Individualism and Autonomy
HENCEFORTH, please God, forever I forego
The yoke of men’s opinions. I will be
Light-hearted as a bird, and live with God.
I find him in the bottom of my heart,
I hear continually his voice within.
* * *
And when I am entombèd in my place,
Be it remembered of a single man,
He never, though he dearly loved his race,
For fear of human eyes swerved from his plan.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson, from “Self-Reliance” (poem)
As I look back on my own education, I realize that even the “classic” American writers I was exposed to – Dickinson, Whitman, Twain, Hawthorne – were by and large associated with liberal or “progressive” qualities, although they were by no means liberal by today’s standards. I therefore think it wise to address the bias by looking at more conservative figures. Today, though, I look at one of the liberals, Emerson, as I consider the ideas of individualism and autonomy, so dear to the American heart.
The traditionalist blogger Mark Richardson, along with Jim Kalb and others, has frequently discussed the problems that arise from the liberal idea of autonomy in his critique of movements such as feminism. Richardson defines liberal autonomy here as follows:
Liberal autonomy theory is based on the idea that to be fully human we must be self-creating, self-determining individuals. This means that we must be “liberated” from whatever impedes individual choice.
Certainly we all believe in autonomy to some degree – in a reasonable degree of freedom to choose our work, our mate, our political allegiances free of outside compulsion. However, the true conservative understands that our freedom must exist within a stable social order that recognizes transcendent categories of being. Distinctions based on race, gender, intelligence, age, and other real qualities are essential to civilized life. As we see our Western societies literally invaded and their basic institutions overturned under the watch of bureaucracies purporting to enforce autonomy, it is right for us to suspect that a false theory of autonomy is one of the major culprits.
However, despite these problems, there must be some broader sense in which we believe in individualism. Surely it is good thing to be self-ruling, to think and work independently and to be true to one’s conscience. Americans see themselves as particularly individualistic, but individualism is characteristic of all English-speaking peoples. Emerson himself, I see, wrote of the English:
They are headstrong believers and defenders of their opinion, and not less resolute in defending their whim and perversity. (1)
What is the difference between a healthy individualism and a harmful concept of autonomy? The question interests me because for much of my life an idea of strong autonomy and an individualistic morality seemed perfectly reasonable. To me, the moral battle lines were drawn not between liberalism and conservatism, but between collectivism and individualism.
Randian Individualism and Traditional America
My main teacher in this regard was Ayn Rand. In my late teens her individualistic philosophy of Objectivism seemed to be the pure and beautiful truth. “I swear – by my life and my love of it – that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine,” says John Galt in the novel Atlas Shrugged, who organizes the strike of the “men of the mind” that brings the world to a halt. “The mind is an attribute of the individual. There is no such thing as a collective brain. There is no such thing as a collective thought,” says the architect Howard Roark in The Fountainhead. Brilliant visionaries like these men create what is great in human civilization, from bridges to symphonies, by following their own vision and shunning the crowd.
To the individualism of her characters, Rand contrasts “collectivism” and “mysticism,” which she saw as characteristic of her native Russia. Collectivism, to Rand, means
the subjugation of the individual to a group — whether to a race, class or state does not matter. Collectivism holds that man must be chained to collective action and collective thought for the sake of what is called “the common good.”
Mysticism means “any acceptance of faith or feeling as a means of knowledge,” which Rand associated with the Middle Ages. It goes together with any collectivist system in some form. For instance, Rand would see Communism as a collectivist social system sustained by the “mystical” doctrines of Marxism.
Rand’s ideas were extremely persuasive to this young American, raised in a liberal milieu, during the Cold War. One could see the profound evil of the Soviet system as well as the increasingly collectivist tendencies in United States society. Keeping taxes down and rejecting affirmative action were causes to rally for. I have to thank Ayn Rand for showing me some of the falsehoods of modern liberalism, early on.
The world has changed. Rand’s libertarian approach seems increasingly ineffective in face of the problems brought by mass third-world immigration, Islamic jihad, and a widespread cultural and moral collapse. A general revitalization of society is needed, and this involves the strengthening, not weakening, of various social ties and values that transcend the individual. For this purpose, opposing “collectivism” and “mysticism” can be downright misguided. Is belonging to a family or a school or a community and incurring obligations related to these “subjugation to a group”? Is religion in all its manifestations merely a false method for gaining knowledge, like consulting a crystal ball? Rand fails to give a (non-hostile) account of fundamental aspects of actual human life and experience.
