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Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Best Defenses of Individualism in One Book

To say I enjoyed this book is an understatement. I loved it.

George H. Smith and Marilyn Moore have done a terrific job compiling this varied selection of essays on individualism. Some of the writers may be known to the general public – people like John Stuart Mill, Oscar Wilde, Michel de Montaigne, St. Augustine, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Robert G. Ingersoll. Others may be known to libertarians and anarchists – people like Lysander Spooner, Auberon Herbert and Josiah Warren. But many more are relatively obscure and may be new to the reader. They were to me.

The book is divided into six categories – individuality, social individualism, moral individualism, political individualism, religious individualism and economic individualism. There is, of course, some overlap between them.

In the introduction by George H. Smith, he discusses the origins of the term and some of its critics. He quotes Tocqueville to the effect that “that word ‘individualism’ was unknown to our ancestors, for the good reason that in their days every individual necessarily belonged to a group and no one could regard himself as an isolated unit.” It was often used as an epithet, a term of derision, and “has retained its negative connotations to this day among both conservative and socialist intellectuals, whose criticisms have much in common.”

One whose desires and impulses are not his own has no character, no more than a steam-engine has character.

The essays themselves range from a short two pages to twenty-nine pages. There are twenty-six altogether, all by different authors. The quality of the essays vary. A few are a bit arcane, but the vast majority are lucid to the modern reader. And more than a few are brilliant and inspiring.

One of the early essays to impress me was “Of Individuality, As One of the Elements of Well-being” by John Stuart Mill. It’s one of the chapters from his famous book, On Liberty. In it, he gives a resounding defense of eccentricity, the right to be different. And more, the importance of letting people be different. It is what defines character and sometimes genius. “One whose desires and impulses are not his own, has no character, no more than a steam-engine has character. If, in addition to being his own, his impulses are strong, and are under the government of a strong will, he has an energetic character. Whoever thinks that individuality of desires and impulses should not be encouraged to unfold itself, must maintain that society has no need of strong natures – is not the better for containing many persons who have such character – and that a high general average of energy is not desirable.”

The book only gets better from there. I particularly enjoyed the following:

  • an entry by Oscar Wilde from The Soul of Man Under Socialism 
  • the excerpt from Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman 
  • an eclectic entry criticizing state and religion sanctioned marriage from Moses Harman
  • an excerpt defending sexual freedom from Social Bliss Considered: In Marriage and Divorce; Cohabiting Unmarried, and Public Whoring by Peter Annet (published in 1749)
  • excerpts from True Civilization by the libertarian Josiah Warren on self-sovereignty and voluntary individualism. Published in 1868, this passage anticipates much of the later writings of Ayn Rand, Murray Rothbard and other luminaries of the modern libertarian movement.
  • an excellent essay on property rights by Thomas Hodgskin
  • a superb attack on slavery by Angelina E. Grimke from Letters to Catherine E. Beecher; in Reply to An Essay on Slavery and Abolitionism.  This essay is short but brilliant. She calls slavery “man-stealing.”
  • a stirring defense of voluntaryism from Auberon Herbert’s The Voluntaryist Creed. He admonishes politicians of all stripes. “Why should you desire to compel others; why should you seek to have power – that evil, bitter, mocking thing, which has been from of old, as it is today, the sorrow and curse of the world – over your fellow men and fellow women?” This is a powerful piece of writing, a ringing denunciation of the use of force and fraud in society. It is also very much a precursor of modern libertarian writings.
  • a strong endorsement of reason over mysticism in an excerpt from Free Thought – Its Conditions, Agreements, and Secular Results by George Jacob Holyoake
  • a ringing defense of individuality and independent mind against religious orthodoxy from Robert G. Ingersoll. Known as “The Great Infidel,” Ingersoll was a renowned orator and abolitionist in the 19th Century. Encouraging people to stand on their own convictions, he writes, “Whoever believes at the command of power, tramples his own individuality beneath his feet and voluntarily robs himself of all that renders man superior to the brute.” He invokes a mythical traveler “over the vast plain called life” and asks, which path shall he choose. Independent thinkers take their own path. “These travelers take roads of their own, and are denounced by all the others as infidels and atheists.” But they are true heroes. “Suppression of honest inquiry is retrogression, and must end in intellectual night.” One wonders if Ingersoll inspired Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken.”
  • the longest passage is called A Catechism of Individualism by Henry Wilson. It is a response to A New Catechism of Socialism by Belfort Bax. Written as a series of questions and answers, this little gem is a solid explanations of the fallacies of socialist economics.

To say I enjoyed this book is an understatement. I loved it. It explores the entire range of individualist thinking including individuality, property, self-sovereignty, the rights of women, the proper use of force in society, free thought and more.

I leave you with this excerpt The Dominant Idea by individualist-feminist Voltairine de Cleyre in which she urges people to commit to the cause of freedom and not be seduced by the dominant idea of her age, materialism. Make freedom your dominant idea. This call to arms would actually have made a good closing essay for the book rather than being included in the section on social individualism.

“If you choose the liberty and pride and strength of the single soul, and the free fraternization of men, as the purpose which your life is to make manifest, then do not sell it for tinsel. Think that your soul is strong and will hold its way; and slowly, through bitter struggle perhaps, the strength will grow. And the foregoing of possessions for which others barter the last possibility of freedom, will become easy.

“Let us have Men, Men who will say a word to their souls and keep it – keep it when it is not easy, but keep it when it is hard – keep it when the storm roars and there is a white-streaked sky and blue thunder before, and one’s eyes are blinded and one’s ears deafened with the war of opposing things; and keep it under the long leaden sky and the gray dreariness that never lifts. Hold unto the last: that is what it means to have a Dominant Idea.”