Of Swamp Sirens, Mountain Tops ... and Fire in the Belly!
(Presentation to SOLOC 2, February 15th 2003)
Good morning. Welcome to the second Sense of Life Objectivists Conference. We call it SOLOC 2. SOLOC 1, as many of you will remember, occurred one year ago at Waitomo Caves Hotel. One of the speakers, Cameron Pritchard, said it was nothing less than the most enjoyable few days he'd ever had in his life. If I may quote:
"The people were evidence that the heroic is out there - making one of the themes of my own speech even more concrete to me, and I hope, to others. Intelligent, warm people oozing with passion, enthusiasm and praise for the best in each other. I mean, I have rarely felt that kind of camaraderie, and it's such a powerful, inspiring feeling that leaves such a wonderful afterglow. The intellectual quality of the speeches was just amazing. Lindsay - an inspiring call to arms, opening the way for Objectivism as it could and should be. The Young Guns - I was proud to share this segment with the talent of Sam, Andrew and Matt. Robert White - a brilliant scholar who is nothing less than an inspiration to me as someone who also seeks to work in the academic field. Barbara's video - a thought-provoking presentation with hopefully more to come at SOLOC 2. Michael Newberry - what a revolutionary! It's impossible not to soak up the enthusiasm he generates for his cause. Joe Rowlands - a fascinating speech that gave me new tools to use in my own life. And Jim Peron - well, as Hooch said to me, I don't think there was a dry eye in the room after his speech. And of course, it wasn't just the speeches. It was the conversations, the walks and conversations, the food and conversations, the drinks and conversations, even the arm-wrestling and conversations. And all of this in an atmosphere of goodwill and open-mindedness - no religious-style dogmatists to be found anywhere near Waitomo this weekend."
One of the attendees, Kyle McFarlane, said:
"I was in the most incredible of moods all weekend - uplifted, enthusiastic, optimistic, informed, thought-provoked, and most importantly - happy."
Sam Pierson recalled someone saying on departure:
"Time to return to unreality."
And we did return to unreality, didn't we? The everyday world of coercion, cynicism, back-biting and back-stabbing, the world of the glorification of the violent, the ugly, the destructive, the world of dishonesty, disloyalty, and insincerity, where one's cleverness is gauged by how deftly one practises these "virtues." (I work at Parliament, remember!) We did return to it … but we had something to compare it to. The euphoria of those three days may have worn off, but the memory of it will inspire us always. And of course, we now have the opportunity to live it again.
You see, what that euphoria tells us - or at least, what the things that engender it tell us - is that the world doesn't have to be as I just described it. And even while it is like that we have it in our power, as individuals interacting voluntarily, to create an alternative. Which brings me to my theme this morning, the Elixir of Youth. I readily confess I'm in no position to proffer a physical Elixir of Youth, even if I can beat Mr Rowlands at arm-wrestling, but I want to offer some thoughts on preserving one's youthfulness of spirit and the relevance of this to SOLO's mission.
In her Journals, making notes for her upcoming novel, The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand said:
"This may sound naïve. But - is our life ever to have any reality? Are we ever going to live on the level? Or is life always to be something else, something different from what it should be? A real life, simple and sincere, even naïve, is the only life where all the potential grandeur and beauty of human existence can be found. Are there real reasons for accepting the substitute, that which we have today? No one has shown today's life as it really is, with its real meaning and its reasons. I'm going to show it. If it's not a pretty picture - well, what is the alternative?"
In The Fountainhead, of course, she showed us, not just today's life as it really is, but the alternative also. And many years later, writing a weekly newspaper column for the Los Angeles Times, she said:
"When people look back at their childhood or youth, their wistfulness comes from the memory, not of what their lives had been in those years, but of what life had then promised to be. The expectation of some undefinable splendor, of the unusual, the exciting, the great, is an attribute of youth - and the process of aging is the process of that expectation's gradual extinction. One does not have to let it happen."
One doesn't - and one shouldn't. To let it happen is to succumb to spiritual death long before one's physical demise - to spend maybe half one's life jaundiced, jaded, cynical, listless, atrophied, desiccated …. Or, in the case of many of today's youth, to spend nearly all one's life like that.
Now note that for purposes of my presentation this morning I am taking four things as given - any one or all of which you might disagree with, none of which I have time to defend at length. One - that "that which we have today" is indeed a "substitute" for life as it might be and ought to be, a life "where all the potential grandeur and beauty of human existence can be found." To put it more bluntly, the culture of our time is an anti-culture, nihilistic and destructive. And in Ayn Rand's words, "When a culture is dedicated to the destruction of values - of all values, of values as such - men's psychological destruction has to follow." I will have more to say about this shortly.
