Anthem, Ayn Rand (1938)

Anthem

Ayn Rand, 1938 (amazon.com link)

The book opens with each “individual” referring to him/herself as “we,” and the direction of Rand’s use of language becomes clear rather quickly. It makes for a pointed conclusion, highlighted in the third and fourth quotes below:

“We love you.” But then they frowned and shook their head and looked at us helplessly. “No,” they whispered, “that is not what we wished to say.” They were silent, then they spoke slowly, and their words were halting, like the words of a child learning to speak for the first time: “We are one… alone… and only… and we love you who are one… alone… and only.” We looked into each other’s eyes and we knew that the breath of a miracle had touched us, and fled, and left us groping vainly. And we felt torn, torn for some word we could not find. –
. . .
I am. I think. I will. My hands… My spirit… My sky… My forest… This earth of mine….
. . .
And now I see the face of god, and I raise this god over the earth, this god whom men have sought since men came into being, this god who will grant them joy and peace and pride. This god, this one word: “I.”
. . .
And here, over the portals of my fort, I shall cut in the stone the word which is to be my beacon and my banner. The word which will not die, should we all perish in battle. The word which can never die on this earth, for it is the heart of it and the meaning and the glory. The sacred word: EGO.

 


 

She expands on the following theme in Atlas Shrugged, that the evil socialist/communist state will prioritize the needs of the many over individual invention and innovation and new ideas. Thus the state will forbid innovative changes which might disrupt existing industries. One need only watch the first few minutes of the Uber TED Talk regarding Jitney regulation to see how often this happens in our own world. Here in the book, the elders of the world banish the invention/discovery of the electric light, as “it would bring ruin to the Department of Candles,” and therefore must be destroyed:

“And if this should lighten the toil of men,” said Similarity 5-0306, “then it is a great evil, for men have no cause to exist save in toiling for other men.” Then Collective 0-0009 rose and pointed at our box. “This thing,” they said, “must be destroyed.”

When asked, a friend and mentor mentioned he hadn’t read Ayn Rand but that in his experience, she seemed polarizing: most either adamantly loved or vehemently hated her work. Oddly, I have no strong opinion, but this is likely because I’ve read quite a bit in my adult life. Were this one of the first few books I’d ever read, I likely would have fallen into the “adamantly” love camp, prizing individualism unequivocally over collectivism and the “self” over the “we” and others in every moment. Then, my “Objectivist” world view would likely have been shattered at a later point in my life, likely my 20s, and I’d have “woken up.” I’m far happier on the middle path.

Anthem is a good introduction to her style of writing and general ideas. I’m glad I read it after I began Atlas Shrugged, as, if I decide not to finish the latter, it saved me from spending the time on the book while giving me a way to understand her silly philosophy. Atlas Shrugged currently sits at about 15% read, and if I read it this year or next, it’s likely to be read with Brave New World, 1984, and any other major western dystopian fictions.

Rand’s religious zealots would do well to read Sam Anderson’s article Mrs. Logic, an overview of Rand’s life from Anne Conover Heller’s book Ayn Rand and the World She Made for the cold, objective truth. The truth is that Alissa Rosenbaum was a human person, a Russian Jew, born into a hard life, and not long to move to America as a young adult. She seems to have been rather egotistical and ungrateful for the help others’ provided her during her life, and although all philosophies have their merits, hers is not without glaring flaws.

Again, I neither demonize nor idolize Rand. I simply think she would have been better off spending a period of time in her life alone in the woods like Thoreau or typical monks and nuns. She might have opened up a little bit more to the inherent connectedness in the universe: that “I” cannot so much as breathe, think, or exist, without affecting the entire universe. Parenting, an act which changes us all, would have had the same effect.

I must prioritize myself, to be sure… “put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others,” lest I prioritize others so much that I fail to maintain my own body, and so die. But at some point in my life – for moments here, for years there – my sense of “I” actually includes other people: the Chinese circular sense of self actually grows to encompass others. This is especially true in the early decade(s) of life, when we must learn all we can so that we may apply and adapt these skills in countless variations to earn our keep in the world and provide for our offspring…but alas, most of us selfish folk understand as parents that core truth: if we parents prioritize our own family, but do so at the expense of others, gifting to our children a world which we have destroyed and pillaged, have we really done the best for the ourselves and our children, or have we doomed us by our actions? Rand writes decent fictional stories, but they should not become a religion.

