By:Thomas Fleming | May 10, 2011
Self-made millionaires set the tone for this class, and any scholar or man of letters who has had to raise money among men of wealth and influence will see himself in Eliot's Prufrock. These poor fools have to listen, hour after hour, to Dives' tales of victories on the golf course and of his personal prowess in beating down less-able or less cut-throat rivals.
I have friends who used to know a business tycoon--let us call him Ted, and they regaled me with tales of how the tycoon boasted of besting not just his enemies but his friends. Once, apparently, a boyhood friend, whose family had lost their money, was on the verge of finally buying back the family home, but Ted snaked it away by offering the owners more money just to show his friend who was the better man. Se non è vero, è ben trovato.
Few ruthless tycoons are as gratuitously nasty as Ted who, predictably, has redeemed his evil reputation by giving large sums to charities that spend their money on strangers. It is far easier to spend $10 million on the Red Cross than to be civil to a neighbor or polite to an inferior.
Let us give the devils their due. There is a crude kind of greatness in most self-made men. When they are not boasting or trying to beat you down, tough businessmen can be quite nice, and they are often generous to a fault. They may be robbers, but they are truly robber barons, that is, there is a wide streak of nobility in their character. Booth Tarkington hit them off beautifully in his comic masterpiece, The Plutocrat. Mr. Tinker, who begins the voyage (and the novel) as a figure of fun—the loutish American who thinks his money can buy everything—ends up the last of the Romans. When his little party is attacked by a swarm of begging Arabs, "a big, red-faced, bare-headed man leaped out of the car and roared."
The substance of his roar was something like "Get out o' here!" But the beggars had never heard so masterful a voice, and when the shout was followed by a rain of silver coins, "the Arabs recognized a stupendous personage."
We do not have to revere such men for the wealth and power they have gained, but we should never despise them for doing something we cannot do or for knowing the uses of money.
Once in Paris I went out to dinner with some very rich friends. Although they had a villa in France they spoke no French. "Tom, see what you can do with the maitre d'," the husband asked. Preening myself a bit on my stiff schoolboy French, I got nowhere with the stone-faced maitre d' looking out on a long line of disgruntled expectant diners. I could not even cajole him into giving me an estimate of when a table would be ready. "Well," my friend suggested, "you tried French. Let's see what money can do." We were seated in a few minutes at an excellent table. Mr. Tinker's shipboard detractors would have sneered at the vulgarity of the gesture, I'm sure, but the maitre d' has to live, is probably supporting a family. If I had recited Phèdre's magnificent speech, "On dit qu'un prompt départ vous éloigne de nous," in a flawless Comédie Française accent, he would not have been a more prosperous husband and father by one cent.
One can and perhaps should admire the competence and self-sufficiency of self-made men, but even in overlooking their sometimes overbearing manner, we should not pardon the philosophy of individualism that concedes too much to the robber barons and encourages us lesser breeds to ape their worst qualities. There are many varieties of individualist philosophy, but they all more or less agree in making the individual the central moral actor of human life and in regarding larger collectivities as either illusory or tyrannical or, more typically, both. Albert Jay Nock denounced "Our enemy the state," others have given short shrift to nations, tribes, and even families. The most radical approach is probably the libertarian. It is a truism of classical liberals and libertarians that there is no such thing as a community or a government, because only self-seeking individuals exist. They repeat this sentiment on every occasion they can, but I have never seen it argued, much less proved. In substance, the statement means little more than, "there is no forest, only trees."
Nothing is more certain than human dependency; the existence of the individual is harder to demonstrate. The Greeks, who are supposed to have had a word for everything, have nothing equivalent to our word individualist, and Homer struggles even with the very concept of the person. Perhaps the concept of the individual is only a useful fiction that eggs us on to higher and higher degrees of personal dignity and moral independence. Unfortunately, individualism, like happiness, is one of those qualities that we cannot attain by direct means: the more we strive for happiness or love or humility, the more elusive these dreams become. It is only when we pursue other goals that we become happy. The craftsman who practices his trade every day finds satisfaction in the works of his hands that he would never find in attempting to be happy.
Life is a matter of mystery and paradox. In doing our duty and serving those we are bound to serve, we find our truest freedom. The old Anglican collect had it right.
"OGOD who art the author of peace and lover of concord, in knowledge of whom standeth our eternal life, whose service is perfect freedom; Defend us thy humble servants in all assaults of our enemies that we, surely trusting in thy defence may not fear the power of any adversaries, through the might of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen."
