Palante: Pessimism and Individualism, Pt. I

In his essay, “The Relationship Between Pessimism and Individualism, from the 1914 book, Pessimisme et Individualisme, George Palante (1862-1925) sets out to understand the “logical or sentimental” relationship between philosophical pessimism and individualism.

Below I will discuss Palante’s individualism (part I), as well as his pessimism (part II). Finally, I will offer some concluding remarks (part III).

Palante’s Individualism

A thorough Nietzschean, Palante envisions a new type of pessimsitic individualism, entirely separate from the optimistic and rationalistic individualism of Locke, Mill, and the like. For Palante, traditional individualism (with its political, moral, and juridical connotations) takes shape in the French Revolution, and has thus become the dominant ideology in the discourse of the individual.

Palante sums up this type of individualism succinctly, pointing to its inherent rationalism (faith in reason) and their idealism (faith in social justice):

“These individualists are rationalists: they have faith in reason, the principle of order, of unity, and of harmony. They are idealists: they have faith in an ideal of social justice, unitarian and egalitarian, they believe, despite individual differences and inequalities, in the profound and real unity of human kind.”

Thus, this type of individualism is a civic, or social individualism: one in which the individual is, ultimately, intertwined with society — and as such, they are “never in opposition to one another.”

Palante’s pessimistic individualism is something different altogether:

“The individualism we have in mind here is completely different. This individualism is not a political, juridical and moral doctrine, but a psychological and moral attitude, a form of sensibility, a personal sensation of life and a personal will to life.”

Palante’s individualism goes beyond the traditional view which reduces the individual to a participating component of society; rather, his individualism is the embodiment of “the sentiment of uniqueness, of individuality in what it has of the differential, the private, and the un-revealable.” At bottom, individualism is a desire to “be oneself,” a desire for “independence and originality.” This type of individualist is a creator; energetic — his own “builder and demolisher of ideals.”

Coupled with this creative drive to “be oneself,” Palante’s individualism is thoroughly antagonistic to the herd, crowd, and “mass man.” The individual rejects the social leveling that the herd utilizes in order to “reduce uniqueness through conformism, spontaneity through discipline, instantaneousness of the self through caution, sincerity of sentiment through the lack of sincerity inherenty in any socially defined function, confidence and pride in the self through the humiliation inseparable from any kind of social training.

Those familiar with the works of Nietzsche can’t help but recognize that Palante’s individual bears a striking resemblance to Nietzsche’s Ubermensche. From his aestheticization of existence into a series of projects, his resolute antagonism to herd values, to his lonely isolation and withdrawal — there are a few noteworthy differences.

Palante’s individualist need not be an active “creator of new values,” but is just as capable of withdrawing himself into himself in the form of “indifference and resignation,” as the “will to revolt.” Whereas the Overman battles contemporary European nihilism by utilizing active, complete nihilism to bring about the creation of new values; Palante does not seem to attach the same negative judgment with respect to passive nihilism as Nietzsche. In fact, there’s no reason to believe that Palante attributes any normative differentiation between a passive nihilistic withdrawal resignation in speculative contemplation and the active nihilist’s aesthetic “creative destruction.”

At various points, Palante even seems to emphasize the “passive resistance” of withdrawing inwards into oneself as the more preferable of the two options. In some respects, this would be appear to be a more consistent stance in light of his pessimism. Palante’s revolt is an inward revolt — one in which the pain of rejecting the outside world is accompanied by a renewed emphasis on the interior self. Here, too, Palante’s more pessimism may be contrasted with Nietzsche’s Dionysian Pessimism, which may best be described as factually, but not evaluatively, pessimistic (and thus which has led many commentators to label Nietzsche a ‘tragic optimist’ — though this itself is debatable).

In part II, I’ll discuss Palante’s notion of pessimism and its relation to the Self/individual.

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