Ayn Rand on nature

All my life I’ve run into followers of Ayn Rand who assertively assert that I need to read Atlas Shrugged or The Fountainhead or The Virtue of Selfishness or something. My trouble is that these books are too fat, sort of like me. So I confess I haven’t read anything by her that took any serious commitment.

But this afternoon in a moment of withdrawal and laziness, I pulled down a nice little book she wrote called Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. It sounded relaxing, so I skipped to the last chapter, which turned out to be a summary of the eight previous chapters. I was particularly struck by her summary of her last chapter before the last chapter, so I turned to it and read some more.

I kind of enjoyed it. I like her assertiveness. I like the way she takes most of the philsophers of human history and sweeps them into the garbage heap of a single fundamental mistake. Take a look at this wonderful passage on Immanuel Kant (and while you read, do remember that Genghis Khan):

The entire apparatus of Kant’s system, like a hippopotamus engaged in belly-dancing [see what I mean!!], goes through its gyrations while resting on a single point: that man’s knowledge is not valid because his consciousness possesses identity. “His argument, in essence, ran as follows: man is limited to a consciousness of a specific nature, which perceives by specific means and no others, therefore, his consciousness is not valid; man is blind, because he has eyes–deaf, because he has ears–deluded, because he has a mind–and the things he perceives do not exist, because he perceives them.” (For the New Intellectual.)

That, my friends, is a tour de force, a rhetorical marvel of exposition. How can you not bang your head on your desk, sit back and stare at your ceiling, open a vein or two, rush to blog what you just read, and determine with all the resolution of a salmon confronted by a grizzly to figure out what exactly she meant? Because it was marvelous, whatever it was!

But, having subjected myself to Kant over lunch a few times while working for Ernst and Whinney in the 80’s and having deliberately tried to understand at least one or two sentences in his writings even more recently and having read all kinds of things about how smart Kant was and how he gave us our modern philosophy, I think she’s right.

Here we are, with our eyes, ears, and minds. Kant says that since those are the only ways we can interact with the universe, we can’t know anything. She goes on,

That is a negation, not only of man’s consciousness [I may as well express the obtusely perverse pleasure I derive from her sexist language – it turns me on!], but of any consciousness.

In other words, she is arguing that Kant is arguing that because we have tools by which we can perceive and think we clearly are unable to perceive and think. “Kant negates consciousness by implying that to be perceived, is not to be.”

You can probably tell, so I don’t need to say it, but this puts me in an ecstasy.

OK, so what does this have to do with nature and the conference and all that? Listen to how she concludes the chapter. Pay attention, because the first time you read it it sounds confusing, but it isn’t all that bad. Read it a couple times and you’ll see what she’s getting at.

Objectivity begins with the realization that man (including his every attribute and faculty, including his consciousness) is an entity of a specific nature who must act accordingly; that there is no escape from the law of identity, neither in the universe with which he deals nor in the working of his own consciousness, and if he is to acquire knowledge of the first [the universe, ed.], he must discover the proper method of using the second [his consciousness, ed.]; that there is no room for the arbitrary in any activity of man, least of all in his method of cognition — and just as he has learned to be guided by objective criteria in making his physical tools, so he must be guided by objective criteria in forming his tools of cognition: his concepts.

Just as man’s physical existence was liberated when he grasped the principle that “nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed,” so his consciousness will be liberated when he grasps that nature, to be apprehended, must be obeyed–that the rules of cognition must be derived from the nature of existence and the nature, the identity, of his cognitive faculty.

To summarize, Kantians and thus most moderns believe that we cannot know the universe we live in because we know it according to human nature. We have a consciousness that is a human consciousness.

This implies limits. Limits drive these people nuts.

But if we accept human nature, if we accept that we can only know things the way humans can know things, then we can actually know things! If we learn how to use our consciousness according to its identity (i.e. as human consciousness), then we can come to know the universe as humans can know it.

Ayn Rand was an avowed atheist from what I’ve been told, though I’ve also read that she was strongly influenced by a mentor who was a devout Christian but with whom she eventually fell out.

In any case, she probably wouldn’t care for my next point, but I’m happy to borrow her insight to better understand the same reality she looked at with the same human consciousness she used to see it.

