Owe No Man Anything

street sign "my way"Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben once told him, almost as if he knew Peter had gained spider-powers, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Naturally, I believe everything I read in Marvel Comics, but I must ask: to whom does one owe this responsibility? Nietzsche and Ayn Rand will not allow me easily to accept that one owes the exercise and the fruit of one’s talents to society at large. One must not let oneself become a slave to the mass, or one will soon be trying on for size the binding ropes of the Lilliputians. They will happily exploit one’s talents in place of those they lack or are too lazy or fearful to exercise for themselves. And they will seek to curb one’s own free use of one’s talents as one sees fit. Would you strive to reach the stars? Too bad! We want you to apply your energies and resources to supporting the shiftless.

The mass fears ability and always seeks to co-opt it and to dilute it. Did you see the movie Captain America: The First Avenger? Remember how the Army shoots scrawny Private Steve Rogers full of the experimental Super Soldier Serum, whereupon he turns into a powerful Adonis, a one-man army? And then what happens to him? The government assigns him to go on stage to promote War Bonds. That’s it. Until he strikes out on his own to rescue troops trapped behind enemy lines. He is a hero, and serves others, only once he breaks free of the clinging restraints of the Collective.

Have you ever been forced to work with a committee, whether of stupid classmates or of dim-witted fellow employees or of idiot church deacons? You have knowledge and ideas. They don’t. You notice two things happening simultaneously. First, you wind up doing all the work, though the whole committee gets the credit. But you don’t mind it, because that way at least the job gets done better than it would have if you had let the dead wood actually participate. You’d rather have them share your A than you sharing their C. Second, the dead wood will whittle away at the excellence of your best ideas. What do you expect? They have only mediocrity, and that’s what they contribute.

The Collective always and necessarily dilutes the talents of the gifted. They don’t want to be shown up as mediocre, so they will always try to drive down any excellence they see arising. Somebody else doing a good job makes them look bad. Poor workers always resent good workers. This is why Teachers Unions oppose competency testing or ranking. The herd huddles together, as if adding so many zeroes could total more than one big zero.

I remember my contempt and disgust when I heard a Unitarian minister at a conference say that the theologian must seek to articulate the beliefs of his “faith” community rather than develop his or her own ideas. If he did the latter, he might be considered a philosopher of religion, but a real theologian exalts the mass and eschews individualism. Ugh…

Lucky for me, when I was a teenager I watched Patrick McGoohan’s The Prisoner and learned its lessons well. And yet I cannot deny Uncle Ben’s lesson either. If one does have great powers, to whom is one in debt? I think I know: one owes a debt to oneself.

The way I look at it, which I happily learned reading Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, is that one possesses an individual path (what some call a dharma) constituted by the law of one’s own being. One has a built-in drive and goal, planted by one’s genes and watered by one’s environment, which will eventually blossom forth into a life and a destiny. Only so can one find fulfillment. You “must” fulfill your potential or you will find yourself frustrated. And this is only and precisely because your potential is you. To cultivate it and to express it and to apply it is autonomy, obedience to the command of your own nature, not heteronomy, which would be the command of another. A good teacher tries to get you to do your best not as an assignment, like Pharaoh commanding the Israelites to make bricks without straw, but rather in order to encourage your own self-development. You owe it to yourself.

This is why, as Rand said, selfishness is a virtue. Who has a better claim on your abilities and your freedom? Not the mass, the mob, the Collective. It doesn’t “take a village” to determine what you ought to do with your life. I prefer Billy Joel to Hillary Goddam Clinton: “I don’t care what you say anymore. This is my life.”

But isn’t there some larger social dimension? As the quotable George Costanza bellowed when no one passing him on the street would answer a simple question, “We’re living in a society here!” How does that work? Here I think of the “egoism” (but not egotism) of Epicurus, who (in effect) compared society with an orchestra. It works only when each musician concentrates on his own sheet music and plays his own instrument. Imagine the chaotic cacophony if everybody butted in on his neighbor’s performance. Dropping his or her own trumpet and grabbing the other guy’s violin, “Here, let my take care of that for you!” You owe something to the rest of the orchestra, all right: to do a good job with your own performance!

atlasI am responsible not to you, but to me. You are responsible not to me, but to yourself, and that’s the way to get a resulting society that will work best for us both, for us all. I don’t want to succeed at your expense; I want you to succeed, too!

But what about poor souls who are disadvantaged, who cannot excel in such a way as to secure their own weal? Philanthropy is better than forced government collectivism. The superman will naturally look with compassion upon the unfortunate. He will not render assistance in obedience to a government which demands the right to confiscate and redistribute his resources or to commandeer his talents. He will instead act with holy condescension. He does not pretend that no “descent” is involved, because he recognizes that the delusion that all are equal and equally “entitled” is part and parcel of the Collectivist ideology of the slave herd, and he will not be party to that.

So says Nietzsche.

So says Rand.

So says Zarathustra.

 

 

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10 Responses to Owe No Man Anything

  1. John Moriarty says:

    Bob
    I was agreeing with you until the last paragraph. Would you not accept that forced redistribution, as in western European social democracy, is better at removing the harshness of life than philanthropy? Much and all as I would like to think voluntary behaviour is preferable to taxation, I think the facts are firmly down on one side, like it or not. Maybe there are better alternatives than either of these choices, and worthy of your exploration in another article? I haven’t considered any such options before, who knows what theories are out
    there in the wild.

