Heidegger, Nietzsche’s follower, called the They.
Just as Confucius advocated opposing unjust authority, the picture is more complex than some cultures being individualist, and others collectivist. Nietzsche argued that it is difficult to be a revolutionary individual in all cultures.
When we look at Japanese teenagers in Tokyo and Kyoto, we can see profound individualism in the rising street culture and art that is shared the world over today beyond cultural differences. Good evidence for this can be seen in a recent experiment where rural African children were given laptops and the researchers were surprised when the results showed that there was no lag time of any length in the learning compared to American urban children. The researchers all assumed that individualistic-culture raised children would be able to master laptops faster.
Thus, the Greeks and the Renaissance were ‘humanism’ rising, but only because there were surges of wealth and culture, just like in Baghdad 1000 years ago and in China before that. In many cultures, with resources and positioning come greater freedom of thought, diversity of opinions, inventions and innovations. Americans, because of the last 150 years and due to geographic positioning, have become far more enabled and innovating than other areas of the world, particularly in Silicon Valley, but we should not fool ourselves in thinking that we are the good culture that owns individuality or individual achievement.
In the context of ancient cosmology, individualism and self interest are typically BAD, insofar as they oppose the collective and the whole. Many has been characterized as bad and One as good on both an individual and social level. As society became more and more complex, with larger and larger cities supporting complex social roles and technology, diversity becomes a good thing.
Consider a tree. The more the branches, the larger the trunk has to be to support them, and the larger the trunk, the more branches are needed to feed the tree. Individuality and community are mutually supportive. While traditional society favors the collective and modern society prizes the individual, both can help each other in balance. While individualism can be too extreme, Ethics has largely ignored individualism to concentrate on collectivist morality and consequences. As mentioned, Nietzsche was not a fan of either Kant or Mill, though he was far more on the side of progress than tradition.
Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (1844 – 1900 CE), the great mustachioed one, came from a long line of protestant Lutheran preachers, five generations deep on his father’s side. Unfortunately, Nietzsche’s father died when he was five years old, suffering both physically and mentally from debilitating insanity. Nietzsche as a boy wondered why both his father, a passionate preacher loved by the community, and older brother suffered and died for no apparent reason in spite of being Christian. Though his family sent the boy to school to become a preacher and theologian, like Hegel, Heidegger and many other German thinkers, Nietzsche rebelled and turned to philosophy. Nietzsche also studied philology, a now forgotten subject similar to social and anthropological linguistics.
Just before Nietzsche’s birth, Germany had been going through a period known as German pessimism. Just like in China, Egypt, Greece and everywhere else, human thought flourishes in periods of tragedy and warring states because people are forced to turn against old conceptions and institutions and ask hard questions that become very popular in these sorts of times.
Inspired by the American and French revolutions, the German people rose up seeking more rights, but the German princes came together to crush the popular people’s movements. In popular and intellectual culture, there was a great turning away from the reason of Kant and Hegel towards the will of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. Since reason failed in the world, the world is not a reasonable place but a tough place in which it is hard to push for what one sees as beautiful and true. Karl Marx wrote in this time, promising that communism would be a second French Revolution, the sort of revolution the Germans had failed to achieve.
Schopenhauer was deeply influenced by Buddhism and Indian thought, in a very pessimistic way. He uses the image of a ship bobbing on the water, just hanging on in a watery, stormy ocean of a world. Rather than believe in a reason beyond, having the stomach to see the harsh reality of the situation became a value, a value that skeptical thought has retained. For Schopenhauer, the best an individual can do is to dissolve their individuality back into the world through the ecstasy of art and music. Nietzsche, very influenced by Schopenhauer, argued that the individual should not abandon individuality, but create a greater self.
German pessimism, including its famous thinkers Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, flourished in two more recent periods of pessimism: WWI for Europe and Vietnam for America. Nietzsche was the original guy who said ‘my home country is stupid and think they are awesome’, bashing Germany and all things German quite openly, for which he has been honored as not only individualistic but incredibly courageous. Thus European thought following WWI and American culture following the 60’s (Berkeley a key player in this) found deep meaning in calling their society and ‘the system’ a bunch of chumps.
