Thanksgiving, properly conceived, is a time to pay tribute, or as Craig Biddle puts it, “say justice“–to those who have created the values that sustain us. In that vein, I would like to offer thanks to those whose life-giving contribution makes it possible for me to stomach the morass of the modern world. This is my “top ten” list of human beings in history, to whom I would like to say “thank you.”
Aristotle – “The Philosopher” — the fountainhead of Western civilization — the greatest man of the greatest civilization in history. When I think of Aristotle, I think of the dead end that Greek philosophy (and Western civilization) was headed towards in the subjectivism of the Presocratics and idealism of Plato. Then along comes a mammoth intellect, who corrects all the fundamental errors of his predecessors, enshrining this-worldliness, rationality, logic, self-interest and aesthetic romanticism as key answers to the major questions that philosophy poses. Listening to Leonard Peikoff explain Aristotle’s achievement in terms of fundamentals in his History of Philosophy lecture series was the first time I cried as an adult.
Thomas Aquinas – If Aristotle is the greatest mind in history, then Aquinas is the most important intellect of the second millennium. After a Dark Age of Christian mysticism and asceticism, where the light of reason was nearly extinguished but for the embers with the Islamic and Scholastic traditions, one man stepped forward to re-establish the validity of reason. Not surprisingly, he was an Aristotelian thinker. Though it is often said that Aquinas stood for two ways of reaching the truth–reason and faith–to appreciate Aquinas is to see him as the greatest advocate of the return to reason in the face of a thousand-year period of faith-induced intellectual stagnation.
Ayn Rand – the greatest philosopher of all time — if there is to be a Second Renaissance, it will be because of her. Like so many young people, I came upon Ayn Rand at a time in my life when I was desperate for clarity. I had sought sanctuary from the corruptions of the humanities in the rationality of engineering, only to find that modern philosophical ideas had stripped the world of steel and concrete of its cleanliness as well. I was beginning to fail, to lose motivation, to capitulate to the mediocrity that is modernity. Then I read The Fountainhead. Then I devoured Atlas Shrugged in a weekend–I got almost no sleep! “Thank you” cannot capture what I feel for Ayn Rand.
I cannot explain how I knew, but as I was completing my first pass through Ayn Rand’s corpus, I knew that I wanted to be a historian. Not a philosopher, but a historian. After passing through the gauntlet of a college history education, I began to try to really learn history–and to study the history of history to try to learn how the science had been created and where it had wrong. There I found my first historian-hero: Thucydides. This Greek giant of the intellect understood the importance of history to the conceptual mind. He perceived the need to establish an accurate factual record of men’s experiences in order to provide an empirical and moral guide to life.
The study of history provides one with many values. There are trends to be grasped and conceptual lessons to be learned. There are also real “larger-than-life” heroes to be found in the past who saw further, worked harder, and achieved more than others even conceived was possible to man. These real-life John Galts — the prime movers of history — took the world as they found it and transformed for the better into the one we live in now. Among these, few are more amazing than Christopher Columbus. For all those to whom America is an irreplaceable value, the story of his discovery of America is an epic of independence and courage. The path his virtue trod has since been despoiled by the renunciations that are egalitarianism and multiculturalism, but his reputation will endure beyond the thankless people of our time.
Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence established the principle that governments are to be instituted among men for the purpose of securing the individual’s rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The founding of the United States upon such principles is so profound and revolutionary an accomplishment that it had never before been attempted in history, has never been matched since, and its full meaning and value continue to elude the very Americans who inherited Jefferson’s accomplishment and now heap scorn upon him from nearly every corner of the free nation he and the Founders created.
The torturous climb out of mysticism that culminated in the Enlightenment has as its awe-inspiring beacon of intellect Isaac Newton. It was Newton who demonstrated that man’s mind could penetrate to nature’s deepest secrets.
“Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night:
God said, Let Newton be! and all was light.”
As far as intellectual sustenance is concerned, Ayn Rand and Thucydides are enough for me, but the mind needs emotional fuel too. This can take many forms–as many as there are forms of art, recreation, and personal relationships. For me, two arts are most important: music and painting. In the former area, I find Verdi the most uplifting and Chopin the most beautiful. Nonetheless, it is in Beethoven — despite his malevolent temperament, or perhaps because of its root in the great conflicts he experienced — that I find the greatest overall satisfaction. No one has composed music of comparable grandeur.
I agree with Ayn Rand that Johannes Vermeer is the greatest visual artist in history, and some day I will have the time to dedicate to explaining how it’s possible that I should derive so much inspiration from his paintings when everyone (including Ayn Rand) has believed him to be a naturalist. (Hint: it’s because he’s not!) Vermeer saw the world with a clarity and passion of the highest order. He perceived and portrayed with unparalleled virtuosity the essence of the historical transition of the Age of Reason in his pendants The Geographer and The Astronomer. In a more private and subtle way he used art to enshrine his most cherished values through the portrayal of essentialized psychological moments.
Sharon (properly pronounced “shah-rhone”, not “share-rin”) is the person who every day makes my life worth living. Over the past eleven years we’ve been together–ten of them married–Sharon has been my partner in the odyssey that we chose to make our lives. I have never met anyone who can delight in the everyday values life has to offer while holding on to, projecting, and acting to achieve profound values that others cannot grasp. She is the only hero in my world of heros whose eyes I can look into when I say, “thank you.”