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Friday, June 1, 2018

Individualism, Essential And Absolute–Lessons From Tolstoy, Nietzsche, And Jesus Christ

There has always been considerable discussion about the relative value of individualism vs communitarianism.  For the religious, there is no cooperative path to salvation, only God’s grace, faith, and belief and a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.  Hindus are no different – spiritual enlightenment can come only through individual enterprise, a rejection of an illusory world, and personal discipline, will, and aspiration.  In both cases community,  while necessary for physical survival, is irrelevant for spiritual evolution.  The belief in a God-given, unique, and immortal soul must necessarily define one’s secular attitude; and if the only purpose of life is individual salvation – or in the case of Hindus, a final unity with God – then any activity except that which encourages transcendence has little meaning.

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For those for whom religion itself is irrelevant and progressive secularism the only faith, the individual is worth nothing except for his salutary actions within a community.  This belief in exaggerated form, was the principle behind Soviet Marxism.  The individual must be subsumed within the State for social progress to be effected.  Individual action and enterprise was antithetical to the rational progress Communists promoted.  Modern-day socialists and progressives, while jettisoning these more radical beliefs, have nonetheless kept the belief that not only is collective action the sine qua non of social progress, it is a higher good in and of itself.  There is a psychic, emotional, even spiritual value in sharing and collective activity.  A certain pleasure, happiness, if not joy can come from joining others in a common effort. 

It is not hard to see, therefore, how both secular individualism and progressive communitarianism came about.  For those who dismiss or at least doubt their divine origin and destiny but who – because they are human – search for meaning and purpose, engagement in movements to assist society if not mankind towards a secular utopia is understandable and logical.  For those for whom the world will always be the Devil’s minefield at best and irrelevant and meaningless at worst, it is not surprising that individualism, will, and defiance are the norms.  One does not have to be Nietzschean in principle (the only validation of human life in a meaningless world is the expression of individual will) to understand that at life’s end the world disappears. 

Konstantin Levin, a principal character in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina wonders how it is that God created an intelligent, creative, insightful, witty being – Man – allows him to live for a few score years, and then consigns him to an eternity in the cold, hard ground of the Russian steppes. What irony, and what deception.  For most of his life Levin is a perfect individualist who sets God aside while his questions are not answered and acts only in his self-interest.  If his work to reform agriculture result in a better life for the peasants, so much the better, but his purpose is to achieve intellectual purity and economic rewards.

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Levin never denied God, but never denied something which, if not divinely endowed, was perfectly and irreversibly human – individual enterprise.  Catholics, Hindus, and Nietzschean nihilists all understand the profound, limitless, and essential nature of individual will.

Tolstoy also wrote The Death of Ivan Ilyich, a novella about a man who had neither a purposeful will nor a belief in God.  He wanted only to be left alone, to be free from demanding entanglements and to live life as he chose.  Yet he was a man without inspiration, and his life was never really satisfying or happy, but simply uncomplicated with few surprises. When he finds that he is suffering from a fatal disease and realizes that the world he has constructed is not only irrelevant to facing death and extinction, but is corrupt. Friends, acquaintances, and family whom he thought were loyal, respectful, even loving, were nothing of the sort.  They had dismissed him as an arrogantly ignorant man who was finally getting his comeuppance. The ending of the story is deliberately unsettled. Either Ivan realizes that after death there is hope, or that death itself means as little as the life he left behind.

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In Tolstoy’s mind, community was a necessary configuration of society into which people fit but did not thrive.  Ivan’s community was a sham, a collection of selfish poseurs who treated him respectfully but never revealed their true feelings.  As he lay dying, they were already laying claims to his office.

Tolstoy, in his second postscript to War and Peace explained his determinism.  Napoleon may have been a great man, one of indomitable will and personality, but only a product of the millions of unrelated, random events which came together to produce the Emperor and determine his strategic and political decisions.  Tolstoy’s world was complex – there is room for individual will and expression, but any such expression cannot be given any higher value per se, conditioned as it is by past events.  Yet Napoleon was Tolstoy’s admired hero, a superman despite the roll of the dice.  

In War and Peace, every character is looking for meaning, and Count Andrei has two epiphanies which satisfy his spiritual search.  Lying wounded on the battlefield he sees Napoleon but not as general, Emperor, or great man, but just one more soldier who was lucky enough not to take a bullet – a common, unremarkable, and inevitable humanity. 

Andrei at Borodino

Prince Andrei realized that this was said of him, and that it was Napoleon who said it. He heard the speaker of these words addressed as sire. But he heard the words as he might have heard the buzzing of a fly. Not only did they not interest him, but he took no notice of them, instantly forgot them. His head was burning; he felt that he was losing blood, and saw above him the remote, lofty, eternal heavens. He knew that it was Napoleon -- his hero -- but at that moment Napoleon seemed to him such a small, insignificant creature compared with what was taking place between his soul and that lofty, infinite sky with the clouds sailing over it. At that moment it meant absolutely nothing to him who might be standing over him or what might be said of him; he was only glad there were people there, only wished they would help him and bring him back to life, which seemed to him so beautiful now that he understood it differently.

Later in his life and near death, Andrei has another epiphany.  In this excerpt he is relating a dream:

Everything depended on whether he was, or was not, in time to lock the door. He went, and tried to hurry, but his legs refused to move and he knew he would not be in time to lock the door though he painfully strained all his powers. He was seized by an agonizing fear. And that fear was the fear of death. It stood behind the door. But just when he was clumsily creeping toward the door, that dreadful something on the other side was already pressing against it and forcing its way in. Something not human- death- was breaking in through that door, and had to be kept out. He seized the door, making a final effort to hold it back- to lock it was no longer possible- but his efforts were weak and clumsy and the door, pushed from behind by that terror, opened and closed again.

Once again it pushed from outside. His last superhuman efforts were vain and both halves of the door noiselessly opened. It entered, and it was death, and Prince Andrew died.

But at the instant he died, Prince Andrew remembered that he was asleep, and at the very instant he died, having made an effort, he awoke.

“Yes, it was death! I died- and woke up. Yes, death is an awakening!” And all at once it grew light in his soul and the veil that had till then concealed the unknown was lifted from his spiritual vision. He felt as if powers till then confined within him had been liberated, and that strange lightness did not again leave him.

Tolstoy’s philosophy is both existential and spiritual.  Meaning can be had in a meaningless or determined life, and spiritual epiphanies – a desire for full and final expression of individual soul – are expected.

It is hard to side with progressive communitarians whose community-based philosophy has demonstrated very little over the millennia.  Since the first human settlements, war, territorialism, expansionism, self-interest and self-defense have been the rule and not the exception. Yet the acquisition of power, land, wealth, and resources were positive and enabled the growth of civilization.  Moreover, such national ambition was led by individuals like Napoleon with vision, will, and defiance.  Despite Tolstoy’s attempted debunking of The Great Man theory of civilization, Western and Eastern civilizations are marked by kings, emperors, mandarins, and popes.

Progressive societies have always tried to neuter individualism and focus more on collaboration and cooperation, and to promote unity and harmony.  The United States has gone through such a radical attempt at transforming society, but is emerging from this era of collectivism and idealism.  When individualism is attacked, deemed counterrevolutionary and retrograde, and dismissed in favor of overarching social goals and ambitions, there is bound to be a backlash.  Not only has America always been a country of cowboys and frontier justice, of Robber Barons and Wall Street – a nation of secular individualists – but the same religious sentiments which were at the heart of the new Republic have not changed.  The combination of the two guarantees a resurgence of individualism.

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