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“A day so happy”: a transcript of Ayn Rand’s long-lost seminar on happiness

Sometime in the late summer of 1965, not long after the publication of The Virtue of Selfishness, a small handful of philosophy professors (well, two of them) held a little-known seminar with Ayn Rand in her spacious but regrettably smoke-filled and cat-filled living room. The topic? The nature of happiness. It was a very interesting evening. I was there (I was either “Professor I” or “Professor K,” I no longer remember which); I reconstruct the seminar below in its entirety, from memory.

To be sure, I wasn’t yet born in the summer of 1965, so like so many reminiscences of Ayn Rand, my memories of that evening are a self-aggrandizing composite of plausible inference, confabulation, and wishful thinking—in short, fiction narrated by an unreliable narrator. But you might still be interested in them.

For some reason, the two professors are known only by their code names, “Professor I” and “Professor K.”

Ayn Rand: I am very happy to see you all here. Well, both of you. On second thought: where is everyone, anyway? What kind of conversation are we supposed to have in the company of two dubious philosophy professors and a bunch of cats? Where is Lenush? Where is Nathan?

Professor I to Professor K (sotto voce): “Lenush”? WTF is she talking about?

Professor K (to I): “Lenush” is Leonard Peikoff’s nom de guerre.

Professor I (to AR): I think Nathan scheduled some kind of dance tonight. We can’t dance, so we decided to come here.

Professor K (apologetically): We just really value your work. [Pause] To be absolutely honest with you, we’re from New Jersey.

AR: You really need to get a life.

Professor K: That’s for sure–to speak of “value” apart from “life” would be even worse than a contradiction in terms (VS, p. 18).

AR:  Jesus, I need a cigarette already.

Anyway, ‘happiness’ is our topic of discussion tonight. As usual, I begin by quoting myself, from “The Objectivist Ethics”:

The irrational is the impossible: it is that which contradicts the facts of reality; facts canot be altered by wish, but they can destroy the wisher. If a man desires and pursues contradictions—if he wants to have his cake and eat it, too—he disintegrates his consciousness; he turns his inner life into a civil war of blind forces engaged in dark, incoherent, pointless, meaningless conflicts….

Happiness is that state of consciousness which proceeds from the achievement of one’s own values. If a man values productive work, his happiness is the measure of his success in the service of his life. But if a man values destruction…his alleged happiness is the measure of his success in the service of his own self-destruction. It must be said that the emotional state of all those irrationalists cannot be properly designated as happiness or even as pleasure: it is merely a moment’s relief from their chronic state of terror. …

I quote from Galt’s speech: ‘Happiness is a state of non-contradictory joy—a joy without penalty or guilt, a joy that does not clash with any of your values, and does not work for your own destruction….Happiness is possible only to a rational man, the man who desire nothing but rational goals, seeks nothing but rational values, and finds his joy in nothing but rational action.’ (VS, pp. 31-32)

Clearly, in the passage, I’m taking ‘valuation of productive work’ and ‘valuation of destruction’ as fundamental, inescapable, and exclusive options such that any agent must choose one or face the other, and most of the other choices he faces reduce to that one. Anyone who doesn’t value productive work in the right way is to that degree valuing his own destruction. And of course, I’m presupposing that the agent forms the concept of ‘production’ in the right way. All trivial stuff, which I leave as an exercise.

Also en passant: The preceding passage provides the rationale for and limitation on my non-conflicts of interest thesis; in other words, the thesis asserts that there are no conflicts of interest between happy people qua happy. Unhappy people are another story altogether, each—along with his family—unhappy, conflictual, and conflict-producing in his own way. Spend some time in Hebron or Peshawar, and you’ll see what I mean. Granted, neither the 1967 Arab-Israeli war nor the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan has happened yet, but once they do, the point will become obvious enough.

Well, that settles that, doesn’t it? I mean what else is left to say on the subject? Questions?

Ayn Rand

Ayn Rand (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Professor I: Yes, Ayn…may I call you “Ayn”?

AR: No.

Professor I: OK, Miss Rand. I just wanted to see whether I understand what you mean by ‘non-contradictory’ joy. So my procedure here was going to be to quote some passages from classic works discussing happiness, and see whether the happiness described by the author satisfied or failed to satisfy your description.

