Saturday, April 7, 2012

A Study Guide to Ayn Rand's Philosophy

It takes no time to fall in love, but it takes you years to know what the love is.
Jason Mraz
Life is Wonderful

Learning Objectivism is a delightful, deeply rewarding, life-altering process, and you can sense that it is going to be from the very beginning. But there is a simple, practical problem when getting started: among the great deal of high quality material available, what do you read first?

Based on my thirty years as a dedicated Objectivist, I offer the following list as a highly opinionated where-to-start-first guide to someone who wants to study and master Ayn Rand's philosophy.


      1. Three great sustained non-technical classics
      2. Four great sustained technical classics
      3. Top three best short works
      4. Other sustained classics
      5. Other best short works
      6. Biographical works
      7. Non-Objectivist works
      8. Conclusion: Exactly how to start

1. The three great sustained non-technical classics:

The Fountainhead
Atlas Shrugged
The Ominous Parallels: The End of Freedom in America

These are the first three books you should read. They will give you an overview of the total of the Objectivist world view.

The Ominous Parallels is the most important breakthough in the field of history since Thucydides. The book gives a revolutionary new answer to the question: how could the Nazi's take over a highly advanced, civilized nation -- the nation of "poets and philsophers"? If Atlas Shrugged is the most philosophical novel ever written, then The Ominous Parallels is the most philosophical history every written. If Atlas Shrugged teaches the fundamentally correct view of life, then The Ominous Parallels teaches the fundamentally correct view of history.

On the face of it, this is a strange collection of books to start with: the rapture of Roark and Galt followed by the hell of Kant and Auschwitz. On the face of it, Objectivism offers a contradictory message: on the one hand, Objectivism teaches man-worship, it teaches that your life can be more glorious than any previous conception you have ever had of it; but on the other hand, Objectivism teaches that the philosophy of altruism that the world takes as self-evidently true is leading to an apocalyptic disaster that you had never expected.

But those are the facts. Man’s life is glorious and this culture is a corrupt mess. But the contradiction is only seeming. The last Dark Ages happened, and ended. This culture is in deep decline, but it will recover. The world is in a very bad state, but Objectivism teaches you why, and why it didn’t have to be this way, and the philosophical truth that will permanently more than fix it. The Ominous Parallels is a tour through a chamber of horrors, but with a powerful guide. The existence of the powerful guide gives the book a profoundly optimistic sense of life, despite its subject matter.

Entire books and lectures could be written on this issue, but I will leave you with one thought: make it a conscious point not to let the state of today’s culture get you down. It is an easy mistake to make. Don’t let yourself make it. Dedicate yourself to seeing the big picture from the beginning. You can live a wonderful life in a declining culture, just as Aristotle did. Today’s cultural state is barely a footnote to the truth about human life. It is an aberration that you can learn to ignore across time.

In fact, Objectivism has only one message: man is an entity to be worshipped, and his life on earth is a glorious crusade that is all the consecration his soul requires. That is what you learn from the first three non-technical Objectivist classics.

2. Five great sustained technical classics:

Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology

Ayn Rand’s most exalted insight into technical philosophy. Her solution to the problem of universals, which even Aristotle was unable to fully solve. Ayn Rand’s mathematical approach revolutionized the science of epistemology, just as Newton’s mathematical approach revolutionized the science of physics.

The Romantic Manifesto

Ayn Rand’s philosophy of esthetics. What is art? Why is it needed? Ayn Rand and Aristotle were the only great philosophers who could write a full treatise on this subject, and, to repeat a theme, this work is the most important breakthrough since Aristotle.

Lectures on the History of Philosophy, Volume I and II

Dr. Peikoff is the college professor you never had. These lectures are so far superior to any other presentation of the subject, that no superlatives can do them justice.

Note: the primary value in the lectures comes from the discussion of Greek philosophy through Kant’s philosophy; after Kant, the lectures maintain their incredibly high quality, but the subject matter becomes progressively much less interesting and mind-nourishing.

Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (e.g., OPAR)

Dr. Peikoff puts the entire Objectivist philosophy in one place, carefully putting the forest before the trees at every turn. The book can be read in its entirety, or used as a summarized reference. Of special interest are chapter 1, 2, 4, and 5, which include crucial technical material in epistemology that Ayn Rand did not discuss at length in her own writings.

The DIM Hypothesis

The DIM trichotomy is a psycho-epistemological broadening of Ayn Rand’s purely epistemological distinction between the objective, subjective, and intrinsic.  DIM provides a less technical, more wide-angle view of the world, allowing us to see men and society in a way that none of the previous trichotomies made fully possible.  I personally use the DIM distinctions as often as I use any other trichotomy in philosophy. 

3. The three most important Objectivist short works:

These three pieces cover the three most important issues in Objectivism: life as the standard of value, man-worship, and measurement-omission.

Ayn Rand’s Introduction to the Objectivist Ethics

Covers the most critically needed breakthrough in philosophy since Aristotle. How is morality based on facts? What is the relationship between emotions and reason? Neither the Greeks nor the Enlightenment could answer these questions; this subject is the rock that Western Civilization has crashed on.

Leonard Peikoff’s Why Ancient Greece is My Favorite Civilization

Man-worship as the essence of Ayn Rand and the Greeks. After seventeen years of studying Objectivism, the scales fell from my eyes when I heard this lecture, and I finally understood what Ayn Rand was really saying. The entire problem with America is contained in the fact that the Statue of Liberty is wearing clothes. I would recommend listening to this lecture after reading The Fountainhead and before reading Atlas Shrugged.

Harry Binswanger’s Consciousness as Identification

Ayn Rand’s theory of concept formation is the second most critically needed breakthrough in technical philosophy since Aristotle. Dr. Binswanger makes the essence of her contribution crystal clear in three amazing lectures. It’s as though measurement-omission were a swimming pool in Dr. Binswanger’s backyard, and he invites you over to leisurely paddle around in it for a few hours.

A perfectly reasonable way to read Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology would be to read the first two chapters, listen to these lectures, and then finish the book.

4. Other sustained Objectivist classics:

Ayn Rand’s Letters
Ayn Rand’s Journals

One prominent review of the Letters stated that it rises to the level of literature. That is a very good way to put it, and the point applies to both works. The Letters discussion of Jesus and the Journals notes on The Fountainhead and To Lorne Dieterling are particular favorites of mine.

Leonard Peikoff’s Eight Great Plays

Once again, Dr. Peikoff is the professor you never had. These plays are great, life-altering literature, and Dr. Peikoff's lectures bring out their full depth.

Sandra Shaw’s Art History I: Prehistory to the Fall of Rome

Sandra Shaw combines a casually elegant background understanding of Objectivism, with a thorough knowledge of the history of art, with the perspective of a highly accomplished professional artist. These three fuse into a unique, powerful exposition of the history of art. Objectivism as a philosophical context is always present, always illuminating in these lectures, but it is never preached.

In addition to purely art history, which alone would be more than enough motivation, these lectures delve into many general issues in pre-history and ancient history from an Objectivist perspective for the first time. For example, Sandra Shaw discusses the Paleolithic period (the pre-agricultural hunter-gatherer period), the Mesolithic period (post agriculture to the rise of civilization), and Sumerian, Egyptian, and Minoan civilizations, offering striking new insights that you won’t find anywhere else.

David Harriman’s The Anti-Copernican Revolution
David Harriman’s The Logical Leap: Induction in Physics

What was just stated about Sandra Shaw’s works applies correspondingly to David Harriman’s as well. Three elements are combined: a powerful background understanding of Objectivism, a thorough knowledge of the history of physics, and the perspective of an accomplished physicist. The result is something utterly unique and path breaking.

The Anti-Copernican Revolution is currently a series of lectures and soon to be a book. Its theme is the theme of The Ominous Parallels, but applied specifically to the science of physics, which Dr. Peikoff discussed only very briefly. An enjoyable, accessible introductory lecture to start with might be The Atomic War, which discusses a surprising and little known controversy surrounding the development of the atomic theory in the 19th century.

The Logical Leap: Induction in Physics is a brilliant exposition of the inductive nature of physical science, interrelating the history of physics with Ayn Rand’s theory of concepts via Leonard Peikoff’s theory of scientific induction. This is the only written exposition of Dr. Peikoff’s crucial new theory of induction.

It should be emphasized how fresh Sandra Shaw’s and David Harriman’s works are. You won’t find these insights outside of Objectivism, because it would take an Objectivist to identify them, and you won’t find these insights in any other place inside of Objectivism because Sandra Shaw and David Harriman were the first Objectivists to see and publish them.

