As human beings reduced to “social animals,” our entire existence is divided between two disharmonious worlds: the public, and the private.The public constitutes our shared or collective world of intelligibility. This is the structure of existence that enables us to be with others. The public gives each and every particular member his or her tradition, language, and structures the framework by which he or she participates in the whole of being with others. It establishes and gives content to the cultural paradigms that give meaning to what one is and what one ought to do. The public determines the values, beliefs, priorities, and make-up of all its constituent members (particulars). As such, the public is only understood through its generality, for the public is an abstraction — and thus never deals with the concrete, but only with the general. Though the public is not itself universal, for there are as many ‘publics’ as there are communities stretched across the planet, It nevertheless presents itself as the universal, a sort of perverted “universalized relativism.” Without the “public,” culture, civilization, and society could not be. Nothing would be intelligible beyond the purely subjective self insofar as nothing could be raised to the level of discourse or understanding between the Self and the other. The public operates through the Crowd. The Crowd itself is the public made manifest in the world. It is composed of “everyone and no-one,” and thus is never responsible, never accountable, and is omnipotent in its ability to defend and perpetuate the public. The public stands on the shoulders of the Crowd, the latter playing a critical role in preserving the former’s hegemony and safeguarding it against collapse. Yet despite its sheer breadth and pervasiveness, continuously shaping our average everyday experiences, the public itself is never fully in view; for it withdraws itself into the background of such everyday experience. Therefore, the public only becomes distinct at the horizon — often times creating the barriers between that which is meaningful within the framework of the public, and that to which the public is hostile (the private, the idiosyncratic, or the exceptional). Yet despite this seeming withdrawal into average everyday experience, the public does, in special circumstances and situations, make itself felt. This always only occurs in moments of “break-down,” that is, when the public world is called into question or otherwise “challenged” by the individual (more on this below). Whenever the public is sufficiently challenged, it will respond accordingly through the Crowd. The Crowd, as the knight of the public, steps in to set matters straight by exercising its awesome power to induce even the most resilient or obstinate individual to resign himself and fall back. The public also brings itself into full view when it is forced to undergo some substantial change or adaptation — yet again an unconscious effort that takes place for the purpose of perpetuating the domination of the public. This is the process by which the public absorbs and gives new meaning to that which once challenged it; in other words, a process in which a practice or way of being-in-the-world is transformed via the Crowd from something viewed from the public perspective as unacceptable, into something acceptable (again, from the point of view of the public) This takes place at the level of the Crowd — in which particular practices, especially those which challenge or threaten the hegemony of the public, are subsumed, transformed, and often imbued with new “public” meaning — thus now becoming a part of, rather than set against, the public. Yet even before a breakdown can occur, the public perpetuates its dominance through the process of leveling. Leveling is the process by which all that is exceptional, different, unique, and individual is flattened. The leveling process is yet just one of the peremptory powers of the Crowd to eradicate threats to the public. It is the procedural expression of all things being reduced to the lowest common denominator. In the West, leveling has found its greatest expression through the transformation of cultural paradigms in the wake of the Age of Reason, with its most acute expression in the Enlightenment. This paradigmatic shift re-centered focus for cultural development to the mass man and population. As such. through the birth of mass-man, the public took on its greatest role ever — and finds greater expression in the spirit of the mass-man than any age before. The private, on the other hand, is the subjective reaction to the public. It exists only insofar as there is a real existing human self that defines itself (gives meaning to its own self) always in a way distinct from that of the public or the Crowd. The private is thus understood through individuation and self-determination. That being said, not every particular necessarily has a private world — for only an individual self is able to undergo the process by which it creates the private through existence. Whereas one may refer to a particular human being, a particular chair, or even a particular dog or pair of shoes — the word “individual” would be wholly inappropriate in the aforementioned context. Rather, and individual only exists through its own existence — as defined by taking a stand and defining itself through its own relation to itself. Hence, we can say that the world is composed of a people, and the ‘people’ is made up of