Sunday, June 20, 2010

What I Have Lived For

The circumstances of the past year of my life would have been considered unfortunate to most. However, this year has been more rewarding than I could have thought possible. The situation in which I have found myself (though not by choice) has nevertheless allowed me much time for reflection, contemplation, study, reading and writing. I am convinced that I will look back on this year as one in which my life landed on solid ground. I have clarity of thought and a comprehension of events both past and present that has only come about through an intense self-discovery. This process never ends, but I’m convinced that it does begin, and to do so it must have a compass and a frame of reference. It wouldn’t have been possible without the support of those closest to me, and for that reason, I am beyond fortunate. Most never have the chance to engage in a serious introspection at this stage in life. The process of TRUE discovery requires a certain amount of life experience. Thanks to our society, there is quite often no time to reflect beyond our formative years.

I have always loved literature and reading, but until recently have somewhat deprived myself of it due to my lifestyle. I’ve often found myself encountering statements that describe the exact condition of my mindset at that point in time. I just finished Bertrand Russell’s The History of Western Philosophy. While researching Russell, I discovered this quote which couldn’t explain my current outlook any better (although my interpretation of Russell’s use of “love” is a bit broader right now, but still applicable as my own lifelong search). This is the prologue to Russell’s autobiography, and is called What I Have Lived For:

Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. These passions, like great winds, have blown me hither and thither, in a wayward course, over a deep ocean of anguish, reaching to the very verge of despair.

I have sought love, first, because it brings ecstasy -- ecstasy so great that I would often have sacrificed all the rest of life for a few hours of this joy. I have sought it, next, because it relieves loneliness -- that terrible loneliness in which one shivering consciousness looks over the rim of the world into the cold unfathomable lifeless abyss. I have sought it, finally, because in the union of love I have seen, in a mystic miniature, the prefiguring vision of the heaven that saints and poets have imagined. This is what I sought, and though it might seem too good for human life, this is what -- at last -- I have found.

With equal passion I have sought knowledge. I have wished to understand the hearts of men. I have wished to know why the stars shine. And I have tried to apprehend the Pythagorean power by which number holds sway above the flux. A little of this, but not much, I have achieved.
Love and knowledge, so far as they were possible, led upward toward the heavens.

But always pity brought me back to earth. Echoes of cries of pain reverberate in my heart. Children in famine, victims tortured by oppressors, helpless old people a hated burden to their sons, and the whole world of loneliness, poverty, and pain make a mockery of what human life should be. I long to alleviate the evil, but I cannot, and I too suffer.

This has been my life. I have found it worth living, and would gladly live it again if the chance were offered me.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Ayn Rand's Objectivism

Had this been a year ago, having been a Socialist, I would have rejected Ayn Rand’s Objectivism on principle. My mind has come a long way. I am now open to examining many different viewpoints. The rule I have set for myself is that absolute dogma leads to tyranny. I am a non-conformist in that I will not allow myself to be told what to think. I am an individual, and I don’t define myself by labels. In that sense, I support Rand’s value of self-esteem. I agree with her when she says that to NOT think is a great crime against one’s self. That kind of thinking obviously means coming to your own confident conclusions. Yet, as I read Atlas Shrugged, a book that claims no contradictions, I interpreted that as the first one. It seems to me that Rand would have us believe that we are to think for ourselves with our rational mind, and then rationally be led to only one worldview…her own. Isn’t this a contradiction? In addition, Rand’s obvious intolerance of dissent in thinking and education is apparent throughout the book.

The problem with ideologies is that they all appear possible in the abstract. With a completely open mind, and examined AS THEORY, Marxism, Objectivism, Existentialism, Humanism, etc.., all seem logical. The problem is that the real world is much more complex. No one system has been absolutely pure in practice. It is impossible. The abstract theories give you a starting point, but they are not an end in themselves.

Rand had to paint an unrealistic and narrow view of society in order to have her theory make any sense. The bright minds of the Capitalists were portrayed as ONE. The characters thought exactly alike, were perfect physical and mental specimens, and there was no trace of immorality in any of them (according to Rand’s standards of purity). The Socialists, or collectivists, on the other hand, were all panic-stricken corrupt bumbling idiots with no intellectual potential. All doctrines are the same in this respect. Had this been a Marxist novel, the Capitalists would be completely corrupt, and the Socialists would be the intelligent protectors of humanity.

Blindly subscribing to a particular creed is dangerous. You become a mini-god. You then reach the point where dogma becomes tyrannical. This is illustrated in Atlas Shrugged by Dagny’s murder of the guard on the way to rescue John Galt. She did it simply because the guard couldn’t make a decision. The crime of not thinking clearly and confidently enough is worthy of a death sentence according to Rand.

