Category Archive 'Individualism'

29 Nov 2015

After Liberalism

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Roughbeast

Rod Dreher posts a letter from an anonymous (and not entirely grammatical) conservative college professor.

[W]hen people my parents’ age scoff at the whole trans thing and dismiss it as just the cause du jour (remember Darfur? neither do any of the SJWs), I shake my head and tell them they have no idea what’s coming. The project of the Willed Self is a natural outgrowth of Enlightenment thinking. (I share your opinion that Submission is not a great book, but a very important one in terms of exposing the internal contradictions of the Enlightenment.) The whole intellectual movement of the last three centuries has at its core the principle of freeing the willed self from all constraints. The trans movement represents this idea’s apex: if we can free ourselves from basic biology and anatomy, then truly we have become gods. “I am that I am” is no longer confined to Exodus 3; it is the mantra of the willed self freed from all external barriers. There is nothing beyond the subjective, the personal, the therapeutic, because all that matters is how I define my own self, my own existence, and my own gratification. There can be no society or community within this worldview. Patrick Deneen was right in that “After Liberalism” lecture he gave: Enlightenment liberalism has been scary for we [sic] traditional conservatives, but what’s coming next — what’s coming now — is terrifying.

15 Oct 2015

New Yorker Dismisses Thoreau as “Pond Scum”

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thoreau-walden

In the New Yorker, Kathryn Schulz looks at Henry David Thoreau through the lenses of contemporary leftist community of fashion ideology, and does not like what she sees. Thoreau may have been keen on Abolition, but he is not a leftist radical at all. He is a shameless individualist, and if you look closely enough, eeek! he is liable to remind you of Ayn Rand.

The real Thoreau was, in the fullest sense of the word, self-obsessed: narcissistic, fanatical about self-control, adamant that he required nothing beyond himself to understand and thrive in the world. From that inward fixation flowed a social and political vision that is deeply unsettling. It is true that Thoreau was an excellent naturalist and an eloquent and prescient voice for the preservation of wild places. But “Walden” is less a cornerstone work of environmental literature than the original cabin porn: a fantasy about rustic life divorced from the reality of living in the woods, and, especially, a fantasy about escaping the entanglements and responsibilities of living among other people. …

Thoreau went to Walden, he tells us, “to learn what are the gross necessaries of life”: whatever is so essential to survival “that few, if any, whether from savageness, or poverty, or philosophy, ever attempt to do without it.” Put differently, he wanted to try what we would today call subsistence living, a condition attractive chiefly to those not obliged to endure it. It attracted Thoreau because he “wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life.” Tucked into that sentence is a strange distinction; apparently, some of the things we experience while alive count as life while others do not. In “Walden,” Thoreau made it his business to distinguish between them.

As it turns out, very little counted as life for Thoreau. Food, drink, friends, family, community, tradition, most work, most education, most conversation: all this he dismissed as outside the real business of living. Although Thoreau also found no place in life for organized religion, the criteria by which he drew such distinctions were, at base, religious. A dualist all the way down, he divided himself into soul and body, and never could accept the latter. “I love any other piece of nature, almost, better,” he confided to his journal. The physical realities of being human appalled him. “The wonder is how they, how you and I, can live this slimy, beastly life, eating and drinking,” he wrote in “Walden.” Only by denying such appetites could he feel that he was tending adequately to his soul.

“Walden,” in consequence, is not a paean to living simply; it is a paean to living purely, with all the moral judgment that the word implies. In its first chapter, “Economy,” Thoreau lays out a program of abstinence so thoroughgoing as to make the Dalai Lama look like a Kardashian. (That chapter must be one of the highest barriers to entry in the Western canon: dry, sententious, condescending, more than eighty pages long.) Thoreau, who never wed, regarded “sensuality” as a dangerous contaminant, by which we “stain and pollute one another.” He did not smoke and avoided eating meat. He shunned alcohol, although with scarcely more horror than he shunned every beverage except water: “Think of dashing the hopes of a morning with a cup of warm coffee, or of an evening with a dish of tea! Ah, how low I fall when I am tempted by them!” Such temptations, along with the dangerous intoxicant that is music, had, he felt, caused the fall of Greece and Rome.

