Egoism and the tyranny of general ideas

“The real living Egoism is the fact of the untrammeled mind in this or that person and the actions resulting, the end of the tyranny of general ideas.”            –James L. Walker

I think most religious believers follow the dictates of their gods out of fear. Christians will say, for instance, that they follow the example of Jesus, that they bow down to him and praise His name, because they want to.

Ask them about hell. Are they afraid of hell? Would they sin more often or with a clearer conscience if their god gave them real free will by taking hell off the table? What if the prophet John had written “For God so loved the world that He sent His only begotten son [so anyone] can have eternal life” and Moses told us that the commandments are only suggestions?

God’s threat of eternal damnation based upon conditions he put in place changes the notion of Christian morality into one of expediency.

But even if Christians do follow their god’s dictates out of love (and even if there was a religion that did not threaten its followers into compliance), they are doing so because they have chosen to do so. They are the ones who love their god and they are choosing to make him happy. They are egoists. Worship, submission, and belief most often give them a sense of self-worth, a feeling of happiness, and security.

But the dictates of another—be he god or man—will almost always oppose your own personal desires at some point. What do you do then? Whether you follow the dictates of a god or the pangs of your own soul, you are still choosing to do so of your own volition–even if you are under duress.

And here we enter reality. Personal action occurs because we want to do something and then we do it. In this sense, we are all Egoists: we follow the dictates of our own will in both self-interested and others-interested actions.

In this, in action, I can be sure I exist. (I mean this in the Wittgensteinian sense after the great Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein who said in his work On Certainty: “I did not get my picture of the world by satisfying myself of its correctness; nor do I have it because I am satisfied of its correctness. No: it is the inherited background against which I distinguish between true and false.” In other words, metaphysical naysaying is self-defeating because we operate under physical assumptions–that I have a hand that is able to pick things up, for instance–every day.)

Reality has always been the enemy of the god-concept because god is noticeably absent from it. But if god doesn’t exist, what is the nature of reality and how can we act within it?

The notorious phrase “Might makes right” has been used as both a wake-up call for the idealists and as an attack against so-called “social darwinists.” But if we define the word “right” simply as “the notion or circumstance that wins out” the phrase seems to be true of a lot of real-world interactions: the strongest or most capable individual or group often prevails.

True, every individual and every group operates on ideas. And ideas are obviously important: where would we be without them? To go to work in the morning, to eat lunch, to enjoy a crimson sunset I must use my brain and think. But thinking is not a tangible, visible action. Ideas are tools we use to set real world events in motion.

Unfortunately, too often we become tools for ideas instead. When we put our desires on hold or abandon them altogether because they conflict with a belief or idea, we have confused subject and object. Whether or not an idea has value for the real world is a matter of usability. Ideas are like flashlights; we use them to help us find our way in the dark, but they are always only tools–they are not ends in themselves. If a person arrives at an idea, but doesn’t use it, doesn’t live by it or tell others about it, of what good is it?

We live in the age of ideas. One could argue we have been stuck in this era ever since the god-concept suffered its first major blow during the Enlightenment. Since then, atheists and believers alike have placed certain ideas on a pedestal: they have made them the new gods. Be it the common good, humanitarianism, selflessness, compassion–society suggests that we are nothing in the face of them. People claim that these ideas deserve our unfailing obedience and that the better part of our lives should be spent working toward their appeasement. How is this different than god worship?

I’m not saying that we should give up practicing compassion, selflessness et. al. But if, as John Badcock claimed in his speech “Slaves to Duty”:

“…we remember that this life is our first, last, and only chance, that ‘Only to youth will spring be spring,’ while each day brings us nearer to our final dissolution, the cruelty of expecting any one to sacrifice his or her possibilities of happiness-whether the possibilities be of a high or low order-is apparent.”

Life is short. It’s cliched, but it’s true. So shouldn’t you spend it doing what you want to do? People who tell you that this or that is what you ought to be doing, how you ought to be spending your time–how do they know what’s best for you? Whether they use high-minded rhetoric or not, they are only telling you what they think, how they feel.

Life is also subjective. What tends to happiness for one person might tend to unhappiness for another. Authoritarians want you to use your precious time serving them and their ideas. Keep your life to yourself. Do what you want regardless of how other people feel about it.

How many ideologies and social dictums hang about your neck, weighing you down, preventing you from fulfilling your personal desires? To reject the sanctity of everything–including ideas–is to “cleanse the doors of perception,” to see the world as it is in reality.

Now take hold of it!

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