In early November I finished reading Philosophy: Who Needs It by Ayn Rand. Her works are so much of one piece that every time I’ve started tinkering with a review I find it repeats some of the same assessments of her other work this year. Rand’s answer to the question is that philosophy is necessary for all, because being one’s fundamental approach to the world, everything else develops from it. In addition to her making this argument, she also analyzes some of the intellectual trends of the time of her writing.
A philosophic system is an integrated view of existence. As a human being, you have no choice about the fact that you need a philosophy. Your only choice is whether you define your philosophy by a conscious, rational, disciplined process of thought and scrupulously logical deliberation—or let your subconscious accumulate a junk heap of unwarranted conclusions, false generalizations, undefined contradictions, undigested slogans, unidentified wishes, doubts and fears, thrown together by chance, but integrated by your subconscious into a kind of mongrel philosophy and fused into a single, solid weight: self-doubt, like a ball and chain in the place where your mind’s wings should have grown.
Nothing is given to man automatically, neither knowledge, nor self-confidence, nor inner serenity, nor the right way to use his mind. Every value he needs or wants has to be discovered, learned and acquired—even the proper posture of his body. In this context, I want to say that I have always admired the posture of West Point graduates, a posture that projects man in proud, disciplined control of his body. Well, philosophical training gives man the proper intellectual posture—a proud, disciplined control of his mind.
The price of rationalizing is the hampering, the distortion and, ultimately, the destruction of one’s cognitive faculty. Rationalization is a process not of perceiving reality, but of attempting to make reality fit one’s emotions.
Most men spend their lives in futile rebellion against things they cannot change, in passive resignation to things they can, and—never attempting to learn the difference—in chronic guilt and self-doubt on both counts.
He has the power to suspend, evade, corrupt or subvert his perception of reality, but not the power to escape the existential and psychological disasters that follow.
If any man feels that the world is too complex and its evil is too big to cope with, let him remember that it is too big to drown in a glass of whiskey.
Justice does exist in the world, whether people choose to practice it or not. The men of ability are being avenged. The avenger is reality.
If you find it puzzling, the premise to check is the idea that governmental repression is the only way a government can destroy the intellectual life of a country. It is not. There is another way: governmental encouragement. Governmental encouragement does not order men to believe that the false is true: it merely makes them indifferent to the issue of truth or falsehood.
If a dictatorship ever comes to this country, it will be by the default of those who keep silent. We are still free enough to speak. Do we have time? No one can tell. But time is on our side—because we have an indestructible weapon and an invincible ally (if we learn how to use them): reason and reality.
Only one thing is certain: a dictatorship cannot take hold in America today. This country, as yet, cannot be ruled—but it can explode. It can blow up into the helpless rage and blind violence of a civil war. It cannot be cowed into submission, passivity, malevolence, resignation. It cannot be “pushed around.” Defiance, not obedience, is the American’s answer to overbearing authority. The nation that ran an underground railroad to help human beings escape from slavery, or began drinking on principle in the face of Prohibition, will not say “Yes, sir,” to the enforcers of ration coupons and cereal prices. Not yet. If America drags on in her present state for a few more generations (which is unlikely), dictatorship will become possible. A sense of life is not a permanent endowment. The characteristically American one is being eroded daily all around us. Large numbers of Americans have lost it (or have never developed it) and are collapsing to the psychological level of Europe’s worst rabble.