Rumbling the unique one
Sometimes, I ask myself what makes us human rather than animal. We are, of course, animals, no less than other animals, but we are also ‘more’ than animals because we possess faculties and abilities which animals do not and these faculties and abilities are not just add-ons to the animal in us; they also divide us from the animal in us and, in the process, make us specifically human. In a sense animals are more complete than we are, but they are more complete because their world is poorer than ours; and it is poorer than ours because they do not live in a mediated world which divides them from themselves. Their world and their relation to it is much more immediate and this very immediacy creates something akin to tunnel-vision in them. It is a world with few of the distractions which are common to us. For example, a wildebeest’s life is almost totally devoted to chomping grass for 23 hours every day. Its digestive system apparently requires almost total devotion to chewing the cud. Imagine if we had to do that. Of course, it must keep an eye out for lions and therefore lives in a herd, since many pairs of eyes are better than one. But I often wonder if it registers the actual being of the other wildebeests in the herd, or whether it simply co-exists with them the way we might co-exist with furniture which we are not paying attention to at the time. Does it feel anything in common with these other wildebeests the way we obviously do with other people because our being self-conscious involves being conscious of others? I wonder. When a lion kills a wildebeest, the others who have escaped seem simply to look on at the fate of their fellow wildebeest impassively, as if they were more concerned to keep the lions in view and themselves at a safe distance than about the apocalyptic fate of their fellow wildebeest now being torn apart. The behaviour seems blissfully selfish to us and it probably is. Each wildebeest is concerned only for its own wellbeing. However, it does not think of itself as such, it just acts in accordance with an imperative to preserve its well-being, with the minimum of conscious input.
The lion that hunts it is more genuinely social, but that doesn’t mean it is any less selfish. It co-operates when it comes to the hunt, but when it comes to feeding-time it is every lion for him or herself. For most of the rest of the time, it sleeps. It has secured the means to continue existing so why should it stay awake. If I was a lion, I’d probably do likewise. After all, there’s no point in being “King of the Beasts” if you can’t sleep when you want to. It enjoys its own satiation and its present horizons seem to end there. As long as it is full, it is happy. It doesn’t, however, appear to actively enjoy its environment, its world. It doesn’t look up at Kilimanjaro on the horizon and wonder about it, any more than wildebeests do. The distant mountain probably doesn’t even exist for it in the way it does for humans who live there, and who may think of it as the abode of the gods. This is what I mean when I say that its world is poorer than ours. Of course, the more intelligent an animal is, the richer the world it exists in is, but the principle basically holds, for what we are really talking about here are not all animals but the difference between a creature which is paradigmatically animal and one which is paradigmatically human. Some animals like dolphins and whales seem to belong more to the human end of this animal-human continuum.
The important point is that animals are primarily selfish; even when they are social, they are so only because they need one another to survive as individuals. Wolves and wild dogs share the spoils of the hunt in ways lions do not, but it is largely instinctive. They haven’t thought it all out. They don’t see sharing as an investment – which, from an evolutionary point of view, it undoubtedly is. They just do it and are focussed only on the immediate aspects of doing it. Thus when I say that an animal is selfish, I do not mean that it is selfish in the way human beings can be selfish, but that this selfishness is part of an unbroken continuity between itself and its world which makes it act automatically to secure its own well-being. Humans, on the other hand, think about it and have the conscious ability to separate the thought of themselves from their thoughts of the world. Therefore, if they are selfish, they are consciously selfish, although, of course, it can become second nature, while with the animal it is always first nature.
So animal selfishness and human selfishness are two different things, though there are no doubt connections between them, the one being a more rudimentary, less consciously mediated, form of the other. Animals can’t help it and will never feel any qualms about it. Nor will they ever be held to account by their fellow animals for behaving in selfish ways; whereas human selfishness is often accompanied by condemnation and regarded with disfavour by other humans, because human society is based on a solidarity which takes a degree of altruism for granted. If that can’t be secured, then feelings of anxiety emerge in the others, which might lead to sanctions against the offending party. So in societies where solidarity matters, there is a taboo against selfishness, without which they could not properly function. Wolves, elephants, buffalos, et al, may instinctively help one another, but I don’t think they create taboos against selfishness the way we do, since their sense of solidarity is on a less conscious level and isn’t reinforced by a culture. (NB, it is probably for good evolutionary reasons, rather than envy, that less well-off people excoriate the greed and selfishness of the capitalist-class. Sharing both the products of work and its burdens is probably how we originally survived, and that may be inscribed in our DNA.)