5a. Ayn Rand’s best short pieces:

Discussing Ayn Rand’s “best” short pieces is a little like the man who wanted to build a house on the surface of the sun, but was looking for a nice warm spot. But even with Ayn Rand, you can’t read them all at once, so here is my opinionated list of what to read first:

Introduction to the 25th Anniversary Edition of The Fountainhead
Roark’s, Rearden’s, Francisco’s and Galt’s speeches
Review of Randall’s Aristotle
Causality vs. Duty
The Metaphysical vs. Man-Made
The Missing Link
Who is the final authority in ethics?
Introduction to Victor Hugo’s Ninety-Three
The Husband I Bought, Red Pawn, Anthem, Ideal

The next three pieces are of necessity primarily negative, but they get to the heart of what is wrong with the world:

From the Horses Mouth (On Kant)
Of Living Death (On Christianity)
The Age of Envy (On the motive of evil)

5b. Leonard Peikoff’s best short pieces:

Art of Thinking, Clarity through Volition

Grasping Objectivism as a form of psychological change. By far the best work on psychology that I have ever read. Makes me feel that no subject is really clear until Peikoff explains it. This lecture was life-changing for me.

Moral Virtue, Third Lecture (on Independence)

The theme of Leonard Peikoff’s career has been thinking in principles and this lecture amounts to a summarizing example-overview of the topic. Dr. Peikoff gives a case instance of overcoming rationalism in his own writing.

Objectivism: The State of the Art, The Logical Structure of Metaphysics

A very technical lecture that brilliantly unravels one of the trickiest knots in philosophy: how to get started.

Objectivism: The State of the Art, Moral Principles

The principled approach to morality. Why selfishness cannot mean theft. Would you want a pair of skis if you had to give up your feet to get them?

Understanding Objectivism, lecture 1
Objectivism Through Induction, lecture 1

These lectures are incredibly helpful in getting Objectivism to sink in deeply and become a real part of your life. They generally pre-suppose a knowledge of Objectivism, but the first lectures in each series will be very helpful even during the initial process of learning Objectivism. Although their purpose is to teach a person how to teach himself Objectivism, they would be of great value to a teacher of anyone on any subject.

Objectivism Through Induction, Lectures 5,6,7

A casual tour-de-force that covers Plato, Aristotle, and Ayn Rand on objectivity. It would be reasonable to insert this lecture just after the lecture on Aristotle in the History of Philosophy I lectures.

The Survival Value of Great (Though Philosophically False) Art

In our shallow culture, the path of least resistance is to miss out on the life-sustaining value of great art. This lecture discusses why and how to pursue that value.

5c. Short pieces by other Objectivists:

Harry Binswanger’s John Locke’s Political Philosophy

At the height of Western Civilization’s most reason-oriented cultural period, John Locke was taken as the defender of worldliness, reason, logic, science. His politics were wonderful, but the rest of his philosophy gave away the store. It would be reasonable to insert this lecture into Dr. Peikoff’s History of Philosophy Part I at the appropriate point (e.g., between lectures 10 and 11).

Harry Binswanger’s Ayn Rand Lexicon

This book is really a series of short pieces. Dr. Binswanger did a masterly job of organizing and distilling Objectivism’s views on key issues. It’s a very browseable reference work, highly useful to beginners and experts alike.

Yaron Brook’s A History of the Middle East

The story of Middle East’s Golden Age, when the Middle East was deeply influenced by Greek philosophy, and the importance of the resulting preservation and transmission to the West of key works of Aristotle, is a cardinal aspect of history which is unknown to most people. I was never taught even the rudiments of this story in high school or college. I think you have to be an Objectivist to really see the importance of it.

A good companion piece is Edwin Locke’s The Psycho-Epistemology of the Arab World.

Eric Daniel’s American History I-III

The existence of the pre-Kantian period of America’s history is more important than the existence of her post-Civil War, Kantian decline, yet we tend to know more about the latter period than the former, so these lectures serve to balance and flesh out one’s knowledge of American history.

John Lewis’s The Greco-Persian War

The Persian War was the most important war in human history: the Greeks heroic victory pushed Athens into the white hot heat of the man-worshiping culture of the Classical Era. Human history consists of three essentials: 1) The build up, 2) Athens during the High Classical Period, 3) the long, tortured road back to the level of culture the Athenians had. (The discovery of Objectivism is the most important event in part 3.)

If you are a passionate but recent fan of Ayn Rand and do not know this story, and haven’t heard these lectures, and haven’t seen the movie The 300, I envy you: listen to the lectures and then watch the movie back to back for an intense intellectual-emotional experience.

Robert Mayhew’s Aristotle and the Renaissance

Discusses Aristotle’s influence on the Renaissance. Fascinating from beginning to end. I would strongly recommend inserting this lecture into Dr. Peikoff’s History of Philosophy Part I at the appropriate point (i.e., between lecture 8 and 9).

John Ridpath’s Lectures on the Founding Fathers

No one brings the Founding Fathers to life with quite the style and panache of Dr. Ridpath. All the lectures are great so pick any to start. The Patrick Henry lecture is a favorite of mine.

John Ridpath’s Religion vs. Man

Focus is on the non-Christian religions, on the grounds that most of his audience knows the Christian tradition already.

John Ridpath’s Nietzsche and Individualism
John Ridpath’s Nietzsche and the Nihilism of Our Times

Nietzsche being who he is, and Dr. Ridpath being who he is, these lecture are tremendously entertaining and enjoyable and full of intellectual substance. The two sets of lectures are complimentary, not redundant.

Stephen Siek’s The Music of Rachmaninoff

An expert naturalist takes you on a delightful stroll through the woods, teaching and explaining the natural world as you go. Only it’s not the world of nature, it’s the world of music.

Lisa VanDamme’s Reclaiming Education I and II

I do not know how to get across how inspiring the existence of Lisa VanDamme’s school is, or how grateful the parents of children who attend it should be. The depth of contrast between this school and what goes on the rest of American education is simply bizarre. Perhaps Shakespeare could find the words to describe the difference, but I can’t.

Tony White’s Commentary on Greek Man-worship

This essay is an interpretive summary of Dr. Peikoff’s lecture on Greek man-worship, adding new formulations and perspectives. We tend to think of the America's sense of life as a bulwark against her decline, and in part it is, but even at its best the American sense of life did not fully live up to man’s potential, did not fully rise to the Ayn Rand/Greek man-worshipping sense of life. What Objectivism adds to the American sense of life is at least as important as what it seeks to save or restore.

(The essay is in A Tribute to Leonard Peikoff, the second essay on this blog; the essay is the fourth part of the post, it stands alone, and the first three parts can be skipped to get to it.)

The Lectures on the Greeks

All the lectures on the ancient Greeks in the Ayn Rand Bookstore are highly recommended. Three particularly good ones are Robert Mayhew’s Aristotle: Father of Romanticism, Aristotle’s Metaphysics, and Aristotle for Objectivists, and Allan Gotthelf’s Aristotle as Scientist: A Proper Verdict.

6. Biographical pieces:

Philosophy is a means to an end: the living of a single, individual human life. Here are some terrific biographical pieces on Ayn Rand and Leonard Peikoff:

Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life
Ayn Rand Interview
by Tom Snyder
Ayn Rand’s Life: Highlights and Sidelights
Facets of Ayn Rand
Ayn Rand and the Atlas Shrugged Years: Reminiscences and Recollections
My 30 years with Ayn Rand: An Intellectual Memoir
Leonard Peikoff: In his Own Words

Although not literally autobiographical, these pieces by Ayn Rand are implicitly revealing about her as a person:

Epitaph for a Culture
The Inexplicable Personal Alchemy
Through Your Most Grievous Fault
The Husband I Bought
Epistemology Workshop – Excerpt Recording

Brief Summary (Closing of The Objectivist magazine)
A Last Survey (Closing of The Ayn Rand Letter)

7. Non-Objectivist works:

Three books:

What these three books have in common is that, in one form or another, they include the man-worshiping sense of life.

      H.D.F Kitto’s The Greeks (Beautifully condensed history.)
      Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac
      Frederich Nietzsche Thus Spoke Zarathustra

Five movies/videos:

      We the Living
      The Greeks (PBS documentary on ancient Athens)
      The 300
      John Adams Miniseries
I do not think that these last three were intended to be examples of what popular culture in an Objectivist society would be like, but they are that nonetheless.