AR: Sounds like a pretty stupid procedure if you ask me. I just finished writing three of the greatest novels of all time, and now you’re quoting some other mediocre authors at me. I get more respect from my cats. But go ahead. I’ve got a whole pack of Marlboros here, and I can see it’s going to be a long night. There’s nothing worth reading in modern literature, I’ve read it all.

Professor I: Well, I could have quoted Philip Larkin, but here’s a passage from Nabokov’s Lolita. The narrator is Humbert Humbert, a pedophile. And I take it that despite the reference to happiness, this is a classic case of hedonic failure. In other words, this is what happiness is not:

Oh, do not scowl at me reader, I do not intend to convey the impression that I did not manage to be happy. Reader must understand that in the possession and thralldom of a nymphet the enchanted traveler stands, as it were, beyond happiness. For there is no other bliss on earth comparable to that of fondling a nymphet. It is hors concours, that bliss, it belongs to another class, another plane of sensitivity. Despite our tiffs, despite her nastiness, despite all the fuss and faces she made, and the vulgarity, and the danger, and the horrible hopelessness of it all, I still dwelled deep in my elected paradise—a paradise whose skies were the color of hell-flames—but still a paradise (Lolita, Second Vintage International edition, p. 166).

AR: Great, Larkin or Nabokov: we’re really spoiled for choice here. You have the nerve to quote Lolita at me? Didn’t you read what I said about that filthy excuse for a novel in my Playboy interview of June 1964?

Professor K: You were in Playboy? I’m pretty sure I have that issue.

AR: It was an interview. What kind of girl do you think I am?

Professor K: Oh, no wonder I missed it—I only subscribe to Playboy for the pictures.

Professor I: Could we get back on topic, please?

AR: Yes, well, Nabokov is a brilliant stylist, and he has a certain psychological acuity, so the passage is a brilliant depiction of a contradictory attempt at joy, depicting someone  who desires effects without causes, and plunges himself into the civil war I was talking about. Some idiot—I think it was Lionel Trilling—described Lolita as a “love story.” But there is no such thing as romantic love in the context of force between moral non-equals—e.g, between a child of twelve and a man of forty—and the attempt to force love, as Humbert does, is exactly the kind of contradiction that would lead to a psychological state like the one described. He thinks he is in love, but by the nature of the case, he can’t be in love. So the description of ‘happiness’ comes out as a self-contradictory distortion. No effort of will could make Humbert happy in my sense because no effort of will could turn the relationship into love, and only love would make them happy. The contradiction couldn’t be clearer, and neither could the subversion of happiness, no matter what he says. A “hellish paradise” is as explicit and grotesque a contradiction in terms as any imaginable.

Professor I: Beyond just the asymmetry between the two of them, Humbert’s sexual desires aren’t exclusive to Lolita anyway, even during the time he spends with her. So it’s unclear how his wild diffusion of (pedophilic) sexual attractions is supposed to be compatible with love. And beyond that, Lolita is miserable, and Humbert knows she is, so his “happiness” is purchased at the price of her unhappiness. When he brings that fact to self-consciousness, his happiness evaporates, but when he doesn’t, he deceives himself, and purchases happiness at the price of self-deception. He spends the whole novel oscillating from one alternative to the other.

AR: I wouldn’t know. I didn’t get that far.

Vladimir Nabokov

Vladimir Nabokov

Professor K: Actually, the Nabokov passage—the novel as a whole—sounds a lot like the depiction of vicious self-hatred in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics IX.8. A bit like the end of Plato’s Republic and the Gorgias, too.

AR: I love that Aristotle!

Professor K: Maybe that explains why the plot of the novel of Lolita is such a joke. You really couldn’t successfully plot a novel consisting of nothing but the depiction of a reprobate headed on a downward moral descent, followed by an ad hoc upward redemption of about a paragraph at the very end, as in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment–no matter how beautiful the paragraph. That’s why Nabokov finds himself, plot-wise, with nowhere to go with Humbert, and has to invent the ridiculous “Quilty” conceit to drive the plot to its conclusion.

Professor I: Yeah. But Crime and Punishment is otherwise well-plotted. There’s more going on there than in Lolita, Russian as they both are.

Professor K: Debatable.

Professor I: Isn’t there an irony here? Miss Rand’s critics love to haul Lolita out as an example of literary genius that so obviously exceeds hers. But the irony is: the more successfully Lolita depicts Humbert’s inner state—or depicts a Humbert-like moral agent—the more it confirms Miss Rand’s conception of happiness. That doesn’t seem to be a fact they’ve grasped, but the more loudly they insist on Nabokov’s genius, the more unwittingly they defend the Objectivist Ethics.

