My submission for a “Worst College Essays” contest.
“Free — from what? Oh! What is there that cannot be shaken off?”
Some thoughts set down about what one can suppose is the most persistent philosophical question: “How should I live?” Many answers exist, and these vary as they should, but the conventional responses tend to also be limited because the question is loaded. It is a truly unselfconsciously modern question to ask, it slips in the ontological I, unnoticed. We need to notice the I. We need to inspect it and evaluate it. But in this we will find not more than mere guidelines. The perennial question about how to live is relegated to the museum. Similarly, our definition of free-will becomes problematic. The postmodern turn in science establishes that the universe is indeed in constant flux, prediction about the world can never be wholly accurate, and the self is, ultimately, a myth. But these are evident to the ancient Chinese philosophers and the early Buddhists. Why has it taken so long to realize this in the West? It would indeed be wise to follow their lead by defining the way to live as dwelling within seemingly contradictory truths but not being overcome. To explicate this end, this paper traces the conventional Western philosophical tradition of self-knowledge back to Plato then through its logical extreme in the work of Max Stirner, and finally proposes that a few crucial lessons can be gleaned from Daoist teachings.
Socrates is generally credited with the adage, “Know Thyself,” but there are many others who have echoed this injunction. Michel de Salzmann, for example, says that “the fundamental aim is to become aware of the whole of oneself.”[i] Likewise, Stirner calls his reader to “Bring out from yourselves what is in you, bring it to the light, bring yourselves to revelation.”[ii] On the other hand we have André Gide who derides the project of self-knowledge: “Know thyself! A maxim as pernicious as it is ugly. Whoever observes himself arrests his own development. A caterpillar who wanted to know itself well would never become a butterfly.” And finally there is Zhuangzi, also talking about butterflies:
Once Chuang Chou dreamt he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering around, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He didn’t know he was Chuang Chou. Suddenly, he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakable Chuang Chou. But he didn’t know if he was Chuang Chou who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Chuang Chou. Between Chuang Chou and a butterfly there must be some distinction! This is called the Transformation of Things.”[iii]
The most remarkable thing about Zhuangzi is that he demonstrates that it is impossible to identify the self as distinct from anything else. Wherever one looks, there one is. The external world cannot be apprehended without the perceptive organs in the individual, but alternately, the individual cannot perceive without an external world.
The fulfilled life has many archetypes: Plato describes the Philosopher-King, the one who rules by reason and courage. Stirner and Nietzsche both await the coming of the Enlightened Egoist, Zarathustra, the Ubermensch. De Salzmann calls for a “merging with [the] mysterious seer.”[iv] And Zhuangzi revels in stories of the Holy Men of the mountains, reclusive and eccentric masters of becoming. It should be noted that for Zhuangzi, the model is not a noun but rather a verb. As Hakim Bey says, Zhuangzi pulls no metaphysical punches. At his best Stirner keeps with this, but Plato is too idealistic about the self and the mind/body dualism.
While Plato composes an individual of multiple, conflicting drives, there is always an identity to be maintained. The Republic explicates the three aggregates of a person: the appetites, which desire and want, the passions, which assert, and the intellect, which calculates. Of the three, the intellect is made to be primary. For Plato there are two ways of acting, one can either make choices or one can be led (by passions or external compulsion). If one is led by desires, one is ignorant. Yet, making choices carries risks too. There are actually two pitfalls to avoid, the “demented masters” that Stirner cries for battle against, willful injustice and ignorance. Thus for Plato, the individual is free to the extent that the rational mind governs the appetites and desires. The goal is a harmonic happiness for the whole. But this can lead to stagnancy if done improperly, as Gide warned earlier. Unity can often do violence to the multiplicity within the individual – it precludes intuition. Robin Waterfield explains this as Plato’s belief that “there is a sense in which people may need saving from themselves.”[v] For the person searching for a life, this advice turns out not to be very helpful. Plato confuses supplementary wills with complementary wills. To reconcile this, we can turn to Stirner for a second.
The central idea to Stirner is Ownness. Unlike individualism, which can be condemned for ignoring the interests of others, Ownness is the ontological agent that becomes within the spectrum of other’s similar interests. In the words of Deleuze and Guattari, it is a Body without Organs. Also in their words, it can be “botched.”[vi] Stirner write that the Ownness needs to be correctly oriented if it is to promote life; it should seek nothing other than its own interest. He says, “Do not seek freedom, which does precisely deprive you of yourselves, in ‘self denial’; but seek for yourselves, become egoists, become each of you an almighty ego.”[vii] One should serve nothing higher than oneself, yes, but the self is similarly not higher than the Other, indeed, it is inseparable. Frequently Stirner is too concerned with the Ownness to think about complementary wills, but it is an integral force in the development of the Own.
Stirner makes a complex claim in the final chapter of the book, but one that is worth repeating and appropriating for oneself. He ends, “They say of God, ‘names name thee not.’ That holds good of me: no concept expresses me, nothing that is designated as my essence exhausts me; they are only names.”[viii] This is important to discuss not least because of its similarity to the spirit of Daoism, Buddhism, and even Hinduism. Basically, there is no essential self. Although there are obstacles that are associated with this conception of the individual, it also carries with it responsibility and potential. If one is in constant flux, one is also autonomous and free. One must then define their becoming as broadly as possible, inclusive even of the Other. The self-in-flux is free like the Daoist uncarved block, free to cultivate the wills and to affirm life. Conversely, ignorance is made not external and the Ownness must account for what it does not know. This is a productive flaw; one goes to war for the Own but not at the expense of the other. Deleuze and Guattari sketch skirmishes of becoming in “Nomadology,” which Hakim Bey echoes, “One needs, in effect, an individual equivalent of war in order to achieve the becoming of the free spirit — one needs an inert stupidity against which to measure one’s own movement and intelligence.”[ix]
Ownness is thus not the antithesis, but the completion of both self-mastery and mutualism. The missing ingredient of Stirner’s work was the insistence on non-duality and multiplicity. Bey further complements Stirner’s egoism with Chinese philosophical truths, “The goal of the unique after all is to possess everything; the radical monist attains this by identifying self with perception, like the Chinese inkbrush painter who ‘becomes the bamboo,’ so that ‘it paints itself.”[x] Finally, one is left to wonder how one should live. It is pointless to keep pointing at the moon if the person you talk to only notices your finger. Yet if freedom is what one wants, if one wants to affirm life, it would be best to leave the reader with a final council by Stirner. He calls for autonomous productive desiring, something that one has to appropriated or it will never be harnessed at all. He says, “If they nevertheless give you freedom, they are simply rogues who give more than they have. For then they give you nothing of their own, but stolen wares: they give you your own freedom, the freedom that you must take for yourselves….”[xi]
[i] Michel de Salzmann, “Seeing: The Endless Source of Inner Freedom,” presented at the Harmonia Mundi Conference, Newport Beach, California, 6 October 1989, 18.
[ii] Max Stirner, The Ego and Its Own, ed. David Leopold, trans. Steven Tracy Byington (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 146.
[iii] Zhuangzi, “Butterfly Dream,” in Deborah Sommer, ed., Chinese Religion: An Anthology of Sources, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 81.
[iv] De Salzmann, 18.
[v] Waterfield’s introduction to Plato, Republic, trans. Robin Waterfield (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), xxvi.
[vi] Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, vol. 2 of Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987)
[vii] Stirner, 149.
[viii] Stirner, 324.
[ix] Hakim Bey, T. A. Z.: The Temporary Autonomous Zone, (New York: Autonomedia, 1995), 86.
[x] Bey, 68.
[xi] Stirner, 151.