8. Conclusion: Exactly how to start

The list I have offered is a very small percentage of what is in the Ayn Rand Bookstore, but it is still a long list, so, to put a stake in the ground, here is my exact, ordered recommendation what to read/listen to/watch at the very beginning of the study of Objectivism:

  1) Overview of the Total
      The Fountainhead
      Why Ancient Greece is My Favorite Civilization
      Atlas Shrugged
      The Ominous Parallels

  2) Biography and Man-Worship
      Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life
      Ayn Rand Interview
by Tom Snyder
      Leonard Peikoff: In his Own Words
      Introduction to The Fountainhead 25th Anniversary
      Why Ancient Greece is My Favorite Civilization (again)
Tony White's Commentary on Greek Man-worship

  3) Philosophy
      Introduction to the Objectivist Ethics
      Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology
      The Romantic Manifesto
, chapters 1,2
      Harry Binswanger's Consciousness as Identification
, chapters 4,5
      History of Philosophy, through lecture 8
Robert Mayhew's Aristotle and the Renaissance
      History of Philosophy lectures 9 – Kant

That’s my opinionated short list. I was brutally selective in choosing what to include and leave out. I purposefully left out works on politics, economics, commentary on modern culture and current events, polemics, many terrific works on other narrower topics, such as Peikoff’s lectures on the philosophy of education and Ayn Rand’s lectures on non-fiction writing, and many personal favorite lectures and lecturers, strictly on the grounds of choosing the forest over the trees.

I have not kept up with the new lectures in the last few years as much as I would like, which means that there may be recent lectures that I would have included, but haven’t heard yet.

Politics is the least important branch of philosophy, and none of the other branches depend on it, so I excluded it from the list in order to focus on the fundamentals; but here are the four essays that I would have included on political philosophy, all by Ayn Rand:

What is Capitalism?
The Nature of Government
Man’s Rights
Roots of War

My two favorite lectures on modern culture are Ayn Rand’s Apollo and Dionysus, on the relationship between philosophy and the spirit of the '60s, and Leonard Peikoff’s Modernism and Madness, on the relationship between philosophy and schizophrenia. Both of these essays have a delightful, sparkling quality which is quite an achievement when discussing this type of subject matter.

Two other books that a beginning Objectivist will likely want to read selected chapters from are "The Virtue of Selfishness" and "Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal". Many of the essays in these books aren't necessarily the deepest, most important essays in the Objectivist corpus, but instead essays that answer common misconceptions and bromides that a beginner would have and/or have thrust at them. For example, "Doesn't Life Require Compromise?", "You are not taking a black and white view of the world are you?", "Antitrust", "The Effects of the Industrial Revolution on Women and Children". I would recommend picking and choosing among these essays according to your own personal questions and needs.

One final tip from a veteran. Ayn Rand and Leonard Peikoff are deceptively good writers. They explain the most difficult, abstract subjects so unusually well that it makes it seem as if those subjects were quick and easy to learn. But they are not. For anyone raised in today’s world, Objectivism is a fundamental revolution of the mind and soul. As enjoyable as learning Objectivism is, it takes time. Don’t think you are supposed to understand it all on the first reading. Instead, expect a long, enjoyable process, across years.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Objectivism and the Amount of Anger

In my last essay I argued that an Objectivist should have a great deal of loyalty to the Objectivist movement, but does the corresponding logic in the reverse direction mean that an Objectivist should have a great deal of anger at the corrupt state of today’s culture?

My answer is: No. Instead of experiencing a great deal of anger, an Objectivist should strive to be like Roark and Galt: they were passionate valuers with unbreached, intransigent integrity, they were in fundamental, lifelong conflict with the culture they lived in, but they were only angry once per novel. Neither Roark nor Galt had a temper. Neither dwelled on the negative. Both were in conflict with the world, but at peace with the conflict.

An Objectivist should not compromise with today’s establishment, nor should he experience continual, recurring anger at it. He should emotionally dismiss the culture in the very process of existentially fighting it.

That’s exactly what Galt did and taught. For example, he told Dagny:
“Never think of enemies a moment longer than is necessary to fight them.”
And the corollary is: never expend more emotional energy on enemies than is necessary to fight them. In the scene in Atlas where Galt is rescued in the underground torture facility, his attitude was “It’s over” and “That’s that”, as though he had forgotten about his torturers the instant he was out of danger. His emotional state was simply happiness at being rescued and seeing Dagny. The others experienced deep anger, including the desire to kill Galt’s torturers. Galt had to remind them that there was no value to be gained from the anger, and that there was nothing left of his torturers to kill.

What is the value of anger at today’s establishment? What more is there to today’s intellectuals but cheap, facile conformity? Who cares about them one way or the other? Why waste precious, irretrievable energy over so little? Should one get angry at the contents of one’s toilet before flushing it?

Conceptually, this is an easy point to understand. But it’s a seductive error, a surprisingly easy mistake to make in the moment. The reason is that we are constantly bombarded with this culture’s low-grade irrationality. It is there when we watch a movie, send our children to school, read a newspaper, watch the “news”, scan the best seller lists, or have the most casual conversation with a coworker. It is there when we see billboards on the side of the road. It is there when we see advertisements on the side of the bus. It is there when we go to the grocery store. There is no getting away from today’s irrationality. We have to experience it.

When one hears something corrupt, the natural reaction is to have a reaction. But in today’s world this is a mistake. Today’s culture has gotten so bad that emotionally ignoring a continual stream of droning, low-grade inanity has become a modern skill that everyone must acquire, like learning to type. As Mike Donnigan put it at Roark’s trial:
“Watch your stomach, kid, just watch your stomach. A man can't get sick just because he oughta.”
And I would add: in today’s world, a man can’t get sick every time he oughta. The occasions are just too frequent.

We all know that this culture is going to keep repeating it’s low-grade irrationality for the rest of our lives. But we also know that we can learn not to react to it with negative emotions every time we hear it. We do not have to allow the same negative emotions to repeatedly course through us, day after day, year after year, decade after decade, to the point that we acquire a spiritual repetitive stress injury. We don’t have to allow the mainstream culture to cause us internal damage. We can choose not to let that happen.

In the last year, did you watch too little television? Did you spend too little time surfing the internet? Did you eat too little unhealthy food? Did you exercise too much? There are certain things in life that require proactive attention. Some things need a budget. Anger at today’s culture is one of them. An Objectivist should have a clear budget for how much emotional energy he will spend on the sorry state of today’s culture, and then strive to stick to that budget.

At the same time we are avoiding the trap of spending too much emotional energy on today’s culture, we should also avoid the trap of spending too much cognitive energy on polemics against it. Polemics, like anger, is seductive in the moment. When one hears something false the natural reaction is to argue against it. But in today’s world that is a mistake because one will spend too much of one’s cognitive energy focused on the negative. The vast majority of our energy should be focused on understanding and living by Objectivism, not on what’s wrong with today’s world.

Polemics is to the mind and soul what housework is to the body. Housework makes the body tired, but it does not leave the body stronger. In fact, it wears the body down, just as excessive focus on the negative wears down the mind and soul.

A positive focus on Objectivism is to the mind and soul what healthy exercise is to the body. Healthy exercise, such as aerobics or weight training, makes the body tired, but it does not wear the body down. In fact, it makes the body stronger, just as cognitive energy spent focused on the true and the good makes the mind and soul stronger.

It is true we must spend some of our time on polemics. It is true we must spend some of our time on housework. But the bulk of our cognitive, spiritual, and physical energy should be focused on the clean and positive activities that build us up and makes us stronger. We should not make taking out the trash the focus of our lives, and when we do have to engage in such a chore, we should strive not to let the ugliness of the chore negatively affect our fundamental view of life.

In fiction, the great examples of the correct attitude in regard to anger and polemics are Roark and Galt. In real life, the great living example is Yaron Brook. He is in constant contact with this culture, regularly in the media, regularly in a position where he has no choice but to focus on the negative and criticize. But he always comes across as warm and genuine, never giving off even the slightest aura of anger or bitterness, as though the state of today’s world, and fighting it, have had no negative effect on his soul at all.

Please keep in mind that the point is not that today’s culture does not deserve any anger or polemics that would come its way. It certainly does. It deserves more angry polemics than Objectivists could possibly dish out. The point is not that the angry polemics against the culture is unfair to it, but that it has too negative an effect on us.