AR: Yes, and my aesthetic views, too, which are not yet part of history, but will be (Romantic Manifesto, pp. 82-87). But feel free to waste your time on such depravity studies as Lolita.

Professor K: I guess we already have.

Professor I: Anyway, I’ve got another passage, a subtler one. I think it’s another paradigmatic case of what happiness is not. It’s from Hobbes’s Leviathan.

‘Continual success’ in obtaining those things which a man from time to time desireth, that is to say continual prospering, is that men call ‘felicity’—I mean the felicity of this life. For there is no such thing as perpetual tranquility of mind while we live here, because life itself is but motion, and can never be without desire, nor without fear, no more than without sense. What kind of felicity God hath ordained to them that devoutly honour Him a man shall no sooner know than enjoy, being joys that now are as incomprehensible as the word of schoolmen ‘beatifical vision’ is unintelligible. (Leviathan I.6, near the end)

The subtlety here is that you vehemently reject Hobbes-type views (VS, pp. 33-34), and yet there seems to be a certain overlap between Hobbes’s views and your own, Miss Rand. Isn’t there?

AR: Do you intend to insult me all night? I’m almost out of cigarettes already. Don’t make me reach for the Benzedrine. Only an immoral cretin would dare to equate Objectivism, the philosophy of Ayn Rand, with the so-called philosophy of that Attila-ist mystic of muscle, Thomas Hobbes.

Professor K: Are you sure you’re not on Benzedrine already?

Professor I: Look, be reasonable. There’s an overlap, or at least an apparent one, between Hobbes’s account and yours, and it stems from your description of the conditionality of life. You say in “The Objectivist Ethics” that life requires a constant process of self-generated and self-sustaining action, and that stillness is the antithesis of life. That sounds rather neurotic, at least on a literal, face-value reading (of the kind you yourself recommend as the right method for reading a text). It almost sounds as though you think that happiness requires manic activity incompatible with tranquility or rest—just like Hobbes.

In fact, having heard you speak about “sense of life” in the past, you sometimes sound as though you’ve integrated mania itself into your sense of life, and turned that mis-integration into a moral imperative. I once heard you condemn as indicative of a lack of self-esteem the positive emotional associations that people have for the folks next door, family picnics, known routines, humble people, old villages, foggy landscapes, folk music, and comfort (RM, p. 27). The common denominator there was supposed to be “the undemanding safety of passivity” (RM, p. 27). But that judgment really seems to presuppose a manic conception of the relation of activity to passivity. Why would comfort or an old, quaint village evoke so intense a condemnation? The connection between them and passivity must be direct, and passivity itself must be something approaching evil, regardless of context.  Both you and Hobbes have a peculiar intensity on this topic.  But you both just seem wrong. You sound like refugees from a civil war or something.

Professor K: Bro, I see your point, but folk music? Give her that one.

Professor I: So how do you differentiate your view from Hobbes’s at the level of moral psychology, even before we get to Hobbes’s views on survival, the state of nature, the state, and so on?

AR: Well, you needn’t continue with your psycho-biographical speculations. Why not just try reading more carefully? I also said that what’s required for survival is determined by an organism’s nature, and that only in a fundamental sense, is stillness the antithesis of life (VS, p. 17).

Professor I: How does that help?

AR: Well, man’s nature could be such as to require stillness in some less-than-fundamental way, or to require some weaker analogue of stillness that fell short of being literal stillness. If that was so, everything I said could be right, and you might just dislike my examples. But not much turns on that. Supply your own examples. I’m sure you can come up with your own examples of an objectionably passive lifestyle.

Professor I: That’s a long way to go in your reliance on the concepts of ‘nature’ and ‘fundamentality’. And pretty hair-splitting about “stillness.”

AR: What’s wrong with that?

Professor I: Nothing, I guess, but it suggests that there are a lot of blanks to fill in, and lots of hairs to split, before Objectivism has very much determinacy as philosophical systems go. You don’t say very much about any of the three concepts–nature, fundamentality, or stillness–and I’m predicting you never will. And yet all three concepts are crucial to getting clear on what you’re saying. A person who didn’t get clear on them might easily call himself an Objectivist but espouse Hobbesian views.

