Part 4 of 4
The Battle to the Death for Pure Honor
Tomislav Sunic writes:
In the eyes of the New Right, unlike continental Europeans, Anglo-Saxon peoples fail to perceive the importance of organic community and the primacy of political over economic factors. The excessive individualism of Anglo-Saxon society and a unique political theology of ‘secularised’ Protestantism resulted over a period of time in the subordination of traditional politics to unbridled economic expansion. (p. 57)
The European New Right (ENR) condemns Western individualism, which it sometimes identifies with private market activity, and calls this individualism excessive, but in the end what the ENR rejects is Western individualism as such, which it traces ultimately to Christianity. It contrasts this individualism to the “organic” culture of traditional non-Western societies and to the pagan Greek and Roman worlds.
But the individualism of the West is an incredibly difficult subject to understand, and not only because there are many definitions. The difficulty lies in the many forms of individualism manifested in Western history, both in different nations and in the course of time. There is a sense in which the individualism of the West increases over time, and that in ancient times, contrary to the ENR, it existed, though in a restricted way alongside strong collective norms. Western countries, in varying degrees, have retained certain collective norms through modern times despite the growth of individualism, and so the issue cannot be Western individualism versus Traditional collectivism, but what is the nature of the collective norms and the individualism we find in the West through time, which is a huge question still calling for study.
Another difficulty is that individualism has taken on many intricate forms and degrees of intensity depending on the cultural sphere within which it has found expression, whether in heroic poetry, in the highly distinctive philosophical authors of ancient Greece, in the Roman legal persona, or in the 12th-century preoccupation with self-discovery, individual autobiography, evaluation and personal criticism, friendship and courtly love. Thinking in terms of “Western individualism versus Traditional collectivism” misses the immense richness of Western history and the extremely complex relationship between Western individualism and Western collectivism.
In some ways, the Anglo world, and the Nordic world generally, have been more individualistic than other cultures within Western civilization, but only in some ways, particularly in the greater emphasis these cultures placed on individuals and their families making a living on their own in their separate farms or in religious and urban professions, rather than relying and living within more extended family networks, which were common in southern and eastern Europe.
The Protestant religion, as Max Weber argued, both reflected and accentuated this Anglo-Nordic individualism, extending it further into the religious sphere, by breaking up many of the collective/authoritative beliefs and institutional practices of Catholicism and emphasizing the inner conscience of the individual. When the ENR condemns Western individualism, it has in mind particularly the Anglo capitalistic-Protestant version, which it traces ultimately to Christianity’s belief that all humans, regardless of race, sex, or culture, are of the same God, equally able to become Christians and obtain the blessings and forgiveness of Christ. But before Christianity there was the heroic individualism of Indo-Europeans and Homeric Greeks, and this was only the beginning of multiple, ever deepening forms of individualism in Western history.
Individualism is an intrinsic characteristic of the West traceable to the horse-riding, heroic culture of pre-historic Indo-Europeans some five to six thousand years ago in the Pontic Steppes. This individualism finds its first literary expression in the heroic poetry of Homer, and in many poems, in Beowulf, Song of Roland, and the Sagas of Icelanders, Germans, Irish stories, written during the medieval era. There is a dynamic inherent to this individualism. Once it makes its appearance in the “first society” created by Europeans, the aristocratic culture of Indo-Europeans, it finds expression in multiple modes beyond the pursuit of personal honor in warfare.
The material origins of this individualism are to be found in the unique lifestyle of Indo-Europeans, the riding of horses, the invention of wheeled vehicles in the fourth millennium BC, together with the efficient exploitation of the “secondary products” of domestic animals (dairy products, textiles, harnessing of animals), large-scale herding, and in the emphasis and opportunity of men to pursue recognition as singular warriors.
But this material lifestyle per se could not have produced the state of being required for humans to become aware of themselves as beings capable of self-consciousness and the unique particularity of the I. This I only makes its appearance in history in an encounter with another I in which there is a struggle to the death for pure recognition. This struggle is the key to the understanding of the origins of Western individualism and the first society in Western history, a society which can be identified as the “Western state of nature.”
