Blindness to the power of ideas

Over at our Member Forum, we’ve been discussing the ideas of Thomas Szasz, author of The Myth of Mental Illness. Szasz (wrongly) claims that psychological problems that aren’t neural are “behavioral.” There’s an interesting connection of this notion to the political issues we’ve also been discussing on HBL. Many of those involved in the wrong political movements (e.g., anarchism, populism, Marxism) are driven by the idea that ideas—especially philosophic ideas—are irrelevant to behavior . . . and to history.

Of the many, many examples of this in politics, let me take the case of libertarian anarchism. Decades ago, these anarchists argued that anarchism was necessary if we are to take seriously the prohibition of the initiation of physical force. The argument was that government’s monopoly on force initiates force against would-be competing “governments.”

But that is no longer the main argument the anarchists see—perhaps because of its refutation by Robert Nozick and by me. Or, perhaps it’s due to the dumbing down of the population over the years. But whatever the cause, today the main argument for anarchism seems to be: “Governments always go bad.”

Look at the history of the U.S., they say. It started out in a state very close to the libertarian ideal, but then it started to go down the drain. They then typically quote Lord Acton about how power corrupts.

They do not grasp, and seem incapable of grasping, that the decline of the U.S. was caused not by “corruption” but by philosophy. They are deaf to Ayn Rand’s statement, in For the New Intellectual:

It was the morality of altruism that undercut America and is now destroying her. From her start, America was torn by the clash of her political system with the altruist morality. Capitalism and altruism are incompatible; they are philosophical opposites; they cannot co-exist in the same man or in the same society. [pp. 53-54]

My hypothesis is that what separates the committed Objectivist from the rest of the population is an understanding of the fundamental role played by ideas in people’s lives and in history. That point seems the hardest for people in general to grasp.

It also accounts for the widespread case of those who respond to Atlas Shrugged but fail to translate it into action–fail to pursue the philosophy (when they know it exists) or even to attempt to apply it to their own lives.

An example is the dermatologist who told me that he was reading Atlas for the second time and was very impressed by how AR foresaw the events of today. I asked him what he thought Atlas was all about. He replied, “Some people game the system.” Another story is of the accountant who told a friend of mine that Atlas was about “A man who owns his own valley.”

And people accuse AR of beating the reader over the head with her philosophy!

I suspect that what’s going on in such cases–which are the rule, not the exception–is that they see the ideas of the heroes and the ideas of the villains as merely words they use to justify themselves. They don’t see that the heroes and villains live by and act in accordance with the ideas they espouse. And that can only be because they are unaware of the power of their own ideas on their own lives and actions.

There’s a relatively innocent explanation: they don’t recognize that they have premises. To them, their philosophical premises are not conclusions–they are just self-evidencies. As I’ve said before, it’s like the common attitude, which even I shared in my youth, that an “accent” was the way other people talk, when it sounded different. “I don’t have an accent—I just talk straight.”

Similarly, journalists who are immersed in a sea of like-minded colleagues and friends, don’t think they are slanting the news. They are not “ideologues”–that’s what their opponents are. They just report plain fact, “telling it like it is.” It’s just self-evident that it’s a crisis if not everyone has health insurance. It’s self-evident that when a hurricane strikes, the government must provide funds for relief.

Philosophically, this attitude represents intrinsicism–the belief that even highly abstract conclusions are facts of reality open to direct perception. When someone else doesn’t agree with the “self-evidency,” that merely shows that he’s a fool or a degenerate. If he’d only drop his prejudice, he could just see the patent truth of . . . [insert wrong idea here].

Colloquially, this attitude is parochialism. What do these people think about people’s beliefs in the Dark Ages or in Ancient Egypt or in Ancient Greece? The fact that virtually the entire population of other cultures hold different basic outlooks on life—different philosophic premises—is totally unreal to this type of person.

But you can see the different philosophies given expression—see it concretized—in art. Art is the expression of the artist’s philosophy of life, and because the vast majority of artists share the philosophy of their culture, the art of different cultures expresses, in concrete form, the different philosophies. Just think of the dramatic difference between the death-centered sculpture of Ancient Egypt and the life-affirming sculpture of Ancient Greece.

On a personal note, the thing that really cemented my adherence to Objectivism was attending, on a trip to New York City, the lecture by Mary Ann Sures on the history of art. (This is roughly the lecture that is reprinted as “Metaphysics in Marble” in the February and March 1969 issues of The Objectivist, which I highly recommend; read it here.) The lecture was accompanied by slides showing the different artworks of different cultures.

I thought, “Jesus! This is not just theory. It’s really true that philosophy rules history. These ideas matter. Objectivism is really, powerfully true.”

Thank you, Mary Ann.