INDIVIDUALISM AND FASCISM
PUBLISHED: 22nd September, 2019 | By MARIO PALMIER I
One invisible tie binds together the destinies of all men. There cannot be any joy of any pain experienced by one single individual, any good or any evil befallen him, which shall not ultimately affect the welfare of the race, the progress of the world, the very course of history.
As the fall of a stone in a quiet pool draws at the surface of the water concentric circles which grow always wider in diameter until they extend to the extreme limits of the pool, thus the consequences of a human deed which seemed at first to affect the life of one man, grow little by little to affect the lives of all men.
This recognition of the essential unity which is at the very root of human life is part of that patrimony of eternally abiding truths which give meaning and purpose to that same life and constitute the motive power of the actions of men.
But like the alternate ebb and flow of a cosmic tide, obeying a mysterious law of cycles whose rhythm is beyond our power to detect or control, alternate periods of time come into the light of this particular truth or recede from it, making of human history an ever changing tale of triumphs of the social instinct or of disintegrating effects of individualistic wills.
Looking at the kaleidoscopic succession of cultures, at the haphazard progress of mankind, at the rise and fall of civilizations, man has always asked whether it is possible to detect and trace the hidden thread which connects the apparently disconnected events; whether it is possible to discover any form of plan underlying the diversified variety of historical experience; whether, in short, it is possible at all to have a true philosophy of history.
And his answer to such a query has taken at different times different aspects, until, finally, the large number of proposed systems and explanations has convinced him that there is not one philosophy of history, but many, all equally true, and all equally valid, because all reflecting some Idea informing and giving light to the life of mankind. The systems of Vico, Schlegel, Herder, Marx, Hegel, all testify to this truth.
It is possible, therefore, and justified, to look at history as an alternate play of individualistic and anti-individualistic forces integrating and disintegrating in turn the social structure, the economic organizations, the political systems, and all the other outward aspects of the life of man.
In the light of this particular form of philosophy of history whole periods of human affairs, deemed by common consent to be unusual, brilliant examples of the possibilities inherent to human nature, lose their brilliancy and their appeal and stand to testify of the innumerable pitfalls which beset the life of the spirit.
No other period of human history is deemed, in fact, to be more unique, more brilliant, than the period of the Renaissance. If ever man seemed to have found the true measure of his powers, it was then, when life was all one glory of artistic expression.
But the Renaissance sang not only the paean of art, it sang also the birth of Individualism; the philosophy of life which was to guide, through the following centuries, the thoughts and the actions of men toward the present state of chaos and despair.
The invisible and imponderable forces which moulded the aspects assumed by the various manifestations of life of modern times were indeed born with the Renaissance; and the historian who attempts to portray the debacle of Individualism and the rise of Fascism must go back in time to discover the roots of this phenomenon within the fertile soil of ideas, theories, systems, etc., characterizing those eventful years.
It may seem, perhaps somewhat far fetched to say that the rise of fascism brings to a close a period of human history beginning as far back in time as the Renaissance. It is enough, nevertheless, to sound the hidden depths of meaning of the historical process to remain convinced of the soundness of the statement.
The Renaissance is commonly held to have been, and undoubtedly it was in a way, all that the name implies of re-birth of classical studies and pagan lore. Still, had it been only that and nothing else, had it meant for the world simply an artificial reproduction of old idea, feelings, ways of living, etc., the Renaissance would have failed to represent a milestone in the road of human development. The spirit of the age had not true organic connection with the spirit of ancient times, and the classic-pagan-edonistic attitude of mankind throughout that age was at best a poor reproduction of something which represented a moment of human history forming part of the past, a past as dead as the men who of this moment were the brightest lights. The Renaissance has importance, instead, inasmuch as it represents the birth of Individualism; the birth of a philosophy of life which was to hold sway over the thoughts and the actions of men for well nigh four centuries; those momentous centuries characterized by the greatest changes in all fields of human activity.
The birth of Individualism meant belief in man and his powers, hence the Reformation, which relying especially on man’s reasoning power, transformed this belief into practical and , in a way, logical actuation with the doctrine of freedom from all authoritative rules of faith.