AR: No kidding. Who ever said otherwise? You’re acting like I’m writing up some kind of closed system or something. Do I really look like Leibniz to you? Or Spinoza? Or Hegel? I mean, really. I started the book by saying it wasn’t a systematic discussion of ethics, just a series of essays on those ethical subjects which needed clarification (VS, p. xii). All I did, and claimed to do, was to provide readers like you with a consistent philosophical frame of reference (VS, p. xii). The rest is up to you. Now you’re complaining that I didn’t hold your hand through all the details and doctrinata of the metaphysics of morals. What am I, your philosophical babysitter? You have Ph.Ds. Figure it out your damn selves! Why do I have to do everything?

Professor I: Well, Miss Rand, I really think you’re trying to have it both ways at once. I’m sorry. Sometimes you write as though you were just preparing the ground for the great philosophical labors of the future; sometimes, you write as though Galt’s Speech was the last word in philosophy, and Objectivism was carved in stone there. You can’t have your philosophical system and eat it. First you have to write it. Then you can have it. I wouldn’t advise eating it.

AR: How dare you? That you should presume to slither across the river from the uncivilized hinterlands you inhabit–into this, our City–and speak in this way to the author of Atlas Shrugged!

Professor K:  I think he’s just asking: if we use your essays as a “frame of reference,” and come up with our own discoveries about metaphysics and its relation to ethics–and they’re true–those discoveries need not be ratified by some authority figure to count as elements of the Objectivist Ethics–would they?

AR: Of course not. But check with Nathan before you say anything too overly original and decide to call it “Objectivism.” I mean, there are limits. Objectivism is the name of my system, my achievement, my work—my name rhymes with mine for a reason—and we can’t have a bunch of crazy people going around using “Objectivism” for their own idiosyncratic purposes. That’s why I have to put its guardianship in the hands of a trustworthy person like Nathaniel Branden. Or, well, in the hands of the Collective. Better several pairs of hands than one. After all, what if Murray Rothbard decided to call himself an Objectivist?

Professor I: That doesn’t sound consistent. Philosophically, it almost sounds like a suicide note.

AR: No, my naive friend. You don’t seem to realize that Nathaniel Branden is a genius, in fact, the handsomest genius ever to walk the planet. Trust me, there are different rules for handsome geniuses like him. Get used to it. I have.

Professor I: “Different rules for handsome geniuses”: Is that official Objectivist doctrine?

AR: I just finished telling you there aren’t any official doctrines in Objectivism. We’re philosophers here, not commissars. Anyway, let’s back up and figure out what’s wrong with Mr. Hobbes.

Yes, life requires continual success in obtaining the objects of our desire. And yes, we’re focused on the felicity of this life; there is no other. But Hobbes mistakenly thinks that there’s a valid inference from ‘life itself is motion and can never be without desire’ to ‘there is no such thing as perpetual tranquility of mind.’

Set aside the red herring of perpetual tranquility of mind. Hobbes isn’t merely denying the possibility of perpetual (or eternal) tranquility but of tranquility as such. The issue is the possiibilty of tranquility as such, not perpetual tranquility. If there were no tranquility, it is unclear how there could be such a thing as happiness. An utterly non-tranquil happiness doesn’t make sense. Without tranquility, there would be no conscious acceptance of the world as it is. A person not at civil war with himself must at some level be at peace with himself. And Hobbes’s moral psychology seems incompatible with such a peace.

Hobbes concedes the claim that tranquility is to be gotten in some other realm, if such a realm exists—but he’s awfully cagey about whether or not it does exist. And we all know that it doesn’t. The result is a moral psychology from which tranquility has been banished. He then conceives of happiness as a quest for a form of ‘felicity’ which is never satisfied. That really is neurotic. A series of means going off into a progression toward a nonexistent end is a metaphysical and epistemological absurdity, even if the progression involves a merely finite series (VS, p. 17). And Hobbesian felicity satisfies that description.

Hobbes assumes that an agent’s possession of a desire is by that fact alone incompatible with the agent’s enjoying tranquility. To have a desire is to be pushed or pulled toward some object requiring satisfaction, but the minute you satisfy it, or seem to, another desire springs up based on the one you just satisfied, pushing or pulling you once again. Hobbes treats this story as a conceptual truth about the nature of desire, but the story seems driven—so to speak—by his physics, which ends up being his psycho-physics. We’re always in the grips of desires that keep demanding further satisfaction, as though the desires were quasi-homunculi with their own various agendas for us, whereas no agent has a single integrated agenda of his own for his desires.