The second thing I'm taking for granted is that the "great expectation" of which Rand speaks is indeed an attribute of youth - that is, it's something commonly experienced by human beings in their teens and twenties. I don't think this is controversial … psychologists and other observers of human behaviour often point to it and most of us can verify it from our own experience and introspection.
The third thing I'm taking for granted is that this attribute is a good thing - i.e. life-affirming and life-promoting - and one ought to nurture it and make of it a life-long companion. Rand talks about "life on the level"; SOLO's Credo talks about "a culture of sincerity and integrity, where mind-games, deceit and posturing - and having to read between the lines - in one's dealings with others are a thing of the past, where Shakespeare's 'This above all: to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man. ...' is second nature." It talks about "the total passion for the total height," "rational exuberance and exuberant rationality." Rand's "Great Expectation," I'm assuming, is great at least in part because it contributes to this kind of life on the individual level and this kind of culture on the collective level.
The fourth thing I take for granted is that we do indeed have difficulty sustaining it. It is difficult to nurture it and befriend it for life.
In short, what I'm concerned to do this morning is not debate whether life as we know it is "on the level," whether we nonetheless have this expectation in our youth and whether it's a good thing and whether we have difficulty sustaining it. I'm assuming that it isn't and we do and it is and we do! What I want to discuss is - why do we have that difficulty and how might we overcome it and preserve the expectation?
Two notes of caution: one, don't hold out too great an expectation of this speech. Don't imagine that in forty-five minutes from now you're going to have all the answers, that you're going to walk out of here with your Great Expectation restored and intact for life. Of course, these are ultimately matters that one must work out for oneself in any event, but that aside, the more I delved into this topic, the more I appreciated the enormity of it, and the more I realised the best I might be able to offer is a few pointers that may be helpful, to myself as much as anybody.
Two - If some of what I say seems like a case of stating the bleedingly obvious, that's because it is. I do this in the spirit of George Orwell's observation that the first duty of intelligent men is the restatement of the obvious. This is the first of several speeches at a sense-of-life conference; as such it should exude sense of life, and for that to happen, certain obvious things need restating.
Let me add my voice to those praising the SOLO 2 conference this past weekend. The company was extremely uplifting, and Linz really doesn't bite. Or didn't bite. This time.
I shouldn't have been surprised that each speaker at SOLO had not only a sense of life, but also a sense of humor ... I love to laugh when I am learning and I got the opportunity regularly. Amazingly, some of these guys even made economics seem interesting. Or made economists seem more interesting, anyways.
Lindsay's message hit me dead-on. I have heard those siren songs in the past couple of days and recognized them for what they were. I can't wait to get the CD set so I can listen to everything again and catch the bits that didn't sink in the first time. Glenn's "Benevolence" topic was still thrilling the second time I heard it, and I know that the rest of the speakers will hold up to repetition just as well. Even if they aren't as lickable as Glenn.
I learned some new songs at the SOLO jam session. "Psycho Killer" had not previously been part of my repertoire, but it was incredibly cheerful for such crap lyrics. Craig, Tim, and Sam all played beautifully and the singing was ... well, passionate. It could have been the wine but it seemed to me that everyone was just radiant. At least, the light reflected well off the pale, moon-like flesh of one A. Bates as he slept in the midst of us.
My advice? Never miss a chance to attend a gathering of SOLOists. Both the weekends, in NY and NZ, were among the most pleasurable I have spent.
It would definitely be helpful at this point to be more specific about what this thing is, this Great Expectation (a term I shall use interchangeably through this presentation with terms such as "fire in the belly" or "the spark that ignites") - an expectation, Rand said, of some undefinable splendor, of the unusual, the exciting, the great. Now remembering that Rand defined "sense of life" as "a preconceptual equivalent of metaphysics, an emotional, subconsciously integrated appraisal of man and of existence," this expectation is clearly a sense-of-life phenomenon. If it were post-conceptual, it would say, "Existence is good; it's about to become even better; and other people won't stop that happening - they'll help it, they'll be part of it." When you put it like that, maybe it's more than just a facet of your sense of life - perhaps it is one's sense of life. In any event, this Great Expectation is something we recognise ostensively - we know it when we feel it. We see people enjoying where they are and looking forward to even better things around the corner. It is a savouring of the present - and an eager anticipation of the future, even though we don't know exactly what it holds; the present is providing the basis for an optimistic assessment of the future. It's a perfect illustration of the point my colleague Mr Rowlands likes to make, that life is a process, not a state - something dynamic, ongoing, evolving, rather than an end point at which we take permanent repose. The latter, after all, is just a description of death.
