What?s a Self-Made Individual?
Tibor R. Machan
Whenever erudite critics of America?s social and political philosophy
wish to make fun of it all, they mention the ?self-made individual? (or,
in older terminology, ?man?). Recently one such critic recalled some quip
that said, ?How many people does it take to make a self-made man?? The
point being, self-made individuals do not exist at all, everyone, in fact,
develops by relying on innumerable others.
This criticism totally misses the point of what a self-made individual is
supposed to be. No one who has any sense conceives of the self-made
individual as some kind of hermit or someone who sprung to life on a
desert island. Not even Daniel Defoe?s Robinson Crusoe was hatched on his
island and lived abandoned until Friday showed up. Crusoe was shipwrecked
and only after that had to rely solely on himself for a while. (Defoe?s
book was actually based on a true story, of the Scotsman named Alexander
Selkirk [or Selcraig].) Clearly Crusoe had learned many skills from other
people before he ended up having to fend for himself.
What a self-made individual is, however, has nothing to do with ending up
all alone on a desert island. Nor does it have to do with someone who is
anti-social, who distances himself or herself from all others, as the
antagonistic caricatures would make it out. No, a self-made individual is
one who thinks though the ideas and principles on which he or she bases
his or he conduct before leaping to action. Self-made means not simply
accepting what others tell one, not relying solely on the advice one gets
from others in one?s community, including books, songs, poems, novels,
etc., and so forth. Instead, the self-made individual, once reaching the
age at which one can being to understand a thing or two, will actually get
to think things through to make sure he or she has grasped what?s what.
Since the time or Aristotle the fact that many people simply accept what
others tell them has been acknowledged. Slavish people exist?one need only
pay attention to how a great many people make their decisions, how they
follow almost blindly new fashions, prevailing views about what?s ethical
or required by their religion, family, or the so called leaders of their
ethnic or racial groups.
Self-made individuals associate with others thoughtfully, prudently, not
recklessly. They do not by any means reject society but take part in it
discriminately, on their own terms (tern which they often learned from
others but didn?t accept blindly). When it is noted that self-made
individuals don?t exist because they are often closely linked to others,
it is completely overlooked that those others, too, needed to think things
through carefully in order to provide good input.
There is simply no way to discard the fact that human beings are better
off in life if they develop a facility and habit for understanding things
for themselves, on their own initiative instead of blindly following
others. That?s what?s meant by ?the self-made individual?; furthermore,
that is what those champion who regard such an individual as a good model
to emulate (but not blindly!).
Why do we hear so much criticism and ridicule of the self-made
individual? One reason is that people who would want to be leaders of
others, people who like to rule others, people who want to impose ideas on
others find the self-made individual an obstacle to their program. People
who think for themselves do not fall for the likes of Hitler, Stalin, Jim
Jones and similar charismatic figures who are eager to run the world for
the rest of us. So they hope to demean the idea that we can think for
ourselves and guide our lives pretty well without their intervention.
Whenever you hear someone put down the self-made individual, look out?you
are likely hearing from a would-be tyrant.