For there is no such finis ultimus, (utmost aim), nor summum bonum (greatest good), as is spoken of in the books of the old moral philosophers. Nor can a man any more live, whose desires are at an end, than he whose senses and imagination are at a stand. Felicity is a continual progress of the desire, from one object to another, the attaining of the former, being still but the way to the latter. The cause whereof is, that the object of man’s desire, is not to enjoy once only, and for an instance of time, but to assure forever, the way of his future desire. (Leviathan, I.11)

This is a weaker way of putting the earlier point, but problematically equivocal. On a strong reading of the just-preceding passage, it just assumes what Hobbes needs to prove—that every desire is phenomenologically future-oriented (feels that way), so that there couldn’t be a desire whose satisfaction consisted in securing instances of time that allowed for the tranquility of full satisfaction in one’s current situation and possessions. Well, why not?

On a weak reading, it’s trivial. Yes, if we allow for the possibility of desires for genuine tranquility, the desire has a future orientation: tranquility is a need of a temporally-extended agent, and it makes a causal contribution to the preservation of the agent’s agency in the future. Just compare a full night’s sleep with extended insomnia. A good night’s sleep tonight will, to be sure, help you perform tomorrow’s business better than a bad night’s sleep. Insomnia makes you miserable tonight and tomorrow. But sleep in some sense involves a cessation of desire, no matter what dispositional reading you want to give to the desires that the agent retains while asleep. (Do I still want to be a writer while I’m asleep? It depends what you mean by ‘want to be a writer while asleep.’) Hobbes can hardly deny that some desires come to an end in sleep compatibly with the life of the agent.

Suppose you decide to go to bed at 11 pm with the aim of getting up at 8 am. You do so in the knowledge that deciding to go to bed is not quite the same as deciding to sleep, and setting the alarm for 8 is not quite the same as spontaneously getting up at 8. Ideally, the first two italicized terms would coincide perfectly with one another, as would the last two. But neither of the second items in each pair is directly in your control.

The decision to go to bed at a certain time of night is justified by the contribution to alertness it makes to waking life the next day. But if you fixated all night long on that thought, you’d never go to sleep. Consciousness of the teleological function of sleep has to be compatible with letting go of conscious thoughts and desires about the teleological function of sleep, and about everything else. And what’s true of sleep can be true in a weaker form of other things, like tranquility or repose.

So are your desires “at an end” when you go to sleep, or fall asleep? It’s an equivocal question. In one sense (the teleological sense), your desires realize their end when you fall asleep: you need to sleep, and you satisfy that need; in principle, if you get a good night’s sleep, you can satisfy the need fully. In another sense, in sleep, consciousness temporarily ceases, and with it, desire. So in that sense, in sleep, desire is at an end in the sense that it temporarily ceases to exist. In the first sense, in sleep, you realize your end, and consciousness ceases, in order to bring about a further end in the future—a fact you may fully cognize when you go to bed, but have to stop thinking about in order to go to sleep. But this first sense itself involves a desire. The extinction of desire through sleep (sense 2) is the realization of that future-oriented desire (sense 1). It’s just that you aren’t conscious—and can’t be—of the future-orientation of the desire while it’s being satisfied.

Long story short: what’s true of sleep is true, mutatis mutandis, of tranquility. It’s just a requirement of our nature that we’re obliged to take stock of phenomena like our circadian rhythms. Our circadian rhythms are as much part of our nature as anything else about us, and it would be a mistake to act as though they weren’t there. But our circadian rhythms demand rest.

Why couldn’t some analogue of circadian rhythms in our nature require tranquility? Pace Hobbes, why can’t we have a desire for tranquility, one satisfied by the real, wholehearted experience of tranquility itself—just as we do in the case of sleep? Why can’t that desire be an ineliminable part of our nature—a need of human consciousness analogous to circadian rhythms in the more biological case? We need to come to rest, and be entirely still. We can desire that rest, and when—on appropriate occasion—the desire is satisfied, we experience stillness as stillness, which, after all, is what it is. It may have a future orientation as well, but we don’t focus on that, because if we did, we wouldn’t be tranquil. It’s not self-deception to have an appropriate sense of what is worth focusing on at a given moment and what isn’t.