Because God made us stewards of the universe, the uniquely human consciousness that he gave us provides the kind of knowledge that is good for the universe and for us. In other words, as humans, we can know the universe because we are made to know and love it. And we can and must use that knowledge for the good of the universe which our God clearly loves so much.

In turn, we must master this manner of knowing with boldness and confidence, and not be intimidated by the self-contradictory nonsense that the intellectuals of the world use to commit suicide. Ayn Rand, responding to one of Kant’s followers’ summaries of his teaching, put it this way:

Make no mistake about the actual meaning of that premise: it is a revolt, not only against being conscious, but against being alive.


(recommended resource: The Lost Tools of Writing. These are the tools that enable us, not only to write, but to think in a human way and thus to fulfill our role as stewards who know the world they are trying to care for. Also, the CiRCE apprenticeship. www.circeinstitute.org)

Computers create boring teaching!

A shout out to Touchstone’s Mere Comments for this wonderful article:

When Computers Leave Classrooms, So Does Boredom

Nature and Practicality

The only thing more foolish than being impractical is being a Pragmatist (i.e. making practicality the ultimate thing).

The demand for practical applications is the most perfect way to avoid having to hear or think about what is inconvenient or undesirable. The demand for relevance is the ideal way to avoid what matters most.

And yet…

If it is not practical, it does not matter. The tension arises, not over the question of whether we ought to be practical, but over what we consider practical.

For example, in the comments on the health care post, the question arose over contemporary success literature, which, thanks to Norman Vincent Peale and his ilk, has become a rather dominant element of contemporary Christian media. But is it Biblical? And does it fit human nature?

I argue that the sermon on the mount is the ultimate statement of how to succeed if you are a human being. But is it practical to turn the other cheek? To go the extra mile? To be persecuted?

Only if there really is a Kingdom of God and if that God is righteous. Only if there is a resurrection.

But I’m not sure I can see how those factors affect the curriculum, modes of instruction, and means of assessment in our schools, all of which, I assume, would be somehow oriented toward the child succeeding in some domain (after all, the schools are the ultimate “success coaches”).  If anybody can explain that to me, I’d be grateful as the links are not obvious.

My fundamental point, to repeat, is that the demand for practical applications is a great way to avoid hearing what needs to be heard. Consider, for example, a steward on the Titanic after they hit the iceberg. If he is practical, he wants to know how to do his job better, how to deal with a particular problem that is troubling him right now.

The last thing he wants to hear is how to deal with something he hasn’t been trained for, for which there are no known techniques, like how to survive in the freezing waters of the north Atlantic.

Or consider the cancer patient (which may be more germane to my point). Cancer is, like Naturalism, a direct assault on the living nature of the person or animal that carries it. It is an excess, a cell gone out of control, eating up the things around it and draining the life of the “system” that it has glommed onto.

But how does the person who has cancer respond to it? My parents both died of cancer and it was, shall we say, interesting to watch how each responded. I know that many people choose to ignore it; to pretend they don’t have it, to live a normal life.

To some extent this is prudent. One needs to continue to do useful, productive things to maintain one’s sense of balance and dignity. Nature demands work of us.

But it can go too far. The person can pretend he doesn’t have cancer, deny the symptoms or explain them away, try to function as though everything is as it should be.

These people find themselves very unhappy.

It is not practical to deny reality. I believe that much of what happens in the American schools is the reality denying behavior of a fourth stage cancer patient.

Let me turn from the metaphor to an explanation and a practical application of my point, which, to repeat, is that the demand for practical applications is a great way to avoid thinking about inconvenient truths.

At the conference, I led a roundtable discussion about assessment in light of the nature of things. It was, necesssarily, much too short.

As an aside, I fully admit that the CiRCE conference is known for raising as many questions as it answers. I find that when you are in the early stages of a project (like recovering the Christian classical tradition) it is best to ask a lot of questions and not to rush forward doing things the old way.

In any case, this discussion was too short. Many things that need to be discussed could not be because of time. But afterward, somebody told me that it was more relevant to the home school parent than to the school teacher.

This comment can be taken a number of different ways, and I did not have the time to pursue it with the person who said it, so I don’t want to assume anything about what he meant.

