CAUTION: THIS PORTION OF THE REVIEW DEALS HEAVILY WITH MATTERS OF RELIGIOUS FAITH, AND COULD BE DISCONCERTING FOR THOSE NOT INITIATED IN SUCH THINGS. IF YOU ARE THE KIND OF RELIGIOUS PERSON WHO INTERPRETS SCRIPTURE LITERALLY, I WOULD STRONGLY, STRONGLY, STRONGLY RECOMMEND THAT YOU DO NOT READ FURTHER BECAUSE YOU WILL DOUBTLESS ENCOUNTER CONCEPTS THAT WILL DISTURB YOU. IT IS NOT MY DESIRE TO CAUSE ANYONE ANY DISCOMFORT, OR SHAKE THEIR FAITH, I’VE HAD THAT DONE TO ME AND IT’S NO FUN TO HAVE THOSE KINDS OF SLEEPLESS NIGHTS. ALL I WANT TO DO HERE IS REVIEW A BOOK, SO PLEASE, IF YOU FIND YOUR FAITH LESS THAN ABSOLUTELY SECURE, OR IF YOU’RE LITERALLY MINDED, AGAIN, I URGE YOU NOT TO READ ANY FURTHER.
Of course no review of any Ayn Rand book would be complete without a discussion of the Objectivist philosophy in which it’s steeped. I’ve elected to handle that separately from the book review itself in deference to those who simply aren’t interested such matters. I think in the interest of full disclosure, I should probably come clean with my biases and qualifications before we begin.
I’m a poseur.
There’s no two ways about that. I’m not a philosopher, I wasn’t a philosophy major, I have no formal training in either classical philosophy, nor the more new-fangled schools thereof. I am, however, of a naturally inquisitive mindset, and this has led me frequently to read up on the subject. I do not consider myself an authority by any stretch of the imagination, but I am probably better versed in the matter than average. To sum up, I’m above average, but below useful.
My own personal philosophy is a la carte. I don’t subscribe to any particular one, I have no particular philosophical master per se, but I tend to be one of those annoyingly vague people who pull a little bit from column A, and a little bit from column B, and so on. I tend not to pull anything from Platonism, which I consider to be 99% utter nonsense; I like Descartes, but I’ll be the first one to admit that he’s rather vague on some central tenets and a ‘leap of faith’ is not what you can really call nailing an argument home. Despite the bad press he’s gotten - and I promise you he’s *not* a racist, or a Nazi - I find I’m intrigued by Nietzsche, both for his unquestioned readability, his odd system of delivery (Which is related to his readability) and the odd, almost messianic form of atheism. While I reject his atheism, I have to say his concept of self-actualization through art is bang on the money. I’ll cop to Hegel’s cyclical view of history, at least in the general sense, and I know enough to recognize that Marxism is a subset of Hegelianism (And I suppose the economic tidal wave in China at the moment would count as the inevitable Synthesis between the western Thesis and the Marxist/Lenninist Antithesis). I’m fascinated by Carl Jung, but consider his notion of the “Cosmic Unconscious” to be mostly nonsense, and I hate, hate, hate Joseph Campbell, who’s the worst kind of me-too hack, philosophically speaking: the kind who essentially enables even worse hacks to go on to even greater levels of half-assed hackery. (George Lucas, I’m looking at you, sir!)
If you’re the kind of person that has to put a name on things, I guess I’d probably be what they used to call a “Christian Existentialist” (Which, despite it’s name, is not an expressly Christian school of thought). This can best be summed up as “God exists, I exist, everything else is subject to debate.” In my life, I’ve been a lot of different kinds of believers: A Fanatical Fundamentalist, an Atheist, a Religious Anarchist, a Heretic, a kind of Mystic, A “True Seeker” (In the Straczynskian sense), a Unitarian, a Baha’I, or at least something very much like one, and a plain ‘ol garden variety Christian. At the moment, I’m a Christian again, and I don’t predict changing, but of course I didn’t predict changing all those other times, either.
So now you know my biases, let’s get on to the subject at hand.
The first thing I’d like to do is quote some passages from the “This is John Galt Speaking” chapter - a seventy-page speech one of the protagonists makes about his philosophy - that jumped out at me while I was reading it. I’ll comment where it seems appropriate to do so.
“Man cannot survive except by gaining knowledge.”
“Logic is the art of non-contradictory identification. A contradiction cannot exist.”
--- I would argue that this is true in the broadest sense, but not strictly speaking true, and pretending it is can be rather limiting. Take, for instance, the art of navigation at sea: It assumes the Earth is the center of the universe, and that the sun and stars revolve around us. This is clearly not true, as has been well known for more than 400 years now, but even though this assumption is wrong, it works insofar as the navigation is concerned. It’s an acceptable shorthand to get from point A to point B that, in ignoring the true nature of the universe, saves the navigator a lot of extra work and fuss for no real payoff. There are other examples as well, where we assume something to be true for sake of argument or convenience, even though we know full well it isn’t. This is without even invoking Quantum Mechanics. This is true for the quote below, as well.
