TYPICALLY, I am vexed by discussions of hipsterism. The adjective and its objects, by “definition,” eschew labels and generally avoid generality (oh dear). As I stood in the shower this afternoon, however, I made a huge discovery. I have the power to banish hipsterism to the realm of nonentity for which it so desperately longs. I write to share this power with you.
Several thinking people have remarked that, once a cultural phenomenon can be abstracted and criticised, it is no longer, properly speaking, a part of our culture. In this way, true culture is like the present – as soon as it can be discussed, it has become a part of the past. Culture at the zenith of its power remains unspoken, it is that which informs ongoing discussions of culture by affecting our mode of understanding. It proceeds from what Richard Weaver calls our “metaphysical dream” – our collection of prejudices by which we pass judgment upon our experience. In this way, as soon as we begin to “break down” some article of culture to discuss it, we must admit that the article is really an artifact, a relic of culture. The culture represented therein may have dominated five centuries ago or five minutes ago, but it was some time ago nonetheless.
If you are a Star Trek fan, you probably don’t need any more explanation to have fully comprehended my point. However, for the reader of my blog that isn’t a nerd (I pray you’re out there, somewhere), I’ll spell it out, albeit in the grossest of simplifications. The Borg is a cyborg “species” in Star Trek that has a number of characteristics. One is relevant here. After being hit with a phasor, it develops resistance to the frequency of that phasor. For obvious reasons, conventional combat tactics (read: cultural criticism) are unable to destroy (read: destroy) the Borg.
Starfleet reaches a clever solution – it creates a weapon which unpredictably alters its frequency. So, after each blast, the Borg becomes calibrated to defend against the weapon, but the next blast is generated with a new frequency so it passes the Borg’s defenses. Thus, while the Borg is always one step ahead of the mainstream weapon, so to speak, it can actually be subdued with this one.
Hipsterism works this way. As soon as something is labeled by the mainstream as “hipster,” it disappears from the definition, and the little bugger recalibrates to defy future definition. However, having shot enough hipsters with phasors of the same frequency, Spenafleet has identified the essential element of the cultural phenomenon. And, since the ability to abstract the essential feature of a cultural phenomenon signals its transition into cultural history, hipsterism is, like, so totally over.
AS it is wont to do, Saturday Night Live created a satirical video. If you’ve seen an appreciable sampling of films by Quentin Tarantino, “D’Jesus Uncrossed” will certainly tickle your funny bone a little. The gratuitous violence and language, explicit parodies of iconic Tarantino sequences, and outlandish historical re-writing all suggest one thing to the culturally literate: Tarantino is the butt of this joke.
In choosing to use Jesus Christ as the vehicle for its satire, SNL has incited the indignation of many Christians. The problem, of course, is that “Christian Tarantino fans” are a very small demographic. This means that many Christians who see the sketch assume that SNL is simply using a superficial reference to the recent release, “Django Unchained” as a nefarious excuse to demean Christianity.
For this reason, Michael Farris, the Chancellor of my alma mater, wrote a Facebook note calling for a Christian response, including potential boycotts of SNL’s corporate sponsors. On the discussion thread below the note, many Christians have commented. A significant number of these comments are patently ridiculous. For instance, one comment condemned the video’s violent portrayal of Jesus while, in the same sentence, expressing anticipation of Christ’s return “to judge the earth in fire.”
Seeing this, one of my acquaintances catalogued some of the more hilarious quotes and posted them in a separate thread. Many of my younger friends had a mirthful discussion here, noting the absurd expressions of outrage that resulted from people’s unfamiliarity with Tarantino and their general inability to make logical arguments.
This wasn’t all the thread did, however. While I can’t speak to the motives of the original post, the general tone of the participants suggested that all Christians who were offended by the video and think that speaking out against it is appropriate are just as misguided as the ones who made bone-headed comments. They seemed to think that the idiocy of some who take umbrage at the sketch may be imputed to all who do so. Generally speaking, those who find the video inappropriate were lumped together with the group of fun-sucking fundamentalists with no sense of humor.
I should not have to point out the irony of a discussion whose purpose is to ridicule unreasonable arguments but which proceeds by means of an implicit red herring (specifically, guilt by association). The entire purpose of Farris’s original post—a debate about the moral quality of the video—was overshadowed by a self-congratulatory demolition of obviously weak assertions.
