Individualism and Selfishness

1971 was a turning point in my life, and I found myself faced with the alternatives of what can be termed individualism and collectivism. A boy of 12 doesn’t have many choices in life: he follows rules and directives at home and school. He is told that other people are more important, and if anything nice comes one’s way, they are crumbs from the table of the strongest. This is perhaps the centre of our break from an older world view in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, for we were late baby boomers, the most despised of the post-war generations. My father saw that something wasn’t right with me, so he did all he could to find a solution, which at the time was Wennington School.

It is not the first time that individual human souls have fought against the determinism of the systems in which they lived, whether at school, in the family, at work or in society in general. To this day, codes of conformity become narrower and more stringent, in such way as our experience is really no different from that of Oscar Wilde in Victorian England and its conventional system of ethics and morality. My experience of the 1960’s in northern England was perhaps something like that of the 1950’s in other parts of the country. Kids did what they were told and got rightly punished if they did the wrong thing. After all, a child has to learn if he or she is not going to be a spoiled brat. Spare the rod and spoil the child. I don’t think corporal punishment ever did much more than make a child hate authority even more – as when the British Navy had to admit that flogging broke a good man’s heart and made a bad man worse. Oscar Wilde mentioned that mankind in olden days had the rack to torture their victims, and the press in his time. But, people who steal, kill, injure and many other evils have to be dealt with in some way to protect those who would otherwise be their victims. Sin and evil are always the limits of freedom.

Different political philosophies have emerged from this eternal problem of individual or personal freedom against the common good. Evil will only be avoided by individual conscience, human decency, the sense of right and wrong present in all systems of natural law – or by force and punishment of those who are devoid of conscience, the so-called psychopath or malignant narcissist personality. In the latter case, the person has to be reformed, and if that doesn’t work, locked up permanently in a cage or killed. Who is the judge of that? Normally, the police and courts of law.

What happens when the notion of common good, avoiding evil and lack of morality go beyond the worst of what people can do to others? Can sin and evil be prevented by the radical removal of freedom and the very quality of the individual person? Someone like Hitler, Stalin or the Grand Inquisitor concludes that individuals will only do wrong if they are free, so they have to be regulated by the State down to the smallest detail of their existence.

Individualism is the notion that we are our own owners, and that we have rights of choice in our own judgement, to live by our honest work and uphold the values in which we believe. On the other hand, collectivism denies the individual any rights outside the collectivity in question, from the State to the family, place of work or the political authorities. The individual is bound to sacrifice everything for the group, and the most radical expression of this is not totalitarian politics but the monastery. This dichotomy will always be present in the history of the Church, and inspired Dostoyevsky and other Russian philosophers in their writings.

Which one is right? Putting the question differently, is individual freedom for all, or reserved to a few with conditions attached. Surely, someone can’t be left free to do evil! This seems to be the essential criterion. Do we have sufficient of a conscience to be ethical and moral without force or fear of punishment? There are others, in particular the question of knowledge and reality, the notion of right and wrong, the building up of a coherent society.

My own experience of life has driven home to me the radical difference between persons. There are too many human beings with whom I have absolutely nothing in common, though I also have friends and sympathetic family members, father and siblings. The Platonic Universal just seems to make no sense here. If we try to be someone else, we cannot be ourselves. I have coined the term other people as something so uncharted and unknowable, where other persons can be accessible and relationships formed through empathy and love. The idea of people just seems to make no sense. How can we relate to a crowd? Only in terms of self-defence if it becomes a threat.

Creativity is only possible from persons. Then persons can form groups and improve new ideas and creations, but the fundamental unit of human life remains the individual. The group is only a projection of the individual or number of individuals. All attempts at basing life on collectivism have failed because of their inhumanity, and so are present-day manifestations of the same, however different the appearance is. We learn from each other, and others are often happy to learn from us, but the process is through the senses and intellectual faculties of individuals. Groups have no minds or senses. Only individual persons do.

The greatest issue about the individual is that of ethics and morality. What is the difference between being yourself and being selfish in the way of denying the rights of others? How do we tell right from wrong, and be principled, and be free at the same time? We have to learn to seek both our own happiness and that of others. Several things act as guides: faith in God and natural law, go by logic and the consequences of an act. There is a notion of truth: not saying things are different from what they are, that history occurred in a way it didn’t happen. Those with personality issues will often change history or “gaslight”. There is also a feeling of guilt if we do something wrong, like stealing something and feeling compelled to give it back (with or without the owner’s knowledge). We are in the think of the notion of justice, going by evidence, reason and a notion of reality. It is essential for us to think independently and avoid bandwagons. Morality has to be a part of us, as does a system of values and the means to learn, enjoy ourselves, make friends and relationships, get it right. If we do wrong, it comes back in our face, so this is how a child needs to be taught, not simply kin terms of obeying authority and conforming.

