What’s Wrong with the World

The men signed of the cross of Christ go gaily in the dark.


What’s Wrong with the World is dedicated to the defense of what remains of Christendom, the civilization made by the men of the Cross of Christ. Athwart two hostile Powers we stand: the Jihad and Liberalism...read more

Character Before Knowledge*

The free man practices and values the virtues of honesty, courage, reverence, justice, and self-restraint not so much because they are good in the abstract as because he shares a general taste for them. It is only within such an ethical and civic context that it makes any sense to speak of pursuing or loving truth. Philosophy, as Aristotle points out, is a dangerous pursuit for people have not been properly brought up by family and friends, because they will only learn how to justify their vices. Even the paltry bits of philosophy studied by Ayn Rand and her chief apostles hardened them in their selfishness, arrogance, and lewdness. Even if Rand or the Brandens had read a few good books, they would probably have turned them to evil purposes. We need only look at the example of Straussians who spend entire careers twisting and distorting every great political thinker from Plato to Jefferson. What is the result of all their lying? The kind of mad arrogance that overtook Bloom and Jaffa. (Thomas Fleming, from the September issue of Chronicles

It is, I think, obvious that virtue is not merely a precondition of the quest for wisdom, but integral to the process itself. One must possess an unimpeachable sense of honesty and integrity, to follow evidence, logic, and reason where they lead - and also courage, for it is seldom the case that falsehood and error are without their partisans. One must also possess humility, an ability to admit that one is not omniscient, a willingness to rely upon others, and to receive their criticism. And so forth. And, perhaps most critically for this age of ideological thought, a sense that no singular truth concerning man and the world is the entire truth. If man, for example, is naught but a utility maximizer, whole realms of human experience and personality are cordoned off behind impenetrable walls of cynicism and debunking: love is merely self-love given through the vector, the instrument, of another human being.

Which reminds me of one of my favourite minor texts of conservatism, Whittaker Chambers' magisterial review of Ayn Rand's turgid and indigestible tract for a dictatorship of the meritocratic, technocratic-capitalist superman, Atlas Shrugged.

So the Children of Light win handily by declaring a general strike of brains, of which they have a monopoly, letting the world go, literally, to smash. In the end, they troop out of their Rocky Mountain hideaway to repossess the ruins. It is then, in the book’s last line, that a character traces in the dir, over the desolate earth,” the Sign of the Dollar, in lieu of the Sign of the Cross, and in token that a suitably prostrate mankind is at last ready, for its sins, to be redeemed from the related evils of religion and social reform (the “mysticism of mind” and the “mysticism of muscle”).

That Dollar Sign is not merely provocative, though we sense a sophomoric intent to raise the pious hair on susceptible heads. More importantly, it is meant to seal the fact that mankind is ready to submit abjectly to an elite of technocrats, and their accessories, in a New Order, enlightened and instructed by Miss Rand’s ideas that the good life is one which “has resolved personal worth into exchange value,” “has left no other nexus between man and man than naked selfinterest, than callous “cash-payment.”‘ The author is explicit, in fact deafening, about these prerequisites. Lest you should be in any doubt after 1,168 pages, she assures you with a final stamp of the foot in a postscript:

“And I mean it.” But the words quoted above are those of Karl Marx. He, too, admired “naked self-interest” (in its time and place), and for much the same reasons as Miss Rand: because, he believed, it cleared away the cobwebs of religion and led to prodigies of industrial and cognate accomplishment. (snip)

And in such a godless universe, bereft of moral tincture, man becomes little more than a clever, consuming beast, differing from the lower animals only in respect of the greater degree of cunning he musters toward the satisfaction of his impulses. In order to conceal such utter, nihilating baseness, Rand, and those like her, posit some inherent nobility in the activities of the supermen of capitalism, though in such a universe, why such meaningless arrangements of material particles possess the quality of nobility, while, say, those who would - being equally meaningless arrangements of material particles - smite them back to the dust are fit only for undying execration, is a mystery. Or not. Ayn Rand, if I might invoke G.E. Moore, is basically telling us, "I like this sort of thing." To which, on her principles, the appropriate response is, "And I do not, and I shall smite those who attempt to establish it." Force, I say, is the only law, or better, inescapable reality, in such a world.

Rand, of course, cannot quite pull off the conjurer's trick, however, cannot quite accomplish what every alchemist before her failed to accomplish, the transformation of such worthless dross into something worthy of admiration.

