Ideology and Individualism

2003-11-17

In The New World of the Gothic Fox by Claudio VĂ©liz, I found the following quotation from the Christian-Marxist sociologist-priest Camilo Torres:

The revolutionary struggle cannot be carried out unless there is a complete and integrated Weltanschauung. That is why it is difficult in the contemporary Western world for this struggle to be undertaken apart from Christian and Marxist ideologies which, for all practical purposes, are the only ideologies that possess an integral Weltanschauung. And for this reason it is difficult for uncommitted persons who do not belong to one of these ideological camps to assume revolutionary leadership.

Click. All of a sudden, I see a connection here to Ayn Rand, who once said that only three places understand the world today: the Kremlin, the Vatican, and the Empire State Building (at the time, Rand's newsletter had its offices in the last-named building). Rand, too, thought that revolution requires an integrated ideology in order to succeed -- except that her revolution was a libertarian one, and her integrated Weltanschauung was her philosophy of "Objectivism". And she thought that only those committed to her philosophy could possibly provide true leadership for a libertarian revolution. (Indeed, this viewpoint suffused my own early essay Why I Am a Libertarian, with which I almost completely disagree nowadays.)

What is the source for the view that only a consistent ideology can provide the foundation for (revolutionary) progress, and the concomitant notion that only revolutionary progress is true progress? Véliz finds it in the Jesuits' revival of Thomistic ideas about coherence and order -- the idea that there is one animating principle or intention behind all phenomena. He calls this "the Summa approach". In the later Middle Ages this view "was gradually displaced in favor of an Augustinianism that asserted the independence of the will from the intellect" (92) -- an independence that Rand disputed in her computing metaphors of philosophic ideas providing the "programming" for one's emotions. Related to the decline of Thomism was the opposition of Ockham's particularism to Thomistic universalism, captured by Ockham's near-contemporary Peter Auriol in the phrase omnis res est se ipsa singularis et per nihil aliud ("everything is individual by virtue of itself and nothing else"). (Interestingly, Rand's strong interest in the medieval problem of universals was triggered by a conversation with a Jesuit in the 1940s; see my paper Conceptualism in Abelard and Rand.)

The Jesuits resurrected Thomism and put its hedgehog holism to use for political and cultural ends. This holism was reflected in the art and architecture produced under Jesuit influence, in which truth and beauty were integrated only if the work was a unified body. As Véliz elucidates (75):

If there was movement, it affected the whole structure, and it was illusory; reality was bound up with a solid, immovable structure in which nothing could be changed without loss; nothing could be added or subtracted because it mirrored and was constructed to serve a well-ordered world in which any change was for the worse and in which sosiego, the aloof calmness exemplified by the monarch, was a virtue.

It is a sentiment we find also in Rand (The Fountainhead, 24):

Nothing can be reasonable or beautiful unless it's made by one central idea, and the idea sets every detail. A building is alive, like a man. Its integrity is to follow its own truth, its one single theme, and to serve its own single purpose.

Véliz notes further that the need to present a unified vision of life, an integrated Weltanschauung, led to "the essentially modern transformation of art, especially the visual arts, into didactic devices or, more interestingly, into propaganda" -- "the recruitment of the arts, literature, and learning into the service of the faith" (75). Or as Rand said: "Art is the technology of the soul." (Or as Stalin said: "The writer is the engineer of the human soul.")

Naturally it can be objected that Rand was an atheist adamantly opposed to religious belief; yet even her prototypical hero Howard Roark is described by the author as "religious in his own way". Rand's faith was a secular "religion of man", but for all that it was no less a religion in its own way. And the religious aspects of Rand's thinking manifest themselves in the typical manner: a concern with intellectual hygiene and ideological purity, a hierarchy of philosophical insight (with mere "students of Objectivism" at the periphery and trusted leaders at the core), a belief that only those who are fully committed to her own system are worthy of respect, a messianic fervor that finds release in apocalyptic visions (cf. Atlas Shrugged) and exhortations to revolutionary progress (which in Rand's view can be brought about only through a specifically philosophic revolution that will lead inevitably to a cultural and political transformation).

Verily can we attest that Rand is at root one of Isaiah Berlin's hedgehogs, who "knows one thing" (her own philosophy of Objectivism). She has only disdain for those "pragmatic" foxes who know many things; yet her philosophic absolutism blinds her to the fact that the industrial and American revolutions evolved out of the foxlike culture of England and America, that the Renaissance delighted in the particular not the universal, and that Aristotle was not the fountainhead but the summa of ancient Greece, which was exemplified by Odysseus (the "man of many ways") rather than by some integrated philosophical system.

The more I read of Rand; the more I realize that she is deeply Thomistic (even more than she is Aristotelian, and often more than she is individualistic -- there is a fascinating tension in her thought here). And the more I read of history, the more I realize that Rand's philosophical determinism is deeply wrong. Yes, ideas are important; but they are not the sole motor of the world. To assert so does violence to the central role of culture and history -- and of individuality itself.

Omnis res est se ipsa singularis et per nihil aliud.


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