By way of an illustration of a young man exuding this joy in the present and sense of expectation, we're now going to do a bit of eavesdropping. For about three minutes we're going to step into the living room of none other than Mr Mario Lanza, as he tests out a new reel-to-reel tape recorder he's purchased. This is about 1950, remember. His wife has been assigned to operate the machine. As he puts his voice through its paces, he teases his three-year-old daughter Colleen. But don't just think of a singer rehearsing and clowning around in his living room. Think of those words of Ayn Rand. "A real life, simple and sincere, even naïve, is the only life where all the potential grandeur and beauty of human existence can be found." Hear the humour, the love, the savouring of the latest invention of the human mind, the expectation of the great recording projects for which this will be a useful tool … and I'm betting at the end of the three minutes you'll be thinking, what a delightful vignette you've just been privileged to hear.
Mario Lanza vignette
Three minutes of life redolent with the Great Expectation.
Now remind yourselves that just nine years later, that young man died, a tired, dejected wreck.
So, why do we lose it? Why does it gradually - and in some cases quickly - become extinct?
Let's take Rand's own explanation as a starting point:
" … that fire dies for lack of fuel, under the gray weight of disappointments, when one discovers that adults do not know what they are doing, nor care - that a person one respected is an abject coward - that a public figure one admired is a posturing mediocrity - that a literary classic one had looked forward to reading is a minute analysis of people one would not want to look at twice, like a study in depth of a mud puddle."
So there's Ayn Rand, piling the blame onto other people! One has great expectations of them, but they let one down. They turn out to be mindless, to be cowards, poseurs, mediocrities and frauds. Having myself encountered over the last three years the most bizarre and disgusting series of betrayals and deceptions from people of whom I would least have expected betrayal and deception, it's an explanation with which I can readily concur! There's still plenty of reason not to get bitter and twisted, but I'll come back to that.
Now it would be nice to think that one could deal with the mindless, with cowards, poseurs, mediocrities and frauds simply as Roark does when the odious Ellsworth Toohey says to him, "Tell me what you think of me" and Roark replies, "But I don't think of you." Nice, but not realistic. These people are too ubiquitous, their values - or anti-values - too pervasive for it to be possible or desirable totally to ignore them. Rand herself clearly realised that or she wouldn't have cited other people as the reason one's own fire dies.
Clearly we need to be able to come up with a view of the world that can accommodate let-downs, deceptions, betrayals, the existence of cockroaches in human form, without our Great Expectation being thrown into a tailspin by them. Here I believe we come up slap bang against an area where Objectivism the movement has presented us with two false and therefore highly unhelpful alternatives.
It was a high. Two days chock full of ideas that matter - delivered with earthy skill, and this-worldly vision. And two nights with people who love ideas & life - and not surprisingly, to laugh freely. I can't pick a stand out. Here's a few personal picks:
Perigo, on the choice between the swamp & the mountain of great secrets. Exposing the sirens who would charm one's innocence & desire into the swamp. Uplifting, heartworn & slap bang on target.
Machan ad-libbing, in full flight and reminding us of how radical our ideas really are, in the context of 5000 years of human development.
Cresswell, walking us through Frank Lloyd Wright's Talesin West, and pointing out the elements that concretely put man in possession of the earth. This presentation of the 'hows' was inspirational, for the range of application is endless, in the hands of any practitioner who gets it. And how simple, yet sublime, is the integration of architecture with Man's nature. What every student could use. Wanted to get me a piece of raw land & some boulders.
There was so much more. Including the night life - convivial drinking, discussion & laughter. And the late night life led by the guitar-toting black knight, Lord "future-leader-who-still-lives-with-his-mum" Sturm, teaching us all we needed to know about his youth in a covers band.
This kind of weekend - intense as it is - flies by, but is like a deposit to draw on as I go forward. It's hard to get back into work.
Lindsay, as prime mover, you made it happen. My thanks.
One is the view one is most likely to hear among ARI folk. It is, in effect, that the world is depraved and one should have no truck with it. In his polemical tract, Fact and Value, Leonard Peikoff spoke of "the Objectivist world" and "the conventional world" as two quite distinct things - and he spoke scathingly of those who try to have a foot in both. This is rather akin to an Exclusive Brethren view of the world - "us" vs "them" and ne'er the twain shall or should meet. It's a view that leads to precisely the excommunications, denunciations and ostracisms that we've come to associate with that wing of the Objectivist movement. It's a view one can afford to take if one has inherited Ayn Rand's fortune and doesn't have to make a living in the world, but for most of us it's not practical and for all of us, I submit, it's not moral, because it egregiously distorts reality.
