Circling the Drain
Published on 2 June 2021
I've been attempting to read Atlas Shrugged for the past couple of weeks. The volume itself is quite daunting, but I've heard praise about Ayn Rand from many directions so it only seems proper to give it a chance. I should try not to level any substantial criticisms against the book before I am done with it, however so far I am very underwhelmed.
In any case, in preparation for reading such a hefty brick (the edition I've got has 1'174 pages, the title on the spine is printed horizontally and it could no doubt kill an unfortunate passer-by should I accidentally drop it out of the window) I acquainted myself with the rather controversial and original philosophy of Objectivism thought up by Rand. But to understand that, I had to figure out where it came from.
It's quite tough to find a proper summary of Rand's philosophy in the terms a know-nothing apprentice of the subject such as myself can understand because it's very original. In fact, if there is one thing that one should praise Rand for, is that Objectivism is a truly original construction, although whether that is good or bad remains to be seen.
Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.
The originality of Objectivism is not necessarily due to the focus on the value of the individual, because that has been apparent, known and accepted in western philosophy since Jesus and probably earlier, as evidenced by the quote from the Gospel of Matthew, although in a sort of inverse way from Rand. The value of an individual is not a recent discovery. What makes Objectivism unique is that it considers any form of altruism evil.
Put another way, the common way to understand "individuals matter" is that we should help those less fortunate than us. Rand says that they should instead be left alone.
I should definitely not consider myself well-read as far as Objectivism is concerned, I have not even finished her novel. However, from what I've read in secondary sources, the "read between the lines" summary is: "prevent whatever caused Soviet Union to happen by any means necessary". Rand certainly had her reasons to hate the Soviet regime, as does any half-educated person these days, but in doing this, I fear, there is a large amount of dishonesty.
The source of that dishonesty is the train of thought that might have started with something like: "since communism is bad, and communism is essentially the archetypical implementation of collectivism, we should pick whatever is the polar opposite of collectivism and construct a moral framework around that". Thus, what we ended up with is an unfettered praise of the individual, of laissez-faire capitalism and of reason. And from that flows a quiet, implicit and paradoxically coercive assertion that every reasonable individual should agree with Rand's philosophy, otherwise he would be unreasonable.
Thankfully I should never consider myself reasonable, so I am under no obligation to agree with Objectivism.
Due to Atlas Shrugged
being an overwhelmingly boring book, and in the spirit of trying something new, I downloaded a recording of G. K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy
from LibriVox to listen to on a long drive. I typically listen to music while driving instead of doing something "more productive" because the material I usually read is too dense for me to listen to (I typically re-read a page multiple times), but since I had already known Chesterton's writing style from an earlier collection of Father Brown stories, I figured it might be fine to listen to.
Two asides: first, there's nothing wrong with books being boring in itself. Nicomachean Ethics
is extremely boring, but it's also an extremely good book. Second, I would suggest against listening to Chesterton and actually reading his work
, it's much more enjoyable in that form, and much like another beloved classic of Christian apologetics Mere Christianity
can be finished in two afternoons.
It appears that Chesterton is not a fan of Rand either, or at least he wouldn't be if he had any opportunity to engage with her and her ideas. I will skip over the concerns of heroism, individualism and politics for now (perhaps until I am done with Atlas Shrugged), only focusing now on Rand's idea that reason should be the only absolute.
My fundamental problem that leads to rejection of whatever Rand has to say is her assertion that everyone should pursue his self-interest by means of reason and reason alone. That would discard 66% of human experience and means of gaining knowledge
. Not only that, it fails to account for the fact that most people aren't capable of reasoning correctly. In fact, nobody is capable of reasoning
correctly in every given situation, because we are never in possession of perfect information and infinite "computing power" in our brain that would lead to objectively correct conclusions. In fact, every
time you come to a good conclusion as a result of an apparently rational process, you probably took a shortcut along the way, used a heuristic or referred to a tradition that is not strictly reasonable.
To reiterate: reason in itself is not bad, just as knives in themselves are not bad. It's a part of human experience, the same as knives are a part of human experience.
Chesterton v. Rand
My critique of Rand's rationalism is fairly mild: I respectfully disagree that reason is or should be the only absolute. Chesterton goes a little further. Rand tells you that to be a proper functioning individual you have to believe in yourself, take heroic action, and use reason to guide you. Chesterton tells you that Rand is a lunatic.
"Shall I tell you where the men are who believe most in themselves? For I can tell you. I know of men who believe in themselves more colossally than Napoleon or Caesar. I know where flames the fixed star of certainty and success. I can guide you to the thrones of the Super-men. The men who really believe in themselves are all in lunatic asylums."