“No concept man forms is valid unless he integrates it without contradiction in to the total sum of his knowledge.”
“Reality is that which exists; the unreal does not exist”
--- While this is obviously true, and only a fool would argue with it, I can point to any number of things that do not physically, epistemologically exist which, nevertheless have some undeniable reality to them. The classical example is Voodoo: I’m a voodoo priest and I put a curse on someone who believes in Voodoo, and he dies of fright. Obviously, this kind of “Sympathetic Magic” isn’t real magic, but the bottom line is that the man’s fear of a nonexistent thing killed him. The conclusion, then is that things that aren’t real can hurt you. If that’s the case, it follows that things which aren’t real can help you, too. Love, for instance, is notoriously hard to dissect, explain, point to, even define, and yet I don’t think any of us reading this wouldn’t deny that it exists, even though, from a strictly utilitarian point of view, Love is merely a product of your imagination. Whether or not God exists (I’m betting He does), I think we can all agree that at root God is at *least* an idea, and that idea of God has massively changed the course of human history. Therefore, even if God doesn’t exist, He has a profound (if paradoxical) effect on all our lives every day, even those who don’t believe in Him. To put a finer point on this, a thing need not actually exist to exist, it merely has to have people that believe in it to make it real in every relevant way excepting it’s own reality.
“Truth is the recognition of reality; reason, man’s only means of knowledge, is his only standard of truth.”
--- Again, I’m not arguing here, but a strictly literal interpretation of this concept is to deny the fact that humans can not perceive reality directly. Our brains do not see the Electromagnetic Spectrum, they only interpret electrochemical impulses from photoreceptors in our eyes, which themselves can only perceive a tiny part of a much greater whole. As such, we’re already rather insulated from the absolute truth of nature, and some of us need more insulation than others - Poetry is more real than history, as history can only tell us what happened, but poetry tells us what it meant. I don’t actually *believe* that, I’m just using it to get across a point.
“Your mind is your only judge of truth.”
“Man’s reason is his moral faculty.”
“A rational process is a moral process.”
---I strongly, strongly disagree with this. All too often Rational processes have been profoundly immoral. Twelve million people were “Rationally” put to death in the Holocaust because they were “Scientifically” found to be inferior. Thirty Million people were put to death in Soviet Russia for basically the same reasons, or for simply being rabble-rousers. Two Million in Cambodia, God Knows how many in China. Black people institutionally sterilized in the US and elsewhere because they were “Less evolved,” Indians genocidal wiped out because they were preventing the spread of a rational civilization. Thirty Six million babies in the US aborted since 1973 because in the light of day, they were rationally deemed to be inconvenient, undesirable, a burden. Every single one of these examples I’ve cited - and I’m not one of those people who hauls out the Nazis as an example often - are cases where, according to what was considered to be rigorous, acceptable logic, people were declared to be not people at all, and were then slaughtered. I can imagine no less moral process than that.
“If devotion to truth is the hallmark of morality, then there is no greater, nobler, more heroic form of devotion than the act of a man who assumes the responsibility of thinking. That which you call your soul or spirit is your consciousness, and that which you call ‘free will’ is your mind’s freedom to think or not.”
“Thinking is a mans’ only basic virtue, from which all the others proceed.”
--- I think I agree with this, but I wouldn’t entirely be surprised if a lot of our virtues are hard-wired by biological necessity. For instance, when you have kids, you start thinking differently than you did before you had them, and a lot of this is simply a “Protect the brood” mentality. Drunken moron friends from college that you’ve know forever suddenly become too dangerous to have around, and you relegate them to arm’s length, rather than boon companion. This happens so quickly and subtly that it’s clear there’s not any rational thought going on here. So while I’d say that she’s basically right, there is an irrational biological process at work here that definitely holds some sway.
“Non-thinking is an act of annihilation, a wish to negate existence”
--- I have to disagree with this. There are times when one craves the catharsis of an emotional release without imposing too many criteria on it. One can sit and appreciate beauty without having to define it, and a failure to define it doesn’t negate it’s existence. I do feel that naming things is the first step to making them a part of your own personal quiver of abilities, but there is definitely - and I think all of us can attest to it - a time for the barely-sentient release that comes from a good, long run, or physical exhaustion, or the happy vapid buzz that follows sex, none of which really require articulated thought. Indeed, too much thought kind of ruins them. This is why people run to clear their heads in the first place, you know? Please note that I’m not saying she’s flat out wrong on this point, just that I feel she’s overstressing it.
“By refusing to say ‘it is’, you are refusing to say ‘I am’” - so then by refusing to admit the existence of God - Who, as we’ve already established, has a kind of existence even if He’s completely unreal - are you refusing to say “I am?” By refusing to admit the existence of things that you can’t comprehend, are you denying your own existence?”