Equally wrong, however, is what we might call the TOC view, which I have described in the past as "pallid pollyannaism." This is the view contained in those ghastly bromides about every cloud having a silver lining, the glass being half full rather than half empty, every setback being an opportunity in disguise, there's some good in everybody, etc., etc.. The worst one I ever heard was from a clergyman, Robert Schuler - an obvious charlatan if ever there was one - on the Larry King show: "Turn your scars into stars." Ugh! It's the Leibniz/Dr Pangloss view that, appearances (and realities) to the contrary, all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. It's the view that enables the TOC to award New Zealand gold medals for freedom. It's the view that makes them insist that 70% of the entries in their Soundings column in Navigator magazine be "positive," lest the column should read like a Horror File. It's the view that says any condemnation of the world, however justified, is likely to lead to "alienation" from it, and is therefore to be avoided. It's the view that says: See no evil, hear no evil - but if you do hear or see evil, play it down. "Gosh, Mr Hitler, I gotta tell ya I'm uncomfortable about all those Jews you killed, but hey, I'm really stoked about all those Jews you didn't kill." It's wrong because there is evil there. A ton of it.
Where I'm leading with this is to say that there is no substitute for good-old fashioned realism in evaluating the world around us, and that we can better keep our Great Expectations alive with a realistic view than with an overly positive one or an overly negative one. With an unduly positive one we shall encounter a series of humungous shocks that will send us reeling and truly leave us bitter and twisted; with an unduly negative one we probably couldn't entertain Great Expectations in the first place.
My own view is this: human existence is riding on the philosophic coat-tails of a more rational era. As such it is still characterised by awe-inspiring achievements, which we may greedily savour and celebrate. The culture, however - by which I mean its dominant trends - is not riding philosophic coat-tails; it's riding a philosophic juggernaut driven by nihilism. It is the culture of "Suck my dick, bitch" masquerading as music lyrics, framed excrement masquerading as a painting, a couple of parked trucks masquerading as sculpture, emotional ejaculations or irrelevant nit-pickings competing to masquerade as philosophy, Eastern mysticism masquerading as science, and so on. I doubt that there has been as full-on and self-conscious an assault against reason in any other era. I doubt that an assault against reason has ever been as effective in so short a time. In my youth, even with what then seemed the likelihood of nuclear destruction hanging over us, we all had that Great Expectation. Among a significant, perhaps even defining, segment of today's youth, like "Who is John Galt?" in Atlas Shrugged, runs the glazed and monotoned leitmotif, "Who gives a shit?"
My own view, in other words, is closer to the ARI one than the TOC one. In fact, it frustrates me that I simply can't find the words to express my contempt for contemporary culture. I try often, as many of you know, but I can't do it. It's contemptible beyond words, or at least beyond any words that I have. And if you think that notwithstanding all the foregoing I'm being unduly negative, I should say at this point that my dear friend Dr Chris Sciabarra, noted advocate of the view that the glass is half full, had this to say to me recently - and he gave me permission to quote it (we were discussing music and modernity):
"Puccini is to die for. And all the classic American songwriters... bury virtually everything you hear today in pop music. The kids wouldn't know or understand this poetry if it came up and bit them in the ass. And even some songs not written by the above group [Puccini and the classic American songwriters]... like (and I could go on forever): 'Body and Soul' and 'Stardust' (the introduction of which buries most full songs from today's era), and 'All the Things You Are' and 'Why did I choose You?' ... and 'I Get Along without you very Well' (Hoagy Carmichael), and 'You Go to My Head'... written by Gillespie and Cooke, with phrases like: 'You intoxicate my soul with your eyes...' Quite a distance from 'suck my dick bitch.'"
The point I am concerned to make is that our Great Expectation is less likely to be derailed by the world if we have a realistic view of it. Recognise that the trends are vile - do not even think of trying to pretend they are not - but the trends are not the totality. Much of the world is a stinking swamp - but there are glowing vistas above it, too. Acknowledge the swamp, because it is there; but concentrate on the glowing vistas, because they're much more worthy of your attention. They are the source and repository of your life and your fire, the nourishment of your Great Expectations. Mentally accommodate the possibility that something or someone from the swamp may ambush you at any time, and possibly succeed in dragging you into it and dousing your spark. In which case, there is nothing for it but to haul yourself out, relight your fire and resume your steadfast march toward those vistas.