What no one did was ask the right question: is it okay to use Jesus Christ as a vehicle for satirizing a popular artist, especially if the satire proceeds by depicting the Son of God as a blasphemer and sadist? I have seen (and enjoyed) many of Tarantino’s releases, and I concede the cleverness of SNL’s sketch. As far as I know, however, God’s command that I fear Him is not contingent upon the cleverness of my irreverence. Thinking Christians should not allow their desire to skirt the ridicule of secular culture to persuade them to condone blasphemy. Certainly, many of our brothers and sisters condemn this video for the wrong reasons. Our reaction, however, should be to provide well-reasoned correction to their error while still affirming their refusal to smirk at the ridicule of our Lord.
A FRIEND of mine posted this picture on Facebook. Like most arguments by analogy which only take up the size of a photo, there’s a fallacy here. (A picture does indeed say a thousand words. The trouble is, one can never quite arrange them into a syllogism.) Interestingly, though, the fallacy of this argument also gets to the heart of the issue surrounding our nation’s discussion of gun control in the wake of Sandy Hook.
The fallacy here, of course, is false analogy. Schools aren’t similar to the White House, a bank, or a jewelry store such that armed guards are presumptively appropriate. So, we aren’t “defending” our children with a “gun free zone” sign instead of a guard. Instead, we demur to post armed guards at school and also post signs that says students ought not be armed either. The wisdom of this choice is debatable of course, but that’s not the subject of this post.
The picture illustrates a deeper truth, though. Why is it that we guard the President, the Supreme Court, or even some office buildings with guns? Because it is “reasonable” to suspect that someone with a gun will go to those places to murder and steal. All evil acts are, in one way or another, unreasonable. However, we typically recognize that a safe full of gold is likely going to attract a few criminals, and we see no way of fixing this other than to guard the gold with appropriate force.
That it should seem reasonable to compare an elementary school to other places which reasonably attract armed aggressors should give us pause. It’s one thing to live in a society where we recognize that there are those of low moral character who will stoop to rob banks. It’s quite another to live in a land where average children are recognized as similar targets. We can at least see the reasonableness of trying to get rich through theft, while still condemning the choice and guarding against it. But we have to call child-killings for what they are: the expression of complete, pathological depravity.
These events are not the result of a failure to post armed guards in schools, they are not the result of the general availability of firearms. They are the result of a single fact: there are enough psychopaths in our midst that school shootings have become a trend while the rest of us have so-tightly shut our eyes to the notion of human depravity that we believe that we’ll be fine in the madhouse so long as the pathologists don’t have assault rifles with thirty round clips. Perhaps our calling the child-killers insane is calling the kettle black.
A BRILLIANT acquaintance of mine posted this video concerning censorship and education. In a nutshell, the video notes the alarming rate at which American universities impose honor code regulations or student body seminars called “treatment” (I’m not kidding) in order to prevent intolerant or hateful speech. The most potent example the video furnishes is one in which a student was reading a historical book about the Ku Klux Klan’s demise which unfortunately had picture of some Klansmen on the cover. Although the content of the book was unquestionably against racism, the student was disciplined for racist activity by reading the book in public because passers-by were offended. Such activity, the video concludes, proves that “Students and campus administrators are losing sight of the important role that the skeptical, questioning mind—aware of its own failings—has played in every act of human progress.”
As a matter of policy, I couldn’t agree more with the video. Censorship, especially censorship in order to eradicate intolerance, is patently absurd (see my previous post). I must, however, point out an interesting assumption flowing from the sentence I quoted. That is, that skepticism is the friend of tolerance and the enemy of censorship.
There is no doubt that censorship and intolerance were common fare in institutions prior to the rise of skepticism in academia. I am not suggesting here that the state should burn heretics or that the university should expel dissenters. Clearly, institutionalized orthodoxy can be a tool of suppression, and a “skeptical, questioning mind” has indeed produced much fruit in academic, scientific, and even artistic endeavors.
Nor would anyone suggest that state universities attempt to indoctrinate the “intolerant” in the name of “tolerance” on account of their explicit commitment to positive moral truths. No, the contemporary rise of university censorship should be attributed to the inverse of the previous error. The university is now so dominated by the skeptical mind that it treats all claims to moral truth as a threat to the educational environment. While the “skeptical, questioning mind” was once celebrated as a means for reaching positive conclusions, it is now regarded as an ideal state of being from which only the intolerant depart. As soon as a student takes a positive position which places him in conflict with other students or the administration, he risks being painted as intolerant or hateful. State university administrators, after rightly discarding the forceful imposition of orthodoxy, have raised the banner of anti-orthodoxy and lead a charge against university attendees who willingly adopt an orthodoxy.