--- No. You’re saying “There’s a limit to my understanding at this juncture.” That’s not the same as denying your existence.
“To the extent to which a man is rational, life is the premise directing his actions. To the extent which he is irrational, the premise directing his actions is death. You who prattle that morality is social and that man would need no morality on a desert island - it is on a desert island that he would need it most.”
“If I were to speak your kind of language, I would say that man’s only moral commandment is: Thou Shalt Think. But a ‘moral commandment’ is a contradiction in terms. The moral is the chosen, not the forced; the understood, not the obeyed. The moral is the rational, and reason accepts no commandments.”
--- I pretty much agree with this one. Just as a crime you were forced to commit can not be held against you, a virtue you wore forced to commit can’t be held to your credit. And thinking is always good, whereas merely reacting is frequently wrong.
“Honesty is the recognition that the unreal is unreal and can have no value”
--- As we’ve already discussed, there are many, many things that have no discernable reality that are of value, and many, many things that may not have any objective reality at all, and yet they have value. To use an economic example, our currency is essentially specie, it’s basically worthless. It’s only value is there because the government states that our money has thus-and-so value, and we accept that on faith, and carry on as if it were actually worth something in terms of gold or chickens or pelts. It’s not, but it drives our economy and hence the economy of the world, all based around an idea. Likewise, the idea of God, or of Love, or of Humans having Value is not the kind of thing that can be objectively proven, and yet it drives our society, it drives every society. To quote the new Battlestar Galactica, the most basic article of faith is “This is not all that there is.” It is the belief in something more - the specifics of which patently don’t matter - that keep us going when all reason tells us to lie down and die. It is the belief in more than we can see that keeps us fighting to survive in the death camps when we know that all hope is lost. It is man’s faith in God - whichever one you choose - that makes him stand up and say “No more. This is bad. Do what you will to me, but this stops now.” It is, conversely, a man’s belief that all he sees is all there is which causes him to say, “Well, I can’t see what harm there is in killing a few more unwanted babies.”
“Man…has no automatic sense of self-esteem and must earn it by shaping his soul in the image of his moral ideal.”
--- I’d agree with this.
“His own happiness is mans’ only moral purpose, but only his own virtue can achieve it. Virtue is not an end in itself. Virtue is not its own reward or sacrificial fodder for the reward of evil. Life is the reward of virtue - and happiness is the goal and reward of life.”
--- I’d actually go along with this, though I’d add some caveats about the costs of that price to others. If, for instance, my happiness comes from “Virtuously” killing thousands of “Less evolved” Africans, then clearly my happiness comes at too great a cost.
“Mystic parasites…have, throughout the ages, reviled the traders and held them in contempt, while honoring the beggars and the looters, have known the secret motive of their sneers: a trader is the entity they dread - a man of justice.”
--- I’m going to call “bullcrap” on this one because it’s simply not true. Certainly there are instances where a priestly caste has abused their power, but to maintain that that this is all that has ever been is to openly disregard history. The Jury Trial, which all modern justice is based on, was a decree of the Greek god Apollo, and was originally practiced only within his cult, though it quickly expanded to civil situations as well. The Koran specifically mentions Justice twenty times, most of them in exactly the context Rand means here - and goes on to condemn bribery, double-dealing, and corrupt judges. Fairness in this same context turns up seven times. There’s two condemnations of false witnesses, and four exhortations of how sacrosanct witnesses telling the truth is. In the bible, Justice is mentioned specifically twenty eight times, but there are scores of condemnations for those who would pervert it, exhortations for people to uphold it. Two of the first five books are extended legal codes which go in to great detail about protecting the rights of people, of women, of children even slaves; about dealing compassionately with outsiders and strangers, about punishments for those who cheat. I’ll be the first person to admit that many of these laws seem kind of goofy to us today, and some are even repulsive, but the point remains that the concept of “Justice” was of primary importance to the “Mystic Parasites” who compiled the bible. And the Koran. And the cult of Apollo. Hell, the earliest actual writing we’ve ever found is a legal code handed down from the gods commanding people to deal fairly with each other. And let’s not even mention the highly popular Roman cult of “Mithra, Lord of the Bond,” who’s central rule was egalitarianism and square-dealing. The fact of the matter is that not only is the concept of “Justice” of central importance to the entire western religious tradition, it was one of the things that allowed it to succeed. The laws of the gods - arbitrary or even fictional as they may well have been - allowed for the spread of civilization and justice. They walked the same road, they were the left and right shoes on the feet of progress. Undeniably, it was the desire for Justice as something more than simply beating the hell out of anyone who so much as looked at you funny that gave rise to organized religions in the first place.
“There is one act of evil that may not, the act that no man may commit against others, and no man may sanction or forgive. So long as men desire to live together, no man may initiate - do you hear me? No man may start - the use of physical force against others.”
--- Amen, sister! Preach on!
“Force and mind are opposites; morality ends where a gun begins.”
