Hey, Scott, are you one of those “doom and gloomers”?
I’m not sure if I can relate this to anyone that does not know history, but I will try.
Let’s start with philosophy first.
Ayn Rand identified a psychological trait of individuals that she called a “sense of life.” This she defined specifically as a “pre-conceptual equivalent of a metaphysics.” The two main archetypes of this “sense,” she termed “benevolent” and “malevolent.”
Here is one of her more elegant passages describing the “benevolent universe premise:”
“There is a fundamental conviction which some people never acquire, some hold only in their youth, and a few hold to the end of their days-the conviction that ideas matter . . . . That ideas matter means that knowledge matters, that truth matters, that one’s mind matters . . .”
Notice that the benevolent universe premise does not mean “all is for the best, in this the best of all possible worlds.”
Benevolence (as a metaphysical conviction) means that you believe in human efficacy in this world, you believe that the human mind is capable of understanding reality, and you live your life with an expectation that you can understand the world, and successfully make your way through it.
I have always held this premise.
That’s why I have a negative outlook today.
How is that possible? How do I combine a positive metaphysics and a pessimism about history without contradiction?
What does the “benevolent universe premise” have to say about the final destruction of Carthage by Rome? The Fall of the Roman Empire? The Crusades? The Spanish Inquisition? The “terror” of the French Revolution? The Maoist Cultural Revolution? The Nazi Holocaust? Or 9-11?
Basically, nothing. The benevolent universe premise is not a means of cognition. It is an emotional stance. Still, negative events and periods in history can serve as psychologically significant metaphysical data, and for me they definitely do, including for instance the manner in which all the above negatives contribute to my grasp of the following truth about human nature: if and when human beings succumb to such profound evil, it is because they have forsaken their rational nature. Obviously, when Islamic fundamentalists flew planes into the World Trade Center, the irrationality of their beliefs was the fundamental driving factor. Obviously, when the Crusaders of Christendom cried out “God Wills It!” (i.e. God wills the mass murder of men by men) they were irrational. When man refuses to be man, he cannot possibly flourish.
Are we there? Is that what I’m saying about America today?
Not quite. There are so many wonderful things to say about America, still. But you know that the people who want George Zimmerman strung up care not for the truth. And you know that the 47.5 million Americans who expect government food stamps care not to live life as men (certainly insofar as they are what Ayn Rand called “moochers,” they refuse to practice the cardinal human virtue of productivity). And you know that every advance by government power into a realm it doesn’t belong is fundamentally driven by the same irrationality. No one in their right mind can look at free industries, such as computing, and regulated industries like banking, and conclude that more regulation is good — ever. And yet regulation grows unchecked. The health care industry is just the latest victim. There are powerful cultural forces driving history forward.
And those forces are almost without fail unidirectional — in the wrong direction.
Is that “doom and gloom”?
As the French Revolution started to get out of control, would you have been among those to sling mud at Lafayette for leaving France? Would you have said he was a “doom and gloomer”? When Aristotle left Athens, saying “I will not allow the Athenians to sin twice against philosophy,” would you have mocked him? (He was referring of course, to the previous murder of Socrates by Athenian democracy.) Was Ayn Rand a “doom and gloomer” for writing Atlas Shrugged, which depicts the collapse of America?
I must admit that I find the response of some people to historically contextual pessimism to be disappointing, verging on frightening.
“Oh, you’re one of those,” someone might say.
In other words: I can just dismiss what you’ve said, because your pessimistic, and that instantly discredits you. I can now safely tuck you away in that category in the back of my mind that includes those tin foil hat folks on TV.
Such a person won’t bother to ask me what I think of the Athenian Golden Age, the Renaissance, the American Revolution, or the Industrial Revolution – the kinds of periods in history which inspire me, and which I celebrate with great passion with my students. All such a person wants is to deny that we are living through the obverse today.
This kind of refusal to look at facts is precisely why I am pessimistic. Ayn Rand identified that too. It’s called evasion. And it is widespread.
Even prominent Objectivist intellectuals succumb to it. I’ve had it strongly put to me that anyone who is pessimistic is “nuts.”
I hope so. I hope that having studied all of human history, and integrated that sum into a unified whole of knowledge, complete with Objectivist epistemology and the DIM Hypothesis, that the whole thing has not actually helped me to understand the world, but rather, that it has made me “nuts.”
If I’m “nuts,” then everything will be OK, I guess.
Or maybe, somehow, magically, everyone will repent socialism and superstition when the economy grinds to a halt, because they’ll be thinking about the issues so clearly. Yeah, that’s where we’re headed! (It’s not impossible that there will be certain positive outcomes in certain delimited domains, but no one who understands what a dominant cultural “mode” is can possibly think that there will be a general, or even majoritarily positive trend in the culture any time soon.)
I know I can’t reach everyone. It’s amazing how many of my clients will happily imbibe some of what I produce without ever wanting to know what makes that possible, as if it is some ineffable charismatic quality. My long and constant study of my fellow men, over all of history, and here and now, leads me to understand full well that I cannot reach very many people at all. That’s not me being malevolent. I know what it takes to understand history and what that understanding of history permits. On a regular basis I encounter people who don’t know history, and are somehow content to dismiss it, without knowing — and indeed, refusing to know.
What can one do?
Whatever one can.
I will do my best to promote historical literacy to those who want it. That’s all I can do.
In the coming weeks, I will be making every single one of my products available for free.
Every course has a price, but every single one will also have a “free rider” option from now on.
If you want to take advantage of it, go ahead. If you benefit from my work, and it helps you to bring the world around you into focus, then I’ll appreciate anything in return that you think justice enjoins — such as a post hoc full price donation. It’s on you to decide.
I wish you all the best in understanding the world you live in.
The harder you work at, the more positive the outcome will be for you.
Don’t worry about being called a “doom and gloomer”.
The antidote to that malevolence is simple: “Knowledge is power.”