Once upon a time, the purpose of education was to lead students to an understanding of the truth. Because a public university in a liberal state may no longer proclaim that which is true beyond question, it became necessary to accept a degree of skepticism and hope that students might, through exposure to different views and ways of thinking, arrive at the truth through their use of reason. Now, however, the university mistakenly interprets its mandate to be silent on matters of ultimate truth as a mandate to silence those students on its campus who presume to have learned something in the university’s classroom. This is troubling, indeed (especially for those of us that actually pay tuition).
I APOLOGIZE for my elongated truancy. I moved, got a new job, took the LSAT, began my law school application process, and spent four consecutive weekends out of town to coach moot court. For this reason, I’ve been unable to sit down and write a post (though I’ve had many ideas). I had no intention of writing tonight, but a particular interaction has impelled me to strike a few keys.
One of my friends posted a photo in protest of violence that has been directed against transgendered persons. Despising a person simply on the basis of their being transgendered is immoral. Moving from derision to violence against such a person is unconscionable. However, the tone of the photo suggested that the answer to the extremes of derision and violence is unqualified acceptance because such persons are simply “being themselves.” I made a couple of comments suggesting that we should also direct our energy against pathologies that would suggest to anyone that, in order to truly “be themselves,” they need to assume a different gender. I also suggested that, while transgendered persons are deserving of our tolerance, that term should not be construed to include approval or affirmation because, in my opinion, to approve that choice is actually an unloving action.
You may disagree with me. The proprietor of the post certainly did. Instead of voicing her disagreement, though, she chose to delete every one of my comments (along with several others that I did not see), suggesting that they exemplified that “hate” that needed to be “wiped out.” While I may be dead wrong when it comes to the merits of the issue (that isn’t what this post is about), it is unquestionable that my comments were mild, reserved, and even caring. I found it particularly ironic that, in the context of a discussion that was posted in order to call for tolerance, the proprietor found it necessary to silence every contrary view rather than offer an answer.
It is imperative for our culture to develop a deeper understanding of tolerance and the ability to distinguish between true tolerance and that which masquerades as such. In one sense, the foundational issue is so difficult because we don’t have separate verbs for the two. Below is a paper that I wrote (a portion of which was delivered as a lecture at Patrick Henry College a few months ago) in order to begin elaborating on how tolerance may be rightly understood. These words were written in order to bolster a previous argument—that religious liberty and tolerance (properly understood) are actually the descendents of Christian ideas about human nature which demand a degree of liberty of conscience. In the absence of such ideas, I argue, tolerance loses its proper base and becomes simply another weapon in an ideological struggle for power. Thus, the references to religious liberty are somewhat incomplete in this article, but I cannot complete them without drawing this to an intolerable length.
The primary difficulty in all discussions of tolerance, religious or otherwise, in our society lies in the constant equivocation on the term itself. Different parties hold contrary definitions while assuming that the definition of tolerance is self-evident and, therefore, proceed to argue past one another, wondering in bewilderment why the other side will not see reason. One explanation for this confusion is that, while tolerance has a single basic meaning, it may be applied in the public sphere or the private sphere with differing, context-dependent implications. As a basic definition, tolerance should mean the recognition of another’s right to pursue and hold his own opinion, especially in matters of morality and politics. Tolerance is an inherently passive quality—the tolerant man will refrain from some actions which might otherwise be his natural reaction to certain beliefs or practices which he believes to be wrong. Tolerance never requires that a person actively support beliefs which he believes to be erroneous, nor does it require the tolerant person to admit that all other beliefs are of equal value. Tolerance, instead, has a tempering effect upon a person’s own convictions, preventing them from too-rapidly motivating action which will lead to their imposition upon others. A tolerant man may still believe that his opinions are the only correct ones. He simply may not take action to prevent others from holding opinions which he deems to be incorrect.
In a liberal state, the government is expected to be very tolerant. Beliefs themselves may never be proscribed. If a belief begets an action which is harmful to others, that act may be categorically prohibited, but not because it is the fruit of a particular belief, only because of its adverse effect. Private persons, on the other hand, may or may not be tolerant according to their own beliefs. Since the requirement that a state must be tolerant means that it cannot prohibit a belief on the basis of the state’s judgment of that belief’s merit, the state cannot prohibit a belief which it deems to be intolerant. Thus, private persons may hold certain beliefs which are mutually exclusive to other beliefs and they may take action to assert their beliefs in the hope that they achieve a measure of social acceptance. It is equally true that private persons may be tolerant—private persons in liberal states are especially likely to affirm the value of tolerance, since the state’s tolerant stance invites a degree of pluralism which recommends private toleration.