I would simply like to say that I felt I was in so many ways in Galt's Gulch for the time I was there. The use of the mind, the passion for human life, the optimism, the overwhelming sensation that for those two days I was with people who wanted to live, and do live. People who are using their minds, who share their thoughts and passion, who ask considered questions, who talk and listen, and have their own sparks, from their minds, hearts and bodies. I won't do justice to the speakers right now as I am too exhausted, and will reflect on them all more clearly in the coming days, but I listened, I was enthralled, I learned more, I was exposed to many different aspects of life, met new people and witnessed the sense of life that is the dynamo of humanity. If anyone came from it without a positive uplifting belief that the world I want to live in exists, it exists in the lives of so many SOLOists, and I cannot express sufficient thanks for the efforts of Linz, Shirley, Joseph and the other speakers for a fascinating weekend, and for all those who came from overseas.
In fact, it's not so much that you'll be ambushed and dragged into the swamp against your will; far more likely that you'll be lured into it, seduced by swamp sirens. Remember that the original sirens of Greek myth were sea nymphs whose sweet singing lured sailors to destruction on the rocks. My swamp sirens' songs are not sweet, but just damned loud, so that you think, "Anything that loud has to be where it's at" and off you go. Let me identify some of their themes - forewarned is forearmed, and all that.
"Go with the flow." The modern colloquialism for that age-old vice, conformity. Go with the flow, regardless of where it's headed. Note, I'm not suggesting you go against the flow just for the sake of being against the flow - non-conformity for its own sake is just as silly as conformity for its own sake; it is, as the early Objectivists pointed out, a form of counterfeit individualism. But do the obvious and rational thing before heading off in any direction - ask what the destination is. The next time someone says, "Go with the flow," ask, "Where is it flowing to?" It's unlikely you'll be told explicitly that it's headed for the swamp, but if you get some variant of "whatever" or "wherever" or "Who gives a shit?" you can safely assume that the flow is swamp-bound. I have a friend - not a close one - the biggest social climber on earth, who likes to say, "Well, one must get along, mustn't one?" Whenever he says that, I can hear Ayn Rand rounding on him and saying, "Get along with whom, and for what?" Get along by all means - but not if it means abandoning your journey and extinguishing your Great Expectations. Don't go with the flow, or not go with the flow, on principle - just take the trouble to find out where it's flowing and if that's somewhere you want to go.
The second siren song theme is much more pervasive and much more subtle. "Perception is reality." I would say this is the single most deadly bromide of our age, and the one most responsible for the worst features of our age. Sometimes you hear it as, "Perception is everything." The import of it is: there's no reality, just your perceptions, and everybody's perceptions, since there's no reality by which to validate them, are equally valid or invalid. In fact, there's no such thing as valid. You hear it from all manner of frauds, shysters, crooks, and con-men, particularly philosophy professors, politicians, MBA graduates and public relations slimeballs. They like it because it makes you gullible - anything, no matter how far-fetched, can be true if you believe it to be true - and if you're gullible, you'll more readily go along with their nefarious schemes.
Part of the allure of "perception is reality" stems from "go with the flow." It's a trendy thing to believe. Or so it's perceived. The reality is, it's as old as the hills. One of the Sophists in Ancient Greece used to say, "Nothing exists. If it did exist, you couldn't know it. If it did exist and you could know it, you couldn't communicate it." There's reason to think he was just joking, but he might just as well not have been given the credence those outrageous propositions have enjoyed in one form or another at certain times since, including now.
Fortuitously, just as I was preparing this presentation, the following message was posted to the libertyloop and the SOLO Forum by 15-year-old Craig Drayton, who's in the audience this morning. That is, he's here if you can see him; if you can't see him from where you're sitting, then he's not here. (And don't be so sure that you're here either!)
"Well I've just finished my second day back at school and I've had a few nasty shocks. …today my Media Studies teacher tried to convince the class that nothing is real. Truly.
"He even wrote it on the board. 'Nothing is Real' and explained that since we do not know what others perceive we can not know what is real. I tried to argue as much as I could before I felt the class and the teacher getting annoyed at the fact that I was actually thinking and trying to debate. …
"After the spell I asked him if he actually thought that nothing is real, and he said no, but he kept trying to convince me about difference in perception, at which point I said, 'Reality is unaffected by what you perceive of it. What is, is. It remains real, and what changes is how you see it.'
"He even said he accepted that, but only to me personally. 28 or so more people now think that nothing is real."