The potential negative effect on us is alone a sufficient reason to guard against excessive anger and polemics. But as gravy to the argument, consider the fact that from the purely external standpoint of changing the culture, excessive anger and polemics are counter-productive. Objectivism is true and beautiful. It is the most important cultural event in two and a half millennia. Human beings have a natural desire to know the truth and to achieve happiness. Today’s culture leaves that fundamental need unmet. The primary thing that Objectivists can do to change the world is positive: if we present the truth and beauty of Objectivism to the better minds and souls that still exist around us, then, across time, those minds and souls turn towards the light. We do not need to focus on the garbage that they have already had enough of, we need to show them that it does not have to be like this, that a better world is within reach, that there is a profound, shining alternative for them to choose. If we can do that – if we can present the shining positive without getting distracted by the droning negative – we can fix a broken world and enjoy the process.

The most inspiring historical example of the correct cultural attitude is Aristotle. He lived his entire life in the long, graceless decline of Athens, much as we are living our entire lives in the long, graceless decline of America. In fact, Aristotle’s death was the symbolic and literal end of the classical era. Aristotle wrote:
“Anyone can become angry - that is easy; but to be angry with the right person at the right time, and for the right purpose and in the right way - that is not easy.”
It may not have been easy, but Aristotle achieved full rationality in regard to cultural anger: despite the fact that he lived all his life in a world he saw falling apart, there is not a hint of excess anger or bitterness in his entire corpus.

And consider what Aristotle’s philosophy was able to achieve without polemics. The reintroduction of his philosophy broke the Christian death grip on Western Civilization, giving rise to the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the birth of the United States, the Romantic art movement, and the Industrial Revolution, all without including so much as a single word of polemics against Christianity.

It takes centuries, not decades, for a culture to reverse direction and heal. Despite the fact that we are helping to create it, no early Objectivist is going to live even one second of his life in the beautiful culture of the future. Instead, each of us will live our entire life in this one. It may not be easy, but we can and should learn to peacefully, joyfully fight for the future, even while living in a present which we will never accept.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Objectivism and the Amount of Loyalty

There are three things in this world that I love without reservation and I am intensely loyal to: my wife and daughter, Ancient Athens, and Objectivism.

A hallmark of an Objectivist is his loyalty to values. Leonard Peikoff wrote:
The most eloquent badge of the authentic Objectivist is his attitude toward values. An Objectivist is not primarily an academic or a political activist. In his soul, he is essentially a moralist—what Ayn Rand herself called “a valuer.”
All serious Objectivists should have a great deal of loyalty not just to Objectivism as a philosophy, but to Objectivism as an intellectual movement. We should be loyal not out of “duty to the cause”, but because the Objectivist intellectual movement is a crucial value in our lives.

Of course, the Objectivist movement is an expression of an abstract, indestructible, eternally true philosophy, and that philosophy would be true even if the movement attempting to express it did not live up to it. If the Objectivist movement were a weak expression of the Objectivist philosophy, one might well argue that an Objectivist should still be loyal to the movement, but regretfully loyal, because, weak as it is, it’s the best we have.

But the situation is not like that. It’s much, much better. The Objectivist movement is strong, clean, healthy, vital, despite the fact that it exists in an utterly toxic cultural atmosphere. The Ayn Rand Institute is an accurate, loyal expression of Ayn Rand’s philosophy. The quality of its intellectuals is high. It speaks with a clear, firm, proud voice. Objectivists know where it stands – and so does everybody else.

The quality of an intellectual movement is determined by the quality of its leaders. The reason that the Objectivist movement is so healthy is that its leadership has been so good. In Ayn Rand, Leonard Peikoff, and Yaron Brook, the Objectivist movement has been blessed with superlative leadership, leadership so good that nothing more could be wished for or asked.

It didn’t have to be this way. However immortal their names, these leaders are not marble statues. They could have very easily sold out. They could have followed the well worn path of least resistance to an easy life of personal mediocrity and mainstream cultural acceptance: each of them well knew that if they would conform to the intellectual establishment, they would be welcomed with open arms. There is no lack of examples of intellectuals who have done exactly that: Ayn Rand could have been Kant-Picasso, Peikoff could have been Branden, Brook could have been Greenspan.

Ayn Rand knew this. After many years of hard, unrewarded writing, while she was struggling financially, Ayn Rand made this point in a personal letter:
“If I were a defender of Communism, I'd be a Hollywood millionaire-writer by now, with a swimming pool and a private orchestra to play the Internationale.”
Ayn Rand, Leonard Peikoff, and Yaron Brook did not have to choose to climb the alpine path of their own greatness and personal happiness, but they did, twenty-four hours a day, all the way down, their entire lives, without the slightest reservation, hesitation, wavering, or contradiction.

Doesn’t virtue of that kind – and the intellectual movement that is the cultural expression of it – deserve a great deal of loyalty?

Of course, loyalty does not mean blind agreement. For that matter, loyalty does not mean rational, thoughtful agreement. Loyalty is not about agreement. One can disagree with a person on a great many concrete issues, such as the estimate of a book, movie, or political candidate, and still maintain deep, steadfast respect and loyalty for that person.

When we think of a man as being loyal to a friend, brother, or wife, we are not thinking of whether or not he agrees with them on concrete issues. When we think of an Objectivist being loyal to Objectivism we should not focus on whether or not he agrees with a particular Objectivist leader on a particular set of concrete issues, even if those issues are important. Of course there will be disagreements on concretes, even among the most illustrious champions of the good. There always have been. The Founding Fathers disagreed with each other intensely about the issues of their day, but they were all steadfastly loyal to the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and their country – and look what that loyalty accomplished.

To be loyal is not to agree with, but to value. To be loyal to the Objectivist intellectual movement is to value it.

Valuing can take various forms. One obvious form of valuing Objectivism is to donate money to the Ayn Rand Institute when your financial situation makes that selfish. Another is to defend or advocate Objectivism publicly, if and when the context is appropriate. Another is to avoid any kind of sanction of anyone who attacks Ayn Rand or Objectivism.

Other forms are less obvious. Suppose there is a loyal Objectivist intellectual who does good work that is fully in fidelity with Objectivism, but whom you dislike personally. Despite your personal evaluation, you should maintain public loyalty to him because he is fighting a battle upon which all of our lives depend. No one would personally like every American soldier who fought in World War II, but we should all maintain loyalty to all of those soldiers. Loyalty to someone you dislike is counter-intuitive, but it is a requirement of rational selfishness when that person is fighting for a cause you value.

Another form of loyally valuing a person that should be extended to the Objectivist leadership is to automatically bring to bear a principled positive background assessment of that person against the inevitable hearsay criticism that all good people face at some time or another. Loyalty demands that one always defend the people one values against such criticism, in both private and public contexts, as a matter of course.

As part of their loyalty to Objectivism, Objectivists should be loyal not just to Ayn Rand’s art and philosophy, to the movement’s leadership, and to the Institute, they should also be loyal to each other.

It is easy to be a mainstream conformist; it takes work to engage in serious, philosophical rebellion. Being an Objectivist makes life better – radically better – but, it the midst of a hostile culture, being an Objectivist does not make life easier. A serious Objectivist must be deeply committed to practicing first-handed intellectual non-conformity all the way down, twenty four hours day, for life. Living by the philosophy of Objectivism is joyful, but the cost of that joy is intellectual dedication, persistence, patience, and grit. Virtue of that kind deserves respect.

It’s easy to forget this fact, to forget to give each other the loyalty that we have earned. It is particularly easy to forget this during disagreements regarding current cultural events, especially every two years at election time.

Objectivists take ideas seriously, which means they want to see those ideas enacted in concrete reality, not kept under glass in a museum. This tends to make Objectivists passionate about their political views, which is a good thing. And every Objectivist knows all-too-well how debased our posterity has become, and at what a pathetically low level of quality all discussions of cultural and political issues with today’s intellectual mainstream have necessarily descended to.

As a result, we have picked up the habit of routinely discussing politics in an atmosphere of extreme lack of respect for the opposing viewpoint. Given the state of today’s culture, this habit is very understandable, almost inevitable. But Objectivists should not discuss their political differences with each other in the same manner we are necessarily forced to discuss them with members of today’s intellectual mainstream. The context is totally different, therefore the style of the conversation should be different.

An Objectivist should have the highest possible level of respect when discussing political differences with another Objectivist. Each side of the discussion should always assume the best motives and premises on the part of the other, with background assumption always being that the differences on the issue at hand are not one of principle, but merely the detailed application of principle.

Once one makes an explicit decision to drop the unfortunate mindset one tends to acquire from continual interaction with such a low quality mainstream culture, this sort of loyalty becomes easy. It becomes easy – it becomes enjoyable – to have lively but polite political disagreement with someone one respects. The emotional tone of a conversation can be much lighter when both sides of the issue have clean premises, when neither side need be cautious to not sanction evil. Even if no resolution to the issue at hand is reached, the worst that happens is that each side walks away understanding his own viewpoint more thoroughly, having enjoyed a vigorous intellectual discourse with an honorable adversary. Why should Objectivists allow today’s rotten mainstream to cause us to miss out on this pleasure?

