This quotation, lifted from a commentary by Anarchrist to my last blog post, is the inspiration for my present offering.
Self interest raised to the level of greed led us to a worldwide financial crisis; self interest leads us into war after war for oil; self interest has led to disasters like that in the Gulf of Mexico and wholesale destruction of our ecosystems along with countless species of fauna and flora.
As we considered last month in Religion, Science and the De-Animation of Nature, there was (I wager) a profound transformation in consciousness attendant upon the birth of civilization – in short, urban life – and the development of new modes of thinking about self and nature. Prior to that time, indications are that there were more fluid boundaries between the “individual” and his or her environment – “my flesh, the flesh of the world,” as Merleau-Ponty poetically stated the case. It seems that pre-historic humanity most likely experienced nature as alive, animated, having a power and motility that was shared with all sentient beings.
It is for this reason that pre-civilized consciousness may be called participatory consciousness (Owen Barfield, Saving The Appearances); tribal members actually could fuse with their totem animal, for example, because from their perspective there was no substantive difference between them and the totem: they were essentially of one substance or consubstantial. But with the emergence of civilization on the heels of agriculture, there began an objectification of the external world and an increasing interiorizing of subjectivity. This led to several critical dualisms that crystallized over the ensuing millennia – nature v culture, self v world, body v ego, me v other. These conceptualizations would come to dominate human experience with profound philosophic, economic, political, and psychological implications.
Principally there was a distancing of the “self” from the “other,” and from the world at large – in effect, the cultural construction of an isolated ego, dressed in all its attendant finery, including the presumption of an innate concern for self, and a rapacious desire to exercise its free will (Sahlins, The Western Illusion Of Human Nature, 42). But such a separation, such differentiation of the individual was not always the case; it has not been proven to be a natural component of the “human condition” so called.
As Sahlins further elaborates:
Ethnographic reports speak of a “transpersonal self” (Native Americans), of the self as “a locus of shared social relations or shared biographies (Caroline Islands), of persons as “the plural and composite site of relationships that produced them” (New Guinea Highlands). Referring broadly to the African concept of the “individual,” Roger Bastide writes: “He does not exist except to the extent he is ‘outside’ and ‘different’ from himself. Clearly the self in these societies is not synonymous with the bounded, unitary, and autonomous individual, as we [now] know him. (Sahlins, 48)
And this early historical (but not primal) concern for self, this highly avaricious individual, “reigns still in American imperial designs on world history, only that the inherent self-concern that would be thus propagated has been revalued as individual freedom.” (Sahlins, 42)
The entire argument about free will today is grounded in this presumed distinction between self and world, and the identification of self-interest as fundamental to human nature; a nature, moreover, that needs to be reigned in by the hierarchies and institutions of civil society and polity. Any discussion of freedom today, carries this same baggage, and makes similar assumptions about the nature of man and society, only that it may seek to eradicate society in order to liberate individual license.
I would suggest that any unexamined appeal to ‘free will’ presupposes this same dichotomy between an unrestrained individual acquisitiveness and the cultural machinations necessary to control it. The arguments both for and against the State are based upon this sole assumption, that human nature is driven by concern for the self first and foremost, as separate and distinct from its surroundings or its fellow humans.
This is a false hypothesis; human nature, particularly an avariciousness nature is itself a fallacious cultural construct. And likewise is the concept of free will, a socio-politico-religious construct created in order to provide reasons for the institutions of the State. It was invented in order to justify the king, the dictator, the prince, and the legislators; majesty, monarchy and divinity marching hand in hand, shoulder to shoulder. It is the assumption behind liberal democracies as well as fascist dictatorships; it is the totalitarian tendency inherent in every form of civil government – hierarchy and control of the licentious nature of evil men seeking free and unrestrained exercise of their wills. It is the assumption behind Hobbes’ Leviathan, and every other political theorist seeking to explain or justify the organization of the State with the emergence of civilization.
Yet, in pre-literate, pre-civilized social groupings, we have found that the concept of self is not what we mean when we use the word today. “Rather, the individual person is the locus of multiple other selves with whom he or she is joined in mutual relations of being” – affinity or consanguinity (Sahlins, 48)
As members of one another, kinsmen lead each other’s lives and die each other’s deaths. One works and acts in terms of relationships, with others in mind, thus on behalf of one’s child, cross-cousin, husband, clansmen, mother’s brother, or other kinsperson. In this regard… neither agency or intentionality is a simple expression of (individual will), inasmuch the being of the other is an internal condition of one’s own activity. (Sahlins, 49)
In conclusion, it is not a condition of human nature that forces us to live isolated lives; it is the product of a mode of experiencing and interacting with the world grounded in a false set of dichotomous assumptions. The alienation and aloneness we feel in society today is not a result of some misanthropic feral core in humankind. It is the product of the objectivizing, alienating and legalistic machinations of the State as it seeks to secure its own control over larger and larger population bases.
Any discussion of free will today rests upon the self-same erroneous assumptions about self-interest, and falls prey to the same master-slave mentality it seeks to eradicate.
“Natural self-interest? For the greater part of humanity self-interest as we know it is unnatural in the normative sense: it is considered madness, witchcraft, or some such grounds for ostracism, execution or at least therapy” (Sahlins, 51).
Free-will, self-determined purpose? I am not sure what that means anymore? All I can say is that free will is the construct of an objectivizing rationality seeking further isolation of the self-determined individual from her surroundings and her comrades in order to justify the abstract and alienating mechanisms of hierarchical control.
Primal autonomy, in my view, would refer to the relatively unbounded egalitarian relations of kinship (based on consanguinity and affinity) that connect us to our world, and free us from the abstracted life of an isolated ego, shut up in a bag of skin, managed by a legislator or legislative body politic.