“Achieving life is not the equivalent of avoiding death.”
--- Totally agreed. And this is just beautiful, I’m quite impressed.
“This monstrous absurdity is [the concept of] Original Sin. A sin without volition is a slap at morality and an insolent contradiction in terms: that which is outside the possibility of choice is outside the province of morality. If man is evil by birth, he has no will, no power to change it; if he has no will, he can be neither good nor evil. A robot is amoral.”
--- I’m sure many of my readers are expecting me to take issue with this, but I’m not going to. I agree. Being as I’m a protestant, I mostly reject the concept of “Original Sin” anyway. (See how one’s biases come in to play? )
“What is the nature of the guilt that your teachers call his Original Sin? What are the evils man acquired when he fell from a state they consider perfection? Their myth declares that he ate from the fruit of the tree of knowledge - he acquired a mind and became a rational being. It was the knowledge of good and evil - he became a moral being. He was sentenced to earn his bread by his labor - he became a productive being. He was sentenced to experience desire - he acquired the capacity of sexual enjoyment. The evils for which they damn him are reason, morality, creativeness, joy - all the cardinal values of his existence. It is not his vices that their myth of man’s fall is designed to explain and condemn, it is not his errors that they hold as his guilt, but the essence of his nature as man. Whatever he was - that robot in the Garden of Eden, who existed without a mind, without values, without labor, without love - he was not man.”
--- I totally agree. She’s said the right thing, but she’s missing the point. Personally, I take the Garden of Eden story to be an allegory for our pre-human past. Humanity - Adam is a Hebrew word meaning “Mankind” after all - existed in a timeless blissful utopia for who knows how long, and then he was given the knowledge of Good and Evil - sentience - and in so doing “Became like one of Us,” as the supernatural beings in the story say. Ignoring any question of sin and evil, what we’re talking about is our species’ transition from being basically an animal to being basically human. We are remembering - fondly - the happy times in the dim recesses of memory when we didn’t have to think for ourselves, and we existed quite happily on handouts from God. Then we became sentient, essentially becoming as one of the gods themselves, trapped in mortal flesh - which I’ve always found kind of charming and reassuring in the sense that we’re not quite angels and not quite animals anymore, we don’t quite fit in to either world - and life became much, much harder. We lived or died on our own efforts, with no more handouts, or only very, very few. Rand is right in saying that mankind in that pre-sentient state was more-or-less robotic, though it might be more apt to say that we were reflex machines not unlike the animals all around us, who clearly don’t know ’right from wrong’ (And again, we see here that Justice is central to these matters, though Rand chooses to dismiss it as ’mystical parasitism’) I don’t insist that this must be agreed upon by any extremely fundamental Christian folk who’ve ignored my warnings and gone on to read this, I just put it forward as my own understanding on these things. I’m not literally-minded.
The point that I think Rand is missing here - and this tells us a lot about her own perspectives and biases - is that from a strictly religious point of view, Humanity in the Garden *wasn’t* the same as Humanity at present. In other words, when we “Fell” we became what we are now, but we were designed for some other purpose originally. To put as fine a point as I can on it, Rand fails to notice that humanity’s nature at present is “Plan B.” This is not what we were built for, and we quickly blew “Plan A,” but it would be a mistake to assume the likes and dislikes of “Fallen” beings must be the same as they were in our pre-fallen day, just as it’s a mistake to assume people want/love/fear/understand the same things ape do.
The Garden was the blissful existence *for them*, and the world is the best existence *for us.*
I don’t begrudge her for missing this point, though, I’ve clearly thought on these matters more than she has.
“God, a being who’s only definition is that he is beyond man’s power to conceive - a definition that invalidates man’s consciousness and nullifies his concepts of existence.”
--- Nonsense. God is, if nothing else, an idea. Objectivism is, at root, an idea. Ideas have no physical existence, and yet the affect the real world through us. The fact that we’ve cooked up the idea of God proves that we have the power to conceive of Him, therefore He isn’t beyond our power to do so. And since He’s at the very least an idea, clearly He’s not invalidating our consciousness.
“It is not a sacrifice to give your life for other, if death is your personal desire.”
--- agreed. Martyr, or suicidal whackjob - the difference depends on the individual.
“Your self is your mind; renounce it and you will become a chunk of meat ready for any cannibal to swallow. It is your mind they want you to surrender - all those who preach the creed of sacrifice, whatever their tags or motives.”
--- I’m not going to quote John 15:13 here, because I think what she’s getting at is the old Goethe maxim about how you must either be the anvil or the hammer. I think what she’s getting at here is that if you give up your ability to think, you’re resigning yourself to being simply a tool of others who do think. I would argue that her condemnation of the ‘cults of sacrifice’ are misguided. What she’s getting at there is a common belief in the mid-20th century that eastern religions preached a kind of ‘self-death’ or abolition of the self. You find this in 1984 as well. In fact, eastern religions actually do this, but it’s not so cut-and-dried as that. People are not being encouraged to kill themselves, or eradicate their soul per se, they’re attempting to develop a greater mental discipline for whatever reason, and access aspects of their mind that are not easily learned. I’m not talking about levitation or telepathy or hokum like that, I simply mean they’re trying to learn to think differently.