  2. John O'Rourke says:

    Hi,

    As always, you write beautifully. The society you describe matches the one Ayn Rand believes is trying to rob the able of the fruits of their labor. However, it is quite possible that the system you would like to see ruling the roost would be the one we currently have. This is one where the “mediocre” citizens will not progress for decades, if ever. It is one where the wealthy, not necessarily the most capable, will have the power and money to keep themselves in power. Their only difficult task will be in creating a picture of society like you do. One in which the capable and pure of heart are picked on until they refuse to act. They sit back and watch the crappy folks ruin things, whilst they give gold-plated speeches from heaven, then later they may offer their services. We are engaged in a battle right now for how much we think we can afford to have social programs like universal healthcare, education, and retirement. The powerful want to cut this off by constantly lowering taxes for themselves at every turn and claiming that that will produce shangri-la for all. It hasn’t done that. The powerful are continuing to promote a system that will cause social programs to be shrunk to a point where they are useless. It is my opinion that we will have to reach a grand bargain on this topic and not the black-and-white version of the world that you and Rand seem to share. Going back to a magic world where the able were barely taxed, where the gold-standard ruled and where everyone liked it so much they wanted more of it – happened when?

  3. Art Cominio says:

    Corruption exists in both government *AND* in industry. We can choose whether to be screwed by government or by industry. But there is a third alternative – a balance of power between government and industry that keeps *BOTH* in check. When Ayn Rand wrote “Atlas Shrugged” she ignored the evidence that industry (railroads, Standard Oil, the J. P. Morgaqn Trusts) are every bit as corruptable as any government.
    If the ersatz economy described in “Atls Shrugged” were ever to materialize, the balance of power would shift away from government to industry. The notion that Laissez-Faire Capitalism is self regulating is laughable, and is the reason why Ayn Rand and her philosophy of “Objectivism” can never be compared to Nietzche.

  4. RMP says:

    Fluk no, Professor Moriarty! Look at the results in Europe today: everybody’s poor.

  5. Norm says:

    Bob:

    I follow the argument about individual responsibility and accountability to self. Holding ourselves accountable for our actions and outcomes is the basis of a society. Society–there lies the rub. By its rules, norms, mores, governments and social structures, a society tilts the table. A tax redistributes. The “eldest son” notion in some traditions redistributes. Society redistributes: that’s a key element of living in a society. At its best society places a fence around the human tendency to corrupt the good and assures its members including the disadvantaged have a playing field that encourages self responsibility. Thank you for your thoughtful work in writing and podcast media.

  6. John O'Rourke says:

    Dear Captain Capitalismo,

    Not all of Europe is poor. Sweden, for example, must be giving Randians fits. Despite its policy of heavy taxation and abundance of social programs, it is a competitive, high standard of living country for all of its citizens. True, it had to battle a high debt level in the nineties. It came through that era, lowered taxes for corporations and is doing pretty well considering there is a recession going on in the rest of Europe. Notably, it is not on the Euro, which is proving to be an albatross about the neck of the peripheral countries that took on loads of private AND public debt when it was being offered at dirt cheap rates. Sweden may have to give a better deal to corporations still and to lessen its social burden more but so far it is giving the lie to simple minded capitalism and worship the wunderkinds philosophy that you espouse, Sherlock.

  7. cj henderson says:

    Seems like people might be missing the point.

    Certainly many of the above comments are correct, but only in a limited way. Yes, things do suck in the world today in many ways. But, the arguments being made are ignoring your central point. The whole idea is for everyone to embrace the idea of being responsible for and to oneself. Everyone has to do it. It’s anti-communism in that it makes perfect sense on paper … it’s getting people to live up to it that is the trouble.

    Of course it’s easy to point at the noble ideal and scoff. Laziness is the strongest shield of the weak and frightened. But that doesn’t make your point (or even that of communism) invalid. It simply shows the fear of the scoffer.

    Incedible fatigue keeps me from going on at length. Suffice to say, of course I subscribe to your way of thinking. To clarify my own point, what makes either system work or fail is the extent to which those within either system work toward its success. Thus communism is destined to fail because it is absolutely impossible to get all men to work together for a greater good. Someone will always opt for greed, and for the loss of a nail …

    But, when you exist within a system of responsibility where one is responsible for themselves alone, then if you rise to the heights of your own ideals, then you win. It could possibly be only the victory of the Christian vs. the Lion, but still … I will take the glories of being right in the face of physical death to the sadness of the death of the soul by hiding from ones responsibility to oneself under the pathetic mooing along with the rest of the herd.

  8. Tony Romero says:

    Ayn Rant

  9. Andrew D. Viceroy says:

    I think science is showing us that the way we used to delineate autonomy is less realistic on just about every level- even down to the metaphysical bits (in fact, that’s where it gets REALLY fuzzy). Mirror-neurons and predisposition for empathy, as well as disembodied cognitive offloading, frontloaded moral biases in our intentions based on in-group preferences, 98% sub-control reflecting internal AND external causation… who the hell are you anyway? You’re me and I’m you. We just have more mouths than we thought. Autonomy is old school mythos. Beanbags for the gods. Even if responsibility turns inward, the individual is not a black-hole one way vortex. That’s one of the first things children learn. They are not little gods. It’s the hardest part of the self to let go of: the self.

  10. William Lee says:

    We always think that we’re the ones making the group shine, doing all the brilliant work.

    I have a fever, and the only cure is more cowbell. I agree with lots of what you say Bob, and it would be great if personal responsibility were enough to collectively raise the standard of living, the unemployment rate and keep people from going on food stamps or welfare or whatever entitlement most offends.

    Hard, honest work ain’t enough. The gane is rigged and none of us are as brilliant as we like to think.

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