Now, they don't of course. If they did, they couldn't function. That arch-sceptic philosopher David Hume was honest enough to admit that he couldn't possibly live as though his philosophic conclusions were true, and when those conclusions got him down he'd repair to the pub to drink ales with his friends and not worry about whether the sun would rise tomorrow. The function of assertions like "Nothing is real" coming from authority-figures or just being absorbed by Osmosis from the culture is, by slow, lethal attrition, to undermine and debilitate. Nothing will snuff out your fire, dim your expectations more comprehensively than chronic doubt - and chronic doubt is the inevitable by-product of "Perception is reality" because "Nothing is real" is its inevitable by-product also. If nothing is real, why "give a shit" indeed?
I'm really glad I overcame my inertia and came to SOLO2. Thanks so much. It was a life-changing experience.
Now you might say, "Oh, you don't need to lecture us about this; we're Objectivists, and we've read Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, and we know all about the axioms and concept-formation, and analytic/synthetic dichotomy, we know that certainty is possible, and we wouldn't fall for that 'perception is reality' stuff.'" Good! Make sure you not only know the arguments, but you feel their import in every fibre of your being - because, again I say, nothing will choke your spark more effectively than scepticism and nihilism. I'm going to invent an expression in how to approach this matter - "rational paranoia." Be paranoid about "Perception is reality" because it is everywhere and it corrupts everything.
So - there are two siren songs from the swamp to be wary of for starters - "Go with the flow" and "Perception is reality."
Another one is "You'll grow out of it." This is one for the youngsters in particular to be alert to. That spark, that "expectation of some undefinable splendor, of the unusual, the exciting, the great," and the groping for the words, the ideals to give voice to the expectation is deemed to be just a developmental phase that you're going through. To keep the spark alive for any length of time, in this view, would be a case of arrested development, not a sign of mental good health. Mental health is characterised by ennui, a permanent sneer, a contemptuous dismissal of idealism, "Who gives a shit?"
Here's something Cameron wrote in The Free Radical a few years ago:
"As a seventeen-year-old observing the ways of the world it often saddens me to see the jaded view of life held by many older people. Any hot-headed and idealistic teenager will find his passionate convictions about the way the world should be dismissed as youthful naiveté. Apparently ideas are something you are supposed to just 'grow out of' when you enter the 'real' world.
"Most adults who tell teenagers such things have no idea that they are advocating what Objectivists call the mind-body dichotomy - the view in this case that the mind's ideas and convictions are divorced from reality and are unable to be applied in the material, 'practical' world. But the result of this view is devastating.
"A young person is at the cross-roads. He has been let loose from his parents and family and faces the world for the first time - on his own. Trying to make sense of things, he needs a set of ideas - a philosophy - to give him direction.
"But without the ideas he has been told are naive, without the convictions he has been told are impractical, he is going to begin the long and often difficult journey of life not knowing himself, or the world, or what his place in it should be. Having nothing to strive for, he will lose all sense of direction and purpose. There will be no 'fire in his belly,' no passion with which he greets the challenge of aiming for his goals. He will be driven unknowingly and passionlessly along the road to a destination that he has no knowledge about nor any desire to arrive at - a destination where blindness and boredom are the norm.
"This would be an unimaginable state for many people, but for many others it is a reality. And to the cynical 'grown-ups' who chided their teenagers for being too idealistic, this miserable existence is what they are commending as 'practical.'"
Remember Ayn Rand's mention of the discovery that adults do not know what they are doing and don't care?
The whole essence of my theme this morning is that this idealism is something one should never grow out of, but always be growing into. Regard it as such; resist that voice from the swamp that says, "You'll grow out of it."
That goes for everything that accompanies the idealism, hero-worship most emphatically included. As with a work of art at which one can look or a piece of music to which one can listen and say, "Yes! This is my universe," so too there are people of whom one can say the same. Those painters and composers for instance. Those in any area of life who embody your values outstandingly - cherish them ceaselessly and worship them shamelessly. Don't let the sniggers and sneers from the swamp dim your capacity for adoration of those who are worthy of it. That's not a sacrifice, after all, but a spiritual payment.
Remember the scene in The Fountainhead where a young man fresh out of college, looking for spiritual fuel for the journey ahead of him, is wheeling his bicycle through a forest, when he encounters Howard Roark, contemplating some breathtaking new structures - his own - in a nearby clearing. 'Who built this?' the boy asks. 'I did,' Roark replies. The boy thanks Roark and walks away. "Roark looked after him. He had never seen him before and he would never see him again. He did not know that he had given someone the courage to face a lifetime."
Nor, we could add, did he know that he'd just become someone's lifelong hero.
One of the great things about heroes is that they help you become your own hero.
In any event, be wary of, "You'll grow out of it," as you grow more and more into it.
