What Is an Individualist
In the entire history of the world every advance in civilization, every gain in knowledge, and every improvement in the human condition has come solely through the efforts of independent individualists. They and they alone are the creators, innovators, and discoverers of the world. These men are all there is of positive importance in all of history; all the rest, the tyrants, the dictators, the famines and plagues, earthquakes, floods, the mass of ignorant and superstitious humanity, the crimes and the wars were important only in the negative.
Ayn Rand called them "creators." She said of them:
"Throughout the centuries there were men who took first steps down new roads armed with nothing but their own vision. Their goals differed, but they all had this in common: that the step was first, the road new, the vision unborrowed ... truth was his only motive ... and his own work to achieve it in his own way. A symphony, a book, an engine, a philosophy, an airplane or a building—that was his goal and his life. Not those who heard, read, operated, believed, flew or inhabited the thing he had created. The creation, not its users. The creation, not the benefits others derived from it. The creation which gave form to his truth. He held his truth above all things and against all men." [For the New Intellectual,—The Fountainhead,
"The Soul Of An Individualist"]
It is not the benefit these men were to the world and civilization that is their virtue—it is inevitable that they were the great and only benefactors of the world—but even if not a single individual other than themselves benefitted from their lives and efforts, their virtue would have been the same. The independent individualist is the only truly moral man and it is his independence that is his moral virtue.
"Independence is the only gauge of human virtue and value. What a man is and makes of himself; not what he has or hasn't done for others. There is no substitute for personal dignity. There is no standard of personal dignity except independence." [For the New Intellectual,—The Fountainhead, "The Soul Of An Individualist"]
Throughout history, the creators, the originators, the inventors, the discoverers and explorers, the independent individuals who provided the world with every benefit were castigated, oppressed, exploited, opposed, and persecuted, never recognized for either their virtue or their benevolence. Ayn Rand was the first philosopher in history to make their identification explicit and to demonstrate to the world that these were the noblest men to ever walk on this planet.
It was to those men and their independence, "the only gauge of human virtue," to which she dedicated her life and for whom she wrote.
An Individualist is Self-made
Her philosophy was meant for individualists, not to make them. No philosophy can turn people into individualists. The very idea is a contradiction of what individualism is. Ayn Rand said of the individualist:
"His vision, his strength, his courage came from his own spirit. A man's spirit, however, is his self. That entity which is his consciousness. To think, to feel, to judge, to act are functions of the ego.
... It is the whole secret of their power—that it was self-sufficient, self-motivated, self-generated." [For the New Intellectual,—The Fountainhead,
"The Soul Of An Individualist"]
Nothing and no one can make someone else an individualist. There is no such thing as a "New Individualism," and no program or plan will create a single new individualist. That independence that is true individualism, by its very nature, must come from the individual himself. "Independence is the only gauge of human virtue and value. What a man is and makes of himself," Rand said.
One cannot become an individualist by following someone else's program or leading, by employing a set of magic steps, such as six pillars, or keys, or any other scheme. One cannot become an individualist by studying a philosophy and attempting to live according to it. The individualist is in every way self-determined, self-motivated, and self-made.
"... of any achievements open to you, the one that makes all others possible is the creation of your own character—that your character, your actions, your desires, your emotions are the products of the premises held by your mind—that as man must produce the physical values he needs to sustain his life, so he must acquire the values of character that make his life worth sustaining—that as man is a being of self-made wealth, so he is a being of self-made soul—that to live requires a sense of self-value, but man, who has no automatic values, has no automatic sense of self-esteem and must earn it by shaping his soul in the image of his moral ideal, in the image of Man, the rational being he is born able to create, but must create by choice—that the first precondition of self-esteem is that radiant selfishness of soul which desires the best in all things, in values of matter and spirit, a soul that seeks above all else to achieve its own moral perfection, valuing nothing higher than itself." [Atlas Shrugged Part Three / Chapter VII "This Is John Galt Speaking."]
Anyone Can Be an Individualist
Individualism is not dependent on or determined by knowledge, or ability, or any particular occupation; it is determined by one thing alone, the degree of an individual's chosen independence.
