This article was originally published in The Objectivist (February and March, 1969) and is recommended by Ayn Rand in The Romantic Manifesto. The original article contained no footnotes or images, relying instead on vivid descriptions of the sculptures discussed. ARI is pleased to publish it here with new footnotes containing hyperlinks to images selected by the author.
Mary Ann Sures is an art historian who has lectured extensively, beginning in the early 1960s, on the application of Objectivist esthetics to the visual arts. She did graduate work in art history at the Institute of Fine Arts of New York University and at Hunter College, from which she received an M.A. She taught art history at New York University (Washington Square College) and at Hunter College. She is co-author with her late husband, Charles, of Facets of Ayn Rand, a memoir of their longtime friendship with Ayn Rand and her husband, Frank O’Connor.
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“Art is a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist’s metaphysical value-judgments.” (Ayn Rand, “The Psycho-Epistemology of Art,” The Objectivist Newsletter, April 1965.)
Given the definition of art, one often hears the question of how metaphysical abstractions can be conveyed in a visual art such as sculpture.
This discussion is a brief historical survey to answer that question: to indicate the means by which sculpture expresses abstractions — and to demonstrate the connection between the dominant philosophy of a given era and its sculpture.
The history of sculpture is a history of man’s view of man — of his body and spirit, i.e., of his metaphysical nature. Every culture, from the most primitive to the most civilized, has held an estimate of man and has wanted to see the objectified reality of that estimate. Man has been the predominant subject of sculpture, whether he was judged to be an object of pride or of shame, a hero or a sinner.
A metaphysical view of man is projected by the manner in which the sculptor presents the human figure. In the process of shaping clay or wood or stone into the form of a body, the sculptor reveals his answer to three questions: Is man a being of free will or is he a helpless puppet of fate? — Is he good or evil? — Can he achieve happiness or is he doomed to misery? — and then mounts his answer on a pedestal and puts it in a tomb or in a temple or over the portal of a church or in a living room in New York City.
The ancient Egyptian put his answer in a tomb or temple; both monuments symbolized his obsessive preoccupation with life after death. In a civilization saturated with magic and superstition, he worshiped gods in human, animal and monster form — gods who, he believed, controlled his destiny and whom he placated with sacrificial offerings. Moving haltingly through what he believed to be an incomprehensible universe, his every step accompanied by ritual prescribed by the priests, he built temples to the gods and tombs for the dead, he chanted hymns to the dead, offered food to the dead, said prayers for the dead — and then accepted payment for his efforts: he joined them.
This was the Egyptian’s concept of man’s nature and destiny: a mindless puppet with strings attached to hosts of deities who manipulated him through an unintelligible life, while beckoning him into a state of non-life. This is the view concretized in most Egyptian sculpture.
Throughout the centuries of Egyptian civilization, sculptors arranged the human figure according to the law of frontality, which divides the body vertically into symmetrical halves. Facing directly forward, with movement restricted to the forward step of the left leg, the body projected a state of rigidity and immobility. Observe that the law of frontality is also an established convention in the practice of undertakers. 1 King Menkaure and His Queen. c. 2530–2500 B.C. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. See also Ramses II. c. 1250 B.C. Open Air Museum, Memphis, Egypt. Note: This image can be enlarged by clicking on it.
For every living entity, motion is a prerequisite for the achievement of the values that sustain its life. Man, who must initiate the process of thought required to identify and select his values, must also initiate the physical motion required to attain them. Whether it is the motion of writing a treatise or the motion of excavating for the foundations of a skyscraper, the act of bringing his values into reality requires both thought and movement.
The state in which man, while still alive, can initiate neither thought nor movement, is a state of coma. A close approximation of this state is embodied in most Egyptian sculpture. The application of frontality produced an appearance of arrested movement. The sculptor then incorporated other features which, in conjunction with frontality, indicated that the movement of the body could hardly continue: he carved thick ankles and wrists, which suggest an arthritic condition; he minimized the musculature, virtually eliminating it in the arms, barely indicating it in the legs; he placed the arms down, along the sides of the body, often locking them to the torso with a web of stone; he terminated the motionless arms with clenched fists, or, in seated figures, placed the hands on the thighs, palms down. The material was carved in such a way that it retained the quality of stone, of inert matter. The face was usually carved to match the body: motionless, showing neither pleasure nor pain, neither perception nor introspection — a face virtually devoid of expression, reflecting no awareness, no consciousness. The total result projects a state which is neither life nor death, but a grotesque combination of the two: a state of living death.
Ancient Greece tore away the heavy shroud of mysticism woven for centuries in murky temples, and achieved, in three centuries, what Egypt had not dreamed of in thirty: a civilization that was essentially pro-man and pro-life. The achievements of the Greeks rested on their confidence in the power of man’s mind — the power of reason. For the first time, men sought to understand the causes of natural phenomena, and gradually replaced superstition with the beginnings of science. For the first time, men sought to guide their lives by the judgment of reason, instead of resorting exclusively to divine will and revelation.
The Greeks built temples for their gods, but they conceived of their gods as perfect human beings, rejecting the cats, crocodiles and cow-headed monstrosities enshrined and worshiped by the Egyptians. Greek gods personified abstractions such as Beauty, Wisdom, Justice, Victory, which are proper human values. In the Greek religion, there was no omnipotent mystical authority and no organized priesthood. The Greek had only a vague idea of, and little interest in, an afterlife. His religious practice was, essentially, an affair of state; the gods were honored with civic rites and festivals. On the whole, in his private life, he was left free to think and to seek happiness on earth. To quote Sophocles: “Wonders are there many — none more wonderful than man. His the might that crosses seas swept white by storm winds . . . He the master of the beast lurking in the wild hills . . . His is speech and wind-swift thought.” (Quoted in Edith Hamilton, The Greek Way to Western Civilization, New York, New American Library, 1948, p. 46.) Observe the characterization of man in terms of his essential attribute: his capacity to think.
In its earliest phase, in the seventh century B.C., Greek sculpture showed the influence of the Egyptian style in its featuring of frontality, clenched fists and the left-foot-forward posture in standing figures. However, while relying on Egypt for these features, the Greek sculptor introduced a startling change, one which undoubtedly would have shocked the Egyptian, but which was to remain a characteristic of Greek sculpture from its beginning to its end. The Greek carved man naked. 2 Statue of a Youth (Kouros). c. 590–580 B.C. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Note: This image can be enlarged by clicking on it; also, different views can be selected by clicking the small images found below the main image.