And in my view, you should still be growing into it the day you die. It never stops. But here again a voice from the swamp will say, "You can put your feet up now and smell the roses." I blame governments for this. They inculcate the concept of retirement, a point at which you pass your use-by date and you're put out to pasture. Many people bring this forward and mentally retire at the age of 20. I've got news for you. You should never retire from life. Life, coming back to Mr Rowlands' point again, is a process requiring your active participation, not a state in which you passively allow yourself to become immersed. In order to smell the roses you must first grow them … and you can't do that with your feet up. Savour your achievements, absolutely, with relish, as often as possible, rest on them even … but remember that the purpose of rest is to recharge yourself for your next achievement. Permanent rest is … death. To keep your fire alive, then, don't listen to that voice that says at a certain age, it's all over. It's not over until your life's over. For broader motivation in this regard, acquaint yourself with Joe Rowlands' essays and speeches on the dynamic vs static view of life. Joe is blazing new trails in "applied Objectivism" with these essays, and I'm very proud to be associated with him. He's one of my heroes.
Thank you to all the shining lights involved in making SOLOC 2 the success it was. I'm at a crossroads in my life and SOLO was just the shot in the arm I needed. In particular, Lindsay's speech was a reminder of how important it is to remain true to one's path and to follow it resolutely. I adored Peter Cresswell's intro to the "how" of architecture. Peter has broken new ground in Objectivism with his analysis of the importance of metaphysical value judgments in architecture. Tibor Machan was a superb guest speaker - a truly first-hand thinker with both substance and style.
Everyone was great - but a big thank you in particular to Sam and Ashley for their Young Guns speeches. Ashley, yours was so genuine and heartfelt, and so full of life. Sam, yours was not only brilliantly funny, but also the best (only?) analysis of Sartre I've seen from an Objectivist perspective.
And, like last year, the best moments were the walks and the talks, the red wine and Bates' auctioning perfomance (and impersonation show). And, who knows, perhaps next year I'll do my Perigo impersonation :-)
The connection between conviction and passion is obvious enough to us SOLOists - we who stand for rational exuberance - as is the connection between lack of conviction and lack of passion. Here's a swamp song that works on the cause via the effect. Intense passion is the effect of profound conviction. This song says that intense passion is improper, unseemly, bad form, or in modern parlance, "uncool." "Hot" is "uncool." "Cool" - neither hot nor cold - is "cool." By implication, the best way to avoid the embarrassment of intense passion is to eschew its cause - profound conviction. So if you find yourself starting to believe in something, abandon it quickly, before you make a fool of yourself.
Take anger, for instance. We all recognise that idealists are prone to anger when their ideals are affronted, because their ideals are affronted. We used to have the expression, "angry young men" specifically to denote idealists. Theses days, it is very "uncool" indeed to get angry, just as it is to hold the strong convictions that might lead to it. Indeed, even on the SOLO Forum I detect this mentality that says the single most important thing in life is never to get angry and most certainly never to show it. To display anger is the greatest sin. Never mind the reason for your anger - don't get angry. To which I say, bollocks! Show me the man without anger and I'll show you a man without conviction. Show me the man without anger and I'll show you a jellyfish.
Now I'm not here advocating that one should run amok with one's anger, or any other emotion for that matter. I have spoken many times of the line between passion and hysteria ? a line I would also admit to having crossed a few times. I'm saying ? try by all means to keep your mind in charge of it, but in response to that voice from the swamp that says, "Stay cool" or "hang loose" or whatever, be proud of your anger when there's good reason for it. When there's good reason for it, not to feel and show anger would be reason to be ashamed. Ditto any other emotion. Do not be afraid to fuel your emotions with profound convictions.
Listen to these magnificent words from the 19th century anti-slavery campaigner, Frederick Douglass:
"Those who profess to favour freedom, and deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without ploughing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its waters."
Ponder this: a review of the SOLOHQ web site on Free-Market.net Homepage of the Week, Oct 31, 2002 ? an exultant discovery of Objectivists who had abandoned the Mr Spock view of how their philosophy should be practised:
"Ordinarily I wouldn't wade through the literature of an Objectivist organization. That's not because I think Rand was wrong, it's just that I find most Objectivist literature to be a bit, well, dry. But the SOLO website drew me in and kept me there. ? they proudly proclaim that reason and passion are not contradictory but complementary. "If only we can get that point across to all the deadpan Randroids out there. "Even as I fundamentally agree with Objectivism, I never got excited about the philosophy. Thankfully, Sense of Life Objectivists provides excellent insight into the philosophy without the tedium that hamstrings other Objectivist organizations. "A passionate amen to that!"