Nietzsche did not want his texts to be read like newspapers, available to all regardless of ability. There is no one way, so find your own way, Nietzsche implores the reader. Nietzsche encouraged his readers to distrust him as he distrusts himself. Truth, in the individual or society, should not need to be defended, but rather put into conflict, forcing it to rise to the occasion or perish. Nietzsche wrote that if he was to pronounce a law that should not be broken, it would only be for the purposes of testing the individual who would be courageous enough to strengthen themselves by breaking it. Suffering, error and contradiction are necessary in every great development, which Nietzsche argued the great must embrace and cherish.
Nietzsche argued against the two extremes of morality and nihilism. He saw Europe as entering a crisis after the Enlightenment, in which all objectivity, authority and morality were called into question. Most would turn to morality and objectivity, giving their individuality to religion, science or politics without criticism in the hope of security. Others would lose all faith and motivation, turning to nihilism and renouncing the ability to believe and create. Between these two extremes, Nietzsche argues, is the tightrope walker, the one who faces the void, the absence of complete security and certainty, and decides to create meaning, to give their life some meaning needing no authority other than their own individuality. Nietzsche distinguished himself from nihilists, saying he had never feared finding the way out of the hole of nothing and arriving at something.
Nietzsche valued creativity, and lauded the individual’s ability to out-think the herd. Nietzsche at times said he was creating new values, new ideals, and at others that he was smashing all idols without replacing them with others. Both these are true. Nietzsche found values for himself, and for others who enjoyed them, but he wanted everyone to be free to find their own, and so permanent social idols were to be smashed and not replaced, but some ideal must be asserted by the individual to avoid the collapse into nihilism.
Nietzsche loved and hated humanity, celebrating human thought’s ability to rise above itself, to evolve unlike anything else in existence, while bitterly attacking it’s perpetual hypocrisy and cowardice. This is similar to Confucius, with whom Nietzsche compared himself at a young age. Like Confucius, Nietzsche said that he could not find a perfect man anywhere, but humanity, as it already was, was capable of endless possibility, of producing boundless truth, unbounded even by self-consistency or noncontradiction. Human thought can overcome any obstacle it sets in its own path, indeed cannot grow without obstacles to conquer. Human individuals, through thought, can observe themselves just as thought can observe itself, and through this gain freedom or impose limitations, as they sees fit in its time and place.
The text I gave you to read is Beyond Good and Evil, in which Nietzsche asks us to look at humanity critically and see that following the rules, like Kant or imposing the greater good, like Mill, is for sheep. The great, revolutionary individual rises above the masses and sees things in a new way. The herd then follows the great individuals, making dogmatic traditions out of the individual’s revolutionary insights, and the process repeats itself, in all human cultures and systems. For Nietzsche, inequality is the beautiful mountain range for individuals to climb and conquer.
Nietzsche was a staunch individualist, believing that group morality is slave morality, and he called Buddhism, Christianity, the idea of scientific “objectivity”, German Nationalism and German racism out on this vocally. Because most individuals do not admire their own accomplishments, they identify with large herds they consider to be better than other large herds. If one works on oneself and becomes a better person, there is no reason to believe that some groups are better than others for the sake of self-confidence. Consider that Nietzsche suggested that the Europeans be mixed together across cultures, together with Jews and non-Europeans, to create a greater range of individuals. In one joking line, he suggests that if the Germans want to create the master race, they should mix in a lot of Jews. Nietzsche would never advise creating a master race of equals but rather loves the individual who stands above the race as a herd.
It was a shame that Nietzsche was censored and, with great help from his sister after his death, used by some Nazis to support their ideas of the rising German will of the master race, taking Nietzsche’s individualism and twisting it into a racial and social doctrine. Nietzsche intended his words for individualists, as he says over and over again. He was also afraid of having followers. While Nietzsche used the idea of the superman (das Ubermench in German) to refer to individuals, Nietzsche’s sister and some Nazis insisted that the idea also applied to the German race, an idea that Nietzsche would have ridiculed.
While many would say ‘Nietzsche believes in nothing, then”, this would not be true. Nietzsche was just as vocal about believing in something as he was about not believing the herd mentality. Nietzsche believed that the whole worth of the individual is that, in the face of nothing being absolutely true, staring into the void of being, you create something and stand for something in a beautiful way, creating your own meaning in life. Like the Existentialists who followed him, Nietzsche believed we must each take individual responsibility for our beliefs and personal development. He was very critical of nihilism, believing in nothing, thought this is just what his critics, religious and not, have called him. He avoids believing in eternal positives, but also believing in nothing whatsoever. It is the overturning of the old into the new by the true individual who wills something created beyond themselves and the world that stands in the face of nihilism. Thus, Nietzsche relentlessly bashes reason and judgment in himself and in others, but he believes that you must have the courage to create as a contradictory and mortal being.