All are one and one is all; the “I” that Rand prioritizes and the “We” she despises are both but perspectives, temporary shapes seen in an afternoon cloud.

Still, understanding her work should help me to understand these powerful, mesmerizing, often brainwashing ideals within our culture. Yet I wish the Americans who idolize her work understood the culture in which she was raised and against which she rebelled: of course when “we the people” or the government is prioritized at the expense of the individuals, we must rebel for our individual groups and families and relationships and persons. But all in balance.

 


 

I enjoyed her joke about the feminine obsession with mirrors, which seems to happen across multiple species:

We did this work alone, for no words of ours could take the Golden One away from the big glass which is not glass. They stood before it and they looked and looked upon their own body.

 


 

Final quote:

We go on and we bless the earth under our feet. But questions come to us again, as we walk in silence. If that which we have found is the corruption of solitude, then what can men wish for save corruption? If this is the great evil of being alone, then what is good and what is evil?

Why Does the World Exist?, Jim Holt (2012)

Why Does the World Exist?
An Existential Detective Story,
Jim Holt (2012)

I’d say we’re at least five Einsteins away from answering that question,”

All of the thinkers I had already spoken . . . saw the world under some limited aspect. . . .  Each of these ways of seeing the world purported to yield the answer to why it exists. But none of these answers struck me as satisfactory.”

Jim Holt gives us a good book, a companion to, but perhaps not as powerful as About Time. Still, I’m glad I read both!

“For, as William James observed, “All of us are beggars here.””

The book is in fifteen chapters, with a few interludes (which I forget), discussing the scientific approaches – whose problem is that by existing within the scientific world, they attempt to describe the world that includes the explanation, and isn’t that a problem? – and philosophy. He even gets into death later, among other philosophical topics. Here’s an excellent key to remember when meditating:

“Like Schopenhauer before him, Wittgenstein compared the I to the eye. Just as the I is the source of consciousness, the eye is the source of the visual field. But the eye is not in the visual field. It cannot see itself.”

Holt even gets into the “ontological” argument of God, and the idea that “perfectness” or “goodness” is a philosophical quality.

Why is there something rather than nothing?” is debatable as a question:

“Here was a man who thought “Why is there something rather than nothing?” was as much of a cheat as the question “When did you stop beating your wife?””

This is a worthwhile “philosophy” book to regularly review, especially before situations that might warrant these conversations, as is About Time.

 

 

The Demon-Haunted World

The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, Carl Sagan

“The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.”

The Demon-Haunted World is nothing shy of a manifesto for science, reason, and wonder. Indeed, the balance (required!) between both healthy skepticism and wonder is Sagan’s introduction to the book, and he weaves the theme throughout.

The book should be read by almost every human – but most especially Americans, whose distrust and ignorance of science might be our undoing. No less important are the legions of teenagers and young people who would benefit from a read.

I do wish Sagan had organized the book a little better, if only rearranging some chapters and putting them into sections, since he talks about, say, UFOs quite often. Still, the bulk of his chapters are well contained.

I must never forget that I did, essentially, believe that aliens were here since that unforgettable 10 May, 2003, when Earl rocked my world with the words “they’re already here.” It is telling, of course, that I told almost no one of this belief. He was old, wise, a retired veteran… I respected his opinion. And I took the bait, convincing myself that the evidence was obvious and in plain sight – remember my 5-6 video documentaries which, logically and in-order, could “show anyone” how aliens were here! – even while I still doubted some alien fanatics. Sadly, I slowly realized he believed in quite a large amount of conspiracy-like ideas, despite any shreds of truth that may exist in them. Still, I held this belief throughout all my travels and my time in the military, flying over the earth’s skies with my security clearance. This waned in Arizona, but it did not die until reading this book.

As I have realized in the past year or two, we have a tendency to grow increasingly irrational in our older years, a pattern often seen with important scientists throughout history. (Darwin is an amazing scientist for this additional reason; I’ve never heard such arguments against any scientific investigations or claims of his in later life.)