Ponder this, from Facets of Ayn Rand, by Mary Ann and Charles Sures:
Charles: I'd like to add two points here. One is that her expressions of anger were the exception, not the rule. Two, they were often followed by applause from the audience ? because the listeners were inspired by hearing someone speaking up for and defending what was right and good. They had heard, over and over again, mealy-mouthed speakers afraid to take a position ? or suggesting that there were always two sides to a question ? or that nothing is black and white. To have been subjected to these attitudes from childhood on up, and then to hear Ayn Rand take a firm position and defend it with conviction ? this was cause for cheering. The audience response was not only to the content of her ideas, but to the manner of expressing them. She was medicine for the soul.
Mary Ann: All those adults who taught us never to get angry, or if we did, not to express it, to hide our emotions when we were offended or felt we were being treated unjustly, to remain calm, to maintain an even keel, for God's sake don't blow up, no matter what ? these people didn't do us any favours by urging us to suppress, to live like glazed, non-reacting creatures.
Charles: When she got angry, it was precisely because she was a thinker and an evaluator who was certain of her convictions. She judged something as right or wrong, good or evil - and she responded accordingly. She didn't simmer and stew; she came to an immediate boil. Her thinking was not hampered and slowed down by chronic doubt, and her emotions were not suppressed or muted by it either. Moreover, her emotions never distorted or clouded her thinking. And the anger didn't last. It was over almost as soon as it began.
Mary Ann: I miss knowing that there is someone in the world who always speaks out, unequivocally, against irrationality and injustice, and who not only denounces evil but defends the good. She was mankind's intellectual guardian, a soldier in the battle of ideas. Her banner was always flying high. When she died, someone made the following comment: now anger has gone out of the world. And I thought, it's true. And it's the world's loss. And mine.
As I wrote this speech, an image became clearer and clearer in my mind. Fragments have appeared already. Let me now present it in full, as a device by which to sum up.
Part of the sky brilliantly sunny. Part darkly cloudy. The sun shining on a verdant field leading to a succession of mountains. Adjacent, under the clouds, our stinking swamp. On the mountains, life's delicious secrets ? the higher the mountain, the bigger the secrets ? beckoning an awestruck youth, pulse pounding, looking upward. From the swamp, siren songs of the kind I've mentioned, also beckoning, telling him it's not worth the effort. Youth climbing, then stumbling, distracted by the sirens from the swamp, struggling to regain his footing, then giving up, careering downhill, into the swamp.
A wise old woman appears. In a deep, accented drawl, she speaks to the youth at length, asks him a lot of questions, does a lot of listening as well as a lot of talking. Finally she admonishes him gently: "Do not let your fire go out, spark by irreplaceable spark, in the hopeless swamps of the approximate, the not-quite, the not-yet, the not at all. Do not let the hero in your soul perish in lonely frustration for the life you deserved but have never been able to reach. Check your road, and the nature of your battle. The world you desired can be won, it exists, it is real, it is possible, it's yours." She hands him a book or two, bids him good premises and leaves him. He reads a while, then resumes his climb. Much more surefooted this time, unphased by his occasional stumbles, he reaches the first summit. He throws his head back in triumphant laughter. He looks down, sees the swamp, hears the sirens - and puts his thumb to his nose. Then he notices the philosopher smiling at him, and salutes. She returns his salute. He knows she knows ? she's already been there.
I hope I've been able to dispense some antidotes to the sirens myself today, and to reinforce what most of you already know ? that the philosophy of Objectivism is the single most effective antidote there is.
At the start of my presentation, we heard from a young man who conquered a few peaks but stumbled well before the highest one he was capable of scaling. Forty four years after his death, however, what he did achieve still inspires people to gather every year in his home town, Philadelphia, and salute his memory. I attended the Mario Lanza Ball in 1995. Present that night was a soprano who had recorded a big operatic duet with him in 1955. She was seated at the head table as a guest of honour. She was 85 years old. Her name was Licia Albanese, now long retired, but she had been a leading soprano at the Metropolitan Opera House for decades. The MC announced that proceedings would commence with The Star-Spangled Banner, sung by a young baritone. He was at the back of the hall with his accompanist. As he began singing, we turned to look at him. Then we heard a female voice joining in. We turned to the front of the hall again, and there was Licia Albanese on her feet singing. She had decided there and then that she wasn't going to be left out ? she would sing The Star-Spangled Banner too. And she did. At 85. Not the most polished, but certainly the most spirited singing of The Star-Spangled Banner you ever heard.
I offer that moment in conclusion as proof that you need never let your spark go out.
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