“It is immoral to live by your own effort, but moral to live by the effort of others”
--- This is the moral code of the moochers and looters, the bad guys in the novel.
“If you succeed, any man who fails is your master; if you fail any man who succeeds is your serf. Whether your failure is just or not, whether your wishes are rational or not, whether your misfortune is undeserved or the results of our vices, it is misfortune that give you a right to rewards. It is pain, regardless of its nature or cause as a primary absolute, that gives you a mortgage on all of existence.”
--- this is a very real assessment of the unfair conditions that creative people live under - do a new thing well, and everyone wants a piece of it, and will figure out how to get it. Do an old thing badly, and you get to become one of those people demanding a piece of the successful new thing. The only person not valued in this equation is the actual creative person himself. Very well stated, I think.
“Do you wonder why your morality has not achieved brotherhood on earth, or the good will of man to man?”
“The mystics of spirit declare that they possess an extra sense you lack: this special sixth sense consists of contradicting the whole knowledge of your five.”
--- it is true, as Emo Phillips said, that some prayers consist of basically “Lord, please change all the rules of the universe for my own personal benefit,” but again, I will maintain that belief in more than what we can see is not just a good thing, our consciousness and sentience depend on it. Without belief, we are merely reacting, we’re not trying to see over that next hill, or figure stuff out. Instead, we become merely things fated to do something for a time, and then stop. Belief gives things meaning, and meaning is why we do them, thank you very much Victor Frankl.
“It is only the metaphysics of a leech that would cling to the idea of a universe where a zero is a standard of identification. A leech would want to seek escape from necessity to name its own nature - escape from the necessity to know that the substance on which it builds its private universe is blood.”
“Those who tell you that man is unable to perceive a reality undistorted by his senses, mean that they are unwilling to perceive a reality undistorted by their feelings.”
--- Ayn is referring to Logical Positivism here, the briefly popular school of philosophy which said that things should only be studied if they can be proven beyond question to exist. Of course you can’t prove beyond question that I wrote this sentence, and neither can I. As philosophies go, it’s interesting, but something of a dead end, but it was still flourishing at the time this book was written. There is some truth to the concept of Logical Positivism, at least in a watered down sense, though - we are at the behest of our brain to make sense of our sensory inputs as any aphasic could tell you (If he could talk), and our sensors themselves are quite fallible, as any color blind man or anosmic person can quickly point out.
“He says: ‘It is, therefore I want it.’ They say: ‘I want it, therefore it is.”
--- Ayn Rand says, ‘I don’t want it, therefore it isn’t.”
An action not caused by an entity would be caused by a zero, which would mean a zero controlling a thing, a nonentity controlling an entity, the non-existence ruling the existent - which is the universe of your teacher’s desire.”
--- Perhaps so, but it happens all the time. As we’ve discussed, ideas have an existence all their own, despite not being objectively real. And if we take this notion to ridiculous levels, then how did the universe get here? If there’s no God, then - by her logic - you couldn’t have a big bang, because that would mean a zero controlling a thing. Something *has* to cause the monoblock. (I do feel my argument is a bit straw-man on this point. Sorry.)
“’You can not prove that you exist or that you’re conscious,’ they chatter, blanking out the fact that proof presupposes existence.”
--- Another slam on logical positivism. While I’m not a fan of that school of philosophy, Rand appears to be deliberately refusing to understand their point. Human sense can be mislead, fairly easily. For instance, our nerves don’t distinguish between extreme hot and extreme cold very well, and if one is mistake for the other by our brain, well, there you are.
“The only knowledge he possesses is that he must not attempt to know”
--- This is put forth as the basic creed of the savage who lives in a demon-haunted world. I can’t pretend to know the mind of savages, having never been one myself, but I will point out that savages managed some pretty neat tricks, like colonizing the pacific by sailing IN to the wind, or building the pyramids without the wheel.
“Mystics of spirit have proclaimed that faith is superior to reason.”
--- And yet her faith in The Absolute is not all that different from a faith in God. I, myself, have never claimed that faith is superior to reason, nor will I claim that reason is superior to faith. I think we need both of them, equally.
“Random females with causeless incomes flitter on trips around the globe and return to deliver the message that the backward peoples of the world demand a higher standard of living. Demand- of whom?”
--- Oh, that’s good. It’s interesting to know that the Angelina Jolies of the world were already a cliché, even in the 1950s.
“A mystic is a man who surrendered his mind at its first encounter with the minds of others. Somewhere in the distant reaches of his childhood, when his own understanding of reality clashed with the assertions of others, with their arbitrary orders and contradictory demands, he gave in to so craven a fewer of independence that he renounced his rational faculty.”
