THR Web Features   /   August 8, 2023

The Egoists and the Altruists

Between those who suffer from the world and those who suffer with it.

Mark Dunbar

( THR illustration/Alamy, Shutterstock.)

Reviewed here
The Visionaries: Arendt, Beauvoir, Rand, Weil, and the Power of Philosophy in Dark Times
Wolfram Eilenberger, trans. Shaun Whiteside
New York, NY: Penguin, 2023.

Simone Weil and Simone de Beauvoir didn’t become fast friends. They met only once, and that was enough for both of them. Beauvoir didn’t remember how the conversation started, but she remembered how it ended, with Weil saying the only thing that mattered was a world revolution that ended hunger. But, said Beauvoir, what about the cultivation of personality? What about the meaning of existence? What about the individual soul and its longing for something more? “It’s easy to see you’ve never been hungry,” replied Weil curtly. Thus laid bare the great divide between egoist and altruist, between those who suffer from the world and those who suffer with it.

The Visionaries is a running mate to Eilenberger’s first book, the award-winning Time of the Magicians: Wittgenstein, Benjamin, Cassirer, Heidegger, and the Decade That Reinvented Philosophy. Both are interwoven biographies around a central theme that defined the lives of its philosophers. In Time of the Magicians, the theme was language and its discontents; in The Visionaries, the theme is one’s relationship with others. Or, as Beauvoir, feminist icon, phrased it in a diary entry, “The opposition of self and other.” That’s how she saw the relationship. As oppositional. Antipathic. Others don’t refine your personality; they “bewitch” and “disfigure” it. Ayn Rand, patron saint of capitalist hierarchy, believed the same thing. Weil, Catholic radical, and Hannah Arendt, secular Jew, believed the opposite. Philosophy makes strange bedfellows.

From the Arendt-Weil perspective, selfhood is refined and cultivated through belonging and through properly ordered relationships. Both lived through the nightmare of fascism and Soviet Communism. Both saw what evil could emerge from improperly ordered relationships. Neither was falsely optimistic about the world. And neither was falsely optimistic about the self. They didn’t mistake the temporary satisfaction of isolation with a permanent solution to individuality.

That was nonsense, of course, from the Rand-Beauvoir perspective. For them, others disfigured the personality. The withholding spouse makes you needier. The carefree co-worker makes you more uptight. Your agreeableness is used against you. You find yourself saying things you don’t believe just to avoid causing a scene. Then there are the obligations. The obligations that require your time and energy. You find your days structured by the needs of others—by your work hours, by your child’s school schedule, even by the built environment. You’re stuck in traffic. For nothing you did. You didn’t design the roads. You didn’t decide there’s no reliable public transportation. You didn’t wreck your car. It was them—others did all that. If it were only you, you could be the master of your universe. Then you’d be happy. Then you’d be free.

Ironically, it was Rand and Beauvoir, rather than Weil and Arendt, who longed for communion with others—albeit through their works. Both struggled desperately for publication. Neither could be satisfied with the individual act of creation. They needed, not just to have written, but to be read. If they did not want to be bewitched by others, they certainly wanted the opposite. They wanted to bewitch. They wanted to bewitch because they wanted to belong. They just believed they belonged at the top. They craved an audience that might prove their worth. An audience, more importantly, would prove they were right—that, in the words of Beauvoir’s lifetime lover Jean-Paul Sartre, “Hell is other people.”

Other people make demands on our bodies and our thoughts. Others affect us just by their presence. That is what Rand and Beauvoir feared about others—that they could lay any claim to our sense of self or to our conscious thoughts. Beauvoir found herself nothing but a constellation of relationships, both personal and abstract—man-woman, Sartre-Beauvoir—and she found these relationships oppressive. Her first novel, She Came to Stay, is a lamentation for this condition. But it does not offer a way out of it. Her best-known book, The Second Sex, is an analysis of this condition, but the best it could offer in terms of a solution was a vague acquiescence, not liberation. The self would still be a constellation of relationships, but it would not merely be that.

Rand, on the other hand, was more forthright. She wrote not of her oppressed condition but what liberation from it would look like. Her ideal-hero, The Fountainhead’s Howard Roark, has a conscience void of the consideration of others. Roark feels no social pressure; he suffers no obligation to anything but his own ambitions. For him, unlike Rand, the creative act is enough. He destroys the housing project he designed rather than compromise his vision for it. He does not need an audience. He doesn’t need to belong—or so it seems. After all, he ends the novel by delivering a lengthy courtroom sermon on the merits of egoism. If he does not consider the consideration of others, why doesn’t he just stay silent? Why is his own self-assurance not enough?

Because, like Rand and Beauvoir, Roark fears others. And that fear is one of the ways (perhaps the primary way) our selfhood is disfigured by others. Consumed by that fear, we become paranoid and resentful. We become acutely aware of every demand made on us and of every second not wholly our own. We can’t even trust ourselves. After all, how many of our thoughts are really our own? And how many were nurtured into us? Conscience thought cannot be trusted either. Only impulse. But impulse is just another prison, too. It lacks stability. It is merely reactive to momentary pressures. “Myself am Hell,” says Milton’s liberated Satan. Freedom, in the case of selfhood, really is slavery.

The alternative, as Weil and Arendt understood, wasn’t detachment but proper alignment with others. That’s how one’s life isn’t consumed by others and how one’s conscious thoughts aren’t ruled by them—through participation rather than domination; through balance rather than escape. Arendt captured the paradoxical nature of freedom-through-obligation in a love letter to her future husband. “It still seems incredible to me,” she wrote, “that I managed to get both things, the ‘love of my life’ and a oneness with my self. And yet, I only got the one thing when I got the other.”

Eilenberger’s Visionaries is a masterpiece in the necessity of biography to philosophy. Philosophy without practical application is, as the poet Kenneth Rexroth put it, just a “complicated method of avoiding all the important problems of life.” Philosophy isn’t written down; it’s lived. We see the continuities and contrasts between these philosophers’ lives and their complicated methods of avoiding its important problems. The book is also particularly timely as it reveals the great divide of today. Not between liberalism and conservatism, or freedom and organization, but between egoism and altruism. Between those maniacally obsessed with ego-preservation and those in harmony with their social responsibilities. Between those who mistake the right to autonomy with the right to rule and those who find fulfillment through sacrifice and commitment. As Eilenberger shows, this philosophical divide doesn’t neatly correspond with our political divide. There are egoists on all sides, just as there are altruists, which is another reason his book is so valuable and necessary. His subjects are all extreme cases, none of whom should serve as the guiding light for others’ conduct, except maybe other writers. But while extreme cases make bad laws, they make excellent warning signs. And warning signs provide hope because they tell us there are safe roads somewhere.