Not long ago in history, the ‘individual’ as we think of it today did not exist. In fact, the individual as we think of it today is something that was only considered to be an attribute of kings and heroes. To be closer to the divine – as they were believed to be – was to be closer to being, to the sense of fully possessing an ‘I am.’
Cartesian ‘cogito’ distributes this evenly to all of mankind using the language of philosophy. Thus a new epoch opened up for mankind in its means of understanding and thinking about itself. One could even say that this sense of ‘I am’ which ‘thinks’ was taught to us, was cultivated as a ubiquitous experience independent of one’s station in life – consciousness itself the first universalism. This is ultimately an inversion of a more monist truth one finds in ancient religions like Advaita Vedanta, which saw the self or the atman as something much more fundamental to experience than thinking. In this regard, one could put it as, ‘I am, therefore I think.’
By inverting this formula, as Decartes did, being becomes subservient to secondary phenomena, namely thought, from which it would follow that thought and being are separate.
The creation of this rational subject shares its trajectory with other epistemologies, is cultivated in a series of many different cultural and historical events and rests on a foundation that is ever-narrating its own origins, ever telling its own creation myth so that all of history can then be reinterpreted to greater degrees of intensity as a story of mankind’s struggle against the oppression of this sense of self.
Progressivism is merely one splinter or fragment, one incarnation of this story in the form of a political ideology grounded in a modern moral framework. By it, humankind’s individuality, while presupposed, is sought out in greater degrees of political liberation. It is already there and complete, but it is in need of saving.
While progressivism is merely the most dominant form of political individualism in the west, most other popular political ideologies are some variation of individualism. Liberalism, progressivism, socialism and anarchism could then be seen, not as distinct political truths, but rather, as different gradients of the same scale.
Now and then, you get a thinker, visionary or rebel rouser who comes along and gets even more radical in his individualism, like a Stirner, a De Sade or a Crowley – each of whom have their respective cults of self with their own flavors and disciples. What few people are willing to recognize – including those who favor such figures as well as those who despise them – is that one could actually count such figures as saints of modernity, and thus, the underlying norm of western culture.
But how can this be? you might ask. Aren’t a majority of people sheep?
Yes. A majority of people are sheep because they have consumed Individualist Koolaid. As a matter of fact, this isn’t fair to sheep. Sheep are noble, humble creatures who provide a service to their masters, who watch over them with great care, hence all the flock imagery in the bible.
Most people, rather, would be better compared to monkeys.
What do we associate with monkeys? Frenzy. Vulgarity of expression. The hollering and hooting. Scrotum-ripping. Brutal rape. Alpha-tyranny. War even. Masturbation. Shit-throwing. Wrathful jealousy and intemperate rage.
All of that is there in humans still, waiting to come out. Now and again a human displays this kind of behavior on meth or angel dust and we put them in prison. But one of the things which truly separates man from animal is man’s need for affirmation. Sure, you can see a similar need in animals, but one doesn’t see it to the same degree as, with animals, it is usually linked to survival. As humans have mostly learned to exist beyond survival for thousands of years now, we have augmented social games of affirmation because we know that it feels good and excuses us from actually accomplishing anything.
This is ultimately what individualism is. Unconditional affirmation of one’s behavior.
Monkeys, ultimately, are individualists. Ironically, this is why you see them doing most of the same things. They’re all trying to outdo each other as monkeys until they collapse into barbaric, frenzied extremes. Have you ever wondered why humans have never successfully integrated chimpanzees or bonobos into human society as pets or companions? Why are dogs infinitely more loyal than creatures we are genetically similar to and with whom we share a common ancestor?
Perhaps it is precisely due to this similarity that such a friendship between species is not possible. Sure, now and again some chick with a mullet can live among them and feed a few of their babies from bottles, but for every successful Diane Fossey, there are four more stories about the family’s favorite chimp hearing the wrong piano chord, freaking out and tearing the nanny’s esophagus from her neck.
Maybe humans exist in a simian genetic current which is predisposed to an over-competitiveness which can never be satiated, as the gradient between species, while large enough to instill a sense of alienation between them, contains just enough natural signals to suggest that the two species are after the same turf. One could see Planet of the Apes as a metaphor for this natural, primordial, evolutionary tension.