In his book, Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche attempts to push thought beyond categorical understandings of good and evil and of true and false to show the complexity of human meaning and life. He starts this work asking: Why do we want simple truth or suppose we can get absolute truth? Philosophy has assumed that something in us wants absolute truth and can acquire it. Nietzsche says that asking this is perhaps the greatest risk. If we question our ability to gain truth, it becomes possible that we will lose all hope for truth and turn to nihilism, which Nietzsche argues later is equally as dangerous to human creativity and the process of life as the belief in objectivity. Typically, thinkers have assumed that there must be absolute pure truth apart from or hidden within the messy world and various human opinions. He writes:
This way of judging constitutes the typical prejudgment and prejudice which gives away the metaphysicians of all ages; this kind of valuation looms in the background of all their logical procedures; it is on account of this ‘faith’ that they trouble themselves about ‘knowledge’, about something that is finally baptized solemnly as ‘the truth’. The fundamental faith of the metaphysicians is the faith in opposite values. It has not even occurred to the most cautious among them that one might have a doubt right here at the threshold where it was surely most necessary…For one may doubt, first, whether there are any opposites at all, and secondly whether these popular valuations and opposite values on which the metaphysicians put their seal, are not perhaps merely foreground estimates, only provisional perspectives, perhaps even from some nook, perhaps from below, frog perspectives, as it were, to borrow an expression painters use. (BGE 2)
Note the ‘frog perspectives’ in their nooks, used by painters, is possibly from the Daoist Zhuangzi, who tells the story of the well frog who cannot believe in the sea because he has lived in a well all of his life. Later, Nietzsche uses the term ‘well-frogs’ similarly. European painting was influenced in the Renaissance and later Enlightenment by Chinese landscape paintings.
After having looked long enough between the philosopher’s lines and fingers, I say to myself: by far the greater part of conscious thinking must still be included among instinctive activities, and that goes even for philosophical thinking…most of the conscious thinking of a philosopher is secretly guided and forced into certain channels by his instincts. Behind all logic and its seeming sovereignty of movement, too, there stand valuations or, more clearly, physiological demands for the preservation of a certain type of life, for example, that the definite should be worth more than the indefinite, and mere appearance worth less than ‘truth’. (BGE 3)
The falseness of a judgment is for us not necessarily an objection to a judgment. In this respect our new language may sound strangest. The question is to what extent is it life-promoting, life-preserving, species-preserving, perhaps even species-cultivating, and we are fundamentally inclined to claim that the falsest judgments (which include the synthetic judgments a priori) are the most indispensable for us, that without accepting the fictions of logic, without measuring reality against the purely invented world of the unconditional and self-identical, without a constant falsification of the world by means of numbers, man could not live, that renouncing false judgments would mean renouncing life and a denial of life. To recognize untruth as a condition of life, that certainly means resisting accustomed value feelings in a dangerous way, and a philosophy that risks this would by that token alone place itself beyond good and evil. (BGE 4)
Notice Nietzsche calling Kant out on a priori truth as a fiction, as well as the title of the book first stated here. Nietzsche argues that we should embrace faults and mistakes, because without them we would not grow. This is similar to the “good of the bad example” problem we had with Mill and Utilitarianism.
