Archive for June 22nd, 2009

The Individual and Society

(Note: this week is “Summer Experience” at UMF, where incoming first year students have an intense week of discussion oriented work, with each class reading the same material — an ecclectic interdisciplinary set of works designed to stimulate thought and discussion.  This week I will blog about one of the writings each day.   Last year for day one I wrote about Robertson Davies “What Every Girl Should Know.)

Today I’m going to write about two pieces juxaposed with each other in the heavy reading for the first day.   One is “I owe nothing to my brothers,” by Ayn Rand, and the other is “Meditation XVII,” by John Donne.

Donne and Rand offer complete opposite perspectives on the nature of the individual in society.   Rand (1905-1982) is the ultimate individualist, arguing for “ethical egoism,” which involves laissez faire capitalism, anti-statism, and a condemnation of altruism.  The individual is what matters, the individual is responsible for his or her own happiness.  No one should either use others to try to satisfy his or her own wants or needs, and no one should let himself or herself be used by others to satisfy their needs.

Donne (1572-1631) is most famous for his quote that “no man is an island,” and “for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee,” each from this Meditation.  Donne sees all of humankind, or at least the Christian world, as part of a larger organic whole, where the dignity or suffering of each individual has an impact on everyone else.   We are all connected in a web of mutually shared experiences and destinies, and it is folly to think that an individual can exist, strive for good, or live a quality life without recognizing that our identity is by necessity part of a collective.

Taken on their own, each position is persuasive.  Rand, who immigrated to the US from Russia in 1926 at the age of 21, speaks to the traditional American notion of the ‘rugged individual.’   Having experienced the Communist revolution and its aftermath, she hated the collectivism and abuse of individual rights by a powerful state.  And though democracies are not quite so heavy handed, she believed that states constantly limit freedom, and through taxes and warfare both enslave and murder.    Humans should be as free as possible to form their own associations, building not a collective, where identity comes from the mass, but to form individual friendships where any grouping is one based on individual choice and consent.

Rand’s writing is also much more persuasive than Donne’s.   Donne’s poetry is equisite, but he wrote in the early 17th century, in language that is hard for students today to fathom and access.  Rand started out as a playwright and screen writer, moving on to novels (her first was The Fountainhead, and her most famous the 1100 page long 1957 behemoth Atlas Shrugged.)   She was a superb writer, able to inspire the mind and soul with her ideas and style.  Yet the appeal of her ideas is due less to their actual logical validity (she is not widely regarded as top notch philosopher — Objectivism as a philosophy is full of holes) but rather to her ability to inspire and touch readers with her fiction.

Donne had the same ability with poetry in his day.   Like Rand, he wrote in a time of tumult.   A century earlier the reformation had started in Europe, leading to wars and bloodshed which continued all through Donne’s life.   He was British (though spent considerable time on the war torn continent), and started out as a Roman Catholic.  Catholics were often persecuted in England.  Henry VIII used the reformation to break away from the church in 1538, and though Queen Mary tried to return to Catholicism (earning the nickname ‘bloody Mary’ for her executions of those who did not want to go back), by 1570 Elizabeth I made the reform complete.  Yet for reasons unclear, in the early 17th century Donne left the Catholic church and became an Anglican.

Rand, on the other hand, was an atheist.  Belief in a diety is, in her view, a need for a crutch, and a sign of weakness.   (The Simpsons spoofed this when at the “Ayn Rand Daycare” Maggie and the other babies had their pacifiers taken away as being crutches…in a nice ironic satire, the babies come together — in a collective — and launch a plot, led by Maggie, to retrieve their pacifiers.)   The material world may not be all that is, but it’s all we can measure and manipulate, and thus it is here where we (not the word she’d use) must create our own individual paths to happiness.

Donne, on the other hand, despite having a somewhat scandalous life, spending money on parties and women, and marrying a very young bride (causing a rift with her father which took some time to heal), was extremely religious.   One gets the sense that he sees how the community of believers were killing each other in the wars of reformation, and the persecutions that took place in England, and finds it troubling.   Every death is a tragedy because we are all part of society, which in his case meant the Christian world.  Only by recognizing our ethical obligation to look at for the betterment of society as a whole, sacrificing of ourselves for the greater good, can we find real happiness.

Rand sees such a view as a sacrifice of our essential human uniqueness, giving up who we are for some imagined fantasy of a collective, allowing others to manipulate and use individuals for ways that limit the individual spirit.  Donne would see Rand’s view as hopelessly naive and out of touch with a human nature that is fundamentally collectivist.   He would likely find her style of laissez-faire capitalism to be narcisstic and prone to exploitation.

Yet in trying to understand each, it’s possible to see that both Donne and Rand had a real insight to different aspects of the human experience.   Moreover, each extreme, when simplified into an ideology, leads to a world view that ultimately elevates one aspect of human existence and denies another.   Somehow we have to hold both Donne and Rand’s beliefs and all the tension they form, resisting the temptation to choose one as right and the other wrong.

That tension, embracing our individualism and desire for a life based on consent and not force, while recognizing that things outside our ability to choose are an essential part of our identities and ability to find meaning in the world.  This tension cannot be bridged through logic or philosophy alone.  It is a tension that survives because human logic so simplifies the world that it creates artificial paradoxes, dualisms that seem on their own terms contradictory, but are actually part of the symphony of human existence.  At some level, this cannot be worked out intellectually, but must be understood — a Platonic moment of understanding ideals as a spiritual reality above our material existence.

Is that a satisfying conclusion?   At one level, no.  We humans want black and white answers, and something clear to believe in.   Such tension and attempts to hold apparently contradictory beliefs leads to dissonance (both cognitive and philosophical) and our order seeking minds rebel.  Yet our minds simplify the world at every level, and its that simplification that makes it appear that these tensions are contradictory, rather than aspects of a reality we are yet unable to truly comprehend.

In that sense, the tension between Donne and Rand reflects an essential aspect of the agony and joy of education.   We seek clear answers, but as we develop insight, ambiguity rather than clarity emerges.   Such paradoxes have a beauty that is easy to overlook — but are key in trying to make sense of this world in which we find ourselves.