A Criticism of the Philosophy of Egoism by Henry Meulen
To the Editor of The Egoist.
The sudden change in the title of your journal fills me with misgivings: I was not aware that the Stirnerian Egoism had taken so strong a hold upon you, and I hasten to beg you to permit me to explain my disagreement with that philosophy.
Egoism is the doctrine that the motive of every human action is the pleasure of the performer, the word “pleasure” being taken to include all forms of moral satisfaction. The view of orthodoxy to-day is that people sometimes commit acts of self-sacrifice. Sometimes I seem to be foregoing a big “moral” pleasure (a pleasure that, so far as introspection carries me, I am at that moment appreciating to the full) for a smaller, less noble satisfaction; and sometimes I seem to be sacrificing a strong ignoble pleasure for the sake of a weaker noble one. How will you prove to me now that in both these cases I am in reality choosing in the direction of my greatest pleasure?
It is useless to tell me that the fact of my acting in a particular way proves the pleasure anticipated from that act to have been the stronger: this does but assume the point to be proved, for it advances no reason for denying that an action may sometimes proceed in the line of the weaker of two anticipated pleasures.
It is equally useless to tell me that the fact of my wanting to perform an act is a proof that I anticipate the greatest satisfaction from that course: this again simply assumes the point at issue, since I, who am surely able more accurately than any outsider to appraise the comparative strength of my anticipated pleasures, decide that I want to act in the direction of a weaker pleasure. You will doubtless here assert, as these ingenious Stirnerians do, that the fact of my wanting to perform a particular action A rather than B indicates that there is a greater hunger within me for satisfaction A than for B. Words—mere words. You cannot possibly know my intimate hungers so well as I, and I decide that my hunger for satisfaction A is less than that for B.
You will ask me why I wish to perform that particular action, if it is going to afford me less pleasure than another action that is equally open to me. I reply that I want to act thus for such and such reasons, but that, so far as I am aware, the performance of that action will afford me less total pleasure (moral gratification, future retrospective pleasure, or other satisfaction) than another course that is open to me. So far as I am able to examine and compare my desires, I seem sometimes to perform actions that will yield me small pleasures of a particular kind rather than other actions that will yield me large pleasures of a different kind, and your simple assertion that I must have anticipated more total pleasure from the former actions leaves me quite unconvinced of the truth of Egoism.
Lastly, you will not help your cause by asking me if I anticipate no pleasure from my projected course of action. I may confess the sweet secret; or I may assert that I expect only pain; but I may be able most truthfully to affirm that another action would yield me more total pleasure than the one in question. Of course, as I have insisted above, if you assert that the fact that I desire to perform a particular act proves that I expect most pleasure in that direction, you cut the ground from under my feet; but I reiterate that this assertion proves nothing—it simply assumes the point at issue. So long as there exists a man so obstinately deaf to your persuasions that he asserts that he sometimes deliberately performs actions that will yield him less total pleasure than other actions that were open to him, you have no way of proving the truth of your doctrine of Egoism to him.
Hence I am of opinion that the philosophy of Egoism rests upon unverifiable assumption. More over, since culture consists for the most part of a relinquishment of particular satisfactions for the sake of other satisfactions, it may be useful to retain the notion that some of the people whom we admire may, however rarely, have sacrificed strong pleasures for weaker ones in the performance of some of their admirable actions. This knowledge assists us to perform worthy actions—weak vessels that we are.
Views and Comments by Dora Marsden
This time it is hedonism. It was nominalism, and has been realism, intuitionism, individualism, Socialism. Given time, and the catholicity of these pages, we shall in the opinion of one or other off our readers rehearse the entire procession of isms and schisms, whether ancient, mediaeval or modern. The compliment paid to the wealth of our erudition would no doubt be pleasant—and wholly undeserved—did it not clash with our egoistic temper, which compels us to protest as to our status. Our modesty notwithstanding, we protest that we brew our own malt: we are not bottlers and retailers: we are in the wholesale and producing line of business. If our beer bears a resemblance in flavour to other brands, it is due to the similarity of taste in the makers. “Stirnerian” therefore is not the adejective [sic] fittingly to be applied to the egoism of The Egoist. What the appropriate term would be we can omit to state. Having said this, we do not seek to minimise the amount of Stirner which may be traced herein. The contrary rather, since having no fear that creative genius folded its wings when Stirner laid down his pen, we would gladly credit to him—unlike so many of the individualists who have enriched themselves somewhat at his hands—the full measure of his astounding creativeness. For it is not the smallness in measure of what one takes away from genius one admires which is creditable. It is a very old story—the comedy of discipleship—that though the banquet of wisdom is spread and open to all-comers the number of the foolish abroad does not materially diminish. We may take from where we please, but “how much” depends on how much we can. The wealth of the feast is the affair of the hosts: capacity to take from it concerns only the guest. Since then we recognise his value, why protest that we have drawn at the stream of his creation into thimbles? We take what we can, and our capacity is not measured by thimblefuls. And because it is not, “Stirnerian egoism” has not as Mr. Meulen suggests in the correspondence columns “taken such a firm hold” of us. If that appears a paradox to our correspondent we ask him to work it out. It is really very simple and straightforward if he will bear in mind that we are very great pots and can therefore afford to be honest. So few people can.