Sometimes we just come to a full stop—the kind that traffic law requires at stop signs—and need to, in order to keep moving later in the right direction. So contrary to Hobbes, life may require continual success, but one of the successes it requires is the cessation of motion—where the cessation has the teleological function of being for the sake of the continued capacity to generate optimal action.

Of course, you can–if you want–stress that even this “full stoppage” involves a kind of action. We remain conscious. Consciousness is identification, and identification is a conscious action. So even when we come to a full stop, we are doing something. We aren’t shutting down. But my point is that this consciousness is perfectly compatible with the sort of tranquility Hobbes is denying, and that tranquility is essential to happiness.

So Hobbes’s inference from the existence of desire to the impossibility of tranquility is just a non-sequitur.

Czeslaw Milosz

Czeslaw Milosz

Professor K: Actually, there’s an interesting discussion of this topic in Richard Kraut’s What Is Good and Why, published—or, well, it will be published—in 2007 (pp. 158-61). Once you identify Hobbes’s assumption about the perpetual -motion quality of felicity, you see it throughout the entire British ethical tradition. You almost wonder whether it explains the famous neuroticism of some of the British intellectual class.

Professor I: But wait, it’s 1965 right now. Your reference to Kraut is anachronistic. Come on, stay in character. This isn’t “Pulp Fiction.”

Professor K: Sorry.

AR: When I said fundamentally, stillness is the antithesis of life, I didn’t mean to suggest that all forms of stillness are the antithesis of life, full stop, so that you’re obliged always to be in motion, and never to be completely still. What I meant is: as a causal fundamental, life requires action. At that level of causal fundamentality, consciousness itself is active. Mental drift really is fundamentally the antithesis of life, and since consciousness is active,  if consciousness really ceased, life itself would cease. (Metabolic details aside, people in irreversible comas are dead.) Further, productive work has to be in the causal driver’s seat of a rational life. Fundamentally, production is the essence of life, just as Marx thought: Homo sapiens is Homo faber. If you put leisure in the causal role that production is supposed to fill, you would reverse the correct normative priorities, and be led to disaster. Politically, you would get aristocracy, and some coercive form of parasitism–in other words, slavery.

But contrary to the way you’re reading me, I didn’t mean to deny that stillness plays a non-fundamental but causally important role in life. Within the context I’ve just specified, stillness may be as valuable as you’re insisting. You seem to be having trouble with that italicized phrase, but the distinction between causal fundamentality and causal non-fundamentality is not a distinction between the important and the unimportant.

Professor I: Well, this is news to me. You don’t ever come out and say that anywhere. I mean, sorry, but your writing can be very confusing. Imagine saying “sleep is fundamentally the antithesis of life.” The competent English reader would infer that sleep was somehow bad, and that insomnia was to be prized. You could not legitimately correct such a reader by saying, “Well, what I meant was that life is activity, and sleep is inactivity, so sleep isn’t fundamental in the way that ordinary activity is, but it’s still vitally important because it facilitates those activities, and anyway, there’s a sense in which sleep is an activity, since we typically have to decide to go to bed, and further, metabolic activity is taking place during sleep, so there’s a sense in which it ends up active.” That would turn the activity of reading you into something like the activity of reading Aristotle’s Metaphysics Z-H, where every crabbed line requires hundreds of pages of clarification before anyone knows what it really means.

AR: Yeah, well that’s why I never said that sleep was fundamentally the antithesis of life. I spoke of stillness, not sleep. Anyway, I am an Aristotelian, and the Metaphysics is my favorite book, so what’s the problem? Are you an anti-effort personality?

Professor K: You’re evading the issue. The demands you’re making of the reader are presumptuous and unreasonable. For instance, Aristotle refers to ‘hos epi to polu’ generalizations–generalizations that hold “only and for the most part.” You castigate Aristotle for his failure to make ethics an exact science (VS, p. 14), and yet you yourself seem to be endorsing some such conception as his. These references to “fundamentality” all turn out to be epi to polu generalizations with millions of complex qualifications. I doubt even half of your readers realize that, and you almost write as though you didn’t want them to make the realization. Yet you don’t talk about “epi to polu” generalizations at all in your work–you don’t supply the qualifications or write in a qualified way–and your writings often seem at odds with the spirit of what you say about Aristotle and about certainty.