Here occurs a little rub whose effects are just as observable in a free-enterprise system, which is in practice materialist (whatever else it claims or supposes itself to be), as they would be under an atheist socialism, if one were ever to deliver that material abundance that all promise. The rub is that the pursuit of happiness, as an end in itself, tends automatically, and widely, to be replaced by the pursuit of pleasure, with a consequent general softening of the fibers of will, intelligence, spirit. No doubt, Miss Rand has brooded upon that little rub. Hence in part, I presume, her insistence on man as a heroic being” With productive achievement as his noblest activity.” For, if Man’s heroism” (some will prefer to say: human dignity”) no longer derives from God, or is not a function of that godless integrity which was a root of Nietzsche’s anguish, then Man becomes merely the most consuming of animals, with glut as the condition of his happiness and its replenishment his foremost activity. So Randian Man, at least in his ruling caste, has to be held “heroic” in order not to be beastly. And this, of course, suits the author’s economics and the politics that must arise from them. For politics, of course, arise, though the author of Atlas Shrugged stares stonily past them, as if this book were not what, in fact, it is, essentially — a political book. And here begins mischief. Systems of philosophic materialism, so long as they merely circle outside this world’s atmosphere, matter little to most of us. The trouble is that they keep coming down to earth. It is when a system of materialist ideas presumes to give positive answers to real problems of our real life that mischief starts. In an age like ours, in which a highly complex technological society is everywhere in a high state of instability, such answers, however philosophic, translate quickly into political realities. And in the degree to which problems of complexity and instability are most bewildering to masses of men, a temptation sets in to let some species of Big Brother solve and supervise them.

One can sense it, if one has ever delved into the Rand oeuvre, and it is explicit in Atlas Shrugged: so great is the majesty of the superman, that all humanity is forever in his debt, and though all men be reduced, under the hard discipline of the superman, to the lowest servility, yet should they account themselves recipients of grace - of an unmerited favour as great as anything in Calvinism. Greater, one supposes, for it is of the nature of God to love his creatures; but it is not of the nature of the superman, who in effect transcends himself in leaving anything at all to his slaves employees compensated purely in accordance with their exchange values.

Something of this implication is fixed in the book’s dictatorial tone, which is much its most striking feature. Out of a lifetime of reading, I can recall no other book in which a tone of overriding arrogance was so implacably sustained. Its shrillness is without reprieve. Its dogmatism is without appeal. In addition, the mind which finds this tone natural to it shares other characteristics of its type. 1) It consistently mistakes raw force for strength, and the rawer the force, the more reverent the posture of the mind before it. 2) It supposes itself to be the bringer of a final revelation. Therefore, resistance to the Message cannot be tolerated because disagreement can never be merely honest, prudent, or just humanly fallible. Dissent from revelation so final (because, the author would say, so reasonable) can only be willfully wicked. There are ways of dealing with such wickedness, and, in fact, right reason itself enjoins them. From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: “To a gas chamber — go!” The same inflexibly self-righteous stance results, too (in the total absence of any saving humor), in odd extravagances of inflection and gesture-that Dollar Sign, for example. At first, we try to tell ourselves that these are just lapses, that this mind has, somehow, mislaid the discriminating knack that most of us pray will warn us in time of the difference between what is effective and firm, and what is wildly grotesque and excessive. Soon we suspect something worse. We suspect that this mind finds, precisely in extravagance, some exalting merit; feels a surging release of power and passion precisely in smashing up the house. A tornado might feel this way, or Carrie Nation.

Let the whole world perish, only let the will of the superman be realized. Creation is destructive, is it not? Reality is upheld by the perpetual sacrifice of the real to the volitional, an eternal holocaust of the particular and good, that the totalizing will might fill all things with its absolute nothingness - the nothingness of a soul turned in upon itself, in a quest for infinite satisfaction in the contingent things of creation. The absurd. The opposite of the eschatological presentness of the Kingdom: a foretaste of damnation.

The philosophy of a vicious person is merely that person's dominating vices and passions, elevated into metaphysical dogma; man is always the microcosm, and the evil person merely transposes his wickedness into the cacophony of the cosmos.

*Character, as a college roommate asserted in a personal credo, is prior to knowledge. The fool is not benefited by knowledge, but corrupts it. So, Dan, on the odd chance that you might ever read this, your words were truer than we ever thought.

Post a comment

Bold Italic Underline Quote

Note: In order to limit duplicate comments, please submit a comment only once. A comment may take a few minutes to appear beneath the article.

Although this site does not actively hold comments for moderation, some comments are automatically held by the blog system. For best results, limit the number of links (including links in your signature line to your own website) to under 3 per comment as all comments with a large number of links will be automatically held. If your comment is held for any reason, please be patient and an author or administrator will approve it. Do not resubmit the same comment as subsequent submissions of the same comment will be held as well.