And it becomes even easier to disagree when one considers the sacred importance of the issues we agree on – this-worldliness, rationality, selfishness, man-worship – as compared to the fundamental unimportance of the issues we may disagree on. There is so little to choose from in any given election. If Objectivists were somehow, in some fiction-like way, put in charge of deciding between the two candidates in every election, consistently choosing the better of two hopeless “alternatives” wouldn’t come close to reversing the decline of this country. The point of Ayn Rand’s philosophy is to rewrite the menu to include healthy options, not to make a choice between spoiled chicken and rotting beef. When we argue over the differences between two of today’s candidates, we are not arguing over much.

With so little at stake, and so much of such sacredness agreed on, surely Objectivists can set aside our minor differences and maintain loyalty to the crucial, life-affirming fundamental values we share with each other. Isn’t the universe benevolent? Hasn’t Ayn Rand already made the world a much better place? Isn’t it wonderful to have so many people to agree with on so much of such importance?

Ayn Rand, her art and her philosophy, the Objectivist movement’s leadership, the Institute, its intellectuals, and the rank and file of the Objectivist movement are all unique, superlative values. We should make it a special point of pleasure to always practice a great deal of loyalty to them. We should be loyal to Objectivism for the same reason that Rearden was loyal to Rearden metal: because Objectivism is good.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

A Tribute to Leonard Peikoff

It takes no time to fall in love, but it takes you years to know what the love is.
Jason Mraz
Life is Wonderful

Leonard Peikoff had a great deal to live up to: except for Alexander the Great, he had the finest education of any person in human history.

He fully lived up to it.

He dedicated himself to understanding Objectivism. Not superficial, moderate, or partial understanding, but real, raw, full, organic, completely first-handed understanding. He never stopped questioning until he understood from his bone marrow out.

Then he applied and taught what he had learned. He taught his heart out, not to get his students to agree, but to think. Thinking in principle -- real understanding -- is the theme of his career, of his teaching as much as his learning.

The sheer quantity of his work is extremely impressive. Interested in understanding Objectivism, logic, education, great plays, communication, grammar, the history of philosophy, or the philosophy of history? The first place to turn is a work by Dr. Peikoff.

When we consider a) the social price that Dr. Peikoff paid for his virtue, the fact he was regarded as a Pariah in his profession for no other reason than first-handed non-conformity, b) the depth of mental effort he engaged in, the level of inspired dedication it takes to fully grasp, automatize, and live by a radical new philosophy in the midst of an antagonistic culture, and c) the critical importance of this achievement, the fact that the establishment of Objectivism is a project upon which the fate of the mankind depends, we can only conclude that this man is a hero. Rarely have so many owed so much to one man.

But Leonard Peikoff achieved more than even that. He did more than just understand and teach Ayn Rand’s world view, he expanded it. He came up with new concepts, ideas, and perspectives that do not merely apply Objectivism vertically to a more concrete field, but add to the Objectivist world view horizontally, at the same level of abstraction. I think of these new ideas and perspectives as Dr. Peikoff’s four horizontal additions. They are:

1. DIM – the tripartite DIM distinctions

Ayn Rand wrote:
“Men’s epistemology – or, more precisely, their psycho-epistemology, their method of awareness – is the most fundamental standard by which they can be classified.”
Dr. Peikoff named and defined those classifications. The DIM trichotomy is a psycho-epistemological broadening of Ayn Rand’s purely epistemological distinction between the objective, subjective, and intrinsic. Ayn Rand’s trichotomy is a categorization of the most technical issue in philosophical theory; Dr. Peikoff’s trichotomy is a categorization of a fundamental aspect of automatized human psychology. DIM provides a less technical, more wide-angle view of the world, allowing us to see men and society in a way that none of the previous trichotomies made fully possible.

I find myself reacting to people, events, and cultural phenomenon by automatically subsuming them under the DIM distinctions as a matter of habit. I use the DIM distinctions as often as I use any other trichotomy in philosophy. DIM cannot literally be considered part of Objectivism – Ayn Rand never knew of it – and it is certainly a fresh stream of new thought, but it flows so perfectly into the rest of Objectivism that it feels as if it were always there.

2. First Level Gens

In the last chapter of Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology Ayn Rand wrote that “The organization of concepts into propositions…is outside the scope of this work.” If she had ever written an epistemological treatise on propositions as a companion to her work on concept formation, Dr. Peikoff’s theory of first-level generalizations would have to have been a cardinal element.

Dr. Peikoff’s discovery of first-level generalizations moves the third chapter of Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology (Abstractions from Abstractions) from the level of concept formation to the level of proposition formation. Just as child begins the long process of concept formation by starting with first-level, perceptual concepts such as “rock”, “ball”, “book”, so he begins the long process of knowledge acquisition by starting with first-level, perceptual generalizations such “Rocks sink in water”, “Balls roll”, “Books fall when pushed off a table”.

Ayn Rand’s theory of abstractions-from-abstractions answers the question “If concepts are exclusively based on the senses, without any pre-conceived innate ideas, how do we account for such abstract concepts as “law”, “marriage”, “science” which have no directly perceived referents, and cannot be grasped ostensively by means of pointing?” Ayn Rand showed that first-level concepts can be and are grasped ostensively, by pointing to perceptual referents, and that higher level concepts can be and are formed by widening and narrowing from this first-level of concept formation.

Dr. Peikoff’s theory of first-level generalizations answers the question “How does a scientist justify leaping from the tiny handful of experiments he actually performs to broad universal generalizations?” Dr. Peikoff showed that scientists do not make inductions based on a conceptual vacuum and a few observations, but against a broad background of prior generalizations that start with first-level generalizations, which can be and are validated ostensively by pointing to perceptual referents.

Ayn Rand showed that abstract concepts have their roots in the evidence of the senses via first level concepts; Dr. Peikoff showed that abstract scientific theories have their roots in the evidence of the senses via first level gens. This is a magnificent integration between Ayn Rand's theory of concepts and the philosophy of science, and a critical historical milestone in the progress of epistemology generally.

3. The Ominous Parallels: the Peikoff-Galt perspective on history

Isaac Newton busted the field of physics wide open. He did this by showing that the mathematical approach to physics yielded a broad, deep, world-changing insight into physical reality that the earlier non-mathematical approach to physics was incapable of achieving. Newton showed that the more concrete science of physics could be truly understood only in terms of the wider, more abstract science of mathematics.

Leonard Peikoff busted the science of history wide open. He did this by showing that the philosophical approach to history yielded a broad, deep, world-changing insight into human history that the earlier non-philosophical approach to history was incapable of achieving. Peikoff showed that the more concrete field of history could be truly understood only in terms of the wider, more abstract field of philosophy (mathematics more humanistic sister science).

Neither Newton nor Peikoff had the slightest trace of rationalism in their approach. Newton did not attempt to infer physics from mathematics; Peikoff did not attempt to infer history from philosophy. Knowledge of the wider field was never regarded as a substitute for knowledge of the narrower field. They both used the wider field as illumination in the very process of drenching themselves in the concretes of the narrower field. It was this perfect objectivity which revolutionized the science.

Dr. Peikoff got the basic idea that philosophy drives the course of history from Ayn Rand, but he developed his own unique perspective on that idea. To make this point clear, let us step back and consider a cardinal theme of John Galt’s personality: his insistence that it is a person’s responsibility to bear the concrete consequences of the convictions that he holds, regardless of whether or not he likes or dislikes those consequences, and regardless of the persons overall moral-psychological character.

Galt’s theme of bearing the consequences of one’s convictions was repeatedly stressed. For example, Galt’s refusal to provide information of Dagny’s safety to Rearden, despite the fact that Galt fully knows what a truly outstanding and sympathetic human being Rearden is and what agony the information would save him from. In response to Francisco’s request to let Rearden know of Dagny’s safety, Galt replies:
“Do you wish to give any outsider any relief from the consequences of remaining outside?"
Later Galt refuses to give that relief, even to Dagny, the woman he loves:
"Have you forgotten that you wanted to shoot me on sight?" he asked.
Dagny shuddered. "That's true. I did."
"Then stand by it."
"You know better than that, don't you?"
He shook his head. "No....So long as you were part of the outer world, you had to seek to destroy me. And of the two courses now open to you, one will lead you to the day when you will find yourself forced to deliver me to my enemies."
Later, at Dagny’s final dinner in the valley, the theme is stressed again:
"I forced my way here," Dagny said quietly, "and I was to bear responsibility for the consequences. I'm bearing it."Her reward was to see Galt smile: the smile was like a military decoration bestowed upon her.
Later, when Galt and Dagny are together in the train tunnel, Galt again explains to Dagny that she will have to bear the consequences of the conviction that it is right for her to cooperate with the outside world:

"And you're free to change your course, but so long as you follow it, you're not free to escape its logic".
That is exactly the message that Dr. Peikoff gave to Western Civilization in The Ominous Parallels: you are free to change your course, but you are not free to escape the logic of your philosophical premises. Galt applied the point to individual lives; Dr. Peikoff applies the same point to the history of an entire civilization.