Hegel was right, however, to argue against the notion that there was an actual “original state of nature” in which man was in possession of individual rights. Men had to acquire, to demonstrate their capacity for freedom and particularity, which is not something that is given to men naturally outside society, but can only be demonstrated, in the first instance, in a social “battle to the death for pure prestige” within a particular historical society. While Hegel rejected the notion of a state of nature, he did write about a first society in history in which men had the opportunity to fight to the death for pure prestige, and, in-through this opportunity, express themselves as humans self-conscious of themselves as individuals.
He envisioned this society as the first human society. All interpreters of Hegel have followed him in this regard, believing that Hegel was speaking of humans generally, but when we realize that Hegel was familiar mostly with European history, and when we think carefully about what he says, and what we know today about the earliest Europeans, we can retroactively infer that the image Hegel had in mind of a “fight to the death for pure prestige” could only have been conceived in relation to the aristocratic society of Indo-Europeans, about which he read through his reading of Homer and other heroic stories from the Middle Ages. When we look carefully at what he says about this first society, it becomes clear that what Hegel had in mind was a society of aristocratic men in which the highest expression of one’s humanity came through the pursuit of great deeds, courageous acts, for the defense of one’s group, and for personal recognition.
True recognition can only come from one’s peers and only in an aristocratic society do we find other men who are equally interested in honor and have the opportunity and the daring to strive for it, since they are not subservient to any one man but pride themselves on their aristocratic sense of free status. The first men of the West were aristocratic warriors living in bands in which the leader was first among equals and in which the highest deeds came through the performance of heroic acts. Heroism can only come in a struggle for recognition among aristocratic warriors who are equally willing to demonstrate their capacity to be free, which is the singularly defining trait of the aristocratic persona.
What Hegel called a “struggle to the death for pure prestige” over and against the most powerful biological drives humans have for self-preservation and comfort, can only make historical sense in relation to the only society in history in which some men inhabited a lifestyle where such a struggle was seen as the most valued form of human affirmation. The master is the warrior who masters his fear of death and the slave is the human who gives in to this fear for the sake of preservation. It is in the risking of one’s life for the sake of recognition by another consciousness that humans first reach an awareness of themselves as beings who can self-determine their actions by struggling for an immaterial object, recognition by another consciousness. It is through this cultural practice that humans pried themselves loose from any external determination, becoming aware that they are conscious beings different from all external determinations, by choosing to act for an immaterial goal of their own choosing.
This struggle with another aristocratic consciousness, contrary to Hegel’s emphasis on the master-slave dialectic, is the important dialectic, the master-master struggle to the death for honor; only the recognition that comes from another master can satisfy the master both in the struggle with another master, and in the recognition obtained from his peers. Man shows himself capable of being free and able to determine himself by acting according to his immaterial goals, and it is only thus that man distinguishes himself from his naturalistic self and becomes aware of himself as an individual. It is at this point that the I first makes its appearance, though in an undeveloped, capricious, and high strung way. Only when humans achieve self-consciousness of this I, do we witness the first personalities in history.
A sense of one’s individuality, an awareness that one can reflect about what is accepted, what the body demands, and separate oneself from such determinations, is the basis of all true knowledge, the source of creativity. Humans do not have a naturally given capacity for individualism. To this day all non-Western peoples lack self-awareness of themselves as humans with individuality, which explains the lack of creativity in the Oriental and African realm. The individuality that appears in prehistorical times with Indo-Europeans and Homeric heroes is characterized by caprice, insatiable willfulness; it is berserker-like, barbaric, not rational. Tracing the development of this individualism in the history of the West is extremely difficult and requires alongside it a history of the collectivism surrounding or co-existing with these forms of individualism. So, for example, if one were to write about the unique presence of a middling class of farmers in ancient Greece and Rome, and in many regions of medieval Europe, of individually-owned family farms, in contrast to the collective forms of ownership of the East, one would be amiss if one were to ignore the collective ties of kinship, collective beliefs, social and agricultural activities that were performed in common.