What provokes one to look at all philosophers half suspiciously, half mockingly, is not that one discovers again and again how innocent they are, how often and how easily they make mistakes and go astray, in short, their childishness and childlikeness, but that they are not honest enough in their work, although they all make a lot of virtuous noise when the problem of truthfulness is touched even remotely. They all pose as if they had discovered and reached their real opinions through the self-development of a cold, pure, divinely unconcerned dialectic (as opposed to the mystics of every rank, who are more honest and doltish, and talk of ‘inspiration’), while at bottom it is an assumption, a hunch, indeed a kind of ‘inspiration’, most often a desire of the heart that has been filtered and made abstract, that they defend with reasons they have sought after the fact. They are all advocates who resent that name, and for the most part even wily spokesmen for their prejudices which they baptize ‘truths’, and very far from having the courage of the conscience that admits this, precisely this, to itself, very far from having the good taste of the courage which also lets this be known, whether to warn an enemy or friend, or, from exuberance, to mock itself. The equally stiff and decorous tartuffery of the old Kant as he lures us on the dialectical bypaths that lead to his ‘categorical imperative’ really lead astray and seduce, this spectacle makes us smile, as we are fastidious and finds it quite amusing to watch closely the subtle tricks of old moralists... (BGE 5)
Notice Nietzsche calling the dialectic of Kant and Hegel, the two big names in German thought in Nietzsche’s time, a sham that parades itself as pure cold truth. Nietzsche argues that truth is seduction, we believe what we want to believe and project it through abstraction into the places we can not see or are afraid to look. Baudrillard, a French Nietzschean philosopher, took ‘Truth is Seduction’ as the starting point of his philosophy, wandering in Vegas and marveling at the seduction of consumerism and the spectacles we can create through technology.
Gradually it has become clear to me what every great philosophy so far has been: namely, the personal confession of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir…Indeed, if one would explain how the abstrusest metaphysical claims of a philosopher really came about, it is always well (and wise) to ask first: at what morality does all this (does he) aim? Accordingly, I do not believe that a ‘drive to knowledge’ is the father of philosophy, but rather that another drive has, here as elsewhere, employed understanding (and misunderstanding) as a mere instrument. But anyone who considers the basic drives of man to see what extent they may have been at play just here as inspiring spirits (or demons and kobolds) will find that all of them have done philosophy at some time, and that every single one of them would like only too well to represent just itself as the ultimate purpose of existence and the legitimate master of all the other drives. (BGE 6)
It is perhaps just dawning on five or six minds that physics, too, is only an interpretation of the world (to suit us, if I may say so!) and not a world-explanation. (BGE 14)
There are still harmless self-observers who believe that there are ‘immediate certainties’, for example, ‘I think’, or as the superstition of Schopenhauer put it, ‘I will’, as though knowledge here got hold of its object purely and nakedly as ‘the thing in itself’, without falsification on the part of either the subject or the object…I shall repeat a hundred times, we really ought to free ourselves from the seduction of words! (BGE 16)
With regard to the superstitions of logicians, I shall never tire of emphasizing a small terse fact, which these superstitious minds hate to concede: namely, that a thought comes when ‘it’ wishes, and not when ‘I’ wish, so that it is a falsification of the facts of the case to say that the subject ‘I’ is the condition of the predicate ‘think’. IT thinks. (BGE 17)
O holy simplicity! In what strange simplification and falsification man lives! One can never cease wondering once one has acquired eyes for this marvel! How we have made everything around us clear and free and easy and simple! How we have been able to give our senses a passport to everything superficial, our thoughts a divine desire for wanton leaps and wrong inferences! How from the beginning we have contrived to retain our ignorance…and only on this now solid, granite foundation of ignorance could knowledge rise so far, the will to knowledge on the foundation of a far more powerful will: the will to ignorance, to the uncertain, to the untrue, not as its opposite, but as its refinement! Even if language, here as elsewhere, will not get over its awkwardness, and will continue to talk of opposites where there are only degrees and many subtleties of gradation…here and there we understand it and laugh at the way in which precisely science at its best seeks most to keep us in this simplified, thoroughly artificial, suitable constructed and suitable falsified world, at the way in which, willy-nilly, it loves error, because, being alive, it loves life. (BGE 24)
Take care, philosophers and friends, of knowledge, and beware of martyrdom, of suffering ‘for truth’s sake’, even of defending yourselves…as though ‘the truth’ were such an innocuous and incompetent creature as to require protectors! (BGE 25)
