Changing the World

2001-03-24

Recently I was contacted by someone in the "human potential movement" about endorsing or even starting a local version of their organization (they were looking for a "prominent Objectivist" to provide an endorsement, which I found amusing since I feel I'm neither prominent nor an Objectivist). Although I was once involved with a company that I suppose one could categorize as part of the human potential movement (Achievement Plus in Atlanta), I find that I don't particularly have a strong desire to return to work in that field. So my email conversation with this person gave me an opportunity to reflect on why that is so.

In general, I have some concerns with the human potential movement and the raising up individuals as gurus that it promotes, which militated against my involvement in this organization, even though I liked some of what they were saying. This organization was not alone in touting the unique insights and intelligence of its founder. Now I certainly recognize that some people have gained unusual levels of wisdom about life -- indeed it's something of a goal of mine to achieve a great deal of wisdom. But I feel that such wisdom must be hard-earned by oneself and cannot be gained through contact with some putative guru, especially not in a weekend seminar or whatever. A guru is an individual who is set up as a leader for others to follow. My philosophy of choosing a guru is this: choose yourself. But you've got to be damn careful even about that!

While I am a fervent advocate of human potential, I don't want to be involved in any movement to realize it, since that realization is in all cases individual. Movements need to have a reason for being, which I've found is usually a claim that the world is going to hell in a handbasket and therefore we need to change the world in a hurry or else we'll all be doomed. Yet I have no interest in changing the world: I am happy to live my own life, to become the best person I can be, to create as much value as I can -- and I feel that I can do that in today's society without trying to change the world.

I question the premises of those who say we are at an historical turning point, that things have never been worse, that apocalypse is imminent. My friends in the Randian and libertarian movements tend to think this way, and I must admit I thought similarly for a long time. Now I've come to realize that this is not the worst of times, just as it is not the best of times. There is much of value in the world today, just as there is much that is not of value. This has been true throughout human history, and as far as I can see we are not currently at a world-historical crossroads. We're simply slogging along as humans usually do. But there are enormous opportunities for creating value in the world today, and it is those that I am, in my own small way, pursuing.

Traditionally, gurus preach enlightenment. Yet there is another sense of that term, which Kant captured in the phrase "sapere aude" (dare to know). I go farther than Kant and say "vivere aude" -- dare to live! Don't live vicariously through some guru or movement, but live directly to the fullest in your own limited days on earth. At least that's what I'm trying to do -- don't follow suit just because I say so. ;-)


Peter Saint-Andre > Journal