Her failure may be related to her “outsider” status. As a Russian Jewish immigrant to the United States, who hated both the Communist party and the Russian Orthodox Church for their anti-individualism, Rand did not appreciate the conservative side of American society. She admired the individualism of America, embodied in men like Jefferson or Edison, but had no respect for its religiosity or its Protestant middle-class values. Though Rand was in a real sense an American writer, there were parts of America she did not understand. (I must credit my father for pointing this out when I ecstatically told him about Rand, though it took me years to understand what he was saying.)
However, America certainly has its own strain of hyper-individualism. Consider Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay, “Self-Reliance.” (I have no doubt that Rand was influenced by this essay, although she derided Emerson.) I read this in high school, and its appearance on many Internet sites for students suggests it is still being assigned. From it come many famous statements:
To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men – that is genius.
Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist.
A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.
Emerson’s fiery and poetic words can be inspiring and bring on many “of course, he’s right” moments. They make one want to fight for what one believes in and to spurn shallow approval and material comforts. Certainly, he is not calling for modern self-indulgence but for taking a hard, lonely path when he says:
If we cannot at once rise to the sanctities of obedience and faith [to seek God by separating oneself from the demands of others], let us at least resist our temptations; let us enter into the state of war, and wake Thor and Woden, courage and constancy, in our Saxon breasts. This is to be done in our smooth times by speaking the truth.
We can all, at least selectively, appreciate Emerson’s individualism, his romantic, ecstatic love of nature, his quest for integrity. But we must recognize also that he is thoroughly radical. As Tremaine McDowell remarked in 1940,
Today his pages are strewn with harmless fragments of exploded shells but hidden among them lie delayed action bombs which burst from time to time in the reader’s face. (2)
Not only are the problems with Emerson’s radicalism more apparent today then in the past, his exhortations to defy convention and his hatred of bourgeois conventionality do not seem to coordinate with the actual problems we fact in America and the West in the 21st century. I would love it if our biggest problem were that our professors and politicians were conservatives with the flaws of stuffiness and conventionality! (OK, Emerson did address big issues like slavery, but here we’ll stick to the issue of individualism.)
Different Types of Individualism
What notion of individualism does Emerson evoke? Certainly a very powerful one, dangerous in its radical implications, and he was considered a radical in his time, breaking with his church over its practice of Communion and supporting John Brown’s rebellion. “No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature,” he writes. “Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution; the only wrong is what is against it.” He may not literally be calling for lawlessness and anarchy but his words certainly invite a disdain for conventional morality. It is no surprise that a leading citizen of Boston called him “obnoxious to this community.”
Still, he also evokes most beautifully a sense of the divine experienced in solitude with nature, and he passionately believes that the quest for truth and the creation of beautiful works take place by somehow looking within oneself and fully trusting the experience. He writes: “When good is near you, when you have life in yourself, it is not by any known or accustomed way; you shall not discern the footprints of any other; you shall not see the face of man; you shall not hear any name; the way, the thought, the good, shall be wholly strange and new.” We all have experienced something like this. I would rather have Emerson tell me about it than one of his pale imitators who write self-help books today.
Emerson also gives an account of an admirable type of young man found in early America (and resembling himself), for whom failure is just evidence of courage and ambition:
A sturdy lad from New Hampshire or Vermont, who in turn tries all the professions, who teams it, farms it, peddles, keeps a school, preaches, edits a newspaper, goes to Congress, buys a township, and so forth, in successive years, and always like a cat falls on his feet, is worth a hundred of these city dolls.
In today’s world, I find inspiration in his praise of working in solitude without heed of contemporary opinion. Those of us who oppose today’s political and social trends are very familiar with the feeling of solitude. To Emerson, working for what is right and true will be recognized in the future, and brings its reward today by cultivating one’s character:
Greatness appeals to the future. If I can be firm enough to-day to do right and scorn eyes, I must have done so much right before as to defend me now. Be it how it will, do right now. Always scorn appearances and you always may. The force of character is cumulative.