Not only must the state refrain from prohibiting intolerant beliefs, it must refrain from imposing tolerance. This is true for several reasons. First, and most simply, the tolerance of the liberal government is usually a function of a constitutional requirement that the government (1) respect the conscience of its citizens (“free exercise of religion” in the United States) and (2) that the state refrain from adopting a specific orthodoxy (“establishment of religion” in the United States). In this way, the citizens, by means of their constitution, have taken a positive position that the state ought to be tolerant. The people are able, through their exercise of popular sovereignty, to craft a requirement which is, in some degree, the fruit of a shared belief. The basis of this belief may be utilitarian or moral but it exists in either case and its imperative to the state is clear.
The state may not, however, interpret its duty to be tolerant as a mandate to make the people tolerant. First, because the people are not tolerant, and, if they are to demand tolerance of their government, they cannot be. They proved this when they wrote a constitution which said, by implication, “we will not tolerate an intolerant state.” If a person requires tolerance of another, they themselves are not wholly tolerant. Such a paradox is problematic only when citizens do not tolerate others on the basis of their intolerance. There is no logical problem with the people requiring a state, whose use of power is clearly delineated by the constitution, to exercise its constitutional power with the additional requirement that it shall never be intolerant of belief (though it may be intolerant of practices). Secondly, the constitution is not an instrument by which the state may impose requirements upon the people, it is an instrument by which the people impose requirements upon the state, plain and simple. Should the state decide that it must require tolerance of private entities, the state would necessarily violate the constitution because it has identified a group which it will not tolerate—those who it decides are intolerant. The only sensible solution in a liberal state is true tolerance of beliefs, whether or not those beliefs are mutually exclusive. The liberal state is required to leave the resolution of moral and religious debates to the people themselves since the people have not trusted it with the application of an orthodoxy.
So, when I use the word tolerance, I will be signifying the passive meaning of the term which implies a universal respect for the right of others to their own opinions, not an expectation that each opinion is as valid as the next or that each person should be just as tolerance as the next (interestingly, each of these expectations is related by correlation, if not causation). We do, therefore, need a word for that which carries an expectation that others recognize the validity of all opinions or that others tolerate each opinion to such an extent that they refrain from holding or expressing a viewpoint which is mutually exclusive to any other (this word would, for instance, represent the claim that a tolerant person cannot adhere to Christ’s statement in John 14:6). I will signify this selective tolerance as anti-orthodoxy, because it essentially opposes all claims to truth which pretend to be universal or exclusive by supposing that even the adherence to such beliefs necessitates intolerance. There is another reason that anti-orthodoxy is the proper term, and that is because anti-orthodoxy is itself an orthodoxy, but an orthodoxy with a single sentence in its catechism: “Absolute truth does not exist or, if it does, its existence may neither be known certainly nor reliably communicated by man.” Anti-orthodoxy relies on a claim that all orthodoxy is epistemologically obsolete because it improperly relies on universal truths which may neither be known nor communicated—yet, for its application, anti-orthodoxy must paradoxically presuppose that its own single claim must be true and capable of communication. It is, therefore, properly called orthodoxy for its implicit truth claim (no matter how incoherent) and is properly described as anti for both its consistent opposition to other orthodoxies and its single assertion that no orthodoxy can be justified in human understanding.
Having drawn a distinction between tolerance and anti–orthodoxy, I will now explain why the Enlightenment is the ancestor of the latter rather than the former. While the Enlightenment featured a spirited debate between rationalist and empiricist thinkers, both camps featured a strong element of skepticism (whether it was the empiricist’s unwillingness to admit a priori knowledge or the application of methodological doubt by the followers of Descartes). Several historians have suggested that it was the rise of skepticism which justified – or even necessitated – religious toleration. Indeed, if man is truly incapable of achieving certain knowledge, especially knowledge of things like good and evil, it would seem foolhardy to allow the state to impose a rigid orthodoxy by force.
