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Individualism is the idea that individuals can do more to help themselves than any government or group; that idea stands in opposition to collectivism. Individualism was popularised in the nineteenth century by the British philosopher John Stuart Mill and by his follower Auberon Herbert. Despite being the opposite of collectivism, however, some leftists also embrace individualism (albeit in a more anarchistic and nihilistic manner), such as Jean-Paul Sartre and the ACLU, as well as the radicalized American Library Association.[1] On a related note, Sartre, and to a certain extent leftists as a whole, took "individualism" in his existentialist philosophy as that one when embracing their own self, and creating their own values, is obliged to eliminate any other selves, or as Henri-Bernard Levy put it, "[Sartre] cannot imagine any encounter between consciousnesses which does not immediately and definitively turn into a bout of fisticuffs."[2]

Rugged individualism

'Rugged individualism' is a term derived from 'individualism' and denotes the ideal of a righteous life in which the individual never finds that he needs help from anyone in order to remain both healthy and sane in a fallen world. In refusing the offer of the king of Sodom to take what many Bible commentators say was a rightful portion of the spoils of the war through which he rescued Lot, Abr(ah)am (Abraham) was motivated by a sense of rugged individualism in mind of God's promises to him.

Nonetheless, rugged individualism, while implicitly sought by all, is an ideal which is unattainable by mere fallen individuals (and thus by all nations made up of fallen individuals). Even Karl Marx, who founded the Communist dictatorial methodological paradigm of human improvement, was driven by the hope of creating a society in which individuals lived righteously without bureaucratic oversight. In contrast to Marx's dictatorially 'society'-centered methods toward that end was the narrowly immediate individualism advocated by Ayn Rand, in which civil society could be healthy only to the extent to which the individual's secular liberty, including his functional material capital, was in adverse relationship to the intelligent and humane extension of the dynamics of the natural family into the wider society. So, like defining human life as either anti-water or anti-salt, any paradigm which is in opposition either to the primacy of the individual as inherently free, or to the realities of the family as the core of a civil people, is destructive to the well-being both of individuals and of society.

The only person ever to have lived a life of rugged individualism is Jesus Christ, and he never preached individualism as such, but something of far more dense value: the spirit of the Mosaic Law, which has been God's standard to all nations since the second-youngest son of Jacob was prime minister (viceroy) in Egypt.


    "Where did the ALA's current, radically subjectivist/individualist philosophy come from? The ALA, which constantly quotes from the First Amendment and whose brochures picture the Founding Fathers, would have you believe that it springs from James Madison's Enlightenment ideas about freedom. Not so. The ALA's philosophy comes from four sources: first, the later Enlightenment philosopher, Voltaire, who was hostile to all revealed religion. Second, to John Stuart Mill, whose mid-19th century writing preached that the individual is sovereign over his own mind and body, and who shifted the focus of life away from helping others toward the need to fulfill the self. Yet, even Mill believed that freedom should stop short of harm to others. Thus, he accepted the need for libel and slander laws, and believed that children needed protection from themselves. The ALA has rejected this idea of the Right to Protect and has instead accepted the nihilistic ideas of the 19th century German philosopher, Friedrick Nietsche, who preached the now-familiar refrain that "God is dead" and that there is no common good to which we are all responsible. The fourth source is Jean-Paul Sartre, the French existentialist who was so fashionable in the 1940s. He held the absolute freedom of the individual to be the highest good and yet saw all values as relative. His idea that there are no rules by which we must govern our conduct dispenses handily with Madison's idea that the Ten Commandments are necessary for peaceful self-government.
    "To sum up, the radical individualist/subjectivist philosophy which informs the policies and actions of the ALA, sees freedom of speech as radically extendible. Little or no attention is paid to the concept of harm to others. The right to know is always seen as more important than the right to protect, even where children are involved. And a relativist value system finds the use of standards of judgment in acquiring library material to be elitist and old-fashioned. Indeed, good and evil are seen as merely subjective opinions. Under these philosophic views, the ALA no longer encourages libraries to be responsive to the community, but encourages confrontation, viewing the community as a dangerous source of potential "censorship" against which librarians must be eternally vigilant.
    "When did these ideas begin to infiltrate the ALA? And who brought them in? During the social turmoil of the late sixties, the Office of Intellectual Freedom in the ALA headquarters in Chicago became very important in the making of policy. Around this time, Judith Krug began her tenure as director of that office, and in 1970 forged strong links between the ALA and the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU functioned under a philosophy of nihilism/individualism since its founding by Roger Baldwin after the turn of the century. For a time in the 1970s, Ms. Krug served simultaneously as ALA Intellectual Freedom Director and as a board member of the ACLU, which has given her several awards. The ACLU, according to George Grant's 1989 study, believes that children should have the same rights as adults, that pornography should be protected by the Constitution, that the First Amendment's free speech clause implies a right to receive information, and that the smallest limitation of any speech or expression will automatically lead to totalitarian repression."
    "It is the writing of this early Sartre that Lévy so esteems — he calls it “a shock, an event, a tremor, torrent, a tidal wave.” The worldview that runs through all of Sartre’s work of this period, soon dubbed “existentialism,” based itself on several key themes. The first was the purported Death of God and the meaninglessness of existence. Sartre’s protagonist in the hallucinatory Nausea, Antoine Roquentin, laments the “total gratuity and absurd contingency of the universe.” “Every existing thing is born without reason, prolongs itself out of weakness, and dies by chance,” Roquentin says, struggling against a powerful urge to vomit. Lévy sums up this bleak Sartrean vision of man adrift: “Life has no meaning. . . . No promise dwells in it. No invisible hand is guiding it in secret. It is chaotic. Shapeless. Pure disorder and fog. A tangle of moments in disarray. Chaos. A mess.”
    "Roquentin overcomes his dread and disgust only by recognizing what he deems to be the liberating possibilities for the individual consciousness of a contingent universe. “All is free,” he resolves: We can create our own meanings, our own right and wrong, our own futures, our own multiplicity of selves. Roquentin meditates on an American jazz song he loves — “Some of These Days” — and imagines a musician in a New York apartment finding his reason for living in composing it. “Why not me?” he then asks himself, and concludes that he, too, will create something to triumph over contingency: He will write a novel.
    "Man’s freedom of will — another central theme of the early Sartre — is what makes such creative acts possible. Drawing on German and French philosophical sources — Martin Heidegger, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Henri Bergson, among others — Sartre explained that human beings, unlike, say, oak trees and snakes, choose their own future, even when, trapped in “bad faith,” they pretend they do not. Man has no nature that predetermines what he will eventually become; his existence precedes his essence, as the Sartrean formulation puts it.
    "One problem this choosing self runs up against is how to regard other choosing selves. A third existentialist motif, best summed up in Sartre’s famous phrase “Hell is other people,” shows how Sartre understood that problem. Few writers have ever offered a nastier depiction of human interaction, as Lévy underscores: “[Sartre] cannot imagine any encounter between consciousnesses which does not immediately and definitively turn into a bout of fisticuffs.” Friendship? Just mutual exploitation. Love? Simply what Sartre calls pursuing “the death of the Other.” Sex? Always a kind of violence, at least in part."

Further reading

Essay: Networks: sacred vs secular