Ancient Greek Lyricists
It should be stated, for the sake of argument and illustration, regarding the dynamic impetus underlying Western individualism, that once self-consciousness appeared among Indo-European aristocrats, however undeveloped the sense of I was still among the Homeric Greeks, there was an inherent dynamic for new forms of individualism to emerge beyond the sphere of heroic warfare. As early as the seventh century BC, ones sees a new form of personal expression with the rise of lyrical poetry. Bruno Snell writes that, in this lyrical poetry, we see “the rise of the individual,” but already in Homer one can discern an individualist ethos and a sense of the I in contradistinction to the non-I. Still, Snell can be employed to show that in this lyrical poetry we witness the rise of a new form of individualism, beginning with the poet Archilochus, who not only broke with the dominance of the hexameter in Homer and Hesiod, but with the demands of heroic honor, admitting (in a still very warlike culture) that he had thrown away his shield in a flight — “I can get another just as good.” Men can have different goals in life other than the pursuit of glory in violent warfare. The lyricist Simonides soon followed with a new hedonistic poetry that vindicated the individual’s right to sensual happiness, lamented the shortness of human life, and challenged the ideal of a short heroic life. Sappho (born sometime between 630 and 612 BC), for her part, emphasized the internal, inner feelings of the soul over and against such external and popular sights as parades of horsemen, soldiers, and ships.
Some say an army of horsemen is the fairest thing on the black earth, others an army of footsoldiers, and others a navy of ships — but I say the fairest thing is one I love.
She wrote of her beloved Kleis, “I would not exchange her for all the Lydian lands.” With these lyricists, Snell says, the “emergence of the poet as individuals” is evident. Greek lyricists “announce their own names; speak about themselves and become recognizable as personalities” (44). Again, we can disagree with Snell that these lyrical poets were the first to become “conscious of their individuality,” but we can agree that they were the first to express a lyrical form of individuality. Now, Snell does not pretend that these lyricists were free floating individuals producing art out of their isolated selves. Their poetry was dependent on collective “pre-literary forms which have existed in all cultures at all times, such as dancing songs, cult hymns, working songs and the like.” What matters is that in contrast to the Orient and all other traditional cultures, these lyricists were recognizable as individuals even as they drew from a strong collective background.
Nordic Individualism and Collectivism, and WASP Ethnic Collectivism
In fairness to the ENR, this school emphasizes the commercialized Anglo variant of individualism, and identifies the West with it, because the Anglo side has been the most expansive in the modern era, spreading into the United States and the territories we now call Canada and Australia. With the Cold War, there is no question the United States took on the role of the protector of this form of Western freedom, which it identified with the West itself, even if most of the time Americans supported authoritarian governments to fight Communism.
Nevertheless, notwithstanding the Protestantism of Nordic countries, these countries have combined since ancient times a strong collectivist identity with a strong sense of individualism. This individualism in ancient/medieval times was quite aristocratic in its heroic ethos, and yet Nordic societies were simultaneously quite democratic and collectivist. Historians have thus written about the “dual aspect” of early Icelandic Viking society.
The two contradictions of Viking culture, passion for power and ability to organize against excessive domination (individualism and craving for equality), shaped the masterpiece that was the ancient social organization and community of Icelandic aristocratic democracy.
This Nordic individualism, therefore, cannot be counter-posed to the egalitarian spirit that was also present throughout the Scandinavian world in ancient and medieval times. Scholars have indeed traced the roots of the contemporary “Nordic model” of capitalism and socialism to this “dual aspect” of ancient Scandinavian times. This Nordic model, before the contemporary imposition of diversity, can be very broadly defined as involving a set of economic and social policies that include a universal welfare state, common to Denmark, Finland, Norway, Iceland, and Sweden, though there are important variations, combined with a strong emphasis on free market capitalism, individual family orientation, as well as collective bargaining, and a corporatist form of government. The collectivism of these countries has also been characterized (mind you, again, until the recent imposition of mass immigration devoid of open democratic consent), by a strong sense of ethnic identity. Individualism, egalitarianism, and a strong sense of ethnic identity, are not incompatible but quite unique not only to the Nordic world, but to the West generally. The breakdown of the collective identity were are witnessing today is best identified as a product of recent ideological developments, which can be quickly identified under the headings of Leftist multiculturalism and American neoconservatism.