Attributing religious toleration to the rise of moral skepticism is, however, misguided. Such a conclusion can seem valid only in the context of a culture which still sees the rules of logic as reliable and applicable. Moral skepticism supplies the premise that different men with different experiences and circumstances will not always identify the same goods. On this point Hobbes, Montesquieu, and Hume all agreed. To work from this premise to a conclusion affirming religious toleration, however, requires the additional premise that men ought to be able to pursue the good which they identify through reason or that one man ought not be able to impose his personal understanding of good onto others. These premises, however, could not be justified within the Enlightenment’s epistemological framework because this framework excluded the possibility of knowledge concerning a human essence and, therefore, of a human end, or telos. Without knowing what man ought to be, it cannot be said what man ought to do. In the wake of the Enlightenment’s failure to justify moral absolutes in secular terms, the West largely embraced an existential understanding of the self by which moral truths were emptied to personal values.
It is for this reason that our society is willing to extend tolerance to all groups except those which are intolerant, despite the illogic of this position. Tolerance, in the postmodern moral framework which is a direct descendant of the Enlightenment, cannot be justified as a right on the basis of its necessity for man’s ability to pursue his end. Instead, tolerance can only be expressed as a personal value which results from one’s own desire to be tolerated, arising from the denial of absolutes which characterizes anti-orthodoxy. In this way, it is “logical” for anti-orthodoxy’s extension of tolerance to others to be contingent upon the tolerance which those groups themselves express, because, in truth, anti-orthodoxy is not the affirmation of a moral principle requiring tolerance, it is the pursuit of a value desiring tolerance. Since anti-orthodoxy cannot recognize the value of orthodoxies because it affirms that all orthodoxies are useless at best and dangerous at worst, it will limit the application of its value, tolerance, to those groups which conform to the anti-orthodoxy and will, therefore, reciprocate the selective tolerance. It is for this reason that, in her opinion in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, Justice Ginsburg wrote that it is “hard to imagine a more viewpoint-neutral policy” than one that prevents groups from expressing exclusive viewpoints. When thoroughgoing skepticism is embraced, viewpoint-neutrality begins to mean the neutralization of all viewpoints and “tolerance” means the slow-but-sure destruction of all claims to exclusive truth. Religious toleration, on this trajectory, would extend only to those religious positions which exhibit an equal degree of skepticism—a degree which is ultimately destructive of religious orthodoxy.
We must be extremely cautious that we do not fall into an understanding of tolerance that is really nothing more than anti–orthodoxy. The former is essential for our political, cultural, and spiritual well-being. The latter, however, is a force of isolation and conflict that creates rifts that may prove ultimately unbridgeable.
MY last post concluded with a discussion of an apparent contradiction in Ayn Rand’s moral message. On the one hand, in Atlas Shrugged, Rand affirms the moral necessity of some correspondence between human acts and an objective order. On the other hand, she suggests in The Fountainhead that that the sole determinant of an action’s moral quality is its relation to the human ego; a good action being a freely selected means to a desired (self-satisfying) end, an evil action being one taken as a result of external pressure, or in opposition to personal desire. Rand is wholly committed to that which is, but she seems entirely convinced that the only authentic (and therefore, the only good) actions are selfish actions.
You have probably noticed the image which I selected as a heading for this post. It, of course, represents the sort of skin-deep analysis by which most debates on the internet proceed. If we are to limit ourselves to simply comparing the theological convictions (or lack thereof) of Ayn Rand and Jesus Christ, then we must concede that the two are essentially at odds. One cannot say that Rand and Christ are both right in their entirety, for in that case A would be not A. But, given the cultural importance of Rand’s work, along with the political significance of self-interest and the extent to which it should be allowed to guide human action, I think we must endeavor to understand exactly where these two positions diverge.
If there is to be internal consistency between Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead (and I believe there is), Rand’s moral message must be founded upon this proposition: complete self-centeredness constitutes the highest devotion to what is. Only if this is true will the subjectivity of the ego operate in harmony with objective reality. If there is to be further consistency between Rand’s work and Christian doctrine, then we must determine what “complete self-centeredness” implies and how these implications bear upon human nature (understood in the separate contexts of human depravity and redemption).