AR: Spirit, shmirit. Stop whining. Some day, go re-read my work with your mind in focus and make a list of the sheer number of times the word “complexity” recurs. I never spare a moment to stress the complexity of the world. Frankly, I’ve always thought that man is his own most bewildering enigma (RM, p. 20). Wow, I like that phrase, actually. I should use it someday.

And I never said a word in criticism of Aristotle on ‘epi to polu‘ generalizations, so stop putting words in my mouth. Listening to you, you’d expect me to have written in Attic Greek. You should hear what I’ll have to say about the contextual character of exactness in my epistemology seminars someday (IOE, pp. 190-96). Again, you seem to be insisting that I supply my readers with common sense and a knowledge of the history of philosophy. I have no such obligation. I had no idea that my actual readership would turn out to be so devoid of capacities for philosophical inquiry–as you two evidently are. So you’ve read some Aristotle and figured it out for yourself. Good for you. So have I. What do you want, a medal?

Professor I: But your writing is a little misleading, if you want my honest opinion. It misleads people into thinking you’re a less subtle thinker than you really are. And it just lacks clarity and explicitness at certain crucial points.

AR: Yeah, well, that’s their problem—people, I mean. I do—or will—discuss the concept of importance in The Romantic Manifesto (a couple of years from now, p. 28). And what I say there is perfectly consistent with what I say about the rule of fundamentality in my epistemology book (also to be published a couple of years from now, p. 45). They’re just two different concepts. No one will have any trouble discerning that my rule of fundamentality is Aristotelian. So if they realize that I’m an Aristotelian, they can read me accordingly, and the problem is solved. I mean, I’m sorry if you bumpkins are so easily confused by things, but I’m not, so I don’t see why I have to cater to your confusions just to straighten you out. I’m not an altruist, you know.

Professor K: It’s not a matter of altruism; it’s a matter of having the patience to offer an exposition commensurate with the cognitive needs of your audience. They aren’t stupid; they just often have no way of knowing WTF you’re talking about. Which is a problem.

AR: What does “WTF” mean?

Professor I: Never mind. I’d like to end with one last passage that seems to capture the nature of happiness as non-contradictory joy.

AR: So are you going to quote Galt? Or Roark?

Professor I: Neither, actually. I was going to quote a poem of Czeslaw Milosz’s called “Gift.”

AR: Czeslaw Milosz? That Catholic-Communist scumbag and hero of my mortal enemy, William F. Buckley?

Professor I: Exactly. Here it is. It’s an excerpt; I don’t know the whole poem.

A day so happy.
Fog lifted early. I worked in the garden.
Hummingbirds were stopping over the honeysuckle flowers.
There was no thing on earth I wanted to possess.
I knew no one worth my envying him.
Whatever evil I had suffered, I forgot.
To think that once I was the same man did not embarrass me.
In my body I felt no pain.
When straightening up, I saw blue sea and sails.

AR: It’s actually kind of beautiful—stylistically, anyway.

Professor I: I thought so. So it captures the nature of non-contradictory joy, right?

Professor K: Right?

Professor I: Sorry, Miss Rand, I didn’t quite hear you…

I never did hear what she said. At that point, Nathaniel Branden and Leonard Peikoff walked in, so we figured that it was time to leave. We walked a few blocks up and over to Port Authority, and took the bus back home to Jersey, watching the skyline of Manhattan recede into the distance.

Irfan

P.S., October 14, 2013: I’ve cleaned up a few grammatical mistakes in the original, and added a few links.


1 Comment

  1. Could you please explain why this piece is posted here on this web site? I mean, I realize it is not to tear down Ayn Rand as a philosopher and in particular as a breakthrough thinker in epistemology, ethics, or aesthetics. Clearly the piece is alluding to the tendency of Rand et al to veer off into condescension, intimidation, and authoritarianism in mentoring students and in replying during question period. Are you making use of the piece in order to underscore that this is NOT how you will comport yourselves in carrying out the mission of IOS? Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoy good satire, especially when it is directed against the foibles of people who are more than adequately convinced of their own importance. But what it is purpose here on the IOS web site? Are you trying to assure young thinkers who want to fearlessly, vigorously explore Rand’s system that they will NOT be subjected to this kind of behavior? Or what? Please clarify.

    Thank you.
    Roger Bissell

    P.S. — who is the author of this piece? Just curious…

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