Throughout the thirty centuries of its history, nudity was rare in Egyptian art, and was usually reserved for children or slaves. To reveal the body of an adult was taken, by the Egyptian, as a sign of degradation. The featuring of the naked body in early Greek sculpture is a sign of a different estimate of man, which broke through the Egyptian stylistic conventions that the Greek had borrowed. That estimate is also revealed by other elements. The Greek began to make distinctions between the parts of the body, by carving subtle indications of the rib cage, the collarbone, muscles in the legs, and joints in the knees, wrists, ankles and elbows. The Greek sculptor was beginning to give his image of man the physical endowment that would enable man to take his first steps — just as, at the same time, Greek philosophers were beginning to take the first steps of thought. Reason, as a consciously defined concept, was born in ancient Greece.
The history of Greek sculpture from the seventh to the fifth century B.C. is a record in marble of the gradual development of the concept of man as a self-confident being, able to live. The subject matter was predominantly religious, consisting of representations of the gods. However, since the gods were representations of ideal men, it was man’s body that they glorified, and it was an affirmative view of the human spirit that their statues projected. Gradually, the Greek sculptor eliminated the Egyptian conventions of frontality and rigidity; he studied anatomy, in order to represent man realistically. He reached the day when he rejected the lifeless automatons of Egypt, just as he rejected the comatose state they expressed.
Whether representing gods or athletes, Greek sculptors strove to objectify their concept of ideal physical beauty. This passion for the ideal body led one sculptor of athletes, Polykleitos, to work as if he had devised a canon of proportions for the physically perfect male figure. The size of every part of the body was calculated according to a fixed ratio. Sculptors eliminated the accidental imperfections which an average man might happen to possess, and featured only those physical attributes which contributed to the image of a healthy, perfect and sensuous body. 3 Polykleitos. Doryphorus (Spear Bearer). Roman copy after a bronze original of c. 450–440 B.C. National Archeological Museum, Naples, Italy. Note: This image can be enlarged by clicking on it.
The potentiality of movement is evident in all Greek sculpture. Sculptors carefully articulated the joints and musculature, in recognition of the fact that no body can move without them. They distributed the body’s weight so that the figures were balanced, but not frozen into rigid positions. Consequently, the statues suggested the capacity to shift their weight and move easily.
A quality of life was achieved also by the manner of carving the surface texture. Sculptors created the illusion of flesh that was both firm and soft, emphasizing the subtle rise and fall of the skin as it moves over the complexity of the underlying skeletal and muscular structure. In this way, they stressed the sensuous aspect of the body.
When a sculptor created statues of goddesses clothed in loose gowns, he flaunted their bodies by carving the marble in the style called “wet drapery.” 4 Nike Fastening Her Sandal. c. 410 B.C. Relief from the parapet of the Temple of Athena Nike, Acropolis Museum, Athens. This term designates transparent, fragile cloth which appears to have been applied to a moist body. At every point of contact between the body and the garment, the cloth clings and reveals the body’s subtlest curves. When the Greek carved a female statue, he left no doubt of its femininity, dressed or undressed.
Nike, the goddess of Victory, was a favorite of the Greek navy, and wooden statues of Nike were mounted on the prows of ships. In a marble version, the famous Winged Victory of Samothrace, the goddess stands on the prow of a ship, as an embodiment of motion. Her figure rises in an upward-sweeping curve and thrusts forward to meet the forceful winds of open seas. Wind whips her fragile gown across her torso, revealing its vibrant sensuousness. Proud and courageous, she embodies the attitude with which the Greeks set out to sea. 5 Winged Victory of Samothrace. c. 190 B.C. Louvre, Paris.
Few of the heads of classical Greek statues have survived; but those that have, convey one quality: serene awareness. A calm face with a smooth brow — a face with no sign of inner conflict — was the Greek ideal. 6 Attributed to Praxiteles. Hermes with the Infant Dionysus (head and torso). c. 340 B.C. National Archaeological Museum, Olympia, Greece. Note: This image can be enlarged by clicking on it.
An entirely different view of man dominated the medieval Christian civilization. Man, according to Augustine, is “crooked and sordid, bespotted and ulcerous.” Medieval mystics regarded man as an evil creature whose body is loathsome because it is material, and whose mind is impotent because it is human. Hating man’s body, they said that pleasure is evil, and virtue consists of renunciation. Hating this earth, they said that it is a prison where man is doomed to pain, misery, calamity. Hating life, they said that death and escape into some other dimension is all that man could — and should — hope for.
Man as a helpless and depraved creature, was the basic theme of medieval sculpture until the Gothic period, whether he was shown being pushed into Hell or accepted into Heaven.
Once again, a naked body was regarded as a sign of humiliation and was reserved for representations of Adam and Eve, and of the damned in Hell. Saints were dressed, their shapeless bodies hidden beneath heavy garments. But, whether man was represented naked and damned or dressed and blessed, hatred for the body permeated every inch of the sculptured stone.
The medieval sculptor faced the problem of making the body recognizable as a material entity while, at the same time, depriving it of its material attributes. He solved the problem by dematerializing the body in a number of ways. Although sculpture is a three-dimensional medium, the medieval sculptor presented the body primarily as a two-dimensional unit: he flattened it out, so that it retained its attributes of height and width, but very little of its third dimension. Free-standing sculpture (i.e., a figure carved on all sides) rarely appeared in Egypt; it was a typically Greek phenomenon. It was practically non-existent in medieval sculpture prior to the thirteenth century. Instead, the thin, weightless bodies remained attached to the stone from which they were made. The arms were often drawn in to rest against the chest or sides of the torso, so as not to project into the surrounding space. When carving a seated figure, the sculptor often pushed the thighs and knees out to the sides of the body, compressing it into a two-dimensional plane. Thus the figures were dematerialized and confined to narrow spatial areas. The human body, apparently, was not to be allowed an earthly reality. 7 Last Judgment. c. 1130–1145. St. Lazare, Autun, France. Note especially the central figure of Christ.
One of the first features to reappear in medieval art was the law of frontality, along with the effect of immobility. As a rule, when a body was shown in a moment of action, the movement was not natural. The figure was shaped into a twisted, contorted position which would be possible only with broken limbs and disconnected joints. Whether frontal or contorted, the figures do not suggest the capacity to move. 8 Isaiah. c. 1150. Sainte Marie de Souillac, Souillac, France.