The birth of Individualism meant also the birth of freedom from all external authority, all external constraint, all external rules and laws; hence Liberalism which, forgetting that man is truly man only because he is part of a greater whole, proclaimed the doctrine of liberty, which is at the bottom only a doctrine of negative liberty.
The birth of Individualism meant in time a return to nature, hence the doctrine of his natural rights in politics, the doctrine of his material essence in philosophy, the doctrine of class war in economics, the negation of moral values in ethics.
The birth of Individualism meant in short the decay of all ties which connect man to the spiritual world and make of him a being thoroughly distinct from the world of nature.
It is thus that if the Renaissance is to be rightly understood, the ominous significance and the evil influence of the Individualism must need be made part of, and integrated within, that complex picture filled by the birth of experimental science, the rebirth of art, and the revival of classical studies.
What is Individualism then?
Individualism is the negation of the fundamental unity which is at the root of Being and which underlies the whole world of man; is the negation of the principle of Authority which re-attaches, through intermediate stages, the fleeting individual to the external source of justice and power; is the negation of that principle of Liberty which can be truly worthy of its name when it releases man of the tyranny of his needs, his desires and his wants, and makes him choose – of his own free will – what is of higher value than the satisfaction of the senses; is the negation of the principle of Duty which is the foundation of the moral world and the affirmation in its stead of the principle of Rights – those rights which are the perennial spring of all human ills and evils; is the negation of the spiritual essence of man and the affirmation that what is paramount for man is his material, economic, or bodily well being and that this welfare is worth any other being’s suffering, disgrace or death; is the glorification of each individual as the center and lord of the whole universe and apotheosis, consequently, of his individual needs, passions and desires; is, finally, the triumph of the reasoning faculties of the mind over the mystic powers of the soul.
It is thus that, guided by the tenets of such a fatal philosophy of life, man was no longer concerned with the great beyond, with the ideals of ethics, with the triumph of law and justice, with the dream of salvation, with visions of great feats of the spirit.
With the advent of modern times man became primarily and above all concerned with his own welfare and, since belief in the soul was finally destroyed by the misinterpreted findings of science, this welfare meant in the end only and simply the welfare of his own body.
The search for a meaning of life ended at the same time with the discovery that the individual is the center of the whole universe and that this universe is nothing more than a play-field ready at hand for the expression of his personality.
Individualism asserting itself and triumphing thus above every other conception of life, gradually led mankind through democratic government, competitive business, acquisitive property, hereditary wealth, economic individual warfare, social class struggle and national wars, to a state of things of which it is already possible to visualize the outcome-that outcome prophesied so clearly and so forcefully by Oswald Spengler in The Decline of the West.
Looked at, therefore, in the light of the pernicious influence exercised by the philosophy of life to which it gave birth, the Renaissance loses most of its glamorous appeal and remains to signify, in the word of Gentile:
“The age of Individualism which led the people, through the splendid dreams of art and poetry to the indifference, the skepticism and the sordid slothfulness of men who have nothing to defend outside of themselves, neither in the family nor in the fatherland, nor in the wide world where every human personality, conscious of its own worth and its own dignity, has its true roots. This is because the individual believed in nothing which could transcend the carefree, happy play of his own creative fancy. . . . Man, become suddenly conscious of his greatness, asks for liberty; and, as a particular individual, he deems himself entitled to that infinite worth which only belongs to the life of the spirit.”
The Renaissance had its day of glory and then, as all mortal things, it became a thing of the past; but man, drunk with his newly discovered freedom, driven onward by his instincts and his physiological needs, carried on the daily business of living more and more relentlessly, ruthlessly, trampling, over the bodies and the souls of his less endowed, less powerful fellow beings; satisfied with the existing order of things, fashioning for himself materialistic, positivistic, pragmatic theories, to explain facts as he desires them to be explained.
It is only of late that a grievous sense of the futility of all human efforts and a torturing doubt about the validity of Individualism as the true answer to the problems of life, began to cast their ominous shadow across the whole breadth of the western world.
