The Unique One and the Universal

Over the past two to three years, I've engaged in many conversations featuring the appeal to moral principles asserted to be held in common. Some who've known me for a while may notice that over this period I've begun to distance myself from appealing to these moral principles as a basis for my arguments. This has been a rule I've adhered to largely from both my own investigations of my beliefs as well as the influence of Max Stirner's "The Ego and Its Own" (or, as Shawn Wilbur correctly points out is a better translation of the title, "The Unique One and Its Property").

Stirner taught me that abstractions and concepts ("spooks") often rule us just as completely and arbitrarily as corporeal authorities, and that true freedom requires one to break free of all preconceived notions of propriety, convention, and duty. This philosophy is often called "egoism" and is treated by many as a form of nihilistic realism culminating in an almost Nietzschean "will to power". All constraints on the ego are to be discarded in order for the self to express itself fully through its property, its ideas.

This causes understandable concern in many. The search for perfect and complete freedom is framed in terms that are positively anti-social. If adhering to ethical codes or moral laws or legal statutes or social conventions should displease you, why not throw them all out? After all, what makes them all more valuable than your own happiness? And I find this a hard argument to reject without appealing to other spooks.

Indeed, I've come to realize that my own moral beliefs are undemonstrable and, therefore, I often have no compelling argument to make. For example, I believe the non-aggression axiom is a valid construct - it makes sense to me and seems to align with my innate sense of justice most of the time. But there's no way to fashion a logical argument for this position outside of the conventions instilled in us through a lifetime of social experience, the nature we can claim to share (whatever that means), or the rhetorical power with which I can persuade, or make demands on, you.

If I want you to accept the axioms I accept, I don't know where to begin, other than to presume you're like me in important ways that allow my sensibilities to transfer over to you. The belief that we share common access to a universal basis for truth is the precondition for any persuasive, rational debate. It underlies the motivation for reaching out to you at all, because I assume you have the innate ability to reach the same conclusion I did - somehow. If I believe my position is true, I believe that you are compelled to accept it if you're honestly accessing that same store of truth.

The idea that you and I are similar, that there's an inner truth available to both of us that underlies our common interest in peace and harmony, and that this common truth is mutually accessible, is typically consigned to the domain of the religious, the mystical, the arena of doctrines requiring blind faith (though it has its secular versions, such as the rationalism of the Enlightenment era). And yet, the more deeply I've studied the arguments of libertarians (and I certainly believe this applies to any political ideology, or for that matter any belief system, bar none) the more clearly I see that ours is distinguished from others not by our beliefs per se so much as our constructions of that universal truth we expect others to access. Hence our outrage when they appear not to, because they are not simply disagreeing with us; they are challenging our own certainty in the truth at which we've arrived. After all, we would not reach out to them in the first place if we did not believe they (A) are honest with themselves and us, and (B) have equal access to that store of universal truth.

What's weird about the typical construction of Stirner's argument that appears to predominate in libertarian and anarchist circles is the emphasis on the quest to banish every kind of spook - only to make room for the primacy of another. It typically presumes a particular conception of the individual lying nascent and pure under these layers of spooks (particular at least to the degree that the spook's restriction of it is identifiable) but never questions whether that conception of the individual as described by Stirner is itself a spook. Stirner advocates for this ego to dominate in exactly as arbitrary a manner as any other ideation can elevate itself within the psyche. In pushing for a radical individualism, Stirner seems to be convincing the reader not to abandon all the chains and limitations of the various spooks so much as to adopt one really powerful spook to rule them all, and let that ascendency be named "freedom".

But what next? If you follow his ideas to their logical conclusion, a totally different construction can emerge. What if we, as the unique ones, create ourselves - not merely limit ourselves, though that seems to be part of it - through the duties, moral codes, and other constructs we assume? What if that is the character of our creative task? Perhaps casting off the spooks gets us down to the core of our being, but must we stop there? Or do we channel that core to others as an expression, a unique composition of identity and "will to self-definition"?

Perhaps all of us unique ones are defined not simply by our mere uniqueness at the root of it all, but the way in which we fit together as irreplaceable components. The ego as Stirner described it may in fact not be the unique one - it may be the spook we empower to protect ourselves from the inner truths others are constantly counter-demonstrating to us. If we are threatened by others' constructions of their inner truth, it is only because we rely on the certainty of identification with our own spooks, which stand in for a more honest, rigorous, and continuous exploration of the self.

I maintain that the genuine political act is the quest for self-knowledge, or rather, a continual dedication to increasing honesty with oneself. The rest is arbitrary expressions people choose in order to get at that essential heart in others - indeed, if they didn't assume the existence of that heart they wouldn't bother to make the effort! Too often, they mistake the expressions for that which is being expressed, that which is truly being sought by all of us with various degrees of fidelity. You can argue ethics, morality, and logic all day with others and not convince anybody of anything nor discover anything that helps you better understand the human condition, because it is a condition of billions of unique truths, all equally valid.

In the same way that Nietzsche dared the individual to will himself to power, one can dare to create oneself by choosing his spooks, his constraints, his individual expressions of the universal as he understands it. It is an act of consummate creativity to define your own moral and ethical context as an expression of universal truth. The key, however, is to recognize that others do the same, and to see the interpersonal dialogue as a continuation of the meditation on the unique one - not some challenge to your ego. You approach the universal through the individual, not as a rejection of it.

If I express frustration with those who advocate for universal principles, such as particular conceptions of human rights, justice, moral codes, etc. it is not because I reject the reality of a transcendent universal truth. Instead, it has more to do with the manner in which some advocates appeal to it, as if their conception were binding on me. Often such arguments end up coming off more or less as breathless assertions of one's ego, seeking conformity and not understanding, and certainly not an appeal to the common truth we should share.

In fact, it is precisely because of my firm grasp of what it means for a truth to be universal - that it has no need to be forced on another, either through the brute force of rhetoric or that of violence - that I do not insist on your consent to it. In fact, I welcome your dissent. We are each equally the conduits of the universal if we're worth convincing at all. In order for me to be assured that I am articulating something "true", the last thing I want to do is to extract your consent to my position. Above all, I want your honest feedback to help me integrate your unique insight into my search. The earnest seeker of truth places a higher value on testing it than merely believing in it.

Stirner closed his magnum opus with the phrase, "All things are nothing to me," as if that were the end of the matter. Be that as it may, creativity and freedom end up manifesting most universally as the ability, nay, the daring to make something of that nothing, and to do it in the unique way only you can. That is a magnificent and glorious idea to me - indeed, it is what I believe I am, and what I believe you are.

It is why I will never demand you are compelled by some universal law "out there" to adopt my beliefs. Such arguments amount to hand waving, and no honest person resorts to them knowingly. For the precise reason that I believe some things are universal, I dare to trust you to find it yourself, in your own unique way - and if you can construct it better than I, then the benefits accrue to us both. It is in that manner of unique togetherness we approach a less distorted, more useful conception of the unnameable principle which impels us to associate in the first place.

Written on Monday, August 16, 2010 | Tags: left-libertarian, philosophy, egoism, spirituality, law-of-one