The knowledge of anatomy and human proportions, acquired by the Greeks and inherited by ancient Rome, was not applied to medieval sculpture. Sculptors barely hinted at joints and musculature; they created bodies in which bone, joint and muscle appear to have melted into one another, each losing its identity. Human proportions were ignored: the bodies were unnaturally elongated with disproportionately small heads, or unnaturally squat with disproportionately large heads. The surface texture was uniformly hard and stone-like. By making no distinctions among flesh, hair and cloth, sculptors eliminated the sensuous aspects of the bodies.
The result was a lifeless figure recognizable as man, but man stripped of most of his human characteristics. For such bodies, sculptors carved heads which featured large, vacant eyes in an expressionless face — or a face grimacing in pain, bewilderment or fear, or a combination of all three.
Eve, especially, was regarded as an object of loathing. In the twelfth century church of St. Lazare in Autun, she is shown part-lying, part-kneeling, part-crawling, her body twisted into an ambiguous and tortured position. A curved gash in the stone indicates her rib cage, and two small lumps serve as breasts. Her face wears an expression of unfocused stupor, with enormous eyes that stare ahead as she reaches out behind her for the fatal apple. 9 Eve, from St. Lazare, Autun. c. 1130. Musée Rolin, Autun, France. See also detail of head, Eve.
In the same church, figures of naked men and women are shown in Hell, in a scene of the Last Judgment. Distinctions between the sexes are barely indicated. Spineless, jointless, muscleless bodies crouch in fear and huddle in shame. One figure, sex indeterminate, sits in helpless resignation as the enormous hands of some monstrous creature reach down to enclose its head and neck in a strangling grip. 10 Detail of the Damned, from the Last Judgment. c. 1140–1145. St. Lazare, Autun, France.
In the medieval versions of the Virgin mourning the body of Christ, called the Pietà, the aspects most often emphasized were physical torture and spiritual torment. A late medieval German example (Provincial Museum, Bonn, West Germany) presents the Virgin holding the emaciated body of Christ across her lap; blood spurts from wounds in his chest, hands and feet; his head is thrown back, unsupported; his face is twisted in agony; both the Virgin and Christ are helplessly and completely overcome by the horror of the Crucifixion. 11 Roettgen Pietà. c. 1325–1360. Rheinisches Landesmuseum (formerly Provincial Museum), Bonn, Germany.
Suffering as an ideal or suffering as punishment was all that medieval art offered to its heroes or its sinners here on earth.
Part II (Conclusion)
For the classical Greek world, its statues of gods and athletes were models of perfection and a source of inspiration. For the medieval world, its pathetic, huddled images of man were constant reminders of depravity and a source of shame and humiliation.
There was no place in the medieval culture for a statue that glorified man; and so, after the collapse of ancient civilization, the classical statues were abandoned to the hostile barbarism of the populace. The early Christian church fathers are said to have considered them dangerous, believing them to be inhabited by devils. Large numbers of these statues were destroyed. Some were hidden in private collections. The rest were forgotten and gradually buried under the rubble of centuries — just as the human spirit they embodied was buried by medieval mysticism. Both the statues and the spirit remained buried until the Renaissance.
The Renaissance of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries was a conscious rebellion against the anti-human, otherworldly values of medieval Christendom. In its metaphysics and epistemology, the Renaissance was essentially Aristotelian. Every aspect of the period, from science to literature to art, reflected the Aristotelian view that man is a worthy being, capable of understanding the universe, and that the universe is worthy of man’s interest and study. Mysticism, which had saturated every aspect of medieval life and culture, lost its stranglehold on man’s mind. A rebirth of reason and of concern with this earth, was the base of all the achievements of the Renaissance.
In terms of its morality, the Renaissance was split in two: it was part-Aristotelian, part-Christian. As Aristotelians, the men of the Renaissance displayed the virtues of intelligence and pride, and pursued the value of happiness on earth. As Christians, they upheld the virtues of humility, renunciation and self-sacrifice, and the value of rewards in Heaven. Thus the existentially brilliant era of the Renaissance was marred, spiritually, by a profound moral conflict.
That conflict appeared, in different degrees, in virtually all of the Renaissance art. For the most part, sculpture did reflect an affirmative view of man. Although the subject matter was largely Christian, sculptors abandoned the stylistic features of medieval art. They restored weight, three-dimensionality and natural proportions to the human body. They reintroduced free-standing figures. They were keenly aware of human anatomy, and created images of potentially active bodies, or of bodies engaged in energetic movement. And, equally significant, the naked body was featured in the representation of both Christian and pagan subjects.
The statues present men who have intelligence, courage, determination and strength of character; but they do not convey a sense of happiness. The moral conflict tinged the Renaissance view of life, and in the faces of the statues there is a touch of sadness or uncertainty or tragedy, an expression of longing for an ideal never fully reached.
The statue of St. George by Donatello is a youthful knight in armor, facing existence with an upright posture and a firm stance, exhibiting competence and energy. The face, however, is troubled; the wrinkled brow suggests both concentration and uncertainty. 12 Donatello. St. George. 1415–1417. Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence, Italy. Note: This image can be enlarged by clicking on it.
Turning for a moment to painting: Botticelli’s Birth of Venus features a graceful, naked goddess whose delicate face reveals a serene spirit, but it is serenity mixed with melancholy and wistfulness.
Botticelli. The Birth of Venus. c. 1482. Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy. Note: This image can be enlarged by clicking on it.
See also detail of head, The Birth of Venus.
Michelangelo was the greatest artist of the Renaissance, and his work may be taken as representative of the spirit of that era. The same conflict appears in his sculpture, but with an intensity unequaled in the work of others. When he began, as a young man, his statues conveyed near-triumph. Then, the triumph gave way to struggle and tragic heroism, then to frustration, and, at the end, to despair and futility.
In his first version of the Pietà, Michelangelo eliminated the emphasis on physical torture and spiritual agony. The Virgin has the strength to support the body lying across her lap; her hand is held out in a gesture of quiet resignation; her head is bowed in solemnity. There are no tears on her face; she expresses sorrow, not suffering. Christ’s body and face are relaxed and smooth; the wound in his chest is unstressed and clean. Michelangelo portrayed the subject in a manner that ennobled both figures: they are not broken by physical or spiritual pain, but transcend it. Compare the style and spirit of this work to the medieval example of the same subject, discussed earlier. 14 Michelangelo. Pietà. 1498/99–1500. St. Peter’s, Vatican, Rome.
