Saturday, November 10, 2007

Virtuous Selfishness and Individualism

I was recently treated to sit through a wonderful biography of Ayn Rand entitled Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life. It quite succinctly summarized her philosophy of Objectivism, and it's most prominent ideas of the virtue of selfishness and individualism.

When Ayn Rand speaks of selfishness and individualism she is speaking of non-altruism and non-collectivism. Altruism refers to self-sacrifice for the benefit of others. This is an important idea, as the concept of self-sacrifice is an extremely slippery slope that leads to self-sacrifice for the benefit of the collective, or the state. People in such circumstances have invariably been conditioned to identify their "selves" with the state. And this collectivistic philosophy is obviously problematic, as it can effortlessly enlist the support of the people en masse to advance the ambitions of the state (or rather, those in control of the state).

Individualism is the antithesis of collectivism, inoculating the minds of human beings thereby preventing blocs of people from sacrificing themselves to the ambitions of the state. Such people cannot be controlled by the state or any other group.

It is interesting to compare how this relates to the Buddhist philosophy of anatta (no-self), which may superficially appear to contradict the ideas of virtuous selfishness and individualism. In this philosophy what is asserted is the idea that a separate enduring "self" does not actually exist. But that doesn't mean that the collective exists. Even the idea of the collective is an abstract construct of the mind. In essence nothing truly exists in and of itself. All is change, and so there is no enduring entity that we can say has "selfhood," whether it be the individual, collective, state, or some other entity.

But, and this is an attempt at reconciliation, individualism as a temporary philosophy of life is very useful until such time that one can leave even this abstract concept behind. So it seems then that one must cultivate the ideas behind a strong sense of individualism, that is, independence, self-determination, self-worth, personal power, material prosperity, etc. before one can let go of identification with even these ideas. Perhaps because the process of entering into total freedom requires a certain independence, strength and flexibility of character to endure the very tumultous psycho-spiritual process, as described by Carl Jung in his work on individuation. And without independence, strength and flexibility of character, one may not survive the ordeal.

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