A whole realm of values which man had set for himself as things of supreme worth, and for the realization of which he was ready to struggle and suffer, has lost gradually the support of his faith and has been engulfed in that sea of pessimism and despair which submerging the very life of mankind.
The question must be raised then-and it is supremely timely that it be raised now-whether Individualism represents the true answer to the quest of man for the right philosophy of life.
It is in the very nature of man, in fact, that he cannot remain long satisfied with the assumption that the life of the spirit is ended with a concern for the individual’s bodily welfare, and that for him there is therefore nothing else left than to eat and drink and beget other children who, in turn, shall eat and drink and have children, so that the repetition of this seemingly perpetual cycle of birth , life, death and re-birth, may never come to an end.
And because he cannot remain satisfied with that assumption, every system of individual and social life based upon the truth of the fundamental animality of man is inevitably doomed to failure.
Such a system can only stress the claims of the individual to complete self-expression and make of these claims the highest goal and the true end of life. But the claims of one individual must need conflict with the claims of another; the life of one being must needs be at war with the life of the whole if those claims are to be triumph; and effort must be made to break the invisible tie which binds together the destinies of all men, if the life of the one be set against the life of another; a whole endless series of evils arises in short whenever and wherever Individualism triumphs as a philosophy and a way of life.
It is thus clearly seen that the conditions which made possible the rise of Fascism arose from the basic conceptions on which the modern life of the western world is based. These conditions are not peculiar to one nation, but to all nations.
It is the current materialistic, mechanistic, individualistic conception of life, with its negation of the spiritual essence of man and with its assumption of a godless universe in which man is subject to only one rule: the rule of his animal nature, that has prepared the soil for the rise of Fascism.
It is the apparent debacle of all human efforts for a better life, the apparent impossibility to bring about some form of order out of the present state of chaos and stop the prophesied downfall ofWestern Civilization; it is the realization that man , left free to gratify his lust for power, his greed of gold, his love of the senses, his worship of force, is a pitiful and despicable being; and it is, finally, the vision that a higher calling must be the true heritage of man, that has brought about the birth of Fascism.
It is the fact that man has lost faith in himself, the fact that he cannot derive any support from his inner world and that he finds himself compelled to grope for aid in the outer world; it is the acknowledged fact of his sad moral decadence, in short, that has made possible the triumph of Fascism.
And, finally, it is the growing complexity of human relationships in all fields: the social as well as the moral, the economic as well as the spiritual, and the growing dependency of the single individual upon his fellow beings and upon society as a whole, that constitute the reason of being of Fascism.
Nothing could be more fallacious, therefore, than the general conviction that the historical process which made possible the development of Fascism and was, in a way, the primary condition of its birth, is a purely localized experience of one nation: the Italian nation. The conditions out of which Fascism arose were, and still are, conditions which perpetuated in time, must need create and increasing demand for the generalized application of the universal principles of Fascism.
If it is true that “Historia magistra vitae,” then the lesson which history teaches must also be true: the lesson, namely, that the experience of life of the Western World is a unified experience, that any local development is bound to affect this Western World in all its parts, and that the whole structure of Western Civilization is bound to stand or fall together.
It is thus that if in its immediate manifestations of new social system, new form of political and economic organization, and new theory of government, Fascism appears to be a product of its times and of that particular country in which it had its birth; in its transcendent expression – that expression of a phenomenon of the activity of the spirit which alone is of ultimate value – Fascism is beyond the limitations of time and space; its roots are in the depths of Being, its flowers in the realm of Becoming.
These two forms of Fascism: the superficial aspect of its immediate manifestations and the deeper aspect of its ultimate expression correspond in a way to the current notion which the world at large holds about Fascism, and to the inner knowledge gained by those who have concerned themselves with the discovery of the idea behind the fact, of the truth below the artifice, of the reality beyond the appearance.
It is not unusual to hear, in fact, that Fascism is merely a change of the social and political system of one nation, or the revolt of the middle class, or the organization of the capitalistic groups, or the domination of the militaristic caste; also the tool of despotism, the product of reaction, the creature of dictatorship, the instrument of brutal, incontinent violence, and, finally, the nemesis of liberty.