--- Not true. I have never, ever, surrendered my mind to anyone. Nobody tells me how to think. If I believe in God or gods, it is, I will admit, a leap of faith, but it’s not an entirely unreasoned one, and in my day-to-day life, I’m as relentlessly rational as anyone. A mystic - a believer - is merely someone who thinks that perhaps they are more than what they see in the mirror, and they put some energy in to finding out what that is.
“Every dictator is a mystic.”
--- I’d disagree, but I’m not even sure what she means by this.
“A mystic craves obedience from men, not their agreement.”
--- There is some truth to this, I suppose. I’ve been screwed over by dishonest preachers on at least two occasions (Possibly more that I don’t know about). There are clergy who use their office as a ‘get out of responsibility free’ card. I think we have to differentiate between “Mystics” and “Clergy,” here, which is something Rand doesn’t do. She lumps anyone who believes in the supernatural in there with that, which is like saying dolphins and sharks are the same thing because they look similar and live in the water. If we assume she’s talking about clergy, and substitute ‘many’ for ‘all’, then I’d go along with this, but otherwise she’s being short-sighted.
“Those who seek not to live, but to get away with living.”
--- A very pretty phrase, and I know exactly what she’s getting at here. I like it.
“Every mystic has always longed for slaves, to protect him from the material reality he dreaded.”
--- Again we run in to problems by lumping people of faith in with people who misuse faith. Popes desire slaves, priests desire slaves. Prophets don’t. Mystics don’t. Missionaries don’t. I knew a man who was so moved by his love of God and his love of his fellow man that he spent 15 years living in a one-room log cabin in the Yukon around the same time “Atlas” was being written. He spent a decade and a half teaching the Indians to read, to write, to do basic math, and making sure they got basic medical attention. He did so at an enormous personal cost - his life was on hold for half a generation, his son lost his life due to the privations that he suffered - but still he stayed on, helping those people because he believed it was the right thing to do, and because he felt God wanted it of him. I know another man who turned down a lucrative airline career so he could fly medical supplies and soap to Africans in undeveloped areas in the fifties, through dangerous areas where people fought then as now, at great risk to his own life, but, again, it was what he felt God demanded, so he did it happily. Both these men are “Mystics” under Rand’s definition, but these are both people I’ve personally known. I can testify that neither of them ever wanted slaves of any sort.
“This idol of your cult of zero-worship, this symbol of impotence - the congenital dependent - is your image of man and your standard of value.”
--- It’s no secret that religion by and large has a poor opinion of humanity. Is this a symbol of impotence, or merely a case of open eyes betraying legions of flaws? Honestly, the relatively negative opinion religion often has of man is paradoxical at best, and it’s one of those things that you can take as a negative or a positive. As for me, I take it as an urging to do better - ‘we can do better, we can do more, don’t be complacent’ - which is a positive thing. Conversely, ‘you’re good enough as you are’ doesn’t urge anyone on to anything, now does it?
“The infamous times you call the Dark Ages were an era of intelligence on strike, when men of ability went underground and lived undiscovered, studying in secret, and died, destroying the works of their mind, when only a few of the bravest of martyrs remained to keep the human race alive.”
--- Whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat? Again, I say, ‘whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat?’ This makes no sense whatsoever, it ignores every historical fact with no attempt at justification whatsoever. It would be like if I said ‘the dinosaurs died out because of the freemasons’ - it’s lunacy of a scope you can’t even comment on, and she doesn’t even attempt to explain herself on this point.
“When some barefoot bum in some pesthole of Asia yells at you: How dare you be rich - you apologize and beg him to be patient and promise him you’ll give it all away.”
--- This is a fairly spot-on criticism of the dilettantes of the 1950s, who became obsessed with Buddhism and Hinduism as a matter of fashion. It’s also a fairly spot-on criticism of the hippies of the 60s, who did the same thing to a much deeper extent.
“You wonder why your children join the People’s Thugs or become half-crazed delinquents.”
--- Here she’s talking about how a lack of moral guidance and mixed signals about the need/nature of labor in society is ruining the youth. Again, this is fairly spot-on.
“Most mystics of muscle started out as mystics of spirit.”
--- The only one I can think of off the top of my head was Robespierre. I’m sure there have been more, and I’m sure we could expand it to include several popes and inquisitions, but to be honest I can’t think of a whole bunch of actual religious dictators in the west, either in our enlightened era, or in previous times. Again, I’m sure they exist, but I can’t think of too many, which makes me think that she’s overstating her case here. It is, however, at least theoretically capable, as - once again - the existence of Robespierre proves.
“The greater his terror, the more fiercely he clings to the murderous doctrines that choke him. No man can survive the moment of pronouncing himself irredeemably evil; should he do it, his next moment is insanity or suicide.”