"Degrees of ability vary, but the basic principle remains the same: the degree of a man's independence, initiative and personal love for his work determines his talent as a worker and his worth as a man." [For the New Intellectual,—The Fountainhead,
"The Soul Of An Individualist"]
In a letter to W.M. Curtiss, a fan, Ayn Rand explained this principle, using her archetype of the independent individualist, Howard Roark, as the example:
"But if you wonder how I look at Roark in relation to men as we see them around us—I'll say that any man who has an innate sense of independence and self-respect, and a spark of the creative mind, has that much of Roark in him. Any man can follow Roark's principles—if he has intelligence, integrity and courage. He may not have Roark's genius, but he can function in the same manner and live by the same morality—within the limits of his own ability. He must live by the same morality—the morality of individualism—if he wants to survive at all. [The Letters of Ayn Rand, We The Living to The Fountainhead (1931-1943), November 30, 1945]
Two Things Individualism Is Not
Individualism is both more extreme than some believe and less extreme than most believe. What most do not understand about individualism is that the true individualist is totally independent. Many things attributed to individualists ignore this aspect of individualism. The following are some characteristics attributed to individualists which are not true.
Individualists not Subjectivists
It is true that an independent individualist is an egoist, because his own life and happiness are his purpose in living and his highest value. "The independence of man's mind means precisely the placing of his ego above any and all other men on earth. It means acting upon the authority of his ego above any other authority. It means keeping his ego untouched, uninfluenced, uncorrupted, unsacrificed. [The Journals of Ayn Rand Part 3 - Transition Between Novels "8 - The Moral Basis Of Individualism."]
But not all egoists are independent individualists. There are "objective" egoists and "subjective" egoists, and only objective egoists are truly individualists. The subjective egoist is technically a hedonist, and is not at all independent, but a slave to his desires and passions and without objective values or independent purpose. I've dealt extensively with this issue in my article, "Objective vs. Subjective Egoism."
Individualists not Recluses or Hermits
Far from being the misanthropes individualists are frequently portrayed as, they are the only human beings truly fit for human society and capable of true benevolence in relationships with others. In writing to Rose Wilder Lane, Ayn Rand said:
"Of course, Individualism doesn't mean isolation, aloofness or escaping to a desert island. In fact, only true Individualists are fit to associate with other men. But they do it only on the basis of the recognition of each man's essential independence: each man lives primarily for, by and through himself and recognizes the same right in others; all relations among men are secondary; men are legally and morally free to associate together or not, on any particular occasion, as their personal interests dictate. There is the pattern of a free, moral society, of human cooperation, and of benevolence among men. [The Letters of Ayn Rand, We The Living to The Fountainhead (1931-1943), November 3, 1946]
It is precisely the individualist's independent egoism that makes him fit for true social relationships.
"The egoist in the absolute sense ... is the man who stands above the need of using others in any manner. He does not function through them. He is not concerned with them in any primary matter. Not in his aim, not in his motive, not in his thinking, not in his desires, not in the source of his energy. He does not exist for any other man—and he asks no other man to exist for him. This is the only form of brotherhood and mutual respect possible between men." [For the New Intellectual,—The Fountainhead, "The Soul Of An Individualist"]
Some True Characteristics of Individualists
All of the characteristics of an individualist can be traced to that essential attribute of individualism, independence. It must not be supposed, therefore, that one can become an individualist by 'adopting' individualistic characteristics because these attributes spring from the nature of the independent individualist. One is not an individualist because these characteristics are true of him, many are true in some degree of people who are not individualists at all; these characteristics are true of the individualist because he is totally independent.
For example, individualists are often called nonconformists, but there are many nonconformists who are not individualists at all. No true individualist is a conformist, that is, an individualist does not do anything because anyone else does it. Living in a free society, (or semi-free one such as in American), the individualist might, because it is in his own self-interest, use the same money, language, and adopt patterns of behavior or etiquette that are useful in that society—but it is by his own choice and because he sees the advantage to himself in doing so; it is never to conform, to be accepted, or to be liked others.
