Well, the news has come out that apparently Sgt. Bergdahl is yet another isolated, unhappy young man who turned to the writings of Ayn Rand for solace and direction. It made me think about the reasons some young men turn to Objectivism and others do not.
You see one spring, many years ago when I was only sixteen, I spent ninety minutes every Saturday for nine successive weeks being indocrinated in Objectivism. It didn't take. Follow me over the doodle to find out why.
It was in a high school enrichment program, and I had signed up to take a ten week class in philosophy. The volunteer teacher's supply of knowledge on the subject began to falter before the first class was up, so in the second week he brought in a guest lecturer, a mechanical engineering graduate student named Charles.
Charles immediately took over the class and set about proselytizing. There was no better word for it. He even handed out tracts. He brought stacks of slim little books with essays by Ayn Rand and Nathaniel Branden. I duly took these tracts home, read them, thought about them, then argued about them in next week's class. And there were audiotapes (this was the 70s), and guests of the guest lecturer -- the full court press.
And in many ways I was impressed. I learned a lot in that class, although not much about any of the major schools of philosophical thought. But I wasn't tempted to join, for three reasons.
First, Charles couldn't explain to my satisfaction why, if we accepted the axioms of Objectivism, we should restrain our actions at all whenever we thought we could get away with it. It was like he was posing as this bold, transgressive thinker but when you pressed him he'd suddenly get all prim and conventional. There were lots of argument about starving people stealing loaves of bread, which Charles considered categorically wrong. His position was that not stealing was actually more selfish than stealing, because in a society where nobody stole things the person in question would be wealthy.
"Yeah," I objected, "But the guy doesn't live in a society where nobody steals. He lives in a society where he's starving."
"But he wouldn't be starving if people like him didn't steal. A society where people respect private property is in everyone's self-interest."
"Yeah," I objected again, "But wouldn't the most selfish thing be to convince everyone else to be honest and respect property, then go around their backs and cheat and steal?"
Charles treated this suggestion as contemptible, which it was, but he had the wrong kind of contempt for it. He had intellectual contempt, which means he wasn't willing to field the question.
And this gets to the second reason I wasn't tempted. It was obvious to me from reading the tracts and listening to Charles and his colleagues that the Objectivists weren't nearly so intellectually rigorous as they believed themselves to be. Quibbling their way out of dilemmas was their favorite tactic. "Selfishness is a virtue," they'd say, and when you challenged them they'd stipulate they meant selfishness in a very specific way used by Objectivists (i.e., the one in which a starving man refraining from stealing bread is being "selfish"), then carry on as if that stipulation had never been made. It was ridiculous. I could do a better job defending their ideas than they did, and I thought those ideas were rubbish.
And then they had this hand-waving trick they'd use. They'd leap from one wildly unsupported conclusion to another, and if you didn't follow uncritically they'd act as if you were just being obtusely self-deluded. "He's denying his own existence," one of them would say to another, and the other would nod as if that were a profound observation rather than a meaninglessly vague evasion. And they'd both walk away feeling very clever and sounding very stupid.
And this brings me to the third reason I was never tempted to buy Charles's philosophy. I didn't want to end up like him.
He was an imposing, strikingly handsome young man, with a strong features, piercing blue eyes and thick, and blond hair that fell to broad, square shoulders. He looked like a young, fair-haired Lord Byron. Yet as physically attractive as he was, Charles's manner was cold, pedantic, and high-handed. He was highly intelligent, but seldom have I met a man who projected less warmth or humanity.
I realized even back then that disliking an adherent to a philosophy is no grounds for dismissing that philosophy, but what Charles was promising something more than than dry intellectual satisfaction. Objectivism was supposed to be a transformative way of thinking, one that would free me from the petty, conventional restrictions small minded people burdened me with. It would release my creativity, and bring joy and personal fulfillment into my life. But when I looked at Charles and saw none of those things. What I saw was a rigid, narrow-minded fanatic.
As for myself, at the time I had a girlfriend; and a whole posse of friends I did things with. I loved books and went to science fiction conventions and made even more friends there. I had a large family at home that loved me and I got along well with. I knew what real happiness is: it's a connection to other people.
And the thing was, even though his philosophy was all about finding personal happiness, Charles just didn't look happy -- not to me. Charles insisted he'd found happiness in Objectivism, but to me he looked like a man who was smug rather than happy and who for some reason couldn't tell the difference.
So what does Objectivism offer the deeply unhappy young man? Well, primarily something that looks like a reasonable facsimile of happiness, but is a lot simpler to attain and maintain. And it's an opportunity to skip the arduous lifelong quest the truth and settle down right now with your preconceptions. It's a chance to hang out your metaphorical shingle as a sage at the ripe age of twenty-five and never have another upsetting epiphany in your life.
And it even offers a few truths that an unhappy young man can latch onto. Truths about self-respect and Emersonian self-reliance. But one of the advantages of choosing the arduous, lifelong struggle with truth is that you eventually realize that truth isn't such a rare commodity after all. It's practically everywhere you look, provided you do look for it. So having a few overlooked truths in your world view really isn't all that impressive. It's certainly no reason for anyone to adopt that view wholesale. The trick is to find enough truth, and enough kinds of truth, so you can transcend your preconceptions. It's self-transcendence that's the path to creativity, joy and fulfillment.