--- This is probably true, but one’s natural psychological defenses prevent most people from ever assuming themselves to be irretrievably bad. This is why people like Jeffrey Dahmer and Joseph Mengele and Joseph Stalin don’t kill themselves: They believe they’re good. The fact that they’re not good points out that a belief in your own repeatability or unredeemability is more-or-less immaterial to your actual value as a human being. I should also point out that Rand misses or ignore the fact that one of the reasons we create religions in the first place is to give ourselves a means, or at least a sense, of redemption.
“The root of that legend [the garden of Eden] exists not in the past of the race, but in the past of every man.” --- Interesting! Damn interesting! I had not thought of this, but actually there’s a lot to be said in favor of it, at least in a psychological. Sense.
“While you called it a longing for the state of an angel, you were seeking the state of an animal.”
--- Again, I think she’s spot on here: she’s saying that many people’s quest for redemption is merely a quest to become a robot who doesn’t have to worry about making decisions. This makes it all the more interesting that she didn’t get the whole ‘animal nature of man’ thing implicit in the Garden of Eden story earlier.
“You failed to recognize the hero in your soul - and you failed to know me when I passed you in the street. When you cried in despair for the unattainable spirit which you felt had deserted your world, you gave it a name, but what you were calling was your own betrayed self-esteem. You will not recover one without the other.”
--- This is Galt addressing people over the radio. Messianic, huh?
“You kept offering apologies for this country’s greatness to the idol of primordial starvation, to decaying Europe’s idol of a leprous mystic bum.”
--- I’m not sure who the Leprous Mystic Bum is, since she never mentions any specific European religious leaders in the book, but I’ll sign off on the penchant for liberals to apologize for our nation’s greatness, as though it were something to be ashamed of. I’ve never understood that.
“From it’s start, this country was a threat to the ancient rule of mystics.”
--- True. True. True. A thousand times true.
“A country’s political system is based on it’s code of morality.”
--- I’d agree.
“Man is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others, that man’s life, his freedom, his happiness are HIS by inalienable right.”
--- Again, I’d agree.
“Rights are conditions of existence required by mans’ nature for his proper survival.”
--- This is a bit more debatable, but I’d argue that her heart is in the right place.
“Nature forbids him [Man] the irrational.”
--- Oh, please. Anyone who’s ever had a dream at night has experienced the irrational. Everyone who’s ever wondered - for no reason whatsoever - if their girlfriend is cheating on them has experience the irrational. Everyone who’s ever gotten really depressed because some jackass they’ve never met on the AV Club website called them an idiot has experienced the irrational. The irrational is every bit as much a part and parcel of our life as the rational is. I’ll get in to this a bit more below.
“The standard of living of a blacksmith is all that your muscles are worth; the rest is a gift from Hank Rearden.”
--- What she’s getting at here is that society exists as a kind of trade of resources. You don’t have a car because you’re smart enough to build one, you have a car because other people are, and without a free exchange of money and ideas, those services break down, and suddenly we’re back to a mideval level of existence where you can only own what you can build or kill or steal. It’s a piss-poor life, undeniably.
“Your system is a legal civil war, where men gang up on one another and struggle for possession of the law, which they use as a club over rivals, till another gang wrests it from their clutch and clubs them with it in their turn, all of them clamoring protestations of service to an unnamed public’s unspecified good.”
--- WOW! Yes! Spot-on! Preach it, sister, preach it!
“the Evil of the world is made possible by nothing but the sanction you give it.”
--- She’s not the first to say this, nor the last, but it does bear repeating. I think Woodrow Wilson said it better though, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”
“Do not try to live life on your enemies terms, or to win at a game where they’re setting the rules.”
--- Again, amen, preach on, sister!
“No man may obtain any values from others by resorting to physical force. Every man will stand or fall, live or die by his rational judgment. If he fails to use it and falls, he will be his only victim. If he fears that his judgment is inadequate, he will not be given a gun to improve it.”
--- Again, I totally agree here.
I don’t want to give the impression that I’m just dissing Objectivism here, because I’m not. As you can see, I agree with a not-inconsiderable amount of the quotes above, but in order to discuss it I’ve got to give my impressions of what Rand is saying, and then agree or disagree and explain why.
As detailed here, Objectivism seems really derivative of Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations,” (1776) which is, not coincidentally, the basic source document for capitalism. Undoubtetly, Rand read it, and repeats or alludes to some of its precepts. The major difference here is that Smith’s “Wealth” was merely an economic theory, and Objectivism would seem to have expanded it with a utilitarian moral code as well, something Smith himself was unconcerned with. I also suspect she’s futzed with his “Invisible hand” somewhat as well, but my memories of “Wealth” are a couple decades out of date, so I could be wrong about that.
I’m intrigued by her concept of “Rational egoism,” or, as Joe Straczynski put it elsewhere, “Enlightened self interest.” He goes on to describe it as one of the three basic forces that keep the universe a-chuggin’ along, and I don’t think he’s wrong in that.