In order to understand exactly how Rand’s moral principle ought to be applied, I shall invoke the teaching of St. Augustine. In City of God, Augustine identifies goodness with existence, seeing evil as having no existential value in itself, rather defining it only as a privation or deficiency of existence. To make his claim, Augustine first writes that God’s self-descriptive statement, “I AM WHO I AM,” means that “God is Absolute Being and, therefore, all other being that is relative was made by Him.” Since God “supremely is and, therefore, is immutable, it follows that He gave ‘being’ to all that He created out of nothing; not, however, absolute being….Consequently, no nature—except a non-existent one—can be contrary to nature which is supreme and which created whatever other natures have beings. In other words, nonentity stands in opposition to that which is.” God’s first and foremost quality is His self-existence. Yet, His existence is not formless—He possesses an essence, an identity, from eternity. He does not say simply “I AM.” He says “I AM WHO I AM.” It follows, then, that His creative acts, which impart existence to created natures, will be consistent with this identity. Since He is the only creator and His essence is goodness, everything which bears existence bears goodness in proportion to that existence. Evil, therefore, does not exist, properly speaking. Instead, Augustine writes, “What ‘makes’ the will evil is, in reality, an ‘unmaking,’ a desertion from God.” Rebellion against God is the repudiation of the existence which He has ordained.
Not only is God “Absolute Being,” He is wholly concerned with His own pleasure and glory. He did not create the universe in order to please the universe, He did it so that the heavens would declare His glory (Ps. 19). He did not redeem rebellious creatures out of pity or obligation, He incurred an enormous cost “according to the purpose of His will, to the praise of His glorious grace” (Eph 1) “for the joy that was set before Him.” (Heb 12) It is, of course, true that all things to which God gave existence and for which God made sacrifice enjoy enormous benefits as the result of His action. These benefits are peripheral and secondary, however, when it comes to the motives for God’s actions. “The Son of Man came to serve, not to be served” (Matt 20:28), but only because man could no longer serve as He ought. Christ’s service to us was ultimately self-serving. Had it not been, Christ would have been an idolater. God’s good pleasure is the only motive for His actions. Our pleasure is the mere by-product of His plan. The fact that the two so nearly coincide should not allow us to believe that God is altruistic. Rather, He is just extravagantly brilliant: He crafted us in such a way that His pleasure would be served by our joy (as Piper writes, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him”).
In this light should Rand’s principle be examined. I submit that Rand’s moral teaching completely captures the essence of a being whose person is the source of existence and whose nature is the source of moral truth. Her mistake is to suppose that this being is man. God, as a being whose essence defines goodness, will necessarily have only desires which are good. Furthermore, being the source of existence, God’s complete self-centeredness constitutes the highest devotion to what is. Rand’s emphasis on man’s creative function as his most fundamental expression of morality suggests that, as so many have observed, her simple mistake is to treat man as God. I think, though, my exploration of her thought in the context of Sartre and Augustine shows that, while Rand is in error, she errs in style. Many writers have improperly deified mankind. Few writers have actually comprehended the moral implications of this mistake. Even fewer have completely captured the nature of human evil (rebellion against Being) and correctly identified the unity of existence and goodness while making this mistake. For this, Rand deserves immense respect. Rand’s absolute devotion to the authentic is an essentially Christian impulse; she errs only in supposing that the human ego is the fountainhead of the authentic.
Rand’s principle seems, then, to be correct when directed at God (whose self is the center, and therefore whose self-centeredness is always good and in accord with His Being), but appears to be mistaken when applied to mankind. It is clearly misguided to invoke her principle in the manner that she does, but this is only because, as Augustine observed, the Fall has vitiated human nature of some of its existential quality. In order to parse the application of this principle in both the pre and post-lapsarian contexts, I must first say a few words about human self-interest in general.
Rand is, I believe, unqualifiedly correct in claiming that man is a self-centered being. There are, in other words, no actions which can be described in terms other than “I want.” Selfish choices (choices made for the benefit of the self and to the detriment of others) require no exploration in order to fit this mould. What about acts of altruism? When a person gives of himself for the benefit of others, he does so either willingly or under coercion. If under coercion, the actor is choosing what he takes to be the more desirable of two undesirable choices (“I would rather give of myself than suffer x consequence”). If willingly, we must ask, whence comes the volition? Certainly, it is not the desire to accrue a tangible benefit, but even a so-called “selfless” act is the result of a personal desire to benefit someone else. Even when someone does something that they claim they did not want to do, what they really mean is that they had a choice between two things they did not want and chose the one of those two which they wanted (or for which they had the least distaste). It is literally impossible to make someone do something that they do not want to do. It is possible, however, to make someone “want” to do virtually anything, so long as one has the power to provide them with a worse alternative.