The point is even more devastatingly true when applied to history than when applied to individuals.

For example, consider the case of Victor Hugo. Hugo’s background Christian premises affected his work and soul negatively. Despite his novel’s romanticism and grandeur, they always ended in tragedy; and Hugo’s sense of life, however grand-scale and heroic, never fully rose to the level of the ancient Greek’s or Ayn Rand’s man-worship. Hugo’s negative philosophical premises did not destroy him, but they did keep him from reaching the exalted pinnacle he was born to rise to.

Those same mistaken philosophical premises had consequences far more devastating for Western Civilization generally, than they had for this one individual artist. In the century and a quarter since Hugo, the corrupt philosophy of the West has not merely dimmed or diminished the West’s artistic greatness, it has destroyed it. No one writes novels like Hugo’s anymore. All great literature – all great art – has now been completely wiped out of our culture.

Galt’s view that convictions lead to necessary consequences, even when the individual does not like or desire those consequences, is a true and potent perspective when applied to individual lives; Peikoff’s view that convictions lead to necessary consequences, regardless of whether those consequences do or do not clash with a particular county’s sense of life, is a true and even more potent perspective when applied to an entire civilization. The greater time span involved causes the greater effect.

Dr. Peikoff’s approach to history is philosophical but not psychological: in showing that philosophy is the ultimate arbiter of history, he abstracted away from the psychology of the various actors involved. His approach was to show that when these philosophical ideas are held, these consequences follow, and that little or no discussion of the psychologies involved is required to fully grasp this historical process.

Dr. Peikoff thoroughly discussed the ideas of Plato, Aristotle, and Kant, but not the psychologies behind those ideas. He did not argue that Aristotle was a better man than Plato. He did not argue that Aristotle’s ideas were an expression of psychological health; he did not argue that Plato’s ideas were a rationalization of psychological vice. Dr. Peikoff’s focus was not on why these philosophers created the philosophies they did, but what those philosophies are, and what concrete consequences follow in human action. In order to explain history, Dr. Peikoff did not need to look from philosophy backward to its cause, but forward to its effects.

Nor was it necessary to burden his thesis with a discussion of the psychologies of the various implementers of the philosopher’s ideas. Dr. Peikoff’s point was to show that the Nazis were expressing in action the concrete consequences of Kant’s nihilist philosophy. Hitler was crazy; Goebbels was crazier; Speer was a better man than either. But, from the point of view of understanding history, so what? They were all Nazis; they all had absorbed Kant’s view of existence and were very busy spelling out and enacting its logical implications.

A discussion of Hitler’s, Goebble’s, Speer’s psychologies might be very illuminating. There is a place for entire books to be written on the subject. But Dr. Peikoff showed that there is no place for such a discussion in a book that intends to demonstrate the fundamental cause of history, because that cause is philosophical, not psychological.

Ayn Rand wrote regarding concept formation that “the act of isolation involved is a process of abstraction: i.e., a selective mental focus that takes out (her emphasis) or separates a certain aspect of reality from all others.” That is exactly what The Ominous Parallels does: it isolates or takes out the relationship between philosophy and history, detangling it from human psychology, allowing us to perceive it clearly for the first time in its full, pure measure, without obstruction or distraction. If Dr. Peikoff had included long discussions of human psychology in his book, they would have undoubtedly been very interesting, and taught us a great deal, but the books overall mission and luminous clarity would have been lost, and the science of history would have remained un-revolutionized.

In regard to this process of abstraction, of isolating and separating a certain aspect of reality from all others, the relationship between history and psychology is similar to the relationship between physics and biology.

The scope of Newton’s physics is startlingly vast and panoramic, but it does not attempt to explain the phenomenon of life. Newton did not try to explain all of reality, only one cardinal aspect of it: the basic nature of matter and energy. That act of abstraction – of taking out – one aspect of a complex total was an indispensable element of the success of the theory.

The scope of Dr. Peikoff’s theory of history is startlingly vast and panoramic, but it does not attempt to explain the phenomenon of human psychology. Peikoff did not try to explain all of human nature, only one cardinal aspect of it: the relationship between philosophy and history. That act of abstraction – of taking out – one aspect of a complex total was an indispensable element of the success of the theory.

Dr. Peikoff’s exact approach to isolating and underscoring the relationship between philsophy history was his own contribution. Ayn Rand’s perspective on philosophy and culture was more typically the moral-psychological approach.

For example, when asked in the Playboy interview what are the basic principles at the beginning of her philosophy, she replied:
“It begins with the axiom that existence exists, which means that an objective reality exists independent of any perceiver or of the perceiver's emotions, feelings, wishes, hopes or fears.”
Observe that she could just as easily have gone from the statement of the axiom of existence to a statement of such crucial axioms as identity or causality, but she didn't; instead she chose to immediately focus on the moral-psychological implications of the basic axiom, not its technical corollaries.

In her essay on cultural history For the New Intellectual, Ayn Rand again took a very moral-psychological approach to the history of philosophy. She wrote about the history of philosophy primarily from the perspective of the psychological motives of the philosophers involved, characterizing them in terms of Attila and the Witch Doctor. Her first concern was to focus on philosophy backward to its cause in human psychology, rather than focusing on philosophy forward to its effect on human history.

In a letter to Isabel Patterson, discussing the anti-worldly philosophers of the past, such as Plato, she wrote:
“I don’t care what the damn fools said – I want to know what made them say it.”
Dr. Peikoff’s approach to the history of philosophy and the philosophy of history in The Ominous Parallels is uniquely his own. He learned the basic idea from Ayn Rand, but he saw history with his own eyes, from his own perspective, and he wrote the book in his own voice. The shift in perspective may seem subtle at first, but is actually a vital ingredient to the success of the book. It is as though Dr. Peikoff moved the light source one foot in just the right direction to illuminate a trove of previously unseen intellectual treasure.

I believe that this is why, at the close of the Ayn Rand Letter, Ayn Rand had this to say about the then-forthcoming The Ominous Parallels:
“Oh boy! I thought I knew the subject, but that book has taught me something about the influence of philosophy on a country’s culture.”
In my opinion, The Ominous Parallels is Dr. Peikoff’s best major work. I think it is the book that he was born to write. Seeing the essence of a large mass of complex, detailed, seemingly kaleidoscopic concretes is his strongest suite as a thinker. That made him perfectly positioned to make a strong contribution to the field of the philosophy of history. He did exactly that, knocking the cover off the ball in the process, and so much so, that he created a striking, indispensable horizontal addition to the Objectivist world view.

4. Peikoff perspective on man-worship

Dr. Peikoff’s lecture Why Ancient Greece is my Favorite Civilization, given on an educational voyage to Greece, was his personal favorite of all his lectures. Mine too. I think it is the finest, most important lecture ever given by a follower of Ayn Rand.

In this lecture he identified the essence of Ayn Rand’s soul as also the essence of the soul of an entire culture. That essence is man-worship.

Man-worship means more than optimism or the benevolent universe premise. Man-worship means more than larger-than-life characters or happy endings. It means more than earning one’s own way, or respecting the rights of others, or making friends with others, or the idea that man the hero is better than man the dependent huddling in groups.

Worship means an “exclusive admiration or veneration; total, unbreached admiration”. Man-worship means total, exclusive, unbreached admiration for Man. Man-worship is the Greeks passion for the naked human form, it is what they felt for their idealized statues, it is what Gail Wynand felt for Howard Roark, it is what Ayn Rand felt for John Galt, it is what Leonard Peikoff felt for Ayn Rand.

Man-worship does not mean merely that Man is clean, good, and free to choose, it means that Man is the highest possible, the highest to be reached for or desired. It means that Man is sacred and his happiness on earth is not just possible, but exalted. Man-worship is the upward glance of intense admiration for Man’s glory in living. “Numberless are the world’s wonders, but none as wonderful as Man,” wrote Sophocles.