Her moral system is essentially a reversal of conventional morality. She states that laws from the gods are no system for a basis of government or morality, and that they’re simply a justification that those in power use to keep the little people out of power. Marriage, for instance, would be considered an immoral act since it’s a state/church sanctified licensing of a contract - with penalties - which should be private and voluntary. It would state, if I understand it, that something like extramarital sex is *not* immoral, and that constraints on one’s sexlife need to be self-imposed in order to be valid, otherwise they’re simply an attempt to usurp one’s power and self determination. Law, in essence, exist to protect the lawgivers, and not the citizens, and Rand believe this is wrong. If they do exist for that reason, then certainly she’s right to believe it’s wrong.
This is not a new idea. The earliest, most articulated version of it I can find is in Nietzsche, and I know Rand was a fan of his. In fact, I suspect her inordinately stern and puritanical comments on work - such as “Your work is the purpose of your life…any value you might find outside your work, any other loyalty or love, can be only travelers you choose to share your journey and must be travelers going on their own power in the same direction.” - are probably intended as an expansion of his concept of self actualization through art. (For the record, I prefer to think that my life is the purpose of my work.) And yet I can’t help but feel she’s missing something here, since Nietzsche’s whole point in this was that humanity has a fundamental sense of the numinous, of God, from which we get a sense beyond that of simple meaning. He suggested the whole self-actualization thing as a way of substituting something for this numinousness in his idealized atheist society. Rand would appear to be trying to take away without giving anything in return in this case, or if that’s not so, the concept is inadequately explained in the text.
My first blush opinion is that Objectivism is fine in as far as it goes, and one’s work and moral code should have some crossover, but I think it’s got an inherent shortcoming in that it is a strictly materialist philosophy. As Douglas Adams said (paraphrasing), many people had many theories and plans for how to make people happier, most of which had to do with moving little slips of green paper around, which was strange in that it wasn’t the little slips of green paper that were unhappy. Facetiousness aside, humanity is not entirely rational. I’m not going to argue that intuition is better than reason, or that reason is better than faith. Instead I’m going to argue that they’re both of equal importance. Reason is the thing that allows us to spot problems in advance and avoid them, to fix things we couldn’t avoid, to work for the common good. Faith is the thing that makes us recognize that human beings are deserving of respect, that makes us keep going, that keeps us asking questions of what it all means, and then rejecting the easy tautological answers. There may not be anything justifiable in faith - or you could simply be wasting your faith on a loosing horse - but the point is that we all need to believe in something we can’t prove, something that makes us a little bigger than we are, something that makes us matter to ourselves, even if it’s painfully obvious to the rest of the world that we don’t matter at all. We’re all egocentonic to a greater or lesser degree, and as long as we as a species are, the gods will continue to whisper in our ears “What a bright boy!” and “What a pretty girl you are!”
Nietzsche - the atheist’s athiest - recognized that people have gods for a reason, and that reason has nothing to do with the objective reality (or lack thereof) of those gods. He recognized that we are engineers on one hand, and filthy hippies on the other. We are quite literally of two minds about damn near everything. He recognized that getting rid of the numinous side of our natures would have wildly negative consequences - including a slide in to nihilism, which terrified the guy - and so he suggested a compromise that would allow people to be more rational, and stand more on their own feet by essentially tricking the irrational side of our nature through art. I’m oversimplifying, it’s really far cleverer than that, but you get the gist.
Going back further, the only-occasionally-rational nature of man has long been recognized in religion. Mideval philosophers frequently commented on our strange nature, half bestial, half divine - a thinking animal, but no less an animal because of that. The bible flat out says we were created “A bit lower than the angels,” going back even further, Zoroaster makes it clear that humans are the focus of a continual battle between the creative and destructive influences, the light and dark, rational and irrational, good and bad, and we’re told that our actions and our thoughts, our rationality and our faith *both* matter, *both* have the power to affect the outcome of God’s grand plan.
The point being that our dual nature has been more-or-less a given through most of human history, but Rand chooses to ignore it in favor of us being entirely rational beings. Again, I’m not saying one is superior to the other - faith or reason - what I’m saying is that we are an equal admixture of the two. You want entirely rational beings? Fine: Ants. You want entirely irrational beings? Fine: Democrats. (Cheap joke. Sorry.) My point is that to deny the existence of one half of our nature is to give rise to exactly the kind of unbalanced philosophy you find backing the old Soviet Union, where people are cogs in a machine that only runs briefly and badly at the point of a gun, and eventually one that don’t run at all.
The fundamental failing of rationalist philosophies are that they ignore half of our lives. It’s like trying to teach someone about an amphibian, but never mentioning anything about their lives on the land, only in the water. Obviously, some important details are going to fall by the wayside. Rand’s vehemence against religion - and by extension irrationality, which is everyone’s birthright - is curious, and I don’t pretend to understand it, but while I’m not rejecting all of Objectivism, and while there’s much of it I really like, and which I found thought-provoking, I find it not a good match for my mindset.
What are your thoughts?