We can now consider Mr. Meulen’s dictum that “egoism is the doctrine that the motive of every human action is the pleasure of the performer.” The Egoist is an odd quarter wherein to present a word like “Pleasure” as the main term in a definition. What is “Pleasure?” The text-books even will point out that there is a confusion: that there are concrete activities which may be called “pleasures,” which however vary with person, mood and circumstances, and if insisted upon are likely to be classed as nuisances and a bore. But “Pleasure” the vague generalisation it is impossible to define. It is of the order of the static concept which have the function of tombstones among words. Tombstones, as Mr. Allan Upward points out in his illuminating “Divine Mystery,” are intended to keep the spirit down: imprisoned underneath in the vault, and that is what words like “Pleasure” manage to do. They blur over with an abstract generality the positive active element in that which they pretend to name. Their only use is to create seemingly irreconcilable opposites, playing with which manages to keep the professors and scholars from swelling the ranks of the unemployed. They go in pairs: and “self-sacrifice” is the verbal opposite which nicely balances “Pleasure.” Both represent mental confusion, and we suggest to Mr. Meulen the advisability of abandoning both to the exclusive use of scholars and clergymen: putting in their place the active verbal form which comes nearest to expressing what they suggest rather than what they possess of meaning.
To “please” oneself is to set one’s energies moving in a channel in which they run readily and with comfort: that is a definition which for the moment will do for “Pleasure”; to sacrifice oneself is to set them on enterprises where they move reluctantly and with hardship. The motor-power in both cases comes from the self: the motive is self- satisfaction and fulfillment. Whether the issue is satisfactory or not is more or less accidental: with judgment it tends to become less rather than more. To “please oneself” and to “sacrifice oneself” are in the main, activities by the way, like the passing through roads of varying quality in the course of a long journey. A sturdy traveller will take them as they come philosophically. On occasion, the passing over a favourable tract will be undertaken and repeated solely to enjoy the ease and facility with which it can be covered: as in advance the dancers will move continuously round the floor. And on the other hand, a difficult stretch will be undertaken and repeated in order to enjoy the ultimate satisfaction at not having been defeated by its rigours: as in the more difficult feats of mountain-climbing or in any of the “tasks” of “self-sacrifice” which men will set themselves to prove they can go through with them. It is a healthy method of hardening and weathering, and great fun as long as no one is mis taken by it. Whether men are “pleasing” themselves or “sacrificing” themselves they are enjoying themselves very well indeed, particularly in the latter if they have an audience. Probably because in the long history of experience the “hardening” process makes men more fit and inclined to venture into new fields than does the lingering over the facile and comfortable, the “hardening” always wins the applause of general common-sense, and it is because of this that instead of calling itself doggedness or sport, the “hardeners” have become accustomed to get their solatium in a left-handed way by calling their form of amusement “self-sacrifice.” If anyone speaks of “self-sacrifice” it is a certainty they are speaking to an audience, real or imaginary. They are getting at someone. They would call it a good old sport if they felt they were quite, quite alone.
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We have of course been speaking of “pleasures” definitely entered upon as diversions and “self-sacrifice” adopted as a tonic with a strong probability of amusement in the form of applause rounding it off at the finish. Both are hobbies, off the track of life’s main courses. The “self-sacrifice” which has sprung up by instinct and veined itself into the mesh of life without any thought of pleasure or audience is not so easy to explain. Perhaps the feature which best helps to explain it is the fact that it never regards itself as “self-sacrifice.” The term is applied by onlookers after the event. The “sacrifices” of love in any of its forms in the eyes of the makers of them are desires whose frustration would be resented in a degree which itself explains the sacrifice. Of the desire to alleviate suffering, and the supposed existence of goodwill we have already spoken. In relation to the former it is to be noted that sensitiveness, the form to which vital power runs, and the power to inflict suffering is curbed by the sensitiveness which makes the imagination of the suffering caused proportionately hateful. We mind our manners and our ways for our own sake. As for goodwill, it has no real existence. Sensitiveness, stupidity, and fear explain every form of its seeming appearance. The feeble or unintelligent man is ready to be persuaded into a belief that it exists because the schemes which are erected on it as a basis seem to meet his difficulties. But he is thinking of goodwill as existent not so much in himself as in the powerful: he expects them to adopt its precepts: whereas they, on the contrary, merely see in it, a happy psychology for “government by consent.” The poor expect “good will” to give them “liberty”; the rich look to it to secure a docile serving community. In a few thousand years, after experimenting with every “constructive” scheme of government, “divine” and human, men will begin to understand that the only will existent is Self-will.