I cannot idolize anyone who opposes coffee. …

Unsurprisingly, this thoroughgoing misanthrope did not care to help other people. “I confess that I have hitherto indulged very little in philanthropic enterprises,” Thoreau wrote in “Walden.” He had “tried it fairly” and was “satisfied that it does not agree with my constitution.” Nor did spontaneous generosity: “I require of a visitor that he be not actually starving, though he may have the very best appetite in the world, however he got it. Objects of charity are not guests.” In what is by now a grand American tradition, Thoreau justified his own parsimony by impugning the needy. “Often the poor man is not so cold and hungry as he is dirty and ragged and gross. It is partly his taste, and not merely his misfortune. If you give him money, he will perhaps buy more rags with it.” Thinking of that state of affairs, Thoreau writes, “I began to pity myself, and I saw that it would be a greater charity to bestow on me a flannel shirt than a whole slop-shop on him.”

The poor, the rich, his neighbors, his admirers, strangers: Thoreau’s antipathy toward humanity even encompassed the very idea of civilization. In his journals, he laments the archeological wealth of Great Britain and gives thanks that in New England “we have not to lay the foundation of our houses in the ashes of a former civilization.” That is patently untrue, but it is also telling: for Thoreau, civilization was a contaminant. “Deliver me from a city built on the site of a more ancient city, whose materials are ruins, whose gardens cemeteries,” he wrote in “Walden.” “The soil is blanched and accursed there.” Seen by these lights, Thoreau’s retreat at Walden was a desperate compromise. What he really wanted was to be Adam, before Eve—to be the first human, unsullied, utterly alone in his Eden. …

Thoreau never understood that life itself is not consistent—that what worked for a well-off Harvard-educated man without dependents or obligations might not make an ideal universal code.) Those failings are ethical and intellectual, but they are also political. To reject all certainties but one’s own is the behavior of a zealot; to issue contradictory decrees based on private whim is that of a despot.

This is not the stuff of a democratic hero. Nor were Thoreau’s actual politics, which were libertarian verging on anarchist. Like today’s preppers, he valued self-sufficiency for reasons that were simultaneously self-aggrandizing and suspicious: he did not believe that he needed anything from other people, and he did not trust other people to provide it. “That government is best which governs least,” Jefferson supposedly said. Thoreau, revising him, wrote, “That government is best which governs not at all.”

Yet for a man who believed in governance solely by conscience, his own was frighteningly narrow. Thoreau had no understanding whatsoever of poverty and consistently romanticized it. (“Farmers are respectable and interesting to me in proportion as they are poor.”) His moral clarity about abolition stemmed less from compassion or a commitment to equality than from the fact that slavery so blatantly violated his belief in self-governance. Indeed, when abolition was pitted against rugged individualism, the latter proved his higher priority. “I sometimes wonder that we can be so frivolous, I may almost say,” he writes in “Walden,” “as to attend to the gross but somewhat foreign form of servitude called Negro Slavery, there are so many keen and subtle masters that enslave both North and South. It is hard to have a Southern overseer; it is worse to have a Northern one; but worst of all when you are the slave-driver of yourself.” …

Although Thoreau is often regarded as a kind of cross between Emerson, John Muir, and William Lloyd Garrison, the man who emerges in “Walden” is far closer in spirit to Ayn Rand: suspicious of government, fanatical about individualism, egotistical, élitist, convinced that other people lead pathetic lives yet categorically opposed to helping them. It is not despite but because of these qualities that Thoreau makes such a convenient national hero. …

[T]he mature position, and the one at the heart of the American democracy, seeks a balance between the individual and the society. Thoreau lived out that complicated balance; the pity is that he forsook it, together with all fellow-feeling, in “Walden.” And yet we made a classic of the book, and a moral paragon of its author—a man whose deepest desire and signature act was to turn his back on the rest of us.

Read the whole thing.


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