The Greeks were not repressed in any area of life. Like Howard Roark, the Greeks had no sense of faith at all. Theirs was not a culture built on an alleged need to choose between reason and emotion. They were passionately rational. Unlike the Enlightenment, they understood that reason is not a “cool” or “cold” faculty, but a passionately hot one. They did not shun “enthusiasm”, they expected it, embraced it, and lived it. Aristotle’s passionate, burning intellect is a prime example and symbol.

The Greeks were exclusively concerned with this world. The Greeks did not see Man’s life, soul, or body as trapped in a fallen, unreal world that he should strive to escape. Their “religion” was nothing like subsequent religions. They still had a vestigial concept of an after-life, but they saw it not as not as better than this life, but as less. For the Greeks, the after-life was shadowy, half-real, wan, pale, bloodless, unimportant. “Rather would I be the lowest ditch digger on Earth than King of the entire afterworld,” said Achilles.

The Greeks worshiped only things of this world. The Greeks did not worship their gods. Homer presented the gods always in a spirit of sarcasm; they were not presented as heroes or even as serious men and women, but as vain and petty children, spoiled with power. They were not intended to be worshipped or emulated, and the Greeks didn’t do either. By contrast, Homer did intend that Achilles and Odysseus should be worshipped and emulated, and the Greeks did both.

The Greeks had no yearning for an “infinite” afterworld or God. They were the only civilization in history that explicitly equated the perfect with the limited. They regarded the limited as the knowable, the real, and therefore the good, and the infinite as the unknowable, the unreal, and therefore the evil. When they first heard of the Judean longing for an infinite God they immediately recognized it for the outrageous depravity that it is. Ayn Rand expressed the essence of this view of the limited, in architectural terms, in The Fountainhead, in one of her most Greek-like pieces of writing, describing Roark’s Temple of the Human Spirit:
The Temple was to be a small building of gray limestone. It’s lines were horizontal, not the lines reaching to heaven, but the lines of the earth. It seemed to spread over the ground like arms outstretched at shoulder-height, palms down, in great, silent acceptance. It did not cling to the soil and it did not crouch under the sky. It seemed to lift the earth, and its few vertical shafts pulled the sky down. It was scaled to human height in such a manner that it did not dwarf man, but stood as a setting that made his figure the only absolute, the gauge of perfection by which all dimensions were to be judged. When a man entered this temple, he would feel space molded around him, for him, as if it had waited for his entrance, to be completed….At the end of the room…stood a statue of a naked human body.
Toohey told the truth, if not in the way he wanted it taken, when he wrote: “The statue of a nude female in a place where men come be uplifted speaks for itself.” The most striking, eloquent difference between Christian culture and Greek culture is the Greeks passion for the naked human form. Adam and Eve saw that they were naked, and they were ashamed; the Greeks saw that they were naked, and they were proud. The Greek athletic games were held in the nude, and so was Greek education. The goal of Greek education was to instill a passionate admiration of beauty of mind and body. For centuries, the only two school masters of the Greeks were the Greek sun and Homer.

Naked athletics and education would be impossible in a Christian culture. We are so far from home that it would be impossible for us to live like Greeks, and it takes effort for us even to understand them. And this is precisely the reason for our downfall: the West never fully rediscovered what the Greeks were, what they knew, or what they felt. Even when Western culture thought it was rebelling against Christianity, it was still trapped in the Christian web, still seeing the world with Christian eyes.

The Enlightenment was the most secular period since Ancient Greece. Its high points were Newton and mathematical physics, and Locke’s politics and the birth of the United States. It was a time of great scientists and great statesmen, but it is not a time especially known for its artistic greatness. When we think of great art we properly think of the Renaissance and Humanism, or the nineteenth century and Romanticism, not the Enlightenment. This is because the Enlightenment was a repressed culture. It was pro-reason, but it did not have a passion for reason; it believed in a benevolent universe, but it did not worship Man.

When Western art did flourish again, in the form of nineteenth century Romanticism, the re-emergence of passion was seen as a rebellion against reason, as though reason and emotion were at two ends of a pendulum. Only the Greeks (and Ayn Rand) have been able to achieve and sustain a passion for reason. No other cultural period in the West has understood how to do so.

Looking back, we see the Enlightenment and the nineteenth century as positive cultural periods, much better than today. And it is true that they were much better than today’s culture. But the Greeks would see these period’s mere optimism, belief in progress, belief in the future perfectibility of man as a valley of depression. The Greeks were not waiting on education to perfect man, they were not waiting on more evolution, for them life is a ten now, man is a ten now, we are not waiting on anything, we are living it.

Man-worship is to happiness as happiness is to life: if a life has happiness, the life is complete; if a happiness has man-worship, the happiness is complete. Man-worship is the highest form of spiritual objectivity. Without this objectivity, the soul is out of alignment with reality, and happiness cannot sustain itself.

The entire cause of America’s decline is contained in the fact that the Statue of Liberty is wearing clothes. America’s was never fully Greek enough to be passionately proud of her worldliness, therefore that worldliness had to fade.

The above is my interpretive summary of the essence of the theme of Dr. Peikoff’s Why Ancient Greece is My Favorite Civilization lecture (with a few additional supportive points and formulations sprinkled in). Since I first heard that lecture I have been very interested in the Greeks and have studied them extensively; everything I have learned supports Dr. Peikoff’s viewpoint. And while I have read some very insightful writings on the Greeks, none of the scholars I have read come close to the depth of perceptiveness of that Dr. Peikoff offers.

I believe that no classical scholar – even the best of them – has fully understood the value of ancient Greek civilization because the Greeks can only be fully appreciated from an Objectivist perspective. To attempt to understand the Greeks without knowing Ayn Rand’s art and philosophy would be like trying to understand the physical world without knowing Newton’s mathematical physics: one would necessarily fail unless one a) absorbed the master’s work or b) discovered independently what the master knew.

Dr. Peikoff could never have understood the Greeks without what he learned from Ayn Rand, but this understanding is his own unique perspective. He did not get it from her; it is a new insight that he made after she was gone. It is not stated in any of Dr. Peikoff’s earlier works (e.g., not in The Ominous Parallels or Objectivism: the Philosophy of Ayn Rand), nor is it stated in any of Ayn Rand’s works.

Ayn Rand never explicitly made the point that the nineteenth century culture and the American sense of life were not fully recovered. That was not her typical perspective. Although the sense of life she presented in her art was much more exalted than the American sense of life, even at its nineteenth century best, her explicit thought was usually not so much to improve the American sense of life, but to preserve it (e.g., her Don’t Let It Go essay). Her typical perspective was not how much the nineteenth century had failed to recover from the ancient Greeks, but how much had been lost from the nineteenth century to the present. For example, from the introduction to the Romantic Manifesto:
It has been said and written by many commentators that the atmosphere of the Western world before World War I is incommunicable to those who have not lived in that period

As a child, I saw a glimpse of the pre-World War I world, the last afterglow of the most radiant cultural atmosphere in human history. When one has glimpsed that kind of culture, one is unable to be satisfied with anything less.
Later in that introduction, she wrote:

The course of mankind’s progress is not a straight, automatic line, but a tortuous struggle, with long detours or relapses…Mankind moves forward by the grace of those human bridges who are able to grasp and transmit, across years or centuries, the achievements men had reached… Thomas Aquinas is one illustrious example: he was a bridge between Aristotle and the Renaissance…
…with no presumptuous comparison of stature intended, I am a bridge of that kind between the esthetic achievements of the nineteenth century and the minds that choose to discover them [in today’s culture].
That Ayn Rand was a bridge between today’s culture and the radiant, Romantic benevolence of nineteenth century art is very true and very important. But Dr. Peikoff’s unique point is that she is much more than even that: Ayn Rand is a bridge across a much greater spiritual gulf, across a much greater time-span, to a value even more important than nineteenth century art: she is a bridge between today’s world and Ancient Greek man-worship. She is a bridge to what the nineteenth century was able to achieve and a bridge to what the nineteenth century was not able to achieve.

The human soul aches for the latter even more than it does for the former. I believe this is why Dr. Peikoff’s lecture is so heartfelt. Perhaps this is why he did not conceive this lecture until after Ayn Rand was gone, and so deeply missed. Dr. Peikoff traveled to Greece in order to connect with “the closest that I can get to the spirit that I saw for three decades in the person of Ayn Rand”.

