by Ayn Rand
Ayn Rand, John Galt, Frederick Nietzsche
Date: Fri, 05 Jun 1998 18:29:42 -0400
From: Frank Cahill (email@example.com)
To: Richard Geib (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Subject: individual rights, philosphers
At 06:29 PM 6/5/98 -0400, you wrote:
I like a lot of what you've got to say, but I think you're pretty far off the mark when you say (paraphrasing here) there has to be some restriction of individual rights in order to protect the rights of society. Only an individual entity can posess rights. Society is not an entity, it is made up of individual entities. You cannot protect the rights of a group by restricting the rights of the members of the group.
I'd like to suggest that you read some Ayn Rand.
She'll be like a breath of fresh air after Plato, Kazantzakis, Kant and Hegel.
I subscribe to the ideal of the classically liberal society where, per J.S. Mill, each person is able to enjoy the maximum amount of freedom up to where it impedes on the freedom of one's neighbors; and I do believe that individualism taken to an extreme equals anarchy. (The tension and proper mix of the two is everything, in my opinion.) In belonging to the polis, I give up my freedom to drive 130 mph on the public roads. In assuming the privilege of operating a motor vehicle, I pay auto insurance to be able to protect myself and others in case of an accident. When a Deputy Sheriff or Federal Marshal knocks on my door with a warrant signed by a judge, I allow entry into my private dwelling without a struggle. I cannot remove a stop sign from an intersection just because I feel like it. I am not free to yell "fire" in a crowded theater. I accept these limitations on my person in the name of the greater good; even in this comparatively free country, I do not have the right to do just whatever I want. And this, in my opinion, is as it should be. As Edmund Burke claimed:
The extreme of liberty (which is its abstract perfection, but its real fault) obtains nowhere, nor ought to obtain anywhere. Because extremes, as we all know, in every point which relates either to our duties or satisfactions in life, are destructive both to virtue and enjoyment. Liberty too must be limited in order to be possessed.
We all make adjustments in entering into the social compact. I could of course move to the wilds of Africa if I wished to live in the state of nature. No, thank you.
I have never been able to get more than half-way through one of Ayn Rand's tomes. I do not like her much; but perhaps this is due to my coming to her books already in middle-age and possessing a modicum of life experience. Rand seems to be, like Frederick Nietzsche, one of those personal transcendence philosophers always so popular with the young who tell their readers that through unfailing devotion to their vision and strength of will the individual can realize their life goals. Rand seems to have this vision of the archetypal hero achieving this - all despite the masses and their altruistic morass of overly-sentimental meddling. I dislike instinctively Rand's arch-aloofness. I admit that I am one of Rand's flawed humans; I am not really any better than anyone else. We are all of us ignorant - just in different areas. But I can hear Rand telling me that not all of us are ignorant - look at John Galt!, an individual who through use of reason, strength of will, and clarity of vision has become like a god!
Of course, for my avowed weakness I would assuredly be harangued by Nietzsche's Zarathustra or Rand's Galt to shed my flawed, frail shell of humanity and move into something more god-like and soar through the skies. But I suspect I am happier in my skin than ever Nietzsche was in his. Wisdom - if it comes at all - will come through reflection, and keeping my heart open to the pain and beauty of the world. It will not come through a fiercely swollen hubris, or in yelling at the deluded, weak masses to whom ninety-five times out of one-hundred I belong. I am comfortable with a certain degree of confusion and incomprehension; I do not seek completeness or transcendence. Like the old Irish adage says: You pray for the strength to change what you can about yourself, for the courage to accept what cannot be changed, and the wisdom to know the difference. If I can do only that much in life, I will consider myself fortunate.
At thirty-one years of age, I see life as did Thoreau when he claimed, "The youth gets together his materials to build a bridge to the moon or perchance a palace or temple on the earth, and at length the middle-aged man concludes to build a wood-shed with them." Not that I am wholly unsympathetic to Rand's ideas of transcendence, fulfillment, etc., but for me it is deeper and encompasses more. Contentment for me has come more through acceptance than through transcendence; I am content with myself as flawed and contradictory, even as I work on my flaws and contradictions. Even if it be only a humble "woodshed", my inner life is spacious and imaginatively ornate. I neither need nor desire a palace nor temple. I might from time to time fly into the air by reading a timeless love poem, looking into a beautiful painting, or in listening to a sublime piece of music; but Mr. Rich Geib mostly, when he walks, treads on the ground. But that is the stuff out of which real life is made. And it is more than enough, I tell you.
I could never warm to Rand or her grand epic protagonist John Galt, a man who through his example said he "would stop the motor of the world - and did." I always disliked those clever, efficient men of action. My hero is Boris Pasternak's Yuri Zhivago: an impractical man, a poet, lover, dreamer. I am a teacher, not an engineer. And I think we all have to live -- in our own way -- for others; may the muses desert me if ever I, like Rand, pen a piece of prose like this: "Altruism, is actually the most vicious principle ever stated, the source of all evil, the principle of slavery, dependence and degradation." Thus Socrates, Jesus, St. Francis of Assisi... that gaggle of degraded, dependent slaves. Pasternak once said, "The aim of creation is the giving of oneself." I can hear Rand retorting that this is rank hypocrisy masking the egoism and secret desire of the artist for self-promotion. I hold with Pasternak and see his art for what it is: a gift from him to me. "Doctor Zhivago" is a gift precious beyond valuation, a deeply personal offering by one man to the world, a testament to a life lived.
Ayn Rand is like a modern professor who argues a social thesis that -- should it be adopted -- will result in a supposedly improved human organization. Pasternak tells us, to the contrary, that the road to happiness lies in living open to the present: "Man is born to live and not to prepare to live!" I side with Pasternak and lament the lack of kindred spirits like his during our age. There have, unfortunately, been no lack of zealots telling us how we can supposedly live better under some revolutionary doctrine or other. I usually dislike authors when they utterly lack senses of humor; and the Russian-born Rand always seemed to me a species of anti-Lenin, infected with the cult of individualism in reaction to the bacillus of the similarly single-minded Bolshevist cult of collectivism. It is either all the one or the other with Lenin or Rand, adhering religiously to their Philosophy. They remind me of the most tendentious and dogmatically overweening of the Jesuits - scorched-earth authoritarians not satisfied with defeating an opponent or their argument, but intent on crushing it into the dust and obliterating any mark that it ever existed. They would begrudge their enemies any space at all on the earth, and launch a jihad so as to cleanse the world of them. They are fast friends today in combat against Evil but tomorrow will stab you in the back, accusing you of treason and excommunicating you from the fold. They are creatures of eternal ideological war, and are not nor ever will be my spiritual allies.
It is much the same in the murky waters of Nietzsche, Sartre, Heidegger, Foucault, Chomsky, and the other 20th century sophisters, skeptics, and anti-humanists so oppressive to the free respiration of truth - not a breath of "fresh air" for me at all! Perhaps too dull and torpid a thinker for such weighty modern intellects, I look back to the beginning of the 19th century for inspiration in the Romanticism of John Keats who claimed to be certain of nothing but the "holiness of the Heart's affections and the truth of the Imagination." You will note a fundamental difference in outlook, no doubt.
I'll stick with Kant and Kazantzakis, thanks. But each to his own...
Very Truly Yours,
P.S. You might remind me that Nietzsche actually lived in the 19th century and you would be right. But in poignantly dying in the year 1900, Nietzsche with his ranting and raving against the status quo of his day presaged (in my opinion) much of the chaotic 20th century so full of upheaval, confusion, revolution, and war.