Michelangelo’s David is one of his most eloquent works. Earlier Renaissance versions of the subject had presented David after his triumph, standing with sword in hand and with the head of Goliath at his feet. Michelangelo chose to present David in the moment before he hurled the stone — to portray a youth who has to and will be triumphant. He stands with his head held high, his slender, strong body prepared for the encounter. The side of the figure facing the enemy, is posed in insolent defiance; the leg is relaxed, the arm is raised to hold the sling in readiness. The other side of the figure is tense; the straight leg supports the weight of the body, while the fingers of the powerful hand curl around the stone. The statue conveys the victory of the mind over brute, physical force. It portrays man as fearless, intelligent and triumphant, but man with a troubled brow, looking out with a touch of apprehension.
Michelangelo. David. 1501–1504. Academy, Florence, Italy. Note: This image can be enlarged by clicking on it.
See also detail of head, David.
By the time Michelangelo carved the Dying Slave, about ten years later, the near-triumph of the David had given way to tragic heroism. The figure is shown at the moment when he has ceased struggling against the fetters binding his chest, when — with one knee bent — his youthful body gives in to exhaustion and begins to collapse. One arm presses tightly against his torso, but its hand rests limply on his chest, its energy gone. The statue conveys the futility of man’s struggle. It portrays man as a being for whom existence means struggle and who will respond to the challenge, but who will struggle in vain.
Michelangelo. Dying Slave. 1513–1516. Louvre, Paris. Note: This image can be enlarged by clicking on it.
See also detail of head and torso, Dying Slave. Note: This image can be enlarged by clicking on it.
In one of Michelangelo’s last works, another version of the Pietà (which was left unfinished), Christ’s body sags helplessly at the feet of a figure who is unable to support him. The Christian elements in Michelangelo’s soul had won. 17 Michelangelo. Rondanini Pietà. 1564. Sforza Castle, Milan, Italy. Note: This image can be enlarged by clicking on it.
Whether intensified, as in the work of Michelangelo, or subtly implied, as in the work of some of his contemporaries, such was the conflict torturing and undercutting the spirit of the Renaissance.
From the seventeenth to the mid-nineteenth century, the growing currents of a profound retrogression engulfed the realm of philosophy. It was a gradual movement from an Aristotelian to a Platonic base — from the conviction that reality is intelligible and reason is man’s means of perceiving it, to the belief that reality is unknowable, and reason, at best, is limited. The climax and victory of that trend were represented by the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, in the late eighteenth century. After Kant, as Platonism’s influence gained momentum, man’s stature, in the eyes of philosophers, sank rapidly, undercut by the currents of mysticism and skepticism.
But the influence of philosophy does not penetrate and change every human activity at once; sculpture remained comparatively untouched during this period. From the Renaissance to the mid-nineteenth century, sculpture continued to reflect a positive view of man; the Greek classical tradition remained a strong influence. There were stretches of time when sculpture became predominantly imitative and superficial, especially in the first half of the nineteenth century. But, for about two hundred and fifty years, man’s body was presented in a natural manner, and his spirit was neither glorified nor degraded.
By the second half of the nineteenth century, the philosophical views of generations of intellectuals had emerged from the theoretical realm and permeated the general culture. Holding that existence is unknowable, abandoning the quest for certainty and for moral values, philosophy shattered man’s self-confidence. It fashioned a view of man which raised a mixture of disillusionment, doubt and hopelessness to the status of man’s essence. That view was given visual expression in the work of Auguste Rodin.
As a characteristic of his work, Rodin introduced an element that had been rare in sculpture since the end of the Middle Ages: human ugliness. His figures combine ugliness with extreme physical discomfort, expressing his subjects’ state of mind. His figures are presented in bent, twisted, strained, squatting and huddled positions; musculature is distorted; faces are left unfinished. The surfaces of the material, usually bronze, are highly polished, but beneath the sheen one can distinguish uneven ridges and hollows that make the skin texture look broken and unhealthy.
She Who Was Once the Helmet-Maker’s Beautiful Wife is the seated figure of an old, naked woman, with gnarled limbs, sagging skin and shrunken breasts. Her sharp, thin shoulder blades protrude from her wasted back; one arm is drawn behind her, with the hand open, palm out, fingers outstretched, as if she is repelled by her hideous appearance and cannot bring herself to touch her own body. 18 Auguste Rodin. She Who Was Once the Helmet-Maker’s Beautiful Wife, also called The Courtesan. Modeled 1887, this bronze cast 1910. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Note: This image can be enlarged by clicking on it.
Another statue, Eve, stands wrapping her arms around her chest, hiding her breasts in anguish and shame. 19 Auguste Rodin. Eve. Modeled 1881, this bronze cast 1911. Rodin Museum, Paris. Note: This image can be enlarged by hovering the mouse over it; also, different views can be selected by clicking on the small images found below the main image.
One of Rodin’s most famous and popular works, The Thinker, sums up his view of man’s wretched state. 20 Auguste Rodin. The Thinker. Modeled 1880, this bronze cast 1903. Rodin Museum, Paris. Note: This image can be enlarged by clicking on it. The figure is seated, hunched over in a position that combines strain and limpness. The muscles in his arms, legs and toes are knotted and cramped. The size and development of his body indicate that it was once powerful and energetic, but is now exhausted. His external, physical state reveals his inner strain: the strain of engaging in mental activity.
Rodin’s despondent figures were only a hint, a mild foretaste, of what was to come in the generations that followed — when both philosophy and sculpture collapsed under the weight of twentieth-century irrationalism.
The contemporary view of man’s nature is summarized in the following observation: “We have been made aware of how small a part of the human being is represented by the reason, which could be likened to that part of the iceberg which is visible, the mere cap of a submerged mass, deep and dense, which is the human psyche, whose profound levels are not to be measured quantitatively by the scientific method.” (Samuel M. Green, “The Unthinks: The Distrust of Reason as Seen in the Contemporary Arts,” Wesleyan University Alumni-Faculty Seminar, June 1959, p. 21.) Man, according to contemporary philosophy, is fundamentally irrational; his reason is not merely limited, it is a barrier to the expression of his “true” nature.
