Friday, July 20, 2007

The Morality of Existence: A Life of Reason

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I finished Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged yesterday. I actually started reading it last summer while on vacation in Las Vegas. I read about half of it, but got busy with my teaching responsibilities last fall, and became distracted by a couple of other books of non-fiction as well (especially Juan Williams' Enough, probably the best recent book on African-American politics I've read).

Atlas Shrugged is a long tome, 1,069 pages in the
Signet Centennial paperback edition. I don't actually enjoy reading books that long -- indeed, I've joked to many friends that I had easier time wading through Tolstoy's War and Peace!

In any event, I usually post a few analytical reflections after I've finished a book. With Atlas Shrugged, though, it's hard to pick out any one section or quote that's representative of the work. I also don't want to give the story away, which is what Betsy Newmark does in a post she wrote about the book (her post is a spoiler,
so don't click here if you'd rather not know the book's climax).

My thinking about Rand was piqued this morning, however. I've had an exchange here with a radical commenter named "Dave." In typical antiwar fashion, Dave
ridiculed one of my recents posts as fodder for "neo-fascists."

In response to
another post, Dave became flummoxed in the debate thread -- utterly unable to think or respond -- and then wrote an irrational post on his own blog, copying most of his information from a lousy Wikipedia entry on anti-Americanism. These exchanges are always educational for me, and they tend to demonstrate the deep irrationalism among those on the far left, America-bashing fringe. Here's Dave attacking me in all of his frustration:

Your feeble minded nonsense is evident [of] empty arguments....It was no surprise to find Ayn Rand among your favorite authors. Oh, surprise, surprise.

I mention Ayn Rand as one of my favorite authors in my Blogger profile, so that's the source for Dave's attack.

Why do I like Ayn Rand? My reading of Atlas Shrugged (not to mention The Fountainhead) has strongly consolidated my belief in the power of Rand's ideas. Toward the conclusion of the book, John Galt, the masterful hero of the novel, lays out his philosophy of life. I think the following excerpt from Atlas Shrugged is an appropriate summation for the foundations of some of my recent writings on the poverty of irrationalist ideology:

Accept the irrevocable fact that your life depends upon your mind. Admit that the whole of your struggle, your doubts, your fakes, your evasions, was a desperate quest to escape from the responsibility of a volitional consciousness -- a quest for automatic knowledge, for instinctive action, for intuitive certainty -- and while you called it a longing for the state of an angel, what you were seeking was the state of an animal. Accept, as your mental ideal, the task of becoming a man....

Learn to distinguish the difference between errors of knowledge and breaches of morality. An error of knowledge is not a moral flaw, provided you are willing to correct it; only a mystic would judge human beings by the standard of an impossible, automatic omniscience. But a breach of morality is the conscious choice of an action you know to be evil, or a willful evasion of knowledge, a suspension of sight and of thought. That which you do not know, is not a moral charge against you; but that which you refuse to know, is an account of infamy growing in your soul. Make every allowance for errors of knowledge; do not forgive or accept an breach of morality. Give the benefit of the doubt to those who seek to know; but treat as potential killers those specimens of insolent depravity who make demands upon you, announcing that they have and seek no reasons, proclaiming, as a license, that they just "feel it" -- or those who reject an irrefutable argument by saying: "It's only logic," which means: "It's only reality." The only realm opposed to reality is the realm and premise of death.
Rand's case here brings to the written page a vibrant affirmation of the heartful and unspoken inner core of my being -- an affirmation of a life of the mind as the natural right of personal existence. Further, her writings ring the bells of recognition and confirmation for all of those thinkers who command a personal ethic of modernist achievement and industry. I do not agree with everything Rand writes, for even her objectivist philosophy has its own elements of idealism. But her charge that the life of reason is the essence of man's nobility -- that reason is his only absolute -- is a powerful rule of guidance for those seeking a path of personal attainment and meaning.

This, then is the message for those who would attack my views as "neo-fascist," for those who would castigate me as another Eichmann. Such rants are ultimate representations of the "insolent depravity" exposed and condemned by Rand. I cannot live my life in such depravity. I can, though, continue in my own idealism, an idealism in which a commitment to enlightening others -- as a teacher and mentor to those of open mind -- is a part of my own crowning ethic of personal modernism, discovery, and knowledge.

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