The problem, then, is not that human beings are irremediably self-centered. The problem is, that the self is centered on that which eradicates the self’s existence (opposition to Being, or God). Thus, in his fallen state man who does not seek after God is described as “dead in trespasses.” The spiritual death of which man was warned in the Garden was not figurative. Severing oneself from God is literally repudiating life, or existence. Understanding the Fall in this way perhaps explains why Western philosophy has arrived at its materialist existentialist destination. In some sense, this position “existence precedes essence” is actually descriptive of mankind. The good human nature, in its full existence as it was created by God, remains intact in the person of Jesus Christ. When man is born into the line of Adam, however, his depravity severs him from this nature, and he is in a state of “anguish” very similar to the one described by Sartre. For this reason, the self is improperly centered on non-Being and is, by both the Christian and Objectivist account, intent on evil. Furthermore, there is no self-centered action within the purview of the individual’s power by which he may restore his relationship with God. In other words, every act which the individual perceives as self-centered is actually an idolatrous act (since the self seeks to satisfy its ego on its own terms instead of on the Creator’s) and is therefore a step towards destruction, not bliss (and therefore cannot be properly called self-interested or even selfish).
The miracle of redemption is, then, that God, at His own expense and by His own volition, removes the heart of stone (non-being) and replaces it with a heart of flesh capable of loving Him (“we love Him because He first loved us”). Loving God is not a selfless act (as Rand writes, “One cannot say ‘I love’ without the ‘I’”). God does not require that we turn away from ourselves and to Him, He requires that we turn ourselves to Him. In so doing, the contours of the desires which we pursue will look radically different from those which we sought in our rebellion. We never stop seeking that which we desire. In other words, we never stop having desires. In this sense we are always self-centered. But, by means of the love which grows as a result of regeneration, the self becomes centered on God—this love produces new desires which (like God’s redemption plan), have a by-product of satisfaction which cannot be reached if man “looks only to [his own] interests.” Man, as Rand argued, must be devoted to that which is. Rand thought that by seeking himself, man would find that which he desired. If man were the measure of existence, she would have been right. The principle, that goodness and existence are inextricably linked, is correct. It’s application, when understood in the context of human depravity, is better articulated by the Psalmist: “Delight yourself in the LORD, and He will give you the desires of your heart.” (Ps. 37:4) Every Scriptural injunction to “selfless” behavior is predicated upon cultivation of love which unifies the good of the self with the good of others. The Scripture does not teach that we must “look only to the interests of others,” it says “look not only to your own interest, but also to the interest of others.” It does not teach “whoever loses his life for my sake does well,” it teaches “whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Every action directed outside the self is first motivated by a love which is possessed by the self, the execution of which will have the incidental effect of satisfying the self by virtue of the unity that love forges between the creature and the Creator. (Eph 1)
So, if you combine the metaphysics and soteriology herein, you end up with a very interesting result: Reformed Existentialist Christianity.
AS I observed, Ayn Rand concludes that every evil is ultimately derivative of human self-denial. Whenever man turns from the production of his own ego in an attempt to absorb pleasure (in any form) radiating from other persons, he is guilty of real evil. Additionally, anyone who demands that others subordinate their ego to the needs of others partakes of this same evil.
Needless to say, this position tends to make a reader with any scruples at all feel rather uncomfortable (I’m sure you can imagine, then, how at home I was in her pages). This discomfort is usually compounded when Rand begins to promote her conception of virtue. As is my custom, I will bore you with a lengthy quote, so Rand’s position may be understood in all its awful glory. While I will by no means address every line of this quotation, I think the context is important for your understanding, and I will subsequently utilize several elements that will go without mention in this particular post.
