Antichrist – The Eagle and the Serpent (1898) in The New Humanist

Jonathan Rée wrote an article titled “Antichrist” for The New Humanist in November 2010. In it is one of the few modern references to The Eagle and the Serpent (1898) and some of our egoists, such as John Basil Barnhill.

Eagle

 

The young Nietzcheans did not hesitate to identify Nietzsche himself with the Übermensch – or the “beyond-man”, as the first translator of Zarathustra put it – and they dreamed of a day when they too might be acclaimed as pioneers of post-humanity. The main vehicle for their project was a little magazine called The Eagle and the Serpent: A Journal of Egoistic Philosophy, started in 1898 by a young Londoner by the name of John Erwin McCall. Its policy was summed up in two defiant slogans: “a race of altruists is necessarily a race of slaves” and “a race of freemen is necessarily a race of egoists”, and the first issue called for the creation of a network of “Egoist Coteries” to serve as centres of resistance to all kinds of religion – or rather to all except for McCall’s fresh new creed, known as “the Religion of Hate”.

McCall and his fellow haters were passionate about social change, but they wanted nothing to do with the progressive politics of the past. Their aim was not social justice but self-emancipation, and “the realisation of a higher type of human being … a being as much superior to man as man is superior to the ape.” But where Nietzsche might have expected the dictatorship of the Übermensch to be the work of a cultural aristocracy, his followers at The Eagle and the Serpent looked to a revolutionary workers’ movement based in what they called “class-consciousness” or “class-selfism”. They also amended Nietzsche’s attitude to Darwin, claiming that the “master morality” of the future was “synonymous with … the modern doctrine of evolution”. But in spite of their appeals to mass movements and natural science, they still conducted themselves like an exclusive sect. The principles of the Übermensch (or the “overman” – a term they preferred to “beyond-man”) were “not for boys, nor for old women, nor for dreamers either,” they declared: “they are the ethics for full-grown men, for noble, strong, wide-awake men, who shape the world’s destiny.”

Radical Nietzscheanism was probably the first philosophical movement to pride itself on the raw extravagance of youth rather than the mature wisdom of experience. Bernard Shaw, now in his forties, found it made him feel old; but he offered the egoist teenagers his support, hoping they might re-invigorate the socialist movement by “bringing Individualism round again on a higher plane”. He also broke the translation logjam over the Übermensch with his all-conquering neologism “superman”, and gave the journal an endorsement that its editor could brandish with pride: “it promises,” he said, “to be foolish enough to make people think.”

In 1900, The Eagle and the Serpent was taken over by Charles Watts, tireless printer-publisher to the Rationalist Press Association. But this arrangement – which makes it a precursor and stable-mate of the New Humanist – did not last long. In spite of dropping its explicit hostility to altruism and changing its subtitle to “the journal of wit, wisdom and wickedness” and “a journal for free spirits”, it remained an eccentric and unpredictable publication, and in 1902, after spluttering through eighteen issues, it expired.

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