chapter  10
Individuality and egotism (2002)
Pages 20

This essay is written not only for Richard Flathman but to him. His theory of “willful liberalism,” which is a theory of willful individualism, enriches thought about the aspiration to be or become an individual. As one who has been trying to work out a view of democratic individuality, I am naturally appreciative of Flathman’s work. One particular question that interests me is the extent to which Flathman’s theory is similar to the theory of democratic individuality. I believe that he would agree that there is considerable similarity. Especially in sections 3, 4, and 5 of part 2 of Willful Liberalism, there are pronounced similarities (Flathman 1992: 166-224; see also 1998, esp. ch. 1, 6). What I see Flathman doing in these sections is giving a truly instructive reading of the most humane qualities in Friedrich Nietzsche’s thought concerning identity, autonomy, and authenticity. Salient is Flathman’s discussion of such virtues as friendship, moderation, self-control, generosity, magnanimity, and even compassion as they appear in Nietzsche’s earlier work and in “Thus spoke Zarathustra,” especially book 4 [1954]. Flathman also finds in Nietzsche and others, such as William James, an admirable emphasis on other human characteristics independent of character: inventiveness, creativity, spontaneity, and originality (Flathman 1992: 216-17). Furthermore, Flathman incorporates into his willful liberalism a determination to highlight the essential mystery, singularity, inexplicability, even the “limited mutual unintelligibility” of all human beings (Flathman 1992: 216). He composes a marvelous picture of the individual as actuality and aspiration. It must be pointed out, however, that if Nietzsche is Flathman’s main

inspiration, it is a very Emersonian Nietzsche. Flathman rarely refers to Ralph Waldo Emerson; that is no great matter. But it would be well to remember that Nietzsche, like James, is deeply indebted to Emerson. That certainly does not make Nietzsche into a theorist of democratic individuality, of course. Nevertheless, Nietzsche’s work is undeniably valuable to later versions of democratic individuality, and Flathman has demonstrated that point better than anyone else has, even if he wants the term “willful liberalism” rather than “democratic individuality.” Flathman is certainly closer to democratic individuality than he is to – how should we put it? – the aristocratic Nietzsche, the programmatic Nietzsche, or the wounded Nietzsche. This is not to deny that

Emerson, to begin with, is radical in his rejection of the demotic and the populist: that rejection helps define his own theory of democratic individuality, as it does anyone else’s. My point is that on the Nietzschean virtues, on human creativity, and on the irreducible and finally unsolvable human mystery, Flathman is very Emersonian. Flathman is thus fairly close to some version of the theory of democratic individuality. But there are a few features of Flathman’s view that I would ask him to

think about again. I do not want to conscript him for Emersonian purposes, but I do want him to perfect his own system, sometimes with Emerson’s help, and remove it further from self-insistence. First, I doubt that the words “will” and “willful” and the related word “voluntarist” best reflect the nature of Flathman’s individualism. A strong will is a good thing for the right purposes. But to admire will as pure will is not likely to serve any individualism except one without limits or scruples. In ordinary usage, to be willful is to be stubborn in an almost perverse or self-indulgent and whimsical way. Emerson can say in “Self-reliance” that “I would write on the lintels of the door-post, Whim,” but he quickly adds, “I hope it is somewhat [that is, something] better than whim at last, but we cannot spend the day in explanation” (Emerson 1983a [1841]: 262). Will is strong, but willfulness is close to petulance; and when will is strong, it can be blind or cruel. Encouragement of egotism attaches itself to emphasis on the will, and with it, damage to the self. As it stands, such an emphasis does not go well with another and praiseworthy emphasis in Flathman’s thinking, that on individual spontaneity and mystery, which are not in their unrevised expression phenomena of the will (understood as resolve and determination). There is one other main issue that worries me. I notice that Flathman does

not make much, if anything, of the place of self-examination and attempted self-knowledge in becoming an individual. The Socratic imperative remains binding in a democracy, even if nowhere else, because in a democracy, individuals matter more than their social roles. I grant that the emphasis on spontaneity and mystery places strict limits on the results of self-examination. We want to be self-surprising and are perhaps glad that we cannot get very far into ourselves. Still, self-examination, or what we would be more likely to call introspection, can deepen the sense of our own strangeness to ourselves and prepare us to expect the unexpected from ourselves (and from everybody else, of course) without being able to predict its content. Above all, self-exploration may acquaint us with our discontinuousness as well as with our internal vastness, the very sources of our spontaneity, mystery, and creativity. But if egotism is to be resisted as harmful to the soul, it may be a mistake

both for Flathman to place so much emphasis on the will and for him to turn away from introspection. These two traits are probably connected. The best Nietzschean elements in Flathman’s conception are not willful, not self-insistent. In a word, they are far from egotism, even if some other elements are not. On the other hand, Flathman’s omission of introspection may be a sign that his conception is not as strong in resistance to egotism as it could and should be.

