Philosophical Egoism: Introductory Essay
This article is from The Libertarian Broadside Series
pamphlet, entitled, Slaves to Duty, by
John Badcock, Jr. The following are comments written by the
editor of the series, Dr. James J. Martin.
The following essay was first published in the fall of 1915
almost simultaneously by Herman Kuehn in his mimeographed
individualist anarchist review Instead of a Magazine,
and in Reedy's Mirror. This latter journal was
originally known as the St. Louis Sunday Mirror until it
adopted the above name in 1893. Its editor was William Marion
Reedy (1862-1920), a badly neglected figure in American
literature, one of the great editors and an important influence
in many ways. (It was Reedy's Mirror which first
published portions of Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River
Anthology.) John Beverley Robinson was one of the important
figures in American individualist anarchism who continued in an
active role in the U.S.A. after Benjamin R. Tucker ceased the
publication of Liberty in 1908 and retired to Monaco.
Robinson wrote for Liberty on numerous occasions and was
also the author of a number of spirited essays on philosophical
egoism, of which this is one of the best. Robinson is probably
best known as the translator into English of Pierre Joseph
Proudhon's most important book, General Idea of the
Revolution in the Nineteenth Century, first published in
London in 1923, and recently reprinted in the United States.
(New York, 1969.) For more on Robinson and added bibliographical
information see James J. Martin, Men Against the State
(Colorado Springs: Ralph Myles Publisher, 1970).
by John Beverley Robinson
There is no word more generally misinterpreted than the word
egoism, in its modern sense. In the first place, it is supposed
to mean devotion to self interest, without regard to the interest
of others. It is thus opposed to altruism--devotion to others
and sacrifice of self. This interpretation is due to the use of
the word thus antithetically by Herbert Spencer.
Again, it is identified with hedonism or eudaimonism,
or epicureanism, philosophies that teach that the attainment of
pleasure or happiness or advantage, whichever you may choose to
phrase it, is the rule of life.
Modern egoism, as propounded by Stirner and Nietzsche,
and expounded by Ibsen, Shaw, and others, is all these; but it is
more. It is the realization by the individual that he
is an individual; that, as far as he is concerned, he is
the only individual.
For each one of us stands alone in the midst of a
universe. He is surrounded by sights and sounds which he
interprets as exterior to himself, although all he knows of them
are the impressions on his retina and ear drums and other organs
of sense. The universe for him is measured by these sensations;
they are, for him, the universe. Some of them he interprets as
denoting other individuals, whom he conceives as more or less
like himself. But none of these is himself. He stands
apart. His consciousness, and the desires and gratifications
that enter into it, is a thing unique; no other can enter into
However near and dear to you may be your wife,
children, friends, they are not you; they are outside
you. You are forever alone. Your thoughts and emotions
are yours alone. There is no other who experiences your
thoughts or your feelings.
No doubt it gives you pleasure when others think as
you do, and inform you of it through language; or when others
enjoy the same things that you do. Moreover, quite apart from
their enjoying the same things that you enjoy, it gives you
pleasure to see them enjoy themselves in any way. Such
gratification to the individual is the pleasure of sympathy, one
of the most acute pleasures possible for most people.
According to your sympathy, you will take pleasure in
your own happiness or in the happiness of other people; but it is
always your own happiness you seek. The most profound egoist may
be the most complete altruist; but he knows that his altruism is,
at bottom, nothing but self-indulgence.
But egoism is more than this. It is the realization
by the individual that he is above all institutions and all
formulas; that they exist only so far as he chooses to make them
his own by accepting them.
When you see clearly that you are the measure
of the universe, that everything that exists, exists for
you only so far as it is reflected in your own
consciousness, you become a new man; you see everything by a new
light; you stand on a height and feel the fresh air blowing on
your face; and find new strength and glory in it.
Whatever gods you worship, you realize that they are
your gods, the product of your own mind, terrible or
amiable, as you may choose to depict them. You hold them in your
hand, and play with them, as a child with its paper dolls; for
you have learned not to fear them, that they are but the
"imaginations of your heart."
All the ideals which men generally think are
realities, you have learned to see through; you have learned that
they are your ideals. Whether you have originated them,
which is unlikely, or have accepted somebody else's ideals, makes
no difference. They are your ideals just so far as you
accept them. The priest is reverend only so far as you
reverence him. If you cease to reverence him, he is no longer
reverend for you. You have power to make and unmake
priests as easily as you can make and unmake gods. You are the
one of whom the poet tells, who stands, unmoved, though the
universe fall in fragments about you.