However, I did take it a certain way, and I want to respond to the way I took it, not necessarily the way he meant it.

The way I took this comment was that the discussion about assessing students and their work according to the nature of the child, lesson, and “subject” can be done better at home because of the circumstances, but at school there are all sorts of obstacles and diversions, so assessing according to nature at school isn’t really a practical thing to do.

I am happy to report that I am quite confident that I have caricatured my interlocuters position. However, that is because he is more thoughtful than most people.

But I believe that my expression of the position is precisely what most people would mean if they brought their reactions to the level of conscious thought. I hope not, but on the assumption that it is so I want to reply to that formulation.

First, think about the implications of that position. The argument is, the school setting is not natural, so it is not practical to assess students and their work according to nature, i.e. with standards derived from the nature of the student, the lesson, the subject, etc. (i.e. from reality).

Since, then, we are teaching children in an unnatural way, when somebody suggests an assessment that arises from a natural way of teaching, we can’t be troubled to bother with it.

Let me reiterate that I know this is not what the person who commented to me meant.

But it is precisely the normal practice of most schools, public or private.

Let’s think about this. 

First, the school is not a natural setting. In its present formulation, it does not arise from the needs, desires, and aspirations of human nature. Martin Cothran presented a talk on “The agrarian nature of education” that I am very, very anxious to listen to.

For most of its history, education patterned itself on the agrarian household, which was an amazingly flexible structure, adaptable to circumstances, and submissive to the environment in which it grew.

But with the late 19th and early 20th century, schools increasingly patterned themselves on the inflexible, unadaptable, irrresponsible structures of industry. The fulness of this madness arrived with the so-called Gary Plan that John Dewey celebrated in his Schools of Tomorrow. That was where the 52 minute classroom with bells and five minute breaks was introduced – and soundly rejected by the parents.

In addition, schools came to be run by the principles of scientific management, then by the rather arbitrary standards established by the IRS for not for profits. The agrarian community’s patterns of leadership were replaced by those of the industrial capitalist and the socialist.

So the school as presently constituted is not “natural.”

Like the cancer patient, we can ignore this fact or we can recognize its awful implications. They are, after all, all around us.

If we use a structure that is not Divinely or naturally ordained, we are going to have just the sort of problems we do have.

Second, a question: If the modes of assessment that arise from the needs, desires, and aspirations of human nature work at cross purposes with the school setting, which should give in to the other?

I would appeal to every school that seeks to cultivate wisdom and virtue in its students simply to engage in the discussion. I know that you can’t change everything right now.

I know that discussion is anxiety producing.

I know that you have too much work to do while you and your parents are being accredited, certified, college admissioned and otherwise controlled and intimidated by the forces for chaos, anxiety, and despair.

Believe it or not, I am tremendously sensitive to those issues. I have three college age children. My wife teaches in a classical and Christian school. I have started three myself. I consult with dozens every year. I am in no way trying to be glib.

What I’m begging you to do is simply to start the conversation. Rise up and begin to assert your freedom to mentor free people.

I don’t know how far this cancer has advanced. Maybe you are part of the cure.

But only if you begin the discussion.

Third, an assertion: If we are to respect the nature of things (a position that seems self-evident to me), and if the home is the more natural setting for the child and for education, then our schools ought to do at least two things with regard to the home (I would be very interested in other things the school needs to do):

  1. Model itself more closely on the household than on the “Gary Plan” that brought the industrial model into the school
  2. Treat home schoolers with great respect. After all,the reason home schooling works so well is because it more closely aligns with human nature. So schools should honor home schooling parents instead of seeing them as a threat and instead of making them feel inferior because they have not learned the artificial techniques that enable a teacher to succeed in an unnatural setting.

Again, please start the discussion. Act only on what you discover. Implement only what you believe in. But start the discussion. And include the local home schoolers in that discussion.

You have to live in the world that you live in. That is where God will transform and sanctify you. But you don’t have to be ruled by it.


Recommended resources:

  • 2009 Conference CD’s; especially the roundtable on assessment and Martin Cothran’s Agrarian Nature of Education
  • CiRCE Next Step Teacher Training with James Daniels, Andrew Kern, or Debbie Harris
  • Charlotte Mason’s writings

Dismal Statement?