The issues of omission were blatant. Racism, for example, was never discussed or addressed in the novel. I had to go online and find a segment from The Virtue of Selfishness (a disturbing book title) to get Rand’s racial perspective. I was not surprised. Rand believed that the contemporary state of race relations (and she was writing in 1963!) did not require assumption of responsibility for the sins of the past. Ok then, what about at THAT time? Racism was a great evil she said, but group action didn’t fit into her worldview. I guess the Civil Rights movement was to be discarded. Apparently each individual is to be left to fight their way out of the oppression of racism. This is the rejection of determinism in objectivism, which states that no economic factors, environment, social condition, etc… are relevant. The abdication of responsibility for our racist society is explained by the individual's responsibility to think their way out of their situation. Where then does the moral responsibility of the oppressors fit into this? I fully agree with Rand that intellectual laziness (whatever the level of the intellect) is repulsive. One must always think no matter their social status or condition. However, the situation of racism and its effects are real. All races need to work together against this injustice. The complex social, spiritual, cultural and ethnic issues of our world were hardly mentioned in Atlas Shrugged.

Understanding power is one of the keys to understanding life. Rand’s book is one of power. Later I will address the importance and value of the freedom to use the mind. Now we need to realize that Rand has stated HER version of who should have power. She believes that nothing could have functioned on earth without the intelligence of the great individuals of history. This is true. For example, modern ingenuity gives ME the ability to use this computer, read books and therefore enable you to see these words. However, once any kind of invention or good is produced, it is completely worthless without the rest of society. The businessperson would have no market and they would have no riches if it weren’t for the consumer. They wouldn’t be able to mass produce their products without the worker. The point is that we all need one another. If the entire working class went on strike, the rich would starve as well as the poor. But I DO respect what I’ve learned from Rand that the same is true with the roles reversed.

I am of the belief that power tends toward corruption. The evolution of societies throughout history, and Capitalism in our day, shows this. The kinds of leaders of business that I see in our current time are NOT the honest moral specimens of Atlas Shrugged. There are exceptions of course. However, Marx has been much more accurate than Rand in description of the effects of Capitalism. Capitalism according to Marx will spread itself around the globe. It is necessary to do that for companies to continue to grow. More markets need to be found and goods need to be produced cheaper and cheaper (by reducing wages) to compete in a globalized economy. Even equal exchange of value (a Randian principle) becomes impossible. Workers both at home and abroad are no longer able to survive. They deserve to have a living wage for THEIR value in keeping the corporation running. It is to the benefit of both the producer and the worker for this to happen. Without living wages, there is no market. Therefore, since corruption can not be left to chance, I believe in certain restraints on markets, and do not subscribe to allowing business to run unchecked.

I fully believe in Rand’s statement that you can not live life using or at the point of a gun. That principle started the thought process leading me to reject dogma. Dogma inevitably leads to force. I do not believe in force outside of self-defense. So I will not tell anyone how they need to think or live their lives. Rand is right in that freedom of intellect and freedom of reward is necessary to create goods that make life easier. But one of my biggest problems with Objectivism is the notion of altruism. I agree that your self-respect requires not letting others use you for their own greedy purposes. However, I also subscribe to the axiom that great position carries great responsibility. The selfishness inherent in Objectivism is unpalatable to me. It pains me to see people - who have not only natural intelligence but the ADVANTAGE of living in a great society - not sharing their wealth. There are equally brilliant and noble people throughout the world who are deserving of help. They are not blood-sucking parasites. They will work as hard as or harder than anyone if given the chance. They are just looking to survive and eat. I can’t wrap my head around the concept of not having a conscience when it comes to this line of Objectivist thinking. This is where my value of LIFE as LIFE is different than Rand’s.

Rand values having a purpose. I couldn’t agree more. However, that is not all that defines who you are. I believe that my purpose should never define ME. I am moving towards the ability to just BE. Dagny reminded me of someone who was scared to be with herself. She couldn’t sit still in her cabin while on vacation, but constantly had to be active. For me, I can’t appreciate or even think about the beauty of life if I’m always killing myself with work. WHO YOU ARE is much more than external definitions, labels, titles or beliefs.

Am I glad that I read Ayn Rand? Yes. I was able to learn the value of respecting the mind. To that extent, I can respect this philosophy for what it is – an intelligent production of a human mind – even if I don’t agree with many parts of it. I was able to go into it with an open mind, and there is no greater intellectual freedom than that. Knowing that NO ONE BUT YOU is entitled to define how you think is so crucial. For me, that incorporates absorption of different elements of truth from widely different sources and combining that knowledge with my own perspective. What other way is there to obtain your individuality?