On the other hand, Pinnochio is a better metaphor for an inverted phenomenon – an evolutionary regression. This regression isn’t necessarily genetic (though every shift in structure certainly has genetic implications), but rather, one that takes place on the level of language.
In the story of Pinnochio, the Coachman, who is essentially a black magician and child-trafficker, poses as a redeemer and liberator of troubled children from their parents, teachers and the authorities, all of whom would normally steer them from their unbridled, childish indulgences like alcohol consumption, gluttony and violent malice, which they are free to engage in at a place called Pleasure Island.
Pleasure Island, however, is cursed. The less restraint the boys on the island show – the more animalistic they behave – the more they slowly metamorphize into donkeys. The boys who can still speak in human language are separated from the others until they finally forget how to speak, at which point they are sold at auctions or made to work in salt mines.
One can see this as a metaphor for how easy it is to become ensnared by a language virus – a meme. The meme of individualism is not what it presents itself to be (as most things which present themselves in the form of an all-consuming idea, which is how ideology as such functions, are never what they present themselves to be). It presents itself as an illusory freedom from the consequences of one’s actions. The reason that this is an illusion is because our reality as we experience it is inescapably a network of cause and effect – a perpetual story in which we must watch the fruits of our actions unfold and play themselves out in front of us.
We can try to create Pleasure Islands where we can isolate our activity to an unconditional hedonism within the perimeters of a ‘safe space,’ but we then seek constant affirmation for our idiotic behavior from others because we want others to confirm the lie we can only tell ourselves so much before it starts to sound better on the lips of another: that we are important even if we haven’t done anything important, and even if we have actually done great harm to those around us.
There is nothing wrong with true individuality if one is wise enough to turn all of this on its head with a great deal of nuance, observation and respect for how reality actually works.
In reality, your ‘importance’ is just something in your mind, and things are only ‘important’ in terms of what functions they serve in relation to one another. You are only individual in limited respects, concerning the context of your ‘uniqueness,’ to invoke a Stirnerian concept. Stirner can be a fun read if you’re a young person recovering from social indoctrination of one sort or another. However, where Stirner tends to start with ‘uniqueness’ and pretty much jumps to ‘own-ness’ or ‘property,’ a lot of other thinkers have more interesting things to say on the process of achieving that sense of ‘property’ and ‘own-ness.’ Plato, for instance – whom many individualists since Nietzsche think it quite chique to dismiss – gives us the idea of form, which we can place in the realm of idea in order to position ourselves in relation to it, ultimately with the goal of making something of it or simply observing it for what it does on its own. Mind-body dualism, for which Plato is often blamed, doesn’t actually enter the conversation until much later.
But just as there is a form which serves as the thing around which a pattern or set of functions cohere, so is it possible to look at patterns which overlap or run adjacent in order to tell a different story. One can see that a man is, in fact, divisible insofar as he is made up of different cells, protiens and bacterias which are constantly being born and dying. One then respects the universe more when we see that this ecosystem of a body acts like a microcosm. Karma could be seen as a metaphor for the way in which this body, which is both an extension of the universe and a host to reality, passes imminently through transcendent plains, carrying memories which are always changing, always alive and strangely divisible against a backdrop of infinity.
Our ‘uniqueness’ may be percieved by our consciousness as prior to everything else, but this reduces our perception to a single point or moment in time which is ultimately illusory itself upon closer examination. When acting, living and moving, we see that all of what we consider a ‘self’ is actually a reflection of many disparate points which are all dependent on each other. It is as though the self is still being formed through both action and knowledge of reality working together. This then gives us a more humbled sense of self, as we realize that we are part of something bigger and are only capable of knowing a very small part of it at one time.
In this view, it is imperative that one stare reality in the face, and only through this can we understand what we are. This leaves little room for lying to oneself about what one is. One can then come to value oneself as both individual in a contingent sense and necessarily dividual in another, as both aspects of one’s nature depend on one another. When this dependency is brought into harmony, one grows stronger, as one is adaptable to even unpleasant and often violent change. One doesn’t then look for self affirmation in anything but one’s objective accomplishments. The paradox, or irony if you prefer, is that only by admitting your own shortcomings and limitations in this reality do you get a sense of just what lies within your ability to do, and in learning this, you may develop into the individual most people only pretend to be or wish they were.