Men of Excellence and Society
Posted by Jerry on July 31, 2007
In my previous response to the mediocre philosopher’s attack on human excellence, I missed exposing a crucial inaccuracy in his post attributed to Objectivism.
Steve Gimbel states:
“The [Objectivist] view contends that human society ought to be oriented in such a way as to maximize the production of great individuals and that concern for all only causes, in a zero-sum game, the weak to be elevated at the expense of the great, an effect that evolutionarily has disastrous consequences for the species as a whole. The pivot of this view, of course, is this notion of great individuals of human excellence.”
It is after attributing the above inaccurate assertion to Objectivism that Gimbel embarks upon his attack on human excellence as a sign of “mental illness” and irrationality. From the view he has attributed to Objectivism, he identifies the notion of human excellence in material, financial, and physical pursuits as the pivotal notion.
Let me argue that–at least in my understanding of the philosophy–Objectivism does not contend that human society ought to be oriented in a manner that maximizes the production of great individuals, because this is not even possible.
To be sure, Objectivism does advocate a society that will foster and encourage greatness among men if the greatness already exists. However, Objectivism does not hold such a seemingly naive teleological and determinist view of human nature and society–that great individuals are the products of a society oriented towards greatness; indeed, a society cannot produce anything beyond what its constituent individuals already are, since a society is nothing but a collection of individuals–be they great or mediocre.
Of course, a society’s predominant ethos, political situation, or cultural sense of life does have great effects on the individuals living in that society; however, whatever the effects, they are fundamentally dependent upon the individual’s own volitional response to his circumstances. Man is a self-made being–he is what he chooses to make of himself, and material or physical excellence is not the barometer of his fundamental moral worth or virtue.
An irrational man who chooses to abdicate the responsibility of his own existence and the necessity to focus his mind will continue to wallow in mediocrity regardless of which society he lives in–that his society may be rational and free has no bearing on his deliberate abdication of moral responsibility.
Similarly, a rational man living in a predominantly irrational culture, surrounded by mostly irrational brutes, savages, and mystics, can continue to choose to maintain the rational integrity of his own mind and can continue to pursue the virtue of moral excellence as much as is existentially possible to him.
The excellence that matters the most and has the most significance to man according to Objectivism is excellence in moral integrity, which is safely protected within a man’s mind and soul and which cannot be breached by any influence of even the most oppressive culture or society. This is most poignantly exemplied by the character of Kira Argounova in Ayn Rand’s We The Living, where she symbolizes the sanctity of the soul that is untouched by society.
In Atlas Shrugged, the moral excellence of Dagny, Hank, and the characters who go on strike was not the product of their society, and they defiantly refused to allow the irrationality of their society to smother their spirit of moral integrity, excellence, and commitment to rational values.
A great and free society does not produce men of excellence but can attract, foster, and encourage the growth of such men if they have already made the personal choice to pursue greatness. Remember that Ayn Rand was born in Russia–a most oppressive society of brutes, irrational mystics of the muscle, and a communist dictatorship. But she was attracted to the United States and found it to be a society conducive to her consciously chosen value of life and pursuit of excellence.
Similarly, some of the best minds of the early twentieth century came to the United States fleeing from the oppressive chaos of European societies to consciously pursue excellence in their fields.
The error that Gimbel commits here is that of an hierarchical confusion, most commonly observed among people with collectivist tendencies: they tend to forget that individuals are ontologically prior to society. One cannot have or speak of a society before identifying that an individual man exists. Therefore, to speak of a society that “produces” great individuals is to confuse the hierarchical order of things: a society is itself the sum of what its individuals are and cannot “produce”–based on its ideological orientation–great individuals external to those already constituting the society.
In other words, according to the proper order of things, a group of great men first give rise to (and constitute) what can be called a great society; it is only subsequent to this that a great society of great men can create a free environment that fosters and encourages further excellence.