But even in the case of the “unbridled” economic individualism of American Protestant culture it would be a stretch to attribute current trends, the disintegration of the European character of America, to the excessive individualist ethos of WASP Americans as such. The inability of the ENR’s conceptual framework to explain what has transpired in America in recent decades goes back to the point I made in Part One: this school is dated in having developed intellectually in reaction to the Cold War; it is now making a major mistake in its continued opposition to Western modernity and its excessive admiration for traditionalism.
As a counterpoise to the ENR’s animosity for American individualism, I recommend Kevin MacDonald’s assessment of the relationship between the ideals of the Enlightenment, offered in his review essay entitled “Eric P. Kaufmann’s The Rise and Fall of Anglo-America.” MacDonald criticizes Kaufmann’s argument that Anglo-Americans simply took the “ideals of the Enlightenment to their logical conclusion” in giving up their ethnic hegemony and sense of collective identification with America, opening the United States to Third World immigration after 1965 and celebrating diversity. MacDonald effectively shows that American WASP culture long combined a strong sense of ethnic identification with a tendency, in his words, “toward individualism and all of its implications: individual rights against the state, representative government, moral universalism, and science.” He well recognizes “the strong strands of American culture that have facilitated” mass immigration, and how Anglo-American individualism, with its “relative lack of ethnocentrism,” facilitated more radical notions of individualism in the 1960s that were completely opposed to any notion of America as an Anglo-European nation.
But he does not thereby condemn the individualism of America’s original WASP culture, not even its universalism and rationalism, aware that these cultural currents have been the driving forces behind America’s economic and scientific dynamic. Equally important, he carefully shows that Americans, for all their individualism, were quite explicit in their ethnic attachments through their history until radically novel notions about the meaning of individualism and universalism began to spread in the 1960s. We know about the sociological analysis MacDonald has offered about the spread of this radical, one might even say, non-Western, cultural Marxist notion of individualism and universalism, which are in fact destroying the real sense of individualism and universal rationalism Europeans have lived by for thousands of years in diversifying ways across the many national cultures of Europe.
We need more careful sociological analyses about the corruption of Western individualism and rationalism by certain hostile forces that grew in power and influence throughout the West after WWII. Focusing on cultural Marxism rather than Western Civilization allows one a better understanding of these hostile forces. Cultural Marxism should not be restricted narrowly to the works of the Frankfurt School, but should be defined to include almost the entire intellectual experience of the West after WWII, as expressed in multiple ways, sometimes imperceptibly or indirectly, and many times overtly and militantly, in a variety of schools, texts, thinkers, and philosophies, such as Structuralism, Phenomenological Social Science, Feminism, Foucauldian Discourse Analysis, Deconstruction, Ethnomethodology, Dependency Theory, World Systems Theory, History from Below, Theory of Communicative Action, Critical Race Theory, and Liberalism.
All of these schools have a common underlying motivation to “liberate” Western societies, to look at the Western past as a history of oppression and exclusions, in need of improvement, to develop a new way of communication free from the coercive speech acts of the past, to integrate different races within one culture and promote the value of other cultures, to provincialize the place of Western civilization, devaluate its achievements, make the West multicultural, engage in constant criticism of any perceived discrimination against minorities, overcome the gap between rich and poor nations, value the voice of marginalized groups, deconstruct the logocentric voice of white privileged males.
While there are lines of continuation between these currents and the intellectual history of the West, which may be traced as far back as ancient Greek philosophy and certainly back to Christianity, and to the Enlightenment, it would be quite a stretch to pretend that these currents of thought sprang automatically, were already implicit, and did not require intense intellectual effort, multiple intellectual novelties, voluminous writings, many thinkers, vast amounts of research and institutional support, to reach the point where they are now.