Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Of John Galt and Ramon Lull

Ayn Rand was born a hundred years ago today, so there are a number of bloggers who have been saying things about her. For those who don't know much about Ayn Rand, Cox and Forkum has a useful summary of her life. She was often simplistic in her interpretations, and often confused her opinions with facts; but she had one overwhelmingly redeeming quality: she had an unshakable conviction that ideas, reason and philosophy, were of the utmost importance for every person, without exception. Some people are frustrated by John Galt's long speech in Atlas Shrugged; I always found it refreshing that she didn't try - and would never have thought of trying - to slim it down to some preconceived notion of what her readers could take. (But my taste in these matters tends to be idiosyncratic; I think most of the best passages in Moby Dick are the long passages about the types of whales there are, the mythical significance of whiteness, &c. - all the passages other people skip.) And I think a lot of Rand's influence has been in sparking an interest in ideas, reason, and philosophy; Will Wilkinson puts this point well (see also Vallicella's comment on her, after several critical posts). Alex Tabarrok at "Marginal Revolution" suggests that one of Rand's strengths was in her presentation of a modern virtue ethics: "a virtue ethics for the capitalist world." I do think a great deal of Rand's philosophical appeal is precisely that she breaks down and simplifies a number of excellent things in Aristotle's ethics that tend to be overlooked. The simplification sometimes leads to confusion; but what is being simplified is still worth the accessibility that comes with even confused simplification.

Is she a bit of a hack when it comes to philosophy? Definitely. But I think what we see in Rand is someone of considerable native talent and ability whose reason never underwent the sort of discipline that would have made that talent genuinely shine. It's not surprising for someone to be a bit muddled, confused, and simplistic in first formulation (or even second or third formulation); Rand's great weakness is that she keeps wanting to take the early formulations as the clear demonstrations of reason. She lacked one very important thing: the teachableness that makes us recognize when we need to do a bit of serious revision. What she said once she felt must be true for all time; if not in that exact formulation, in one very similar to it. A rather massive flaw.

Is she a bit of a kook? Certainly. On this point, though, she reminds me a bit of Ramon Lull (c. 1232 - 1316); Lull was a bit of a kook - but the kookiness wasn't stupidity. It was, rather, a massive intelligence driven by a philosophical ambition it did not have the resources to fulfill. Lull, a courtier who had a conversion experience and began writing philosophy and theology for the masses, dreamed up his Great Art as the means for spreading the truth; Rand dreamed up Objectivism. And likewise, both are at their best not when they are trying to be technical and rigorous (they both tend to fail at that point) but when they are putting their ideas into literary form. Then all the kookiness just contributes to the charm; a charm that inspired others.

Si per entendre nos seguís nulla res,
no fóra bonea de entenent e entés,
e bé en ignorància fóra més.

Sens produir no pot nuyl hom amar,
ni pot home entendre ni remembrar,
ni ha home poder de sentir e estar.

Hom és pus noble per saber,
que per aur ni per aver,
ab quèl aja ab bo voler.


(This is from a poem by Lull; the title of it is Cent noms de Déu, "Hundred Names of God". Very, very roughly translated: "If in understanding we followed no rule at all, there would be no good in the understanding or the understood, and to be in ignorance would be best. Without producing no man can love, nor can man understand or remember; nor can man have the power of feeling and being. Man is more noble through knowing than through gold or through possessions, even if these be gained by a good will." The issue about loving, understanding, and remembering is an allusion to Lull's philosophy, since all three play a role in the Lullian Art.)

What Lull did was to bring philosophy, in his own weird, kooky way, to people who never would otherwise have had the joy of drinking it in. While Rand's influence is not likely to be anywhere near Lull's influence (which was massive and widespread), she did much the same. And that is a very good thing.

You can find a PDF version of one of Lull's best works, The Book of the Lover and the Beloved, here (translated by E. Allison Peers).

My favorite Lullian argument:

[ A A | being perfection | nonbeing imperfection | S V | Y Z ].

Yes, that's the argument. I'll put up an explanation sometime later. I guest lectured a PHL 210 class on Malebranche today, and I've been fighting some sort of bug since Monday, so I am drained this evening.

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