The neo-mystics of philosophy have discarded, as a useless endeavor, the study of epistemology and ethics; and, while one school bickers over the meaning of words, another tells man that life can have no meaning. What is the nature of reality? Reality — according to a prevalent answer — is an indeterminate flux, a flow of contradictions and ambiguities. Can man acquire knowledge of the world? Knowledge, they all answer, is impossible to man; faced with an unintelligible world, his reason is useless; all he can do is snatch a few disconnected experiences from the flux. How is man to guide the course of his life? Man, they answer, cannot guide his life; he cannot define values or set goals. Consequently, say the psychologists, man is run by a multitude of powers outside his control and beyond his comprehension — by his genes, by social forces, by inexplicable feelings, whims and urges (the “profound levels” of the “human psyche”). Man, they declare, must live from day to day, from urge to urge; there are no principles or standards to guide his conduct. As a starting point, the existentialists say, man must accept the fact that life is anguish and that his appropriate and constant response to being alive is nausea.
Man as an irrational creature who lives in a perpetual state of anxiety and terror, is the theme of the sculpture offered today.
Man’s desire to see the objectified reality of his basic self-estimate can lead him to search for the art of cultures other than his own, as the men of the Renaissance searched for the art of ancient Greece and Rome. Observe an eloquent symptom of the spiritual state of today’s culture: the popularity of the primitive art of the jungle.
For example, consider the following excerpt from a press release announcing an exhibition held in New York City in 1958, at the Museum of Primitive Art. The exhibition was entitled “African Sculpture Lent by New York Collectors.” The release explains that the sculpture was: “Drawn from the collections of people in a wide variety of professions, including businessmen, museum directors, a sculptor, a photographer, a composer and a psychiatrist …The objects range from bronze portrait heads and stylized wooden human figures through fantastic masks used in secret society rites and fetish figures decorated with mirrors, nails and feathers. Both human and animal forms are used and occasionally the two are even combined.”
“. . . the Museum’s founder and president thanked the lenders to the exhibition and . . . [said] ‘that there has been a great increase in the public’s awareness and interest in primitive art.’ ”
This museum’s founder and president is Nelson A. Rockefeller.
The following are examples of what the public is aware of and interested in:
From the Congo, the statue of a woman. 21 Standing Female Figure. Late 19th century. Democratic Republic of the Congo. Brooklyn Museum. Note: The figure described in the article is not available on the Internet; however, this figure is similar in many respects. The size of her head is one-third the length of her body; human proportions have been totally destroyed. The torso, which consists of a protruding stomach and huge breasts that originate where one would expect a collarbone, rests on two curved hunks of wood that serve as legs. There being no joints or muscles in the legs, and virtually no thighs, the capacity for movement is non-existent. A head with pursed lips and gashes for eyes completes the figure.
From Easter Island, a male figure. 22 Male Figure. Early 19th century. Easter Island. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Note: The figure described in the article is not available on the Internet; however, this figure is similar in many respects. Elongated and emaciated, the length of his torso is twice the length of his scrawny legs and thighs. Enormous staring eyes, a grimacing mouth and slumped shoulders complete the figure.
From the prow of a Polynesian canoe, a small, stiff, muscleless figure, sex indeterminate. 23 The figure described in the article is not available on the Internet. However, it is similar to the male figure referenced in footnote 22 above. With its arms pressed to its stomach and its face wearing an expression of mild bewilderment, it served to placate the many gods with which the Polynesians had populated their universe; it was there to plead that the canoe might pass, unharmed. If one compares this figure to the Winged Victory of Samothrace, one grasps the power of sculpture to express man’s soul by means of shaping his body. 24 Winged Victory of Samothrace. c. 190 B.C. Louvre, Paris.
The alternative to primitive sculpture, in today’s art circles, is the work of the contemporary “anxiety school,” which turns out mutilated images of man. Contemporary philosophy, constantly chipping away at the “mere cap” of reason, seeks to destroy man’s confidence in the power of his mind. Members of the “anxiety school” of sculpture move in and, like buzzards, finish off his body.
Man’s body, in this type of sculpture, is stretched out, flattened, punctured, disfigured, dismembered. He is shown without a head — or with arms that have no hands, or with hands that have no fingers — or with a face that has no mouth, and a head that has no face.
He is a tall, skinny, stick-like figure with a tiny head, with club feet, and with flesh and skin like dripping lumps of rot (by Alberto Giacometti). 25 Alberto Giacometti. Falling Man. 1950. Musée Calvet, Avignon, France.
He is an inflated bug on its side, with a knob for a head, with a swollen belly, and limbs like stumps of charred wood projecting from the misshapen mass (by Kenneth Armitage). 26 Kenneth Armitage. Figure Lying on Its Side (Version V). 1957. British Council of the Arts.
He is a bloated thing infected all over with elephantiasis, metamorphosing into a gigantic pretzel (by Henry Moore — those that are recognizable). 27 Henry Moore. Reclining Figure. 1939. Detroit Institute of Arts, Michigan.
He is a mummy bound in corroded metal strips, with spikes stuck into what is left of his body (by Leslie Thornton). 28 Leslie Thornton. Crucifix. 1958. Private collection. Note: The referenced image is ninth from the top of the page.
These are the creatures offered to man as visual embodiments of his metaphysical nature. They are the inhabitants of a world made by Heraclitus, Plato, Kant, Hegel, James, Sartre and Wittgenstein, a world in which man can know nothing, desire nothing, achieve nothing.
Philosophy is the sculptor of man’s soul. And sculpture is philosophy in stone.
This essay was first published in the May – September 1967 issues of The Objectivist and later anthologized in Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology (1990).
Some years ago, I was defending capitalism in a discussion with a prominent professor of philosophy. In answer to his charge that capitalism leads to coercive monopolies, I explained that such monopolies are caused by government intervention in the economy and are logically impossible under capitalism. (For a discussion of this issue, see Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal.) The professor was singularly unmoved by my argument, replying, with a show of surprise and disdain:
“Logically impossible? Of course — granted your definitions. You’re merely saying that, no matter what proportion of the market it controls, you won’t call a business a ‘coercive monopoly’ if it occurs in a system you call ‘capitalism.’ Your view is true by arbitrary fiat, it’s a matter of semantics, it’s logically true but not factually true. Leave logic aside now; be serious and consider the actual empirical facts on this matter.”
To the philosophically uninitiated, this response will be baffling. Yet they meet its equivalents everywhere today. The tenets underlying it permeate our intellectual atmosphere like the germs of an epistemological black plague waiting to infect and cut down any idea that claims the support of conclusive logical argumentation, a plague that spreads subjectivism and conceptual devastation in its wake.
