Rebirth of Reason

The Good Life

The Pitfall Of Passivism
by Lindsay Perigo

The current SOLOHQ poll asking respondents to choose the most important facet of Objectivist activism is yielding interesting results. Few, it seems, are primarily concerned with growing the philosophy—the most popular choice is a virtual dead-heat between better marketing of the philosophy and more advice as to how to apply its principles. It’s the latter that I want to focus on here. If this poll is at all representative, it would indicate a significant body of Objectivists believe the state of the philosophy is satisfactory, but they personally are struggling to live by it.

Bear in mind that the poll doesn’t suggest that types of activism other than the most important one are not important. I’ve always taken the view that all aspects mentioned, and some notmentioned, are important, and that one should focus on that particular facet or facets that one gets most enjoyment from. Time was when I personally enjoyed political activism, even to the point of leading Libertarianz into its first and second elections. Now the thought of doing that bores me rigid, though I still fully appreciate the ultimate importance politics will have when our hoped-for cultural sea-change occurs.

Actually, let me rephrase that … when we have effected the cultural sea-change that we dream about and fight for. For it is the cultural fight that absorbs me now, where the battlefields are philosophy, esthetics and an over-arching sense of life. I just checked up on the articles I wrote for SOLOHQ over the past month: two were on philosophy (Rousseau and Kant and Will It Finally Sink In?) one was esthetics (the reprised Barometer article) and the other was a sense-of-life call to arms (Salutations, SOLOists!). I can’t remember offhand when I last wrote on a purely political issue. This is a wholly accurate reflection of what, these days, spins my wheels, floats my boat, gets my juices flowing … but it’s not meant in any way to denigrate the efforts of those who do focus on political matters. It is via politics, after all, that the state legislates away our freedoms, and it’s important to have soldiers on the front line. It’s just that I personally can’t get excited about participating. As an example, the recent legislation banning smoking in bars, pubs and restaurants would once have seen me in a lather of apoplexy; now, I yawningly realise that even if by some means we succeeded in having the ban lifted, the battle to create a culture in which such a ban would not even be contemplated has barely begun. That is the battle that excites me now. Hence, among other things, SOLO.

The point of all this? Actually, there are two. The first is the relatively superficial point that if you want to be an activist at all, you should seek out that area that affords you most enjoyment, as long as the reasons for that enjoyment are defensible. (If you went into politics, for instance, because you enjoyed wallowing in Machiavellian muck, in back-room wheeler-dealing and back-stabbing, you should check your premises!) Having selected your specialised area, you should go at it for all it’s worth, at the same time not belittling those who’ve chosen another path. That path is complementary! A politics junkie, for instance, shouldn’t deride a philosophy junkie, or vice versa. Far better that they coordinate their battles, so that the latter can bolster the former with solid intellectual ammunition. There is no philosophy/politics dichotomy, after all – politics, via ethics, is part of philosophy!

The second is the more basic and important point that the choice is yours to make. No one, not even the super-geniuses here at SOLO, is equipped to make that choice for you. See, something worries me about any clamour for guidance as to how to apply Objectivist principles in your own life. The news I have for you is that it’s for you to decide. Objectivism lays down certain basics. It tells you, for instance, that rationality is the basic virtue, being the exercise of your mind and the application of it to your external circumstances. It tells you that by practising the virtue of activating your mind you can practise the other virtues human life—the flourishing human life— requires: productivity, independence, etc.. But it’s your mind to activate! What happens next is over to you. There is no manual on how or in which sphere you should be productive, for example—you must write the manual yourself. Pianist or postman? Bricklayer or botanist? Doctor or dentist? Ecologist or economist (two equally appalling alternatives)? You must decide—and, bingo!—in the process of doing so, you’re already applying Objectivist principles to your life. In that sense you’re already an activist. If you want to be more explicitly an activist, as in the alternatives offered by the poll, these are equally your choices to make. My concern about people asking for more advice on how to apply Objectivist principles is that it might not be activism they are trying to practise, but passivism—relying on someone else to tell them how to do it.

A danger of such passivism is the ready acceptance of the crudest form of nostrum simply because on the face of it it appears to be consistent with Objectivism. For instance, someone may say, in a very loud voice, that the most virtuous thing you can do is make money—lots and lots of money. After all, isn’t the entrepreneur the pinnacle of Randian heroism? Well, yes—in so far as the money he makes reflects his productivity, which reflects his rationality, he is the acme of virtue. But it in no way follows that making lots of money is the only virtuous path. You may choose a profession that by its nature will never make you humungously rich, but which provides you with deep fulfilment that the brute fact of being richer could not. I myself gave up a lucrative and prestigious television career because it was not bringing me happiness. What followed was a roller-coaster ride that I wouldn’t have missed for the world. At the end of it all, I am not rich, neither am I destitute. I have around me the things that matter most to me: my music, my computer, my library, good food, good wine, good friends. I can lay claim to having introduced libertarianism to public consciousness in my own country, and Objectivism too, via the magazine that I started ten years ago and that still continues. Most amazingly, perhaps, I am now accepted back on television as an out-of-the-closet libertarian—something unimaginable back in the days when I walked out. The point here being that I am immensely more fulfilled as a result of eschewing the advice to stay where the money was and taking the risk of being more truly myself. To treat money as an end in itself is a horrendous fallacy, akin to that other notorious Objectivist trap of treating rationality as an end in itself. One does not live to make money; one makes money to live. One does not live to be rational; one is rational in order to live. Or, as Howard Roark would have it in a different context: "I do not build in order to have clients; I have clients in order to build."

In short, to be a passivist is to be vulnerable to dogmatists pretending to know it all, when in fact they are no more qualified to live your life than you are to live theirs. It is to risk abandoning the virtue of independence in favour of docile conformity to someone else’s dictates. To be sure, friends, family and the like can be helpful in proffering useful guidelines or alerting you to pitfalls. (In that regard, you could do no better than consult Joe Rowlands’ excellent essays on the static/dynamic distinction.) But don’t expect—and don’t ever seek—a blueprint telling you what to do. The book of life in your hands is yours, exclusively; it’s over to you to write the text.
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