The individualist is a creator who first creates himself and then creates his life; because no aspect of his being is borrowed, copied, or stolen from anyone else. Because most peoples' lives are not self-determined but an attempt to conform to some vague idea of socially accepted behavior, the independent individualist seems to always be moving in the opposite direction of every one else. Here again, Rand speaks of the individualist as a creator:
"Men have been taught that it is a virtue to agree with others. But the creator is the man who disagrees. Men have been taught that it is a virtue to swim with the current. But the creator is the man who goes against the current. Men have been taught that it is a virtue to stand together. But the creator is the man who stands alone." [For the New Intellectual,—The Fountainhead, "The Soul Of An Individualist"]
The individualist is often thought to be disagreeable. In fact, he may frequently disagree with others, especially those whose own ideas are an eclectic mixed-bag of disconnected and contradictory ideas picked up along the way from whatever authorities they accept, their peers, their teachers, and the media, which describes the content of most people's intellects. Being an independent thinker does not guarantee one's ideas will be right, no one is omniscient or infallible, but it does equip the individual for correcting such mistakes as he makes, because he knows where his ideas come from. The independent thinker allows no contradictions between ideas he holds, or between any idea and reality, and if he discovers a contradiction, he corrects it.
The individualist learns from others, but he relies totally on his own reason and understanding for all his beliefs. He never "accepts" anything as knowledge based solely on what someone else teaches. What he learns from others, he makes his own, only when he fully grasps what he has learned and understands why it is true.
He may cooperate with like-minded men in projects or efforts, but it is for his own sake, and to achieve some personal object or value, not for the sake of those with whom he is cooperating. Even when acting in concert with others, he is acting independently, and whatever is accomplished by joint efforts, his "share" of the accomplishment consist only of that directly resulting from his own effort.
Self-sufficient and Self-responsible
The individualist is totally confident in his own ability to make his own living, to make right choices, and to bear the responsibility for those choices; he is not dependent on anyone else, in any way. He neither desires or will accept the unearned or undeserved, he does not accept anyone's unasked, "help," and does not need it, and does not offer it to others.
He does not seek or require anyone else's agreement or approval before acting (and resents any kind of restriction on his life that forces him to get anyone else's approval or consent to do anything).
The individualist needs no one to "motivate" him, he is self-motivated; it is his life and his love of it that are his motivation. He neither follows or leads others, though others may choose to follow him, all his actions are his own and for himself; all other relationships are secondary.
To Be Fully Human
The mind is man's means of survival, but it is much more, it is his very being.
"A man's mind is an attribute of his self, of that entity within him which is his consciousness. That entity can be called spirit. It can be called soul. It remains—no matter what its origin—a man's self. His 'I.' His ego." [The Journals of Ayn Rand Part 3 - Transition Between Novels "8 - The Moral Basis Of Individualism."]
The mind, the ability and necessity to reason and choose, defines the method by which men must live if they are to live successfully and happily in this world. Because man is a rational being, everything he does, he must do by consciously choosing to do it. His only means of choosing is reason, which means to live, he must think.
"But the mind is an attribute of the individual. ... The primary act—the process of reason—must be performed by each man alone." [Ayn Rand, For the New Intellectual,—The Fountainhead, "The Soul Of An Individualist"]
The necessity to think for one's self, to make one's own choices, and accept responsibility for one's actions cannot be evaded. Attempting to evade that necessity requires one to subordinate one's own thoughts, will, and choices to others based on the illusion one can escape the necessity of thinking, choosing, and being responsible by subordinating one's own mind to someone or something else. It cannot be done, and all a man can do is choose to deny his own nature and live at some subhuman level—or he can choose to live in every way as his nature requires, as a fully human being, that is, as an independent individualist.
[A Note about Rand Quotes: I frequently quote Ayn Rand. It is important to understand the nature and purpose of those quotes. I do not quote Rand, or any other author as an authority. I quote Rand because she so often expresses an idea I am trying to convey so well, it would be impossible for me to improve on it. There is one exception. When it is a question of what Rand actually said or what Objectivism actually teaches, I quote Rand as the only authority.]