This plague is a formal theory in technical philosophy; it is called: the analytic-synthetic dichotomy. It is accepted, in some form, by virtually every influential contemporary philosopher — pragmatist, logical positivist, analyst and existentialist alike.
The theory of the analytic-synthetic dichotomy penetrates every corner of our culture, reaching, directly or indirectly, into every human life, issue and concern. Its carriers are many, its forms subtly diverse, its basic causes complex and hidden — and its early symptoms prosaic and seemingly benign. But it is deadly.
The comparison to a plague is not, however, fully exact. A plague attacks man’s body, not his conceptual faculty. And it is not launched by the profession paid to protect men from it.
Today, each man must be his own intellectual protector. In whatever guise the theory of the analytic-synthetic dichotomy confronts him, he must be able to detect it, to understand it, and to answer it. Only thus can he withstand the onslaught and remain epistemologically untouched.
The theory in question is not a philosophical primary; one’s position on it, whether it be agreement or opposition, derives in substantial part, from one’s view of the nature of concepts. The Objectivist theory of concepts is presented above, in Ayn Rand’s Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. In the present discussion, I shall build on this foundation. I shall summarize the theory of the analytic-synthetic dichotomy as it would be expounded by its contemporary advocates, and then answer it point by point.
The theory was originated, by implication, in the ancient world, with the views of Pythagoras and Plato, but it achieved real prominence and enduring influence only after its advocacy by such modern philosophers as Hobbes, Leibniz, Hume and Kant. (The theory was given its present name by Kant.) In its dominant contemporary form, the theory states that there is a fundamental cleavage in human knowledge, which divides propositions or truths into mutually exclusive (and jointly exhaustive) types. These types differ, it is claimed, in their origins, their referents, their cognitive status, and the means by which they are validated. In particular, four central points of difference are alleged to distinguish the two types.
(a) Consider the following pairs of true propositions:
i) A man is a rational animal.
ii) A man has only two eyes.
i) Ice is a solid.
ii) Ice floats on water.
i) 2 plus 2 equals 4.
ii) 2 qts. of water mixed with 2 qts. of ethyl alcohol yield 3.86 qts. of liquid, at 15.56°C.
The first proposition in each of these pairs, it is said, can be validated merely by an analysis of the meaning of its constituent concepts (thus, these are called “analytic” truths). If one merely specifies the definitions of the relevant concepts in any of these propositions, and then applies the laws of logic, one can see that the truth of the proposition follows directly, and that to deny it would be to endorse a logical contradiction. Hence, these are also called “logical truths,” meaning that they can be validated merely by correctly applying the laws of logic.
Thus, if one were to declare that “A man is not a rational animal,” or that “2 plus 2 does not equal 4,” one would be maintaining by implication that “A rational animal is not a rational animal,” or that “1 plus 1 plus 1 plus 1, does not equal 1 plus 1 plus 1 plus 1” — both of which are self-contradictory. (The illustration presupposes that “rational animal” is the definition of “man.”) A similar type of self-contradiction would occur if one denied that “Ice is a solid.”
Analytic truths represent concrete instances of the Law of Identity; as such, they are also frequently called “tautologies” (which, etymologically, means that the proposition repeats “the same thing”; e.g., “A rational animal is a rational animal,” “The solid form of water is a solid”). Since all of the propositions of logic and mathematics can ultimately be analyzed and validated in this fashion, these two subjects, it is claimed, fall entirely within the “analytic” or “tautological” half of human knowledge.
Synthetic propositions, on the other hand — illustrated by the second proposition in each of the above pairs, and by most of the statements of daily life and of the sciences — are said to be entirely different on all these counts. A “synthetic” proposition is defined as one which cannot be validated merely by an analysis of the meanings or definitions of its constituent concepts. For instance, conceptual or definitional analysis alone, it is claimed, could not tell one whether ice floats on water, or what volume of liquid results when various quantities of water and ethyl alcohol are mixed.
In this type of case, said Kant, the predicate of the proposition (e.g. “floats on water”) states something about the subject (“ice”) which is not already contained in the meaning of the subject-concept. (The proposition represents a synthesis of the subject with a new predicate, hence the name.) Such truths cannot be validated merely by correctly applying the laws of logic; they do not represent concrete instances of the Law of Identity. To deny such truths is to maintain a falsehood, but not a self-contradiction. Thus, it is false to assert that “A man has three eyes,” or that “Ice sinks in water” — but, it is said, these assertions are not self-contradictory. It is the facts of the case, not the laws of logic, which condemn such statements. Accordingly, synthetic truths are held to be “factual,” as opposed to “logical” or “tautological” in character.
(b) Analytic truths are necessary; no matter what region of space or what period of time one considers, such propositions must hold true. Indeed, they are said to be true not only throughout the universe which actually exists, but in “all possible worlds” — to use Leibniz’s famous phrase. Since its denial is self-contradictory, the opposite of any analytic truth is unimaginable and inconceivable. A visitor from an alien planet might relate many unexpected marvels, but his claims would be rejected out-of-hand if he announced that in his world, ice was a gas, man was a postage stamp, and 2 plus 2 equaled 7.3.
Synthetic truths, however, are declared not to be necessary; they are called “contingent.” This means: As a matter of fact, in the actual world that men now observe, such propositions happen to be true — but they do not have to be true. They are not true in “all possible worlds.” Since its denial is not self-contradictory, the opposite of any synthetic truth is at least imaginable or conceivable. It is imaginable or conceivable that men should have an extra eye (or a baker’s dozen of such eyes) in the back of their heads, or that ice should sink in water like a stone, etc. These things do not occur in our experience but, it is claimed, there is not logical necessity about this. The facts stated by synthetic truths are “brute” facts, which no amount of logic can make fully intelligible.
Can one conclusively prove a synthetic proposition? Can one ever be logically certain of its truth? The answer given is: “No. As a matter of logic, no synthetic proposition ‘has to be’ true; the opposite of any is conceivable.” (The most uncompromising advocates of the analytic-synthetic dichotomy continue: “You cannot even be certain of the direct evidence of your senses — for instance, that you now see a patch of red before you. In classifying what you see as ‘red,’ you are implicitly declaring that it is similar in color to certain of your past experiences — and how do you know that you have remembered these latter correctly? That man’s memory is reliable, is not a tautology; the opposite is conceivable.”) Thus, the most one can ever claim for synthetic, contingent truths is some measure of probability; they are more-or-less-likely hypotheses.