But all these definitions fail to seize the central truth of Fascism. They place in distorted relief some of the transitory aspects of the phenomenon, but shed no light upon its permanent and universal elements, that is, upon that inner core of Fascism which only has meaning and value for the whole world of men.
Fascism is something more, something indefinitely greater than tyrannical dictatorship over the souls and bodies of men, something of deeper import than a new form of economic organization, or a mere change of the social and political system of one nation.
What is Fascism then?
This is the question of all questions: What is Fascism?
Fascism is an eminently idealistic and, more specifically, an anti-materialistic and anti-individualistic philosophy of life. These characteristics are clearly expressed by the recognition of the eternal value of the spiritual essence of man and of the transitory aspect of his earthly being; by the recognition of the absolute worth of the individual in the realm of the Spirit and of the relative worth of the individual in the realm of Nature; by the recognition of the transcendent significance of the historical process and of the fundamental continuity of human history; by the recognition of the supreme role played in the life of mankind by those social formations called Family and Nation, and of the small importance of the role played by the single individual; by the recognition of the influence of Religion on human life, and of the supremacy in this life of Ethics over Economics, of Art over Business, of Poetry over Science, of Intuition and Inspiration over Experience and Method; by the recognition of the supremely ethical nature of the State, and of the function of the State as concrete expression in the realm of time and space of the timeless idea of the nation; by the recognition of the truth that mankind needs an aristocracy of leaders led, in turn, by national heroes; of the need that the doctrine of the Rights of Man; of the fact that Man lives not by bread alone but also, and mainly, of beliefs; and, finally, of the truth that all forms of personal freedom pale in contrast to that form of Liberty which only has meaning and truly matters: the Liberty of the Spirit.
Fascism turns toward the individual to tell him:
Thy life has no absolute, no eternal value whatsoever; thy life can assume worth only inasmuch as it is devoted and, if necessary, sacrificed to the triumph of an Idea. Men live today, die tomorrow, but Ideas live forever. And the one who will seek to save his own life shall truly lose it, because only by offering it in holocaust to an everlasting Idea does individual life partake of the character of immortality.
This meaning of life as triumph of a remote ideal over the immediate reality, of the universal over the individual, is the fundamental characteristic of Fascism. But the creed of the worthlessness of human life when concerned simply with the material welfare of man is not a new one in the history of human thought. All through the ages great leaders and seers have sounded a warning for mankind to heed; a warning left, alas! always unheeded by the masses. The last prophetic voice heard on the shores of America was that of Emerson who, speaking before the Senior Class in Divinity College at Cambridge on a Sunday evening of July, 1838, said:
“Life is comic or pitiful as soon as the high ends of being fade out of sight and a man becomes nearsighted and can only attend to what addresses the senses.”
But Emerson has been long dead and his message sounds strangely alien in twentieth century America.
The Idea Fascism – that is, Emerson’s very thought carried to its logical conclusion – is in the process of being transformed instead, by a strange turn of fate, into living reality by another nation.
The search for a meaning of life is ended thus, for that nation, with the realization that what must be paramount for a man is not the conception of his rights as individual but the vision of his duties as social being, that what is of supreme worth is not personal life but the life of the nation; and that, finally, human life is at bottom not a gratification of the senses but an expression of the soul and, as such, not a vehicle of happiness, but a bearer of sorrow, because only through sorrow does the soul learn, as Novalis said:
“. . . those things which partake of the truth and outlast the centuries.”
Fascism sounding anew the call to an ascetic and heroic view of life must then be thought of as a spiritual principle, or, rather, as a coherent and unified body of spiritual principles.
The very fact that Fascism has been able to furnish the modern world with a new meaning for life, and, consequently, with a new reason for living, struggling, suffering and dying, requires that something of transcendent significance must lie at the root, and constitute the true essence, of Fascism.
Editors Note: This article is an excerpt from the book The Philosophy of Fascism published by the Dandte Alighieri Society in 1936
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