"Let us begin," after Chesterton, "with the mad-house." I suppose reading about Dagny Taggart's exploits in a world defiantly turned against her is amusing for us, because to us it seems like the world is mad and she is sane. But, if the world of Atlas Shrugged
was true, with each country short of the United States being a "People's Republic", surely it would be the other way around. After all, if reason is the only moral absolute, would it not be reasonable to join the unreasonable and, if egoism is the only value, attempt to subvert the system from within towards one's personal gain? If history teaches us anything, it's that no revolution is permanent
. I suppose history is unreasonable, too.
But let us take a step back. I said I should hesitate to venture into the plot details of the book, so let's stick to philosophy. I suppose it logically follows that if every person should be reasonable, he should have a reason for each of his actions. Not just a reason, perhaps, but a good reason. In a perfect world of Randian heroes everyone would always do everything for a reason, and nothing for no reason. Chesterton tells you that this is a mental disorder.
"The last thing that can be said of a lunatic is that his actions are causeless. If any human acts may loosely be called causeless, they are the minor acts of a healthy man; whistling as he walks; slashing the grass with a stick; kicking his heels or rubbing his hands. It is the happy man who does the useless things; the sick man is not strong enough to be idle."
For one reason or another, there aren't many active and functioning lunatic asylums anymore, and those that still exist try to avoid the connotation. (I suspect the movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
is to blame for that.) So perhaps, many of those people ended up not in Hanwell
but they are still among us.
"If a man says (for instance) that men have a conspiracy against him, you cannot dispute it except by saying that all the men deny that they are conspirators; which is exactly what conspirators would do. His explanation covers the facts as much as yours. Or if a man says that he is the rightful King of England, it is no complete answer to say that the existing authorities call him mad; for if he were King of England that might be the wisest thing for the existing authorities to do. Or if a man says that he is Jesus Christ, it is no answer to tell him that the world denies his divinity; for the world denied Christ's."
This is why a world in which reason is the highest and only absolute requires that every one be a psychopath. Because it is not normal and not sustainable to always be reasonable and to always be kicked into gear. It is normal to expect that there will be people who would want to do that (and they should be incentivised and not obstructed, of course!), but those are exceptions and not rules. Most people are not crazy, much like most people are not geniuses.
That is precisely the reason why I find Rand's book so boring. The positive characters are one-dimensional psychopaths, the negative ones are negative because they grew tired of playing a losing game, and the case against altruism is aimed at a strawman. It might be inspirational to identify with these heroic go-getters and hustlers when you are eighteen and full of vigour. It is exhausting if you are forty — it's difficult to pursue your self interest if you have children.
Zen and the art of shrugging
There is one quite rational author on the list of books I have already read, he was a hero of many posts on this blog. Indeed, the man was so rational that he reasoned himself out of rationalism, for which he has my deepest respect. Chesterton wrote of him (or, more accurately, of people like him, because he was unfortunately not a contemporary of his):
"Every one who has had the misfortune to talk with people in the heart or on the edge of mental disorder, knows that their most sinister quality is a horrible clarity of detail; a connecting of one thing with another in a map more elaborate than a maze."
This is of course a description of Robert Pirsig, the author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Pirsig himself (spoilers for Zen) ended up in a psychiatric institution, was diagnosed with schizophrenia and treated with electric shocks. Yet his rational faculties seemed to work well, very well in fact, connecting the dots that would be very difficult to notice for ordinary people, at the most general level, close to the fundamentals of the human existence and close to the foundation of western philosophy. Pirsig wrote:
"If all of human knowledge, everything that’s known, is believed to be an enormous hierarchic structure, then the high country of the mind is found at the uppermost reaches of this structure in the most general, the most abstract considerations of all."
To ordinary people this "high country of the mind" is accessible only for short periods of time, in brief periods of clarity, as it should be. Those who claim to inhabit it permanently are actually one of three things. They are either only beginning their journey and mistake the road ahead for the destination, falsely thinking they have reached it and actually just circling the central issues; they are on the verge of madness because these central issues are impossible for a sane rationalist to grasp; or they are lying and think they are rational while only deriving their group identity from reading some contemporary guru such as Dawkins.
I was, at some point in my life in all three of these groups, until I realised that one can live his life completely happily without visiting the "high country of the mind" or even thinking about it. The solution is to accept that if you allow a little bit of mysticism in the centre of your world-view, everything else can become straightforward. A rationalist has to continually circle the drain, so to speak, because the centre of it is where reason fails him. A Christian allows himself to have the centre of his faith be in darkness, so that everything else can be illuminated.
Chesterton puts it like this:
"As we have taken the circle as the symbol of reason and madness, we may very well take the cross as the symbol at once of mystery and of health. (...) For the circle is perfect and infinite in its nature; but it is fixed for ever in its size; it can never be larger or smaller. But the cross, though it has at its heart a collision and a contradiction, can extend its four arms for ever without altering its shape. Because it has a paradox in its centre it can grow without changing. The circle returns upon itself and is bound. The cross opens its arms to the four winds; it is a signpost for free travellers."