June 24, 2010

"We must control men in order to force them to be free"

I've been recommending to people who aren't sure whether they're prepared to read such a "huge" book (still less than half as long as the healthcare bill and far more engaging) that they begin with chapter 6 and see if that inspires them to read more. Today's excerpt is from that chapter.

From Part 1, Chapter VI: The Non-Commercial

A young man asked hesitantly, "But if we haven't any good concepts, how do we know that the ones we've got are ugly? I mean, by what standard?"

"There aren't any standards."

This silenced his audience.

"The philosophers of the past were superficial," Dr. Pritchett went on. "It remained for our century to redefine the purpose of philosophy. The purpose of philosophy is not to help men find the meaning of life, but to prove to them that there isn't any."

And a bonus:

A businessman said uneasily, "What I asked you about, Professor, was what you thought about the Equalization of Opportunity Bill."

"Oh, that?" said Dr. Pritchett. "But I believe I made it clear that I am in favor of it, because I am in favor of a free economy. A free economy cannot exist without competition. Therefore, men must be forced to compete. Therefore, we must control men in order to force them to be free."

Click continue reading to see both quotes in context.

UPDATE: Read Francisco D'Anconia's rebuttal to Dr. Pritchett here.

"Man? What is man? He's just a collection of chemicals with delusions of grandeur," said Dr. Pritchett to a group of guests across the room.
Dr. Pritchett picked a canapé off a crystal dish, held it speared between two straight fingers and deposited it whole into his mouth.
"Man's metaphysical pretensions," he said, "are preposterous. A miserable bit of protoplasm, full of ugly little concepts and mean little emotions—and it imagines itself important! Really, you know, that is the root of all the troubles in the world."
"But which concepts are not ugly or mean, Professor?" asked an earnest matron whose husband owned an automobile factory.
"None," said Dr. Pritchett. "None within the range of man's capacity."
A young man asked hesitantly, "But if we haven't any good concepts, how do we know that the ones we've got are ugly? I mean, by what standard?"
"There aren't any standards."
This silenced his audience.
"The philosophers of the past were superficial," Dr. Pritchett went on. "It remained for our century to redefine the purpose of philosophy. The purpose of philosophy is not to help men find the meaning of life, but to prove to them that there isn't any."
An attractive young woman, whose father owned a coal mine, asked indignantly, "Who can tell us that?"
"I am trying to," said Dr. Pritchett. For the last three years, he had been head of the Department of Philosophy at the Patrick Henry University.
Lillian Rearden approached, her jewels glittering under the lights. The expression on her face was held to the soft hint of a smile, set and faintly suggested, like the waves of her hair.
"It is this insistence of man upon meaning that makes him so difficult," said Dr. Pritchett. "Once he realizes that he is of no importance whatever in the vast scheme of the universe, that no possible significance can be attached to his activities, that it does not matter whether he lives or dies, he will become much more … tractable."
He shrugged and reached for another canapé. A businessman said uneasily, "What I asked you about, Professor, was what you thought about the Equalization of Opportunity Bill."
"Oh, that?" said Dr. Pritchett. "But I believe I made it clear that I am in favor of it, because I am in favor of a free economy. A free economy cannot exist without competition. Therefore, men must be forced to compete. Therefore, we must control men in order to force them to be free."
"But, look … isn't that sort of a contradiction?"
"Not in the higher philosophical sense. You must learn to see beyond the static definitions of old-fashioned thinking. Nothing is static in the universe. Everything is fluid."
"But it stands to reason that if—"
"Reason, my dear fellow, is the most naive of all superstitions. That, at least, has been generally conceded in our age."
"But I don't quite understand how we can—"
"You suffer from the popular delusion of believing that things can be understood. You do not grasp the fact that the universe is a solid contradiction."
"A contradiction of what?" asked the matron.
"Of itself."
"How … how's that?"
"My dear madam, the duty of thinkers is not to explain, but to demonstrate that nothing can be explained."
"Yes, of course … only …"
"The purpose of philosophy is not to seek knowledge, but to prove that knowledge is impossible to man."
"But when we prove it," asked the young woman, "what's going to be left?"
"Instinct," said Dr. Pritchett reverently.

'Atlas Shrugged' QOTD Posted by JohnGalt at June 24, 2010 3:13 PM

I shared this one with a few people via email. There were several reactions. One thought it was actually making a case that "there isn't any" meaning of life. Another asked, "With what evidence do you support that the dominant position in most institutions of 'higher learning' is don't bother trying to explain or understand ... anything?" And then wrote, "There is no one universal Meaning of Life ... it is for each to decide his own meaning of life."

This may refer to one's "bliss" or other such preferences, but the book passage referred to "standards" by which concepts can be judged as "ugly" or otherwise. It is such objectivity that gives life meaning. Without it we might find ourselves making statements like:

"Personally, I pity anyone who thinks there is no meaning, and I may disagree with what some think is the meaning, but him thinking there is none does not make him wrong."

So in this view, the good Dr. Pritchett is pitiable but not "wrong." Would there also be pity for one who thinks there is a meaning of life and it is opposite of yours? If so, are you then not also pitiable? The answer is that by the moral code being practiced with these statements there is, indeed, no answer. Under the philosophy of Relativism being taught "in most institutions of 'higher learning'" it is useless "trying to explain or understand ... anything."

Posted by: johngalt at June 28, 2010 3:41 PM | What do you think? [1]