The Philosophy of Rush

I am curious to see how Robert Freedman explains “Aristotelian individualism” in his book, Rush: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Excellence (Algora, 2014).

Tibor Machan’s Classical Individualism: The Supreme Importance of Each Human Being, Studies in Social and Political Thought (New York: Routledge, 1998) discusses it in the following way, as recounted by Irfan Khawaja:

Machan distinguishes between two brands of individualism, Aristotelian and Hobbesian. Hobbesian individualism, on his account, is the problematic form, characterized by nominalism about universals, subjectivism about value, and atomism about human nature. Aristotelian individualism is the “classical” and defensible form, characterized by conceptualism about universals, objectivism about value, and what we might call biosocial essentialism (my term) about human nature. On this latter Aristotelian or classical view of individualism, Aristotelian individuals ought to be the primary unit of analysis in normative theory, and the primary concern of a legitimate social system. Each of us ought to strive, as Aristotelian individuals, to regard the pursuit of our own happiness as our overriding moral obligation. A just social order would respect that obligation by protecting the conditions that facilitated its optimal pursuit by each of us. Machan argues that the anti-individualists mentioned above are successful in their attacks on Hobbesian individualism, but fail to distinguish between it and Aristotelian individualism, which they leave entirely unscathed in their criticisms. (For a concise statement of Aristotelian individualism, see CI p. 170).

Among the criticisms Machan works to overcome in CI is the objection that the very idea of “Aristotelian individualism” is incoherent. Aristotle, after all, is well known for his dictum that “man is by nature a political animal.” Anti-individualists have often used this Aristotelian thesis to argue against individualism as follows:

1. Aristotle was correct to argue that humans are by nature political animals;

2. But individualism denies this Aristotelian truth;

3. Hence, individualism is false.

The argument raises a dilemma for Machan: if classical individualism is Aristotelian, it can’t be genuinely individualistic; but if it’s really individualistic, it can’t be genuinely Aristotelian. So, the criticism goes, Machan must choose between his commitments to Aristotelianism and to individualism.

Machan, however, believes that he can have both Aristotelianism and individualism simultaneously. Granting the existence of contrary evidence, he isolates a solid core of textual evidence for a form of individualism in Aristotle and generally in the Aristotelian tradition. The plausibility of Machan’s argument derives from the fact that individualism is in fact a pervasive theme in several important elements of Aristotle’s philosophy. Thus some support for individualism comes from Aristotle’s metaphysics of entities which, to quote Eduard Zeller, makes “the Individual…the primary reality” in Aristotle’s ontology, and gives it “first claim on recognition” (CI, p. 175). Some of it comes from Aristotle’s theory of action, which is the locus classicus of the agent-causal theory of free will that Machan defends elsewhere in the book. Some of it comes from Aristotle’s theory of value, which makes an individual organism’s flourishing that organism’s ultimate end, and the source of the norms that guide its life. Some of it comes from Aristotle’s theory of practical reasoning and virtue, which places a high premium on ordering one’s life by one’s own rational choices. Some of it even comes from the most anti-individualist part of Aristotle’s philosophy, his politics. In a justly-celebrated study, Fred D. Miller Jr. has recently argued that Aristotle’s political theory gives a central place to individual rights and a “moderately individualistic” theory of the common good.[21] Machan usefully points to similarities between this Aristotelian conception of individualism and various historical influences on contemporary life, from Christian and Islamic theology, to classical liberalism, to the thought of the American Founders, to the writings of Ayn Rand (CI, Preface, chs. 1, 14, 15).

One of the virtues of Machan’s discussion is that he manages to maintain a healthy sense of perspective on the texts, making a good case for Aristotelian individualism while acknowledging the existence of other ways of reading the texts, and some texts that contradict his interpretation. The purpose of appealing to the texts is to identify two forms of individualism at a fairly high level of generality, and the evidence that Machan cites is more or less sufficient for this task. In this respect, Machan’s approach differs drastically from that of some of his critics (e.g., John Gray) whose modus operandi consists in making bold, unsupported, and occasionally downright wild assertions about the relationship between Aristotle and individualism. A close reading of the Preface, and of chapters 1, 4, 14, and 15 of CI should give such critics pause, and give others a lot to think about.

Having made the case for the coherence of an Aristotelian form of individualism, however, it’s a separate task to make that case relevant to contemporary life. Aristotle lived nearly 2400 years ago in a slave-owning, deeply misogynistic society, and explicitly deprecated the value of productive work. In fact, Aristotle’s view of productive work—that it is a morally inferior task performed by morally inferior people whose products can be expropriated at will (cf. Politics 1254a4-8)—is not only the antithesis of Machan’s individualism, but is arguably one of the sources of opposition to it. Historically, Aristotle’s conception of productive work was invoked to justify the slave trade; today, it remains entrenched in the views of those advocates of redistribution who believe that “the needy” have de facto property rights in the labor and talents of “the able.”[22] Drawing on Locke and the other classical liberals, Machan works to detach these Aristotelian prejudices from Aristotle’s more fundamental claims (e.g., those mentioned above), and then connects those fundamental claims with an essentially Lockean politics. One of the best results of this approach is Machan’s treatment of the so-called “tragedy of the commons,” which he renames the moral tragedy of the commons, and conceptualizes in a way that is both clearer and deeper than that of its “original” author, Garrett Hardin (CI, p. 49). The idea of a moral tragedy of the commons has deep roots in Aristotle’s critique of Platonic communism, and in Locke’s theory of property; Machan redeploys the concept to offer cogent criticisms of redistribution and environmentalism that maintain continuity with the Aristotelian and Lockean arguments (CI, chs. 5, 10, 11, 12, passim).


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