Service, of course, is the work of servants and slaves, and if we will not subordinate ourselves to something higher than ourselves, we must be slaves to what is lower, namely our libido dominandi.
There is, therefore, nothing strange in the fact that so many champions of individualism are moral weaklings who often depend on institutions for their livelihood. Secure in their government-funded jobs and looking forward to taxpayer-supported pensions, libertarian economists, historians, and "philosophers" espouse the freewheeling code of pirates and cowboys. Spend a little time with them, and you will hear the boldest speeches from the most timid milquetoasts.
The extreme case of false individualism is the libertarian sect, rooted in the teachings of Ayn Rand, known as objectivism. Only in America, I sometimes think, could a political movement be based on a writer of pop fiction. The thinness of Rand's erudition is matched only by the banality of her imagination, which ran to most of the clichés of soft pornography. I never got farther than a few chapters into Atlas Shrugged, but I did once manage to finish The Fountainhead, and even though I skimmed it rather quickly, my gag reflex was hard to suppress. In her defense, I will say I found the imbecility almost hypnotic. It is a little like being with small children or the mentally retarded. Life suddenly becomes a simple matter of a full belly or a diaper needing a change. Reading Rand, ones feels all critical intelligence seeping away as the brainwaves are synchronized with the low frequency objectivist mind. "Yes, the only reason I do not rule the world is the envy of weaklings who have kept me out of the power I deserve!"
King Vidor, who made some of Hollywood's tackiest tissues of clichés, turned the "novel" into a film, but he foolishly let Rand write the screenplay. Even the all-American hero Gary Cooper cannot save a film from the hysterical speechifying Howard Roark's creator puts in his mouth, but worse, even, than Rand's own blather is the zany reformulation of her notions into an academic philosophy by her self-annointed philosophical successor, Leonard Peikoff, whose academic prolixities makes even Rand seem positively lucid and original
A sex-obsessed writer of sentimental screen plays and light fiction, Rand (or rather Alisa Rosenbaum) was in personal terms a train-wreck for anyone who got to know her. She not only betrayed her husband, but her cheating wrecked the marriage of two of her closest disciples. When Murray Rothbard's wife refused Ayn's demand to repudiate Jesus Christ, she turned on Rothbard and angrily demanded, "Divorce her, Murray." Rothbard, too good a husband and too much of a man to endure any more of her nonsense, walked out.
Rand's toyboy and one-time heir apparent, Nathaniel Branden—or rather Nathan Blumenthal—is a psychologist with a PhD from an unaccredited program. (Why do they have to change their names and reinvent themselves? Cf. "The Billy Liar syndrome" to come.) Together, "Rand" and "Branden" cobbled together a "philosophy" out of the fag-ends of classical liberalism and the ravings of Nietzsche. It must be some consolation for the weaklings and introverts who join the movement to imagine themselves blond beasts in Stormtrooper uniforms, taking the world by storm, ravishing strong-willed women, and writing their names in the stars. As a teenager, I read a lot of Nietzsche, and once, as a college freshman who had drunk too deep, I confessed my fascination to my history professor. He was a North Carolinian and a master of sarcastic irony. He asked me if I thought of myself as a tall blond Teuton cupping water out of a primordial pool. It would be decades before I looked at Nietzsche again, though I did, before the night was over, manage to pick a fight in order to prove my bona fides.
Enterprise, initiative, and independence are all good qualities, especially in men, but, in the absence of the contrary qualities of mercy, friendship, and charity, they can become monstrous, especially when they are misapplied to situations were community solidarity, not ruthless competition is required. "All the principles of skeptics, stoics, atheists etc., are true. But their conclusions are false, because the opposite principles are also true." (Pascal)
The simple observable truth is that men and women are never really independent individuals; they are born in state of complete dependency upon their parents, and, as they are slowly freed from their initial bondage, they pass into other relationships—with teachers, friends, and neighbors that make them who they are.
While some degree of individualism is characteristic of European societies, a complete individualist who be a monster of selfishness. Individualism is too thin, too liable to abuse to serve as a useful moral philosophy, and anyone professing a creed of individualism is likely to have used it as justification for rather less pleasant qualities such as avarice, rudeness, and indifference. Whatever else they may be, Jerks are almost always individualists.