Berdyaev had this to say about civilisation, a notion we usually consider as good – but contrast it with culture.

Civilization is by its nature “bourgeois” in the deepest spiritual sense of the word. “Bourgeois” is synonymous precisely with the civilized kingdom of this world and the civilized will to organized power and enjoyment of life. The spirit of civilization is that of the middle classes, it is attached and clings to corrupt and transitory things, and it fears eternity. To be a bourgeois is therefore to be a slave of matter and an enemy of eternity. The perfected European and American civilizations gave rise to the industrial-capitalist system, which represents not only a mighty economic development but the spiritual phenomenon of the annihilation of spirituality. The industrial Capitalism of civilization proved to be the destroyer of the eternal spirit and the sacred traditions. Modern capitalist civilization is essentially atheistic and hostile to the idea of God. The crime of killing God must be laid at its door rather than at that of revolutionary Socialism, which merely adapted itself to the civilized “bourgeois” spirit and accepted its negative heritage.

Industrial-capitalist civilization, it is true, did not altogether repudiate religion: it was prepared to admit its pragmatical utility and necessity. Thus religion, which had found a symbolic expression in culture, became pragmatical in civilization. It could, indeed, prove useful and practical in the organization and fostering of life. Civilization is by its nature pragmatical. The popularity of pragmatism in America, the classical land of civilization, need cause no surprise. Socialism, on the other hand, repudiated pragmatical religion; but it pragmatically defends atheism as being more useful for the development of life forces and the worldly satisfaction of the larger masses of mankind. But the pragmatical and utilitarian approach of Capitalism had been the real source of atheism and spiritual bankruptcy. The useful and practically effective god of Capitalism cannot be the true God. He can be easily unmasked. Socialism is negatively right. The God of religious revelations and symbolic culture had long vanished from capitalist civilization, just as it had receded from Him.

The capitalist system is sowing the seeds of its own destruction by sapping the spiritual foundation of man’s economic life. Labour loses all spiritual purpose and justification and, as a result, brings an indictment against the whole system.

Civilization is powerless to realize its dream of everlasting aggrandizement. The tower of Babylon will remain unfinished.

Substitute the word collectivism for civilisation. From collectivism, we don’t get morality but simply coercive authority – the strongest if right. The lorry has right of way over a car because it could do the greatest amount of damage in a conflict. This is the system of Marx and Darwin, of twentieth-century totalitarianism and so-called “champagne socialism” of our own time in its pretences of upholding ecology and care for the poor. Webster’s definition of Fascism is (other than the strict association with Mussolini’s party) is a political philosophy, movement, or regime (such as that of the Fascisti) that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition. The exaltation of the collective above the individual is an essential characteristic and the one that gives the justification for the authoritarian dictator and the cruelty against opposition. Many ideologies of our own time include this aspect.

We will need to overhaul our understanding of the common good. It must come from our persons and go out to other persons in our care for them, at least for their rights. In a country where individuals are respected, a properly constituted government has police forces and law courts to protect ordinary people against criminals and those who would become bloody dictators were they given half a chance.

We Europeans admired America for its way of being a land of freedom for good and decent people. The utopia was short-lived as big landowners started to buy and use slaves. Collectivism is probably one of the greatest root sources of political corruption and the downward slope to repeating the European history of the 1920’s and 30’s. Utopia would come if we would balance our self-interest with a sound notion of the common good. We all need to put our little bit in big projects beyond ourselves, working to create something on the basis of doing to others as we would have them do to us.

I suppose all that sounds naïve, schoolboy politics, unrealistic. However difficult it is to oppose collectivism and the corruption, we have to work towards that aim, either through political action or exile to places and situations where we can live and start anew.

* * *

There are some interesting studies by Eastern Orthodox authors, distinguishing individualism from personalism, persons being constituted by relationships in the image of the Trinity. Pope John Paul II developed his personalist philosophy in the face of Communist collectivism:

This [personalistic ] norm, in its negative aspect, states that the person is the kind of good which does not admit of use and cannot be treated as an object of use and as such the means to an end. In its positive form the personalistic norm confirms this: the person is a good towards which the only proper and adequate attitude is love.

It needs to be read a few times, but we see his influence in the downfall of Communism in Poland and in Russia itself. It is the same thing in the face of so-called “socialism” and capitalism. Personalist philosophy needs to be studied and developed – and prevented from becoming a dissimulated form of collectivism.

Think for yourself! Rely on yourself!

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