(c) Since analytic propositions are “logically” true, they can, it is claimed, be validated independently of experience; they are “non-empirical” or “a priori” (today, these terms mean: “independent of experience”). Modern philosophers grant that some experience is required to enable a man to form concepts; their point is that, once the appropriate concepts have been formed (e.g., “ice,” “solid,” “water,” etc.), no further experience is required to validate their combination into an analytically true proposition (e.g., “Ice is solid water”). The proposition follows simply from an analysis of definitions.
Synthetic truths, on the other hand, are said to be dependent upon experience for their validation; they are “empirical” or “a posteriori.” Since they are “factual,” one can discover their truth initially only by observing the appropriate facts directly or indirectly; and since they are “contingent,” one can find out whether yesterday’s synthetic truths are still holding today, only by scrutinizing the latest empirical data.
(d) Now we reach the climax: the characteristically twentieth-century explanation of the foregoing differences. It is: Analytic propositions provide no information about reality, they do not describe facts, they are “non-ontological” (i.e., do not pertain to reality). Analytic truths, it is held, are created and sustained by men’s arbitrary decision to use words (or concepts) in a certain fashion, they merely record the implications of linguistic (or conceptual) conventions. This, it is claimed, is what accounts for the characteristics of analytic truths. They are non-empirical — because they say nothing about the world of experience. No fact can ever cast doubt upon them, they are immune from future correction — because they are immune from reality. They are necessary — because men make them so.
“The propositions of logic,” said Wittgenstein in the Tractatus, “all say the same thing: that is, nothing.” “The principles of logic and mathematics,” said A. J. Ayer in Language, Truth and Logic, “are true universally simply because we never allow them to be anything else.”
Synthetic propositions, on the other hand, are factual — and for this, man pays a price. The price is that they are contingent, uncertain and unprovable.
The theory of the analytic-synthetic dichotomy presents men with the following choice: If your statement is proved, it says nothing about that which exists; if it is about existents, it cannot be proved. If it is demonstrated by logical argument, it represents a subjective convention; if it asserts argument, it represents a subjective convention; if it asserts a fact, logic cannot establish it. If you validate it by an appeal to the meaning of your concepts, then it is cut off from reality; if you validate it by an appeal to your percepts, then you cannot be certain of it.
Objectivism rejects the theory of the analytic-synthetic dichotomy as false — in principle, in root, and in every one of its variants.
Now, let us analyze and answer this theory point by point.
“Analytic” and “Synthetic” Truths
An analytic proposition is defined as one which can be validated merely by an analysis of the meaning of its constituent concepts. The critical question is: What is included in “the meaning of a concept”? Does a concept mean the existents which it subsumes, including all their characteristics? Or does it mean only certain aspects of these existents, designating some of their characteristics but excluding others?
The latter viewpoint is fundamental to every version of the analytic-synthetic dichotomy. The advocates of this dichotomy divide the characteristics of the existents subsumed under a concept into two groups: those which are included in the meaning of the concept, and those — the great majority — which, they claim, are excluded from its meaning. The dichotomy among propositions follows directly. If a proposition links the “included” characteristics with the concept it can be validated merely by an “analysis” of the concept; if it links the “excluded” characteristics with the concept, it represents an act of “synthesis.”
For example: it is commonly held that, out of the vast number of man’s characteristics (anatomical, physiological, psychological, etc.), two — “rationality” and “animality” — constitute the entire meaning of the concept “man.” All the rest, it is held, are outside the concepts meaning. On this view, it is “analytic” to state that “A man is a rational animal” (the predicate is “included” in the subject-concept), but “synthetic” to state that “A man has only two eyes” (the predicate is “excluded”).
The primary historical source of the theory that a concept includes some of an entity’s characteristics but excludes others, is the Platonic realist theory of universals. Platonism holds that concepts designate non-material essences (universals) subsisting in a supernatural dimension. Our world, Plato claimed, is only the reflection of these essences, in a material form. On this view, a physical entity possesses two very different types of characteristics: those which reflect its supernatural essence, and those which arise from the fact that, in this world, the essence is manifest in material form. The first are “essential” to the entity and constitute its real nature; the second are matter-generated “accidents.” Since concepts are said to designate essences, the concept of an entity includes its “essential” characteristics, but excludes its “accidents.”
How does one differentiate “accidents” from “essential” characteristics in a particular case? The Platonists’ ultimate answer is: By an act of “intuition.”
(A more plausible and naturalistic variant of the essence-accident dichotomy is endorsed by Aristotelians; on this point, their theory of concepts reflects a strong Platonic influence.)
In the modern era, Platonic realism lost favor among philosophers; nominalism progressively became the dominant theory of concepts. The nominalists reject supernaturalism as unscientific, and the appeal to “intuition” as a thinly veiled subjectivism. They do not, however, reject the crucial consequence of Plato’s theory: the division of an entity’s characteristics into two groups, one of which is excluded from the concept of designating the entity.
Denying that concepts have an objective basis in the facts of reality, nominalists declare that the source of concepts is a subjective human decision: men arbitrarily select certain characteristics to serve as the basis (the “essentials”) for a classification; thereafter, they agree to apply the same term to any concretes that happen to exhibit these “essentials,” no matter how diverse these concretes are in other respects. On this view, the concept (the term) means only those characteristics initially decreed to be “essential.” The other characteristics of the subsumed concretes bear no necessary connection to the “essential” characteristics, and are excluded from the concept’s meaning.
Observe that, while condemning Plato’s mystic view of a concept’s meaning, the nominalists embrace the same view in a skeptic version. Condemning the essence-accident dichotomy as implicitly arbitrary, they institute an explicitly arbitrary equivalent. Condemning Plato’s “intuitive” selection of essences as a disguised subjectivism, they spurn the disguise and adopt subjectivism as their official theory — as though a concealed vice were heinous, but a brazenly flaunted one, rational. Condemning Plato’s supernaturally determined essences, they declare that essences are socially determined, thus transferring to the province of human whim what had once been the prerogative of Plato’s divine realm. The nominalists’ “advance” over Plato consisted of secularizing his theory. To secularize an error is still to commit it.