In the middle of the 19th century, a book appeared called The Ego And His Own – The case of the individual against authority. The last chapter of which was called The Unique One. It was written by an anarchist by the name of Max Stirner and was roundly abused by Marx and Engels in their German Ideology. It is well worth reading, if a little tiresomely repetitive at times. Stirner takes the case of the individual to its ultimate extreme. He called his philosophy egoism and he attempted to make a case for egoism against such abstractions as God, The State, The Law, Society, Morality, Liberalism, Socialism, Communism, Rights, Duties, Freedom, The People, Man, Humanity, The Monarch, The Sovereign, the Nation, Democracy and so on and so forth. He cited the apparently unbroken continuity between the selfishness of animals and humans in defence of his notion of egoism. What he didn’t take into account was that animal selfishness, as I have pointed out already, is not conscious selfishness, whereas human selfishness is. In fact, human selfishness is often very self-conscious, which animal selfishness isn’t. Human selfishness may be accompanied by defensive strategies against disapprobation. The ‘guilty’ parties usually go to some extent to defend and justify their selfishness. This, in effect, is what being egoistic means. Animals may be selfish, but they are not egoistic. But human selfishness generally tends to be fortified by means of an egoistic philosophy which justifies egoism because, well, it’s just yuman nature, innit?
I certainly agree with a lot Stirner has to say about God, Man, Democracy, the Rights of Man, the State and so on and so forth being abstractions, but then so is his account of the ego. Animals, properly speaking, do not have egos. They might have a very rudimentary sense of themselves, which impels them to act on behalf of themselves and secure their own well-being, but their consciousness of it must be extremely limited compared to that of human beings. Mammals like dolphins may be the exception, since dolphins have been known to recognise themselves in mirrors and sport themselves to advantage almost as if preening. But they are, after all, social animals with intricate languages, and so cannot really be said to fit the paradigm of animal that I’m using here. They are probably closer to us than to other animals which do fit the paradigm more. What is involved in having an ego is the ability to separate oneself from the world, as one does when one looks in the mirror. (Tigers, when they look in the mirror, just see other tigers; they don’t associate the image they see with themselves.) In other words, the ego is not naturally given, but something constructed in the process of our becoming aware of ourselves in the world. And we become aware of ourselves as we become aware of others, and in the process our egos separate off from our more rudimentary animal selves in order to represent us in a world of similar egos which we become equally conscious of. Such an ego becomes an abstraction when viewed as somehow isolated from all of the others, in a cocoon-world of its own. Stirner’s egos are not living breathing entities which need one another, except in as far as they can use one another. The truth is that we can only at best partially separate ourselves off from each other. Some more than others of course. One needs to be alone, for instance, to write poetry and that might entail a more solitary or reclusive life. Normally, however, we are interdependent and have no choice in the matter. In its very constitution, the ego is acutely social, and cannot be anything but.
Sigmund Freud posited an ego which was highly vulnerable to attack and therefore anxious to keep its head down so as not to have it chopped off. He also posited a superego which represented society and its mores. Such a superego contributed even more to the ego’s sense of vulnerability and anxiety. Freud had a much more complex and realistic idea of what it actually meant to be an ego than Stirner. He saw that it was intrinsically paranoid because of its inherent vulnerability. Stirner’s idea of an ego that could stand up alone against the world, come what may, doesn’t really hold up. The ego we know today is, thanks to Freud, a lot more problematic than that. Such is the ego we’re stuck with. And oddly enough, such an ego has more in common with an animal’s rudimentary sense of self, in which fear, hunger, stress, anxiety, appeasement, anger, aggression, etcetera play important roles, than it does to the abstract ego Stirner imagined.
But while recognising these limitations of his conception of the ego, I don’t think Stirner should just be dismissed, especially when he’s in a more critical mode. We are ruled by all sorts of sacred abstractions - God, Man, The State, the Law, The Human Species (species-being), Society, the People, Gender, the Family, Rights, Duties, Morality, Humanity, Blood, Race, Nature, DNA and all the rest of the crap. All these things stand above us as individuals and demand to be worshipped. The Ego And His Own gives a savage mauling to all of these sacred shibboleths. It fails only in the alternative it offers based on its own sacred abstraction – the ego standing by itself alone, confronting other egos, uniting with egos which serve its purposes and opposing or resisting egos that don’t and want to impose their own egoistic wills on them. In this non-society of egos interacting with each other in various ways, rights, duties, privileges and so on, do not enter the equation. What does is the power you have to assert your own will against others and the devil take the hindmost. It seems to me that the paradigm being used here is a sort of reverse Hobbesian one of all against all, but without arriving at the Social-Contract which takes away the freedom of each to enhance the security of all. Stirner has simply taken Hobbes and run the process backwards. This makes sense because Stirner's atomistic egoist is on the same level of abstraction as Hobbes's atomistic man-in-a-state-of-nature. And the ultimate irony is, of course, that this Hobbesian/Stirnerian scenario of all against all is how states came into being in the first place – not by way of a social-contract through which all agreed to forgo their freedom for the sake of security, but through conquest and subjugation, that is through the agency of certain ‘unions of egoists’ (the conquerors) dominating certain other ‘unions of egoists’ (the conquered). And, of course, conquest led to exploitation and the need to keep the exploited from rebelling by the use of superior force. So, while I can certainly accept Stirner’s critique of all sorts of ‘sacred’ authority, I think what he proposes as an alternative – unions of egoists – would ultimately lead to precisely the kind of situation he seems at pains to avoid.