All of human history, ultimately, is an attempt to contravene and negate and obviate this simple fact, and it is for this reason that every human civilization – so far – must be rated a failure. Some have been better than others, of course, and I sing the praises of the Greeks not just for what they did in the Hellas of old, but for what they are still doing all over the world. The Greek idea – each man has the right and power to own and control his own life and property – undergirds the best approaches we have seen – so far – to truly human civilizations.
And the United States – for a while – was the best-ever expression of that Greek ideal, the freest civilization ever yet seen on the earth. But like the polities of the Greeks before us, American society carried within it the seeds of its own destruction and the horrors visited upon you every day in the news are those seeds bearing their full fruit at last.
Here is the problem, for the government of the United States and for any would-be governor of human behavior: There is nothing I can do to cause or prevent your purposive actions. I can threaten you or beat you or tax you or imprison you or kill you, but I cannot cause you to do anything I want you to do, nor can I prevent you from doing anything I want for you not to do. You are a free moral agent as a manifestation of your nature as a human being, and there is nothing I can do to contravene or negate or obviate your sovereign freedom.
But wait. Isn’t it true, as Rousseau had it, that “man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains?” Indeed it is. So how do we resolve the conundrum? Humans cannot be enslaved, and yet everywhere we look, humans are slaves – most of them bound by terms much worse than those we suffer under.
Emerson gives us the answer: “We forge the chains that bind us.” Human beings cannot be enslaved against their will. In the case of bondage slavery, your choice might come down to work or die, but you still have a choice. In modern America, your self-initiated betrayal of your own inviolable sovereignty is much easier to take: Just pay your taxes and affect to obey thousands upon thousands of idiotic laws, and you won’t be sent to prison. Doesn’t seem like much of a price to pay, does it?
I can’t speak for you, but that price is much too high for me. And the course of recent events argues that more and more people are waking up to the idea that they don’t want government, at least, controlling so much of their lives.
But the war on your sovereignty did not start with government. Dig into any religion and you’ll find a profound hatred for your life, for your self and for its autonomy. As with governments, some religions are worse, in this respect, than others, but what every religion seeks is your voluntary submission of your own inviolable sovereignty – your free will – to the object of worship. You are called upon to deny your own mind and to accept apocrypha, divination and received doctrine as substitutes for reason. And you are called upon to denounce and renounce your life as you actually live it in praise and reverence for attested virtues that would result in your immediate demise, should you try to live as you are commanded by your faith to live. This is the political power religions have held over innocent people forever: If you accept the doctrine, you must condemn your own life. To stay alive, you must commit sins by your own standards, and yet the only life you yourself regard as being worthy of your love, honor, devotion, adoration – the only life you can worship unashamedly – is the one that allegedly commences after you are dead.
Governments have always envied the near-perfect power religions have over faithful people, but they came up with their own secret sauce in the form of altruism. People use that word to mean behaving kindly or charitably, but, at the same time, everyone understands its true meaning: Selflessness. In this respect, altruism is the exact opposite of egoism. Considered as ontology, selflessness is impossible, of course. To be alive as a human being is to be a self, this before anything else. It is not possible to remain alive while behaving – even as a matter of pretense – as if you have no self. And that’s the source of altruism’s power: You cannot live a life of virtue, by the moral standard you have set for yourself, and so you come to be self-imprisoned by your own failure to live up to your ideals.
In either of these cases – and in thousands of other variations on this theme – it is your own mind you must renounce, denounce and enslave, this as the price of your own on-going survival. An ordinary thug threatens only your body and your property. You might comply, for now, but there is always the chance that you will rebel. But the high priests of religion and of the welfare state have nothing to fear from the truly faithful. Once you’ve adopted a doctrine that insists that you yourself are fundamentally evil – this for committing the crime of remaining alive, even though, by your own moral convictions, you can only be truly good by engaging in behavior that would result in your death – once the price of your on-going life is your own damnation of that life – then you are well and truly enslaved, and by your own hand.
Here’s the good news about every cult of self-annihilation: There’s always an escape hatch. Only the very pious feel themselves obliged to ruin their lives in pursuit of a self-induced religious ecstasy. Normal people can toss some cash into the offering plate and express a ritualized regret for their latest sins. And only the very guilt-ridden actually give up the lives they might have had in pursuit of a life in the service of others. Normal people manage to get along by writing checks and expressing politically-correct sentiments at politically-correct moments.
But here’s the bad news about every cult of self-annihilation: The more you fail to live up to the doctrine you profess to believe in, the more do the purveyors of that doctrine have power over you. You forged the chains that bind you, and however loosely you think you might bear those chains, you are still enslaved.
But here’s the best news of all about every victim of every cult of self-annihilation: The chains you bear are yours to break, whenever you want to. Not easily, I will avow, and I am not entreating you to abandon any belief you cherish. But if you want to be free, all you have to do is say “No” and your chains will be broken. Other people have power over you only to the extent that you yourself have conceded that power to them. Withdraw your consent and other people will be forevermore powerless over you.
A thug can push your body in the same way he can push a barrel or a mannequin. If he is strong enough, or if he has confederates, he can bind your limbs or gag or blindfold you. He can tie you to a tree or lock you in a cage. But without your consent, without your explicit, freely-chosen, on-going cooperation, no thug, no priest, no politician can ever cause you to take any purposive action.
Anything a thug can do to you without your cooperation, he could do just as easily and just as productively with your corpse or with a mannequin. The only thing that thug actually wants – the only thing your church and your government actually want – is the one thing than none of them can ever have: To control your behavior.
Only you control your behavior, only your self controls your behavior, only within the silence and solitude of your mind, which no other person can ever enter or even experience at first hand, and which no other person can ever take control of by any sort of direct manipulation. You are a sovereign soul, completely ungovernable by anyone or anything but your self.
This is why the thugs and the priests and the politicians have to hustle you into surrendering your sovereignty to them – because that’s the only way they can have it, as a gift from you. A gift, very probably, that you didn’t even know you were extending to them – and which you might have an urge to snatch back.