Speaking to a jury as the defendant in a trial, Howard Roark explains what is truly proper to a man, in Rand’s mind. Beginning from a fundamental distinction between productive and consumptive dispositions, Roark states,
“Nothing is given to man on earth. Everything he needs has to be produced. And here man faces his basic alternative: he can survive in only one of two ways – by the independent work of his own mind or as a parasite fed by the minds of others. The creator originates. The parasite borrows. The creator faces nature alone. The parasite faces nature through an intermediary…The basic need of the creator is independence. The reasoning mind cannot work under any form of compulsion. It cannot be curbed, sacrificed or subordinated to any consideration whatsoever. It demands total independence in function and in motive. To a creator, all relations with men are secondary. The basic need of the second-hander is to secure his ties with men in order to be fed. He places relations first. He declares that man exists in order to serve others. He preaches altruism. Altruism is the doctrine which demands that man live for others and place others above self. No man can live for another. He cannot share his spirit just as he cannot share his body…Men have been taught that the highest virtue is not to achieve, but to give. Yet one cannot give that which has not been created. Creation comes before distribution – or there will be nothing to distribute. The need of the creator comes before the need of any possible beneficiary. Yet we are taught to admire the second-hander who dispenses gifts he has not produced above the man who made the gifts possible. We praise an act of charity. We shrug at an act of achievement…Here the basic reversal is the most deadly. The issue has been perverted and man has been left no alternative – and no freedom. As poles of good and evil, he was offered two conceptions: egotism and altruism…This was the device by which dependence and suffering were perpetuated as fundamentals of life. The choice is not self-sacrifice or domination. The choice is independence or dependence. The code of the creator or the code of the second-hander…All that which proceeds from man’s independent ego is good. All that which proceeds from man’s dependence upon man is evil. The egotist in the absolute sense is not the man who sacrifices others. He is the man who stands above the need of using others in any manner. He does not function through them. He is not concerned with them in any primary manner. Not in his aim, not in his motive, not in his thinking, not in his desires, not in the source of his energy. He does not exist for any other man – and he asks no other man to exist for him. This is the only form of brotherhood and mutual respect possible between men.” (Emphasis mine)
The virtuous man is, in short, a creator who secures his own substance through independent action toward self-selected ends. Actions comport with this conception of virtue inasmuch as they proceed from free choice – choice made without reference to others, made only with reference to internal desire and touching external constraints only to the extent that the independent mind has rationally selected the means by which those constraints are to be overcome. Since good is defined as that which proceeds from man’s independent ego, it cannot be said that good exists apart from or prior to egotistical choice. That is to say, there is no sterile conception of good to which all good actions must conform. Rather, by acting in accord with his personal desire alone, man manifests that which is good through the act of independent choice.
When I said that I intended to offer a synthesis between Rand’s thought and Christian truth, I have a feeling that several of you reacted in the same manner as the crowd in the stadium when Babe Ruth called his shot by pointing to center field. Having explained further the way Rand understands good, I suppose that now my chances of hitting a homer seem even more remote. But, believe it or not, I am aware of the apparent absurdity that must overshadow my position. But, just hang on: I have some reputable Christian authority up my sleeve which will help vindicate my position. Just not yet. I’m trying my hand at the Scooby-Doo Method.
I hope that my summary of Randian virtue brought Jean-Paul Sartre’s Existentialism is a Humanism to your mind. In fact, Sartre’s articulation of Existentialism accommodates Rand’s Objectivism entirely (irony, no?). Existentialism is cogently summarized as the “belief that existence precedes essence.” Elaborating on this point, Sartre writes, “We mean that man first exists: he materializes in the world, encounters himself, and only afterward defines himself. If man as existentialist conceive of him cannot be defined, it is because to begin with he is nothing. He will not be anything until later, and then he will be what he makes of himself.“
Rand would not necessarily affirm that man’s existence metaphysically precedes his essence (she would probably say that doing so requires the same self-denial which leads man to deny that “A is A”). But, she must unquestionably concede that, for mankind, there can be no essential goodness prior to existential action (remember Roark’s point that nothing can be shared that has first not been created). Rand’s emphasis on choice and freedom reveal her fundamental alliance with Sartre. For, just as an egotistical choice made under conditions of true freedom must necessarily be good for Rand, so also Sartre writes, “Choosing to be this or that is to affirm at the same time the value of what we choose, because we can never choose evil. We always choose the good…” On the point of freedom, Sartre continues, “Indeed, everything is permissible is God does not exist, and man is consequently abandoned, for he cannot find anything to rely on – neither within nor without. First, he finds there are no excuses. For if it is true that existence precedes essence, we can never explain our actions by reference to a given and immutable human nature. In other words, there is no determinism – man is free, man is freedom…he is responsible for everything he does.”
There is, then, an underlying tension in Rand’s thought (which I will attribute to a single mistake). For, she simultaneously claims that evil is unfaithfulness to the self, and yet that evil most commonly takes the form of a refusal to acknowledge that which exists objectively. Evil is a withdrawal from what exists, good is bringing that which exists into presence by means of free acts. But, if there is an external order which cannot be denied without betraying the self, how can it be said that the external order is apprehended only be selfish action? How are the elements of existentialist subjectivism present in Rand’s Objectivism to be reconciled with (or overcome by) her dedication to absolute truth?