I recently began a new job and, lately, few things can cloud my happiness. Many positive changes have been happening in my life, even if at times I feel overwhelmed and tired.
Every weekday morning on my way to work, I encounter two interesting signs. Just before I get to the building where I work, to my right there is an Assyrian Christian church and, to my left, there is a sign that reads Who is John Galt? Every weekday, as I walk to work, I encounter these signs, which have become a source of irony and have added a hint of comedy to my workday.
I should explain, for the unitiated, that the rhetorical question Who is John Galt? is a literary device used by the author and objectivist philosopher Ayn Rand, and that it constitutes objectivist propaganda. Ayn Rand is the author of a book titled The Virtue of Selfishness, which serves as a manifesto for her views and favors a purely logical, Aristotelian approach to ethics.
In his piece On the Pedantry of Aristotle, our colleague from newepicurean.com Cassius argues some of the issues we Epicureans have with Aristotelian philosophy, which heavily influenced Rand.
The worship of logic has become particularly annoying to me this semester, as I am studying quantitative reasoning. I’m not particularly fond of mathematics but love an intellectual challenge. I’ve noticed that I become increasingly frustrated when I find an entirely impractical problem: the moment the mathematical exercise is made practical, the moment I understand its use in the real world, I then relax into the challenge.
This has given me an insight into how logic and math are only tools. They are not real in themselves, but tools to apprehend reality which require input from the sensory, tangible world in order to be practical and useful. Confusing a number or equation for reality is comparable to confusing the word or idea (which is not real) for the thing that is meant (which is real). Words are tools to apprehend reality, and they are real as vibrations of sound, but their reality is of a very different order from the things that are meant by them. On the other hand, material reality is, with or without words.
The caricature that we materialists paint of Randians is one where they are equated with Vulcans from Star Trek, those planetary brethren who are all logic and no empathy. This inability to empathize and her preachy insistence on selfishness being a virtue is why Ayn Rand and her disciples are often criticized for their narcissism.
Behind the apparent respectability of Randian reason and her ruling-class philosophy hides an excessive admiration for large, predatory corporate powers, for the bullies of our economic system, and a near-obsession with the idea of the free market that I like to call the cult to the apex predator. If a Randian sees dying people on the street, the virtuous/moral/selfish thing to do is to hurry up and invest money in the funerary industry.
Randians are extremely hostile to the idea of organized labor and to any and all restrictions to the free market and, if they could have their way, they would leave serious moral issues like slavery and wage-slavery, or whether children should have access to drinkable water and an education, for the impersonal market to decide. They would bring the minimum wage down to $ 2 per hour if the market would allow it, and would be happy to allow Monsanto to patent all the seeds on Earth so that the entire race would have to pay the monster company in order to produce the living beings and organisms that the Earth has freely produced for billions of years without charging us a fee.
If Venus is the quintessential Epicurean Goddess, Mercury would have to be the quintessential Randian God … because the market does not fail: it’s an all-knowing, cold, infinitely efficient sort of bizarre brain without a body in Planet Vulcan.
Back on Earth the Koch brothers, that dynamic duo of multi-billionaires, have in effect elevated the worship of Ayn Rand to the status of a cult by purchasing her remains, which were (of course) in the market and at their disposal. It is believed they are mining her DNA. No joke.
But false philosophies are only one side of today’s blog: as I walk to work, to my left, is a church, a representative of false religions whose history is no less dehumanizing than the economic exploitation of the top 2%, and whose doctrines oftentimes have sustained such exploitation.
Slavery, we must not forget, was instituted by God as part of his eternal covenant with humanity in Leviticus 25:44-46. Before that, the perpetual slavery of women had been perpetually and firmly instituted in Genesis 3:16.
Your desire will be for your husband and he will rule over you.
The enormous economic benefits that were extracted from the labor of others by these doctrines by the many parasitical elites throughout history are impossible to measure.
Christianity, particularly in its Calvinist and determinist expressions (for we must admit there are numerous Christianities), treats mortals as objects, as puppets to a mysterious, invisible puppet master. This puppet master, however, has puppeteers and ventriloquists of his own: religious leaders with their own dubious and often profoundly immoral agenda.
Muhammad was not the first, or the last, prophet to claim that God ordered him to have sex with a minor: the Mormon prophet did so in latter days, and in earlier days the authors of the Lot narrative in Genesis also present his drunken debauchery with his two daughters from the perspective of the aggressor and, naturally, the burden of punishment in the end falls on the innocent.
Ponder the proposal: a God that intervenes in history … particularly in times of conquest. How appropriate! How useful! Epicurus had many reasons to be cynical and, most importantly, to protect us from these false, oppressive, dehumanizing doctrines by clearly and publicly articulating the sober alternative.
Notice the violence and compulsion that both false religion and false philosophy have visited upon humankind. This is why, like rattlesnakes, the apex predators of the soul need to resort to (often strange and mysterious) means to lure their victims. They offer consolation, inspiration, they offer love in a world admittedly hungry for it, and some even have the audacity of promising their followers immortality. They appeal to the vainest of human vanities, to the most common and basic of human vulnerabilities, and nurture the most unnatural and unnecessary of empty desires in their prey … and they succeed at gaining followers. Apex predators have slowly evolved by adapting to even the unconscious fascinations of their victims: this is how they have succeeded generation after generation.
Unfortunately, these religious and philosophical schools have effectively infiltrated and exploited our political game. Epicurean teachings on non-involvement in politics protect our tradition from both mob rule and the tyranny of the few.
As I head to work and walk past these two signs, my aim is autarchy, self-sufficiency. I desire what is natural and necessary, no more. Anything beyond that often requires compulsion and violence against others, and anything less often allows compulsion and violence against my person. An accurate and deep-seated understanding of my natural and necessary needs and limits produces a happy, peaceful, stable mind.
Also, our hedonistic insistence on listening to nature and heeding the pain/pleasure principle ensures that our philosophy will never become a dehumanizing force. Logic , if not at the service of life, can not offer ethical guidance and should not attempt to do so. If pleasure is our ethical goal, it’s only because it serves life.
We Epicureans are neither under Randian pressure to become, or to glorify, apex predators nor under Christian pressure to be docile, easily-manipulated sheep. Rather than praising the forceful or the powerful (and rather than praising victimhood and attaching merit to pointless agony), we are content to honor the wise. We are not told that we don’t deserve life if we fail at an artificial ideal of selfish perfection or that we don’t deserve immortality if we fail at an equally artificial and false, impractical ideal of selflessness.
There is an art to living. We never need to strive beyond our natural and necessary desires to apply this art. This is why, when I pass the two signs on my way to work, looming large over a mere mortal, I feel happy and free.