My administration is the only thing between you and the pitchforks.

President Barack Obama to the leaders of the banking industry

I’m as angry as anybody about banker’s folly, and I’ve as much a victim of it as most people – no, more than most – but the thought that our president thinks of himself in these terms and that he would use this rhetoric is more than a little unnverving for someone who values our political and legal system.

Regulation, remember, is always done by a regulator – a person who has good days and bad and a person whom you had better treat with deference when he tells you how hot you can run your water.

I can’t find the evidence that tells us we are a better nation because of the regulators. I can see that we are addicted to them, as we must be if we try to build a world on materialist foundations. Nothing else can restrain people.

In other words, we are lost.

Philosopher Citizens

Somebody mentioned in passing during the conference that Mortimer Adler said that not everybody will be an electrician or a lawyer or a football player (or something like that) but that everybody is a citizen and a philosopher.


That means that every school must be serious about equipping their students to be citizens (people who know and love justice and seek to introduce her to their circumstances) and philosophers (people who love truth and know how to seek it).

Does yours?

15 ideas to contemplate

I mentioned in my previous post that if you want to train the mind you need to give it ideas to contemplate. I’ve been contemplating for about 15 years what might be the most powerful ideas to contemplate, and here’s a list of them. Happily, they come in triumvirates.

  • Truth, goodness, and beauty
  • Wisdom, virtue, and personhood
  • Freedom, justice, and community
  • Nature, purpose, and propriety
  • Being, mode, and change

Please don’t do classes on each or even seminars (except, maybe, for juniors and seniors). But get everybody in your school, especially the teachers, thinking about these things. These are the threads that hold your tapestry together, the coals that keep the fire burning.

In another post, I’ll discuss how we can contemplate them – even in the pre-school!


(recommended resources: CiRCE Apprenticeship, CiRCE teacher training, 2009 CiRCE Conference CD’s, Mortimer Adler: How to Think about the Great Ideas, The Syntopicon (volumes 2 and 3 in the great books set), casual conversations with friends about any book or event or experience keeping one or more of these ideas in mind as you think about it)

Tom Price on Health Care

I need to hear more details, but this seems like an important response to the health care plan. The thing we can’t forget is that once this program is put in place, it can’t be undone. The people who support this plan know that.

This has almost nothing to do with improving our health and almost everything to do with one of the most extreme power grabs in our history. Never has the failure of the Republicans to be republican been more harmful to us.

And understand this: once health care is in place, there will be no such thing as conservative government in America. All the parties will do from that point on is argue about the details of implementation. You can’t undo this once it is done. But it will undo us.

The scale is inappropriate to the task.

Why Pragmatism Doesn’t Work

During the last session at the conference I tried to weave things together into a practical structure that people could take home and think about and implement. Maybe the most important idea in the whole conference for me was the contrast between propriety and pragmatism, justice and utility, nature and abstract object.

Modernist thought found its clearest and fullest expression in two late 19th century philosophers whose teachings have dominated 20th and 21st century practice: William James and Friederich Nietzsche. James was a Pragmastist. It’s hard to say whether any principle ordered Nietzsche’s thought. He once said that he despised the great systemetizers. For him, it was about experience, not thinking (though he did the latter a lot). I would probably call him a Perspectivist (one who believes that truth is not knowable as a thing in itself – we all just have a perspective or worldview), but even that implies a rational structure to his thought that he would laugh at.

Both of them are, strictly speaking, anti-philosophers, or at least, anti-metaphysicians. James wanted to know the “cash value” of an idea. Truth is what works. Nietzsche wanted to know how an idea would lead to life, to flourishing.

I’m sympathetic with both of them. They lived at the end of the “Age of Ideas” that had been launched by the Enlightenment, especially Kant and Hegel. Ideas had become ideologies, and no ideology had been big enough to order souls or society.

So they directed thought away from thinking and gaining knowledge to acting and gaining power.

I can see the sense in what they did. The trouble I can’t escape is this big question of Nature. James and Nietzsche (and virtually all Enlightenment and 20th century thinkers) didn’t believe in the Idea of Nature.

Reality is not determined by (is not equal to) a thing’s nature. It is determined by personal and social constructions, which is what they believed ideas are. So rather than focus on the appropriate ways to treat something based on its nature, they were concerned with adapting to one’s environment.