And what a place for my “belief” in the presence of aliens to completely die! The book, decades old now, provides the most logical, beautiful explanations of human hallucinations. It illustrates how a shared culture of religion would provide, hundreds of years ago, hallucinations (sleep-induced or not) to be described with religious imagery, as much as today’s events will be described in terms of aliens and extra-dimensional beings. As a good argument for why these hallucinations are not real, we need only examine how imaginary they really are: as Sagan notes, most zoology or microbiology textbooks contain pictures of natural phenomena far more original (and interesting) than these “aliens from other worlds.”

“So if there were ten people of the caliber of Thomas Jefferson then, there ought to be 10 × 100 = 1,000 Thomas Jeffersons today. Where are they?”

The quote stimulates my anti-desire to go into politics. Am I not the type of person who should be in public service, particularly for this very reason? If nothing else, we obviously need more education of science within our elected officials. At least the judicial branch provides some fresh air on this topic!

Sagan provides at least his final chapter – in addition to other passages throughout – on explaining why education is so important, and why governments and their peoples benefit from increased knowledge and science. He gives (at the end of the highlights) two opposing quotes from Presidents Reagan and Washington. He also discusses why our weapons are dangerous, with their abilities to exterminate us: not solely because of their destructive power, of course. But moreover because they are in the hands of governments, and governments, always throughout history, fall. When the fall, the control of those weapons might fall into the hands of the insane, or malicious, and doom us all. He notes stories that ancient women would hide poison arrows and weapons when the men fought. “Today our poison arrows can destroy the global civilization and just possibly annihilate our species.”

Want to provoke blacks to read more? He has a good, if brief, description of slavery and how reading was prevented among slaves, in order to keep them stupid and ignorant. This was done, obviously, to prevent rebellions and ensure compliance. An African American’s ancestors would all have rebelled, violently (some did), for the ability to become educated, had they known of its benefits. Yet today’s black youth and adults – just like their white brethren – squander the ability to read. I don’t know this for a fact, but I imagine only our immigrants regularly exercise this skill in America, a fact that at least gives me hope in the future of our country, even if that feeling is tempered with sadness for the growing ignorance of people, say, in my family.

His note regarding how in our evolutionary history, children would rarely have been alone, is poignant. “In the enlightened west we stick them alone in a dark room, say goodnight, and have difficulty understanding why they’re sometimes upset.” Indeed…the least we can do is teach them to meditate, to observe the processes of their minds, is it not?

“In the way that skepticism is sometimes applied to issues of public concern, there is a tendency to belittle, to condescend, to ignore the fact that, deluded or not, supporters of superstition and pseudoscience are human beings with real feelings, who, like the skeptics, are trying to figure out how the world works and what our role in it might be. Their motives are in many cases consonant with science. If their culture has not given them all the tools they need to pursue this great quest, let us temper our criticism with kindness. None of us comes fully equipped.”

Sagan writes with eloquence and respect, especially for the ignorant, as noted above. We need to be kind to those who believe in pseudoscience or unlikely explanations. Elsewhere, he makes the great point that astrology provides what science, as it is usually presented, fails to evoke in people: a need for connection, importance, and hope.

His sections on religion are also excellent, and he walks the line between respectful acceptance of the benefits these beliefs provide to their adherents, and a healthy criticism of these institutions, wonderfully. Sagan gives a poignant note (I think the quote isn’t from Sagan, so check if quoting) important for any American to remember:

“Christianity may be good and Satanism evil. Under the Constitution, however, both are neutral. This is an important, but difficult, concept for many law enforcement officers to accept. They are paid to uphold the penal code, not the Ten Commandments … The fact is that far more crime and child abuse has been committed by zealots in the name of God, Jesus and Mohammed than has ever been committed in the name of Satan. Many people don’t like that statement, but few can argue with it.”

He does note that by making predictions, religion enters the realm of science. Here, perhaps more than any other aspect of life, it fails magnificently. Furthermore, he argues against cherry-picking scientific beliefs – like religious adherents do with the scriptures they choose to follow and believe:

But we cannot have science in bits and pieces, applying it where we feel safe and ignoring it where we feel threatened—again, because we are not wise enough to do so.”

One thing gives me hope for our country, and I certainly hope this is still true today and into the future:

“You go to these museums and you’re struck by the wide-eyed looks of wonder, by kids racing from exhibit to exhibit, by the triumphant smiles of discovery. They’re wildly popular. Almost as many of us go to them each year as attend professional baseball, basketball and football games combined.”