particular persons — yet there are only a handful of individuals. In this sense, there is an undeniable distinction between a “human being” and an “individual.” This point can also be expressed in a simple syllogism:All individuals are humans, but not all humans are individuals; or, all x is y, but not all y is x. Thus, the private world exists only insofar as there is an individual Self that may be said to exist within its existential structure of intelligibility. To simply have a private world is to always be at odds in some manner or form with the public. For the individual who has constructed for himself his own measure of intelligibility that defines his own relation to himself and the world must do so by doing violence (at least to some degree) to the domination and hegemony of the public. That an isolated and single individual Self can threaten the amorphous and anonymous “public” demonstrates the power of the individual Self to transcend the petty groundlessness of the Crowd. Nevertheless, the individual Self who defines himself through the private will always be in conflict with the Crowd (and correspondingly with the public). The Crowd will attempt to continuously bring pressure down upon the individual — a pressure so immense, and more often than not, so unbearable that few find themselves strong enough to resist. In light of this pressure, the Self must invariably lose — for the individual is incapable of successfully challenging the Crowd directly. Accordingly, the individual Self will be forced to choose either to (a) flee from the private; or (b) reinforce the private through resignation and solitude. Those endowed with a greater sense of resistance will be inclined towards the latter, whereas those who feel incapable of resisting the pressures of the Crowd will fall back into conformism. This is why precisely why there is no necessary connection between becoming an individual self on the one hand, and happiness or a contended life on the other. In fact, the more one commits himself to becoming a self, the less and less likely he will find himself capable of feeling happiness. This is the cost of becoming more aware of oneself and exercising one’s freedom and responsibility to determine one’s own self at the expense of the naive stupidity of the interchangeable members of the Crowd. Only the latter are capable of knowing happiness, yet the true selves, though they will never be happy, will, for what it’s worth, find meaning and identity in their suffering — if only to ward off the temptations of self-annihilation. To be sure, a third alternative is also possible — the Crowd, in all its subterfuge and under the appropriate circumstances, will subsume the private into the public, and thus render the latter’s threat to the former null and void. Typically, this will have the effect of undermining whatever threat the private posed to the public by way of flattening whatever was original and unique and reducing it to the level of that vulgar baseness so synonymous with the public.
For Palante, individualism and pessimism are mutually inclusive:
“Pessimism supposes a basic individualism. It supposes that interiority of sentiment, that return to the self (almost awlays painful) that is the essence of indivdiualism.”
The pessimist, by his very nature and constitution, lives a solitary existence marked by withdrawal from the illusory optimism and mindless conformism of the herd. Palante’s pessimist wholeheartedly rejects the cult of progress and social development — and finds solace in self-affirming “egotistic isolation.” He represents the “great artists and theoreticians of suffering,” estranged from the masses and the total leveling effects of modern civilization, and becomes an a total end unto himself.
Palante contrasts his species of pessimism with the “abstract metaphysical thesis” of optimisim. Whereas the latter is grounded in the not-yet-existant could be or will be– pessimism is the sensation of “lived life.” Thus, it is a pessimism at odds with that particularly odious brand of optimism so prevalent throughout the Western world at the turn of the century which placed all its faith in a more prosperous future on account of the rational organization of society. Consequently, this pessimism is entirely self-reflective and entrenched within the Self (or in Palante’s words, the “ego”). It is a disdain and contempt for the folly of the hopeful masses.
Accordingly, Palante’s individualism is seemlessly intertwined with a deep-rooted social and misanthropic pessimism. The experience of the true individual, Palante says is the the experience of the struggle of the individual ego against the crowd. In this sense, the pessimistic individual is thus cast against a social ordering that despises the exceptional, that is always seeking to undermine the spirit of “special calibre.” But this struggle for existence is never without its costs — and usually the individual, “imbued with the sentiment of their uniqueness and strong in their will to independence,”
The main facets of Palante’s pessimism could be stated as:
- social life is suffering;
- conspicuous skepticism with respect to the powers of reason;
- outright rejection of the notion of social progress;
- outright rejection of the teleological basis of history (i.e., that human history is organized in some fashion towards the accomplishment of some end
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).
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.