Egotism thrives in the absence of self-awareness: self-insistence is often magnified by inattention to one’s inner condition and can even be an escape from it. All in all, there are some risks of encouraged egotism in Flathman’s theory. In this chapter, I want to go on with the discussion of democratic individuality

as an anti-egotistical aspiration. It has occurred to me with greater force recently that democratic individuality is, among other things, an ideal that is very much at odds with – in fact, at war with – egotism. I grant at the start that it is plausible to think that every kind of individualism must be entwined with egotism. After all, what is individualism supposed to be, if not a radical insistence on oneself and one’s claims and, indeed, an insistence that often goes beyond one’s rightful claims and recognizes no limits on them? Despite the plausibility, I believe that some kinds of individualism can be seen as sustained efforts to deal with self-insistent egotism: either to mitigate or refine or surpass it. To be sure, other kinds of individualism inflame egotism, or they appear to do so. But individualism, from its very nature, need not sponsor egotism; much less is it invariably the same as egotism. I see in democratic individuality the most powerful effort undertaken by any kind of individualism to battle egotism. I also believe that the theory of democratic individuality – the compound and complex conceptualization of what it means to be an individual in a rights-respecting democracy, as formulated by Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, and their heirs – is better at challenging egotism than even many anti-and non-individualist doctrines, which sometimes serve, in fact, as effective if disguised carriers of egotism. What we need to do is to elaborate the distinction between egotism and

individualism, if only crudely and provisionally. (One possible precedent is Aristotle’s distinction between good and bad forms of self-love.) (Aristotle 1985: IX: 4, 8, pp. 245-47, 253-55. Also of special relevance is the critique of egotism in D. H. Lawrence (1972 [1923]: 699-718.) By “egotism” I mean things like selfishness, intense self-centeredness, intense and even exclusive insistence on oneself. The claims and interests of others get short shrift wherever possible. An egotist makes no effort to take seriously other persons as persons, with their own inwardness and feeling for their own reality. Rather, for the egotist, others are aids and instruments or rivals and obstacles. In contrast, some kinds of individualism espouse self-concern, care of (or for) the self, and the effort to take oneself seriously in distinct ways. Self-insistence is not the same as self-concern; and each goes very well, goes best, without the other, paradoxical as that may sound. Perhaps I could say that self-insistence cannot absorb any element of proper self-concern, whereas most kinds of self-concern aim in theory to purge the self of as much selfishness or selfinsistence as possible – an aim that of course can and never should be fully realized. I take egotism, to some significant extent, to be inevitable in every society

where there are at least the rudiments of self-consciousness, which is the ability to think of oneself as a self in some respects separate from all those around oneself and to engage in some minimal reflection about who one is,

where one stands, what one wants, how one should live, and what may await at the end of life. There may once have been societies where self-consciousness did not exist; there may still be some such today. But my analysis does not reach to them, whether they were or are real or whether they are, instead, imaginary (critical or compensatory) constructions, such as, say, Socrates’ “city of pigs” or Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s original state of nature. Egotism, not just concern for self-preservation, is as close to being natural as anything psychological. The marvel is that some doctrines try to combat it in the name of individuals, of individual self-concern, not in the name of group or community or collectivity or deity and not in the name, either, of such idealistic aspirations as selflessness or altruism or self-sacrifice. Egotism is the given. In other words, the vices of pride, vanity, jealousy,

envy, and greed are to be taken as naturally occurring. Egotism is the comprehensive term for these and related vices, which existed well before any kind of individualism emerged. In civilization, each soul is inevitably afflicted, as Rousseau rightly taught. The affliction is a perpetual source of unhappiness in the egotist and hence a main source of the harm the egotist causes others. If we can say that individualism, as distinct from egotism, begins with the Socrates of Plato’s Apology, we then have to say that it is a comparative latecomer. Thus, individualism did not invent egotism. The more important point is that some kinds of individualism, including Socrates’ kind, do battle with egotism and its vices. Ordinary self-interest is not egotism, either. The desire to preserve oneself,

to improve one’s life, to want love and friendship, and to want a decent life, and the wish not to be treated unjustly or oppressed or abused or exploited or neglected – all this is modest and moderate; it is inseparable from being a person. In constitutional democracies, ordinariness is protected by guaranteed individual rights; it is rights-based individualism. If from some points of view – heroic or ascetic or religious or aesthetic – such ordinariness appears banal or unworthy or lowly or unimaginative, then so be it. What ordinariness should not be accused of is egotism; the vices of egotism should not be imputed to it. At the same time, ordinariness (rights-based individualism) is not yet a developed individualism; rather, it is still at the level of what Alexis de Tocqueville calls individualisme, by which he means the core of ordinariness in post-aristocratic societies. Even he distinguishes individualisme from selfishness or self-centeredness (egoisme) (Tocqueville 1959 [1835], vol. 2, bk 2., ch. 2: 104). There is no doubt that, as Tocqueville suggests, ordinariness – an everyday preoccupation with getting and keeping one’s life in order, together with the lives of others to whom one is tied and for whom one is responsible – can become narrow and obsessive and turn into selfishness, or at least become outwardly similar to selfishness. But in theory, ordinary self-preoccupation (under the cover of protective rights) is not the same as inevitable egotism. Ordinariness is not far from Rousseau’s idea of amour de soi-meme; and I mean by egotism something like what he calls amour-propre (Rousseau 1969 [1755]: esp. 128-51). Ordinariness in a constitutional democracy is a

preliminary individualism (though immeasurably valuable in itself), and democratic individuality is its ideal fulfillment.