John Dewey, a good friend of William James and a co-Pragmatist, went so far as to develop a philosophy of education that was rooted in the concept that the world around is not knowable in the Christian classical sense. Instead, knowledge is the adaptation of an organism to its environment.

As this played out over the 20th century, it led to some stark ideas. For example, knowledge isn’t the end we should seek, but practical applications. We shouldn’t contemplate ideas, we should produce measurables. We shouldn’t read old books burdened down with Christian classical assumptions about reality (most of all, that things have a nature); we should read books that are “relevant” to immediate issues for children.

This isn’t the place, and it would take too long to develop this thought, but I will simply assert here that these commitments fall horribly short of the aspirations of the Christian classical tradition.

  • The pursuit of virtue is replaced by adapting to the environmnent, which is a polite way of saying, “seeking power.”
  • Reverence for human nature is replaced by the use of schools to bring about the Darwinian and meaningless world these philosophers believed in.
  • Love of learning (i.e. of knowledge) is replaced by fear of testing.
  • Great books are replaced by, forgive me, twaddle.
  • Liberal arts and classical sciences are replaced by subjects, all equal, all disconnected, all meaningless.
  • Christ the logos is replaced by …
  • Contemplation is replaced by production.
  • Ideas are replaced by constructions.
  • Nature is replaced by permanent change.
  • Propriety is replaced by utility.
  • Purpose is replaced by utility.
  • Wisdom is replaced by skillful adaptation.
  • Being as the foundation of thought is replaced by utility.
  • Change is exalted to the status of divinity.
  • Whatever cannot be measured is reduced to what can be or disregarded as irrelevant.
  • Personhood is swallowed up in futility.
  • Freedom is replaced by compulsive efforts to satisfy instincts.
  • Justice is replaced by measurable social criteria, under the guise of equality.
  • Community becomes an effective marketing buzz word because everybody wants it but nobody knows how to get it.
  • Truth is what you make it.
  • Goodness is what you determine it to be.
  • Beauty is what you like.

In the classical tradition, all these ideas were considered independent realities. In other words, truth was truth whether you discovered it or not. You could construct an idea that was wrong. But look at how reading is taught now, both to children and to college students. It’s seriously influenced by the philosophy of constructivism, which says you create your own meaning.

It’s not that they are entirely wrong. Of course, we see things from our perspective. Of course we construct meaning from our experiences. But that doesn’t mean that there is no knowable reality beyond our perspective and no knowable meaning to which we can compare our constructions.

We see through a glass darkly. But there is something that we see. And as our vision more closely aligns with what is actually there, the better we perceive truth and the wiser we are.

There’s all the difference in the world between teaching a child that what he sees is all there is to see and teaching a child that he can improve his vision through training.

But the educators who dominated 20th century practices systematically undercut the students’ capacity to perceive truth and their confidence that it was knowable.

As a result, we have schooled our children into the least educated people in the history of the world.

Pragmatism doesn’t work. It excludes too much from its vision. It cuts short the quest for wisdom. It disables the mind. It redirects our attention to power. We need to absorb what it had right, but we need to transcend it with a restored love for truth rooted in the nature of things.

It seems un-American, but if you want to train a mind, the only way to do so is to give it ideas to contemplate.

(recommended resource: 2009 CiRCE conference CD’s)

Nature and Health Care

The great eneny of nature is utility. Power finds the restrictions nature places on it obnoxious and irritating. Marketers play on this frustration when they present products with “no limits” and other meaningful language. But nature won’t give in. It always wins.

That realization enables one to anticipate developments in health care.

Whether we switch to a gigantic bureaucratic nationalized health plan or we continue to be controlled by the gigantic bureaucratic corporations (who would provide the employees of the nationalized health care plan), we should realize by now that health care is run, not by respect for human nature (i.e. the patient) but by utility.

In time, if not yet, that creates this simple application: Utilitarian health care: efficiency demands letting people who are old die sooner.

However, nature demands reverence, altogether apart from “usefulness” or cost effectiveness. And reverence is particular, not abstract, immersed in context, relationship, love. It constantly screws up the actuarial tables. That is why Burke famously and importantly said:

The age of chivalry is gone. That of calculators, sophistors, oeconomists has come.