Speaking personally, I can only say that this lecture changed my life. I have had two huge, life-altering intellectual-spiritual events in my life: the discovery of Ayn Rand’s art and philosophy in the first place and this lecture. The reason for this is that man-worship is the seal of the prophets, the all-encompassing summation of life, the final concept whose grasp fully washes the entire Judeo-Christian stain from one’s soul. I never fully understood Ayn Rand, what she was saying, the Ancient Greeks, human nature, myself, or what I am doing on this planet until this lecture caused the scales to drop from my eyes. Ayn Rand made the issue crystal clear in her art, but it is so radical a conception of man and life that I needed this lecture to fully get it. It’s as though I needed two points – Ayn Rand and the Ancient Greeks – to see the line.

It would have really been something amazing had Ayn Rand been in the audience the day of this lecture. She certainly would not have learned all that I learned – she already knew it and lived it – but even she would have felt a new light shining on her own spiritual essence and her place in human history. I think she would have been like Dagny at Rearden’s trial: she would have looked perfectly normal, except that her eyes would have seemed to have become too large for her face.

If she had lived to see them, I think that Ayn Rand would have had a similar attitude towards all four of Leonard Peikoff’s horizontal additions. It would have to be this way, because Dr. Peikoff added fresh, new insights to the world view that she carved out. And insights not into minor, peripheral, or transient issues, but into critical issues at the vital center: integration, induction, history, man-worship. It is not too much to say that were Ayn Rand alive today, she, too, would be Leonard Peikoff’s student.

If that is not repaying a teacher well, what would be?

Sunday, December 5, 2010

How Ayn Rand Earned The Fountainhead's Happy Ending

A personal favorite paragraph of mine in The Fountainhead did not start out that way. The first few times I read The Fountainhead, I read this paragraph without giving it any particular notice or attention. But after having studied Objectivism for a long time, and thereby coming to know its author almost like a personal friend, one aspect of this paragraph was puzzling, and piqued my interest.

Twelve men sat in the jury box. They listened, their faces attentive and emotionless. People had whispered that it was a tough-looking jury. There were two executives of industrial concerns, two engineers, a mathematician, a truck driver, a bricklayer, an electrician, a gardener, and three factory workers. The impaneling of the jury had taken some time. Roark had challenged many talesmen. He had picked these twelve. The prosecutor had agreed, telling himself that this was what happened when an amateur undertook to handle his own defense; a lawyer would have chosen thegentlest types, those most likely to respond to an appeal for mercy; Roark had chosen the hardest faces.
The aspect that first stood out to me was the prosecutor’s statement “this is what happened when an amateur undertook to handle his own defense”. I wondered why Ayn Rand would be against the advice to have an attorney when going to trial? The prosecutor is basically a negative character -- he is against Roark and for altruism; and he is a loser, in the sense that he lost the trial. When a negative character states a bromide, the reader's natural inference is that the author is intending to make a crack against it. But why would Ayn Rand make a crack against perfectly good advice?

More broadly, why would the author of The Fountainhead be concerned enough with such an issue to mention it at all? The advice to have an attorney when going to trial is certainly valid, but it is advice on the order of the importance of getting a good nights sleep, or spending money wisely, or changing the oil in one’s automobile at proper mileage intervals. Ayn Rand is far too profound and economical an author to clutter her novel with concern for such a commonplace issue, unless it is not actually clutter, unless there is some wider purpose.

But what is that purpose? Why does Ayn Rand bother herself to deal with such a standard, bromidic issue as the advice to have an attorney when faced with a court trial? On the face of it, this doesn't make sense.

We can find the answer if consider what it is that the prosecutor is intended to be: the embodiment and symbol of conventional altruism.

In his address to the jury, his voice "practiced and confident", the prosecutor said that Roark was "... a ruthless, arrogant egotist who wished to have his own way at any price....his [selfish] motive blasted all humanity out of his soul....had it been a plutocrat's mansion, but a housing project, gentleman of the jury, a housing project!....We are dealing with the most vicious explosive on earth -- the egotist!"

The faces filling the courtroom heard these words as the bromides that they are: "they listened with the response they granted to a good weekday dinner: satisfying and to be forgotten within an hour. They agreed with every sentence; they had heard it before, they had always heard it, this was what the world lived by; it was self-evident -- like a puddle before one's feet."

The attorney represents not altruism as a calculated evil, ala Toohey, but the everyday, mainstream altruism of a milquetoast clergy or the man on the street. What Ayn Rand needed in the character of the attorney was altruism-as-the-establishment, altruism-as-accepted-wisdom, altruism-as-common-sense; so it makes sense for the attorney to be the type of man who thinks in terms of common sense bromides. When Ayn Rand has the attorney tell himself "that this was what happened when an amateur undertook to handle his own defense", she is not cluttering her novel with a pointless crack, she is establishing a character.

But what purpose does this character serve? Why have a character who personifies two thousand years of mainstream altruism? Answer: so that the mainstream altruist view of life can be contrasted with Roark's view of life in a single concrete event: the selection of the jury.

People had whispered that it was a tough looking jury...Roark chose the hardest faces...the lawyer had agreed...[he thought any competent defense attorney would have] chosen the gentlest types, those most likely to respond to an appeal for mercy.
Although Roark and the prosecutor represent diametrically opposite views of the world, they both agree on the selection of the jury. In Roark's view of the world, the dynamiting of Courtland Homes was an act of justice. Therefore, in order to get a verdict of not guilty, Roark wants a stern, unsympathetic jury. In the prosecutor’s view of the world, the dynamiting of Cortland Homes was an act of self-evident evil which could only be defended by an appeal for mercy. Therefore, in order to get a verdict of guilty, the attorney is very happy to let Roark choose a stern, unsympathetic jury.

Keep in mind that jury selection is a matter of the prosecutor’s and the defendant’s private prerogative. Their choice of which talesmen to accept or reject is a simple one: they do not have to publicly discuss or defend their reasons. Their selection choices have the "honesty of the voting booth": all public statements and justifications are left behind, and all that remains is the question: what do I really believe? The prosecutor accepted an unsympathetic jury because he wholeheartedly believed in altruism in the privacy of his own mind; if he had doubted the altruistic world view, he would have fought Roark's choice of jury.

By grace of the author's economical characterization, the reader experiences the prosecuting attorney as a concrete condensation of the altruist view of life. By grace of the entire novel, the reader experiences Howard Roark as a condensation of the Aristotelian-Objectivist view of life. The contest between the two men is a contest between two world views. Roark chose the hardest faces; the prosecuting attorney agrees. The question of the jury selection comes down to: which view of the world is correct, conventional altruism or Roark’s?

When the jury foreman returns with the results, the prosecuting attorney is stunned, but it strikes the reader as the most natural, logical thing in the world. Roark wins because his view of life is true; the reader experiences the altruist world view, Roark's world view, and the knowledge of which is true in a single phrase: "Not guilty."

That is great writing. It's wonderful that Ayn Rand found a way to work this gem of dramatization into the novel.

Except that she didn't work it in. This scene is not an optional part of The Fountainhead included for its own sake, but a necessary part of the novel's theme and plot structure. To see this point, we need to step back and look at the the novel as a whole.

Roark represents the this-worldly, rational, man-worshiping, Greek view of life. Yet the society he lives in is rapidly returning to the anti-worldly, anti-rational, self-sacrificial, medieval view of life.

Roark is in moral-philosophical conflict with his society. If society defeats him, the novel becomes a Byronic tragedy, and therefore fails to execute Ayn Rand's theme: she does not view man as a noble but doomed hero. But if Roark's victory at trial is not part of a progression of logically connected events, if Roark wins his trial due to some non-essential detail, such as a legal technicality, an incompetent prosecutor, or some other stroke of luck, the novel becomes merely a nice story with a happy ending. It ceases to be great literature for the lack of a plot. Roark must win the trial because of who he is and what the world is.

But how?

Roark committed the crime openly; he allowed himself to be found at the scene of the crime by the police; he never denies dynamiting the building. Roark is not an attorney, amateur, professional, or anything in between. Without introducing some element of chance, how could Roark possibly win that trial? On the face of it, there is no solution. This issue would be an incredibly hard problem for any writer to solve. For any lesser writer, the question of how Roark wins the trial would be an issue to minimize, a rough spot, a strained seam, a point in the story to be glossed over quickly.

But not for Ayn Rand. Her solution is devastatingly logical. At the very stress point of the novel’s entire plot structure, the reader never experiences the slightest hint of strain; all the reader experiences is an elegant, natural, sparkling dramatization of the novels theme, a piece of writing so beautiful that one could easily think that it was an optional element of the story included for the sake of its own beauty, even though it wasn’t.

A novel by Ayn Rand is like a building by Howard Roark: the load bearing element is its own ornament.

If that is not literary genius of the highest order, what would be?