The Other Side of the Story: Tradition and Community
Having granted the appeal and value of Emersonian individualism, I cannot help feeling uncertain over whether the idea of individualism has much concrete meaning in today’s America. Can some concept of “individualism” help us to recover our country?
I tend to think that the concept is of little value for us today. Certainly, we Americans are an individualistic people. Compared to those in some non-Western cultures, we value direct communication and we expect to be respected as individuals even by our superiors. One thing I value in interacting with my compatriots is the way people will joke or exchange personal information with someone they have met for the first time, even in a business transaction. And our expectation that people affected by a policy should have a say in that policy and are responsible for informing themselves about it is a healthy one.
But as our nation is steadily transformed into a loose conglomeration of separate and incompatible ethnic groups, and as our family, school, and work life is devastated by enforced “autonomy” and expanded “rights,” that require married couples to share equal status with homosexual cohabitants, that require schools to take in and accommodate uneducable people, that require small businesses to fit their offices with ramps and rails on the off-chance a handicapped person will apply for a job, it should become apparent at some point that we are becoming, not more, but less free. Unfree to be part of our historic people and civilization and to live according to the standards that civilization has set.
As that happens, individuality becomes meaningless. It becomes no more than the right to be “different,” to dress funny, to create ugly or incomprehensible art and be praised for it, to be a child at age 30 instead of a parent at age 20. And with our shared beliefs and traditions and language deprived of their power, the ability to “speak one’s mind” also becomes worthless. In America today there is no (or little) active censorship. You are free to write a letter to your local paper complaining about Muslim activities or black illegitimacy or how anti-war protesters should respect the troops in Iraq. The paper may even print it. (You’ll have to think about the impact it may have at your workplace.) But it won’t have the slightest effect on policy. It’s just a steam valve. And so we can see how the individual, stripped of meaningful cultural associations, becomes a mere individual, an atom, a powerless entity.
I would be very interested if there are any traditionalist conservatives able to give an account of individualism that can function for us in these perilous times.
Epilogue: Warning from an Emerson Scholar
While looking for information on Emerson, I learned that the late renowned scholar of American literature, Quentin Anderson, was long critical of the dangers of the individualism of Emerson and other American writers like Thoreau, Whitman, and James. Anderson was a liberal and a Communist sympathizer in his youth, so it is interesting that he talks about the same problem I have discussed, namely, that figures like Emerson ignore the importance of community. The interview is in the American Heritage magazine website (no relation to this blog!):
The wide claim Emerson is forever making for the self evades or denies the actuality of mother, father, children, wife, and townspeople, and this is a dangerous thing to do; our capacity to feel for one another, our very humanity, is diminished.
Anderson sees the hyper-individualism of Emerson and others as a response to American commercial culture, which since their time has completely triumphed. During my Randian pro-capitalist years I would have dismissed the idea that American capitalism could be harmful, but this now seems a reasonable concern if we consider how instrumental commercial interests have been in the destruction of our culture through immigration and globalization. Anderson says:
Emerson, and in their own ways Thoreau and Whitman, felt overwhelmed by the pervasiveness of commerce in their society. The society that had come into being with the “commercial republic,” as James Madison called it in The Federalist Papers, offered the individual American in pursuit of an identity and a settled sense of things little other reassurance than material acquisition. How much you were worth, and how you made your money, defined who you were. Their response was to assert that one’s self contained spiritual resources and could claim spiritual powers far greater than mere moneymaking could ever provide. Their work promises a glorious compensation for the apparent reduction of all pursuits to acquisition, for they assert that the whole world could be viewed as one’s possession.
The entire interview is well worth reading for Anderson’s insights on 19th century American culture, and his view (he is speaking in 1995) that a “creeping apocalypse” is being brought about by people’s withdrawal from collective life.
As today’s non-conformists and marginalized minorities, we traditionalists do indeed need to be individualists of a sort. Our position is not entirely different from that of leftists in the early 20th century, when they were shunned and persecuted and had to encourage themselves by supporting each other and dreaming of a better future. But I believe our biggest challenge now is not to assert our individuality, but to build our community and link it with our past and future nation.
(1) Ralph Waldo Emerson, “English Traits,” The Complete Essays and Other Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, New York: Modern Library, 1950, p. 592.
(2) Emerson, Complete Essays, x.