So where does that leave us? In a bind that arose when we handed health care to the utilitarians in the first place. Follow this out.

If we don’t revere our elders, what will happen to us? Are dying parents a nuisance or part of what makes us grow up into adulthood ourselves? That would seem pretty useful. Just not utilitarian.

What cures will we never discover because the government directs the health care resources toward their arbitrary and ever changing values, which are always rooted in power politics, not nature? (This alone explains why we need to limit and define the powers offered to our government.)

If people who were invested in the ethics of health care read this blog, I would urge them to debate what nature has to say about health care priorities. But I wonder if the categories would mean anything.

Natural Law and the Will of Men

To speak of nature is inevitably to speak of the natural law, perhaps the west’s greatest contribution to political thought. Yet, we only discussed it in passing during the conference. I regret that omission, though of course we only had two and one half days.

In the Preface to Common Truths: New Perspectives on Natural Law, Edward McLean writes,

Each chapter [of this book] is predicated on the desirability of replacing the dominant school of positive law and its majoritarian legitimating principle with a  commitment to natural law doctrines, which alone are capable of providing the informing principles necessary for a vital, free, and virtuous society.

As is so often the case, even in my own writing, this sentence could be clearer if it contained fewer prepositions and nominalizations. But what it says carries the weight of an age, so we must read it closely.

Modern legal theory roots its legitimacy in majority rule, which effects its rule through something called positive law. We should, McLean suggests, replace positive law with natural law. Only then can we have a “vital, free, and virtuous society.” In other words, modern lawyers, judges, politicians, and rulers look to positive law to maintain order and their own authority, but if we are going to be free and virtuous we need to look to natural law.

Natural law can provide the principles we need to build a society that matters, that moves and lives, that is free, and that is virtuous. There is, McLean suggests, no other source for those principles.

Perhaps you have read the first book of Plato’s Republic. If so, you might remember Thrasymachus, the Sophist who wanted to recruit Glaucon and Adeimantus for his school and to corrupt them into sophistry. When he and Plato argued about the meaning of justice, he posited that it was “the interest of the stronger.” His point was that laws were made by people in power and they made the laws so they could hold onto their power or whatever else was in their interest.

This argument continues today. The sophistic argument now calls itself “Legal Positivism.” There is no “natural law,” they insist. There is simply the law that people make. We turn to the majority for law in our society because the majority has the power to make laws.

Socrates and any other lover of mankind and therefore of freedom finds this notion horrifying. If the positive law (i.e. laws that have been posited) is subordinate to no higher law, then it is only a matter of time before the rulers become tyrants and the people are enslaved.

Furthermore, while human consciousness is always inclined toward freedom, recognizing that freedom is the condition of its realization, the human appetites are always inclined toward immediate satisfaction, which is the sure-footed path to slavery.

Liberty, therefore, arises from natural law and nowhere else.

That being the case, I hereby seek to rectify the failure to adequately present the natural law with a list of books and materials that you can read or study to become reacquainted with what it means to be a free person.

  • Common Truths: New Perspectives on Natural Law, edited by Edward B. McLean and including essays by Ralph McInerny, J. Rufus Fears, Alasdair MacIntyre, Russell Hittinger and others. Highly recommended, published by ISI books.
  • Natural Law. Heinrich Rommen. Maybe the best book on the historical development of the idea of natural law. I think Liberty Fund publishes this book. Somewhere close to essential.
  • The First Grace: Rediscovering the Natural Law in a Post-Christian World, by Russell Hittinger. ISI books. Stimulating and insightful.
  • Natural Law and Human Nature, a lecture series by Father Joseph Poterski of Fordham University from The Teaching Company.
  • Sophocles: Antigone. You can’t be an educated person without reflecting on the matter of this play.
  • Cicero: The Laws.
  • A very fine article from Villanova posted on their website  (great first read – nice and brief).

In summary, let me urge you to make a recovery of freedom possible again by reminding yourself what “the law of nature,” upon which our fathers built this country, is by figuring out how to live it yourself and to see it restored in your communities.

Because remember, the only alternative to the law of nature is the will of men.

And they aren’t known for setting people free.