And all the other ideals by which men are moved, to
which men are enslaved, for which men afflict themselves, have no
power over you; you are no longer afraid of them, for you know
them to be your own ideals, made in your own mind, for
your own pleasure, to be changed or ignored, just as you choose
to change or ignore them. They are your own little pets, to be
played with, not to be feared.
"The State" or "The Government" is idealized by the
many as a thing above them, to be reverenced and feared. They
call it "My Country," and if you utter the magic words, they will
rush to kill their friends, whom they would not injure by so much
as a pin scratch, if they were not intoxicated and blinded by
their ideal. Most men are deprived of their reason under the
influence of their ideals. Moved by the ideal of "religion" or
"patriotism" or "morality," they fly at each others'
throats--they, who are otherwise often the gentlest of men! But
their ideals are for them like the "fixed ideas" of lunatics.
They become irrational and irresponsible under the influence of
their ideals. They will not only destroy others, but they will
quite sink their own interests, and rush madly to destroy
themselves as a sacrifice to the all-devouring ideal. Curious,
is it not, to one who looks on with a philosophical mind?
But the egoist has no ideals, for the knowledge that
his ideals are only his ideals, frees him from their
domination. He acts for his own interest, not for the interest
of ideals. He will neither hang a man nor whip a child in the
interest of "morality," if it is disagreeable to him to do so.
He has no reverence for "The State." He knows that
"The Government" is but a set of men, mostly as big fools as he
is himself, many of them bigger. If the State does things that
benefit him, he will support it; if it attacks him and encroaches
on his liberty, he will evade it by any means in his power, if he
is not strong enough to withstand it. He is a man without a
"The Flag," that most men adore, as men always adore
symbols, worshipping the symbol more than the principle it is
supposed to set forth, is for the egoist but a rather
inharmonious piece of patch-work; and anybody may walk on it or
spit on it if they will, without exciting his emotion any more
than if it were a tarpaulin that they walked upon or spat upon.
The principles that it symbolizes, he will maintain as far as it
seems to his advantage to maintain them; but if the principles
require him to kill people or be killed himself, you will have to
demonstrate to him just what benefit he will gain by killing or
being killed, before you can persuade him to uphold them.
When the judge enters court in this toggery (judges
and ministers and professors know the value of toggery in
impressing the populace) the egoist is unterrified. He has not
even any respect for "The Law." If the law happens to be to his
advantage, he will avail himself of it; if it invades his liberty
he will transgress it as far as he thinks it wise to do so. But
he has no regard for it as a thing supernal. It is to him the
clumsy creation of them who still "sit in darkness."
Nor does he bow the knee to Morality--Sacred Morality!
Some of its precepts he may accept, if he chooses to do so; but
you cannot scare him off by telling him it is not "right." He
usually prefers not to kill or steal; but if he must kill or
steal to save himself, he will do it with a good heart, and
without any qualms of "conscience." And "morality" will never
persuade him to injure others when it is of no advantage to
himself. He will not be found among a band of "white caps,"
flogging and burning poor devils, because their actions do not
conform to the dictates of "morality," though they have injured
none by such actions; nor will he have any hand in persecuting
helpless girls, and throwing them out into the street, when he
has received no ill at their hands.
To his friends--to those who deserve the truth from
him--he will tell truth; but you cannot force the truth from him
because he is "afraid to tell a lie." He has no fear, not even
of perjury, for he knows that oaths are but devices to enslave
the mind by an appeal to supernatural fears.
And for all the other small, tenuous ideals, with
which we have fettered our minds and to which we have shrunk our
petty lives; they are for the egoist as though they were not.
"Filial love and respect" he will give to his parents
if they have earned it by deserving it. If they have beaten him
in infancy, and scorned him in childhood, and domineered over him
in maturity, he may possibly love them in spite of maltreatment;
but if they have alienated his affection, they will not reawaken
it by an appeal to "duty."
In brief, egoism in its modern interpretation, is the
antithesis, not of altruism, but of idealism. The ordinary
man--the idealist--subordinates his interests to the interests of
his ideals, and usually suffers for it. The egoist is fooled by
no ideals: he discards them or uses them, as may suit his own
interest. If he likes to be altruistic, he will sacrifice
himself for others; but only because he likes to do so; he
demands no gratitude nor glory in return.
∞ ∞ ∞