In all seriousness, the innocence of our thinkers is somehow touching and evokes reverence, when today they still step before consciousness with the request that it should please give them honest answers…A philosopher has nothing less than a right to ‘bad character’, as the being who has so far always been fooled best on earth. He has a duty to suspicion today, to squint maliciously out of every abyss of suspicion…Why couldn’t the world that concerns us, be a fiction? And if somebody asked, ‘but to a fiction there surely belongs an author?’, couldn’t one answer simply: Why? Doesn’t this ‘belongs’ perhaps belong to the fiction too?…Shouldn’t philosophers be permitted to rise above faith in grammar? (BGE 34)
One should not dodge one’s tests, though they may be the most dangerous. (BGE 41)
Under peaceful conditions a warlike man sets upon himself. (BGE 76)
Whoever despises himself still respects himself as one who despises. (BGE 78)
A man’s maturity consists in having found again the seriousness one had as a child at play. (BGE 94)
A people is a detour of nature to get to six or seven great men. Yes, and then to get around them. (BGE 126)
AYN RAND (1905-1982) takes what is beautiful in Nietzsche and rams it straight into the ground like the head of an ostrich. I believe Nietzsche takes his individualism too far, to the point that he values it above collective action. If one is privileged, like Nietzsche himself who could afford to take long walks in the mountains and trips to Italy for his health in the winter, it is far easier to abandon collaboration and set out on one’s own. Nietzsche did appreciate friends and valuing life as a whole, as a striving that Schopenhauer also loved, but he remained an individualist. Rand, unlike Nietzsche, takes her individualism in a different direction, declaring selfishness to be a virtue and her own views to be rational and objective compared to any other. While Nietzsche thinks we should embrace the impossibility of objectivity or absolute truth, Rand argues that we should be on the side of objectivity, much as Kant argued. Hence, Rand calls her school Objectivism. She argues that selfishness is rational, collectivism is not, science is rational, religion is not, and capitalism is rational, socialism is not. Critics argue that she doesn’t spend much time considering counterarguments.
Rand believes that most philosophers have been too skeptical and stupid to see that reality is right in front of our eyes, that we see real objects, and there are times when we are right and others are wrong and we should simply say so. It is easy to see why many who love philosophy bash her writings. Other than a point or two of Aristotle, Rand dismisses philosophy as stupid without reading much of it, as it disagrees with her basic realist position.
Rand is popular, particularly in America, with people who have not studied philosophy but who believe in capitalism, science and individualism. As mentioned, Paul Ryan, in spite of being religious, is a follower of Rand because of her one-sided devotion to capitalism. Given that Rand witnessed the Communist Revolution in Russia, and saw some she knew shot, we can consider Nietzsche’s suggestion that philosophy is a personal interpretation of the author. What would Nietzsche think of people who have not studied much but say they are objectively right and everyone who disagrees is simply wrong? He would say that they are hardly individuals, but rather a herd suffering herd delusions of objectivity, like Kant but far less educated.
While Ayn Rand believed in the value of selfishness, that rational people simply act in their own best interests, her follower, friend and lover Nathanial Brandon decided to repackage Rand’s philosophy with the language of “self esteem”. Unfortunately for Brandon, Rand ejected him from the group for two-timing her with a younger model, in spite of how much in-line with Rand’s ethics this is.
Rand’s philosophy and the concept of self esteem became popular in the 80s with neoconservatives who embraced American individualism and capitalism. At the end of Atlas Shrugged, Rand’s most celebrated novel, after the collectivists have ruined society, Rand has her hero trace a dollar sign over the ruins, anointing society with the individual drive for gain which will allow it to rise again. For Nietzsche, belief in the dollar or America is a sheep-like fictional herd mentality for killing individuality, not supporting it or lifting society up as a whole.
In America, Rand is popular not only with those who are hardcore capitalists, but with conservatives who dislike religion, which is why Rand has a following in the US Military. Giving a speech to the Marine graduating class of 1975, Rand finishes saying, “and that’s why my philosophy is the only true philosophy“.
Refusing to consider the worth of perspectives opposite one’s own can be lethal. Rand, an avid cigarette smoker, said that the perfect metaphor for an individual with an idea is the tip of a lit cigarette. She argued that the scientists who said cigarettes lead to cancer were deluded by collectivist delusions, and then died of lung cancer while receiving social security.
We should each stand up for ourselves and have self esteem, but it is important to be critical of ourselves so that we can develop and diversify our thinking. Doing things for ourselves and others can be balanced and mutually supportive. There is evidence from biology that selfishness hurts the individual and isolates them from the support of society. Angry and judgmental people naturally isolate themselves and have shorter life spans. Having a pet increases your life span, and living with a large family or many friends increases happiness and well-being, so caring for others is good for your individual self.