I appreciate all of the responses to my post just below. In order to avoid comment confusion, I am moving my response to a new post. It appears the subject of the “rugged individual” or the “self made man” has certainly touched off a significant response from the Porch. Unfortunately, the response has been, for the most part, of exactly the sort I feared it would be, providing at least some evidence in favor of a suspicion I have that has been growing—a suspicion that the overall tenor of the Porch, at least in its cyber-existence as a faux “community,” trends towards a kind of collectivist mindset that abhors “boot strapism” and demands a sublimated self (and often an accompanying imperial personality) in order to achieve an a priori conception of the common good.
I can’t respond to all of the comments below, some of which are very thoughtful, and the lack of reply on my part isn’t intended as a slight. I want to limit my response to the overwhelming majority of commenters who say nothing much more than: “There is no such thing as a self made man because everyone depends on others at some level” (John M.’s crack about language takes this point to its logical extreme).
Frankly, I was surprised to see this response repeated many times over with such earnestness, especially after I gave an extended explanation of what I was after, because it demonstrates a complete lack of seriousness or curiosity to understand our peculiar historical political moment (especially coming from those who otherwise hold themselves out to be serious such as John M.). How? Because absolutely no one who in any way holds out the peculiar American identity of the “self made man” as an ideal type actually believes that this means that it is possible for a person to achieve anything noteworthy entirely on his own and in a vacuum from society. This kind of strawman shows on the one hand a lack of charity and interest in another’s experience and political makeup (which at the very least should be of interest in the mode of studying one’s enemies) and on the other hand belies a deeper antipathy (hatred of anyone who is free of their control) that must dress itself up in simplistic denials before going public.
Fredrick Douglass dispatches with this strawman easily: “It must in truth be said though it may not accord well with self-conscious individuality and self-conceit, that no possible native force of character, and no depth or wealth of originality, can lift a man into absolute independence of his fellow-men, and no generation of men can be independent of the preceding generation.” In the same speech he says: “the man who will get up will be helped up; and the man who will not get up will be allowed to stay down. …Give the negro fair play and let him alone. If he lives, well. If he dies, equally well. If he cannot stand up, let him fall down. … As a general rule, where circumstances do most for men there man will do least for himself; and where man does least, he himself is least. His doing makes or unmakes him. … My theory of self-made men is, then, simply this; that they are men of work. Whether or not such men have acquired material, moral or intellectual excellence, honest labor faithfully, steadily and persistently pursued, is the best, if not the only, explanation of their success.”
Douglass expresses exactly that view which I suggested below that: “healthy, well-ordered, self-sustaining, decentralized political communities are only possible in, among, and between the fraternity of self-made men—that is, between men of a certain class who are both competent and able to provide for the basic needs of themselves and their families, who come by their own opinions honestly and absent any artiface born of ‘mass culture,’ who as such are beholden to no one, but in most of whom arise a loving affection and bond of the heart that form the ‘ties that bind.’”
But perhaps I am also being uncharitable and this is all a confusion of word choice. If you dislike the verbiage it may help to consider a list a people (off the top of my head) who I consider to exemplify the qualities of experience I described as forming that ideal American type or identity which has come to us encapsulated in those phrases “self made man” or “rugged individual.”
Ed Abbey, Sam Adams, Walt Whitman, HD Thoreau, Milton Hershey, George Soros, Abraham Lincoln, Daniel Boone, The American Pioneer, The Mad Farmer, Wendell Berry, John Adams, Andrew Jackson, Bill Gates, The Mayflower Pilgrims, Bill Travis, Jimi Hendrix, Ben Franklin, Andrew Carnegie, Mother Jones, Frederick Douglass, Almost everyone profiled positively in Bill Kauffman’s books, etc., etc….
My most important argument here is twofold:
First, that this form of American experience (whether had primarily through engendering events or secondarily by anemnetic re-enactments or by some combination of the two) is intrinsically valuable and even necessary to the maintenance of a republican form of government;
And secondly, that this form of experience is intrinsically tied to being American, and that to reject it whole-cloth is to be, in some measure, anti-American. I realize that this accusation is considered bomb-throwing in some quarters, but I do not mean it like that at all. I mean it in an analytical sense in hopes of furthering my (our) understanding of people’s attitudes and postures toward the kinds of political communities they find themselves in.
I posit that in order to sustain any measure or hope of “success,” every movement or outbreak of localist, decentralist sentiment in our particular political historical geographic moment must not be, in any fundamental way, anti-American, and must venerate, though not necessarily without criticism or caution, the ideal experience of the self made man.
I think a real and necessary debate can be had about this proposition, and it would at the least bring a great deal of clarity to the various efforts being made here, but first people will have to set aside simplistic formulas and deal honestly with root issues.
UPDATE: I am astounded that I cannot find Douglass’s wonderful speech anywhere on the internet in type that I can copy and paste. As such, I highly recommend reading this passage from which the above is taken: 1, 2, 3.
Also, someone below mentioned Wendell Berry’s essay on rugged individualism. It is mostly a perfectly valid critique of material consumerism on the right and spiritual consumerism on the left, but it contains this important bit (also nowhere to be found on the internet):
The career of rugged individualism in America has fun mostly to absurdity, tragic or comic. But it also has done us a certain amount of good. There was a streak of it in Thoreau, who went alone to jail in protest against the Mexican War. And that streak has continued in his successors who have suffered penalties for civil disobedience because of their perception that the law and the government were not always or necessarily right. This is individualism of a kind rugged enough, and it has been authenticated typically by its identification with a communal good.