Its form, however, changes. Nominalists do not say that a concept designates only an entity’s “essence,” excluding its “accidents.” Their secularized version is: A concept is only a shorthand tag for the characteristics stated in its definition; a concept and its definition are interchangeable; a concept means only its definition.
It is the Platonic-nominalist approach to concept-formation, expressed in such views as these, that gives rise to the theory of the analytic-synthetic dichotomy. Yet its advocates commonly advance the dichotomy as a self-contained primary, independent of any particular theory of concepts. Indeed, they usually insist that the issue of concept-formation — since it is “empirical,” not “logical” — is outside the province of philosophy. (!) (Thus, they use the dichotomy to discredit in advance any inquiry into the issues on which the dichotomy itself depends.)
In spite of this, however, they continue to advocate “conceptual analysis,” and to distinguish which truths can — or cannot — be validated by its practice. One is expected to analyze concepts, without a knowledge of their source and nature — to determine their meaning, while ignorant of their relationship to concretes. How? The answer implicit in contemporary philosophical practice is: “Since people have already given concepts their meanings, we need only study common usage.” In other words, paraphrasing Galt: “The concepts are here. How did they get here? Somehow.” (Atlas Shrugged)
Since concepts are complex products of man’s consciousness, any theory or approach which implies that they are irreducible primaries is invalidated by that fact alone. Without a theory of concepts as a foundation, one cannot, in reason, adopt any theory about the nature or kinds of propositions; propositions are only combinations of concepts.
The Objectivist theory of concepts undercuts the theory of the analytic-synthetic dichotomy at its root.
According to Objectivism, concepts “represent classifications of observed existents according to their relationships to other observed existents.” (Ayn Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology; all further quotations in this section, unless otherwise identified, are from this work.) To form a concept, one mentally isolates a group of concretes (of distinct perceptual units), on the basis of observed similarities which distinguish them from all other known concretes (similarity is “the relationship between two or more existents which possess the same characteristic(s), but in different measure or degree”); then, by a process of omitting the particular measurements of these concretes, one integrates them into a single new mental unit: the concept, which subsumes all concretes of this kind (a potentially unlimited number). The integration is completed and retained by the selection of a perceptual symbol (a word) to designate it. “A concept is a mental integration of two or more units possessing the same distinguishing characteristic(s), with their particular measurements omitted.”
By isolating and integrating perceived concretes, by reducing the number of mental units with which he has to deal, man is able to break up and organize his perceptual field, to engage in a specialized study, and to retain an unlimited amount of information pertaining to an unlimited number of concretes. Conceptualization is a method of acquiring and retaining knowledge of that which exists, on a scale inaccessible to the perceptual level of consciousness.
Since a word is a symbol for a concept, it has no meaning apart from the content of the concept it symbolizes. And since a concept is an integration of units, it has no content or meaning apart from its units. The meaning of a concept consists of the units — the existents — which it integrates, including all the characteristics of these units.
Observe that concepts mean existents, not arbitrarily selected portions of existents. There is no basis whatever — neither metaphysical nor epistemological, neither in the nature of reality nor of a conceptual consciousness — for a division of the characteristics of a concept’s units into two groups, one of which is excluded from the concept’s meaning.
Metaphysically, an entity is: all of the things which it is. Each of its characteristics has the same metaphysical status: each constitutes a part of the entity’s identity.
Epistemologically, all the characteristics of the entities subsumed under a concept are discovered by the same basic method: by observation of these entities. The initial similarities, on the basis of which certain concretes were isolated and conceptually integrated, were grasped by a process of observation; all subsequently discovered characteristics of these concretes are discovered by the same method (no matter how complex the inductive procedures involved may become).
The fact that certain characteristics are, at a given time, unknown to man, does not indicate that these characteristics are excluded from the entity — or from the concept. A is A; existents are what they are, independent of the state of human knowledge; and a concept means the existents which it integrates. Thus, a concept subsumes and includes all the characteristics of its referents, known and not-yet-known.
(This does not mean that man is omniscient, or that he can capriciously ascribe any characteristics he chooses to the referents of his concepts. In order to discover that an entity possesses a certain characteristic, one must engage in a process of scientific study, observation and validation. Only then does one know that that characteristic is true of the entity and, therefore, is subsumed under the concept.)
“It is crucially important to grasp the fact that a concept is an ‘open-end’ classification which includes the yet-to-be-discovered characteristics of a given group of existents. All of man’s knowledge rests on that fact.
“The pattern is as follows: When a child grasps the concept ‘man,’ the knowledge represented by that concept in his mind consists of perceptual data, such as man’s visual appearance, the sound of his voice, etc. When the child learns to differentiate between living entities and inanimate matter, he ascribes a new characteristic, ‘living,’ to the entity he designates as ‘man.’ When the child learns to differentiate among various types of consciousness, he includes a new characteristic in his concept of man, ‘rational’ — and so on. The implicit principle guiding this process, is: ‘I know that there exists such an entity as man; I know many of his characteristics, but he has many others which I do not know and must discover.’ The same principle directs the study of every other kind of perceptually isolated and conceptualized existents.
“The same principle directs the accumulation and transmission of mankind’s knowledge. From a savage’s knowledge of man . . . [to the present level], the concept ‘man’ has not changed: it refers to the same kind of entities. What has changed and grown is the knowledge of these entities.”
What, then, is the meaning of the concept “man”? “Man” means a certain type of entity, a rational animal, including all the characteristics of this entity (anatomical, physiological, psychological, etc., as well as the relations of these characteristics to those other entities) — all the characteristics already known, and all those ever to be discovered. Whatever is true of the entity, is meant by the concept.
It follows that there are no grounds on which to distinguish “analytic” from “synthetic” propositions. Whether one states that “A man is a rational animal,” or that “A man has only two eyes” — in both cases, the predicated characteristics are true of man and are, therefore, included in the concept “man.” The meaning of the first statement is: “A certain type of entity, including all its characteristics (among which are rationality and animality) is: a rational animal.” The meaning of the second is: “A certain type of entity, including all its characteristics (among which is the possession of only two eyes) has: only two eyes.” Each of these statements is an instance of the Law of Identity; each is a “tautology”; to deny either is to contradict the meaning of the concept “man,” and thus to endorse a self-contradiction.
A similar type of analysis is applicable to every true statement. Every truth about a given existent(s) reduces, in basic pattern, to: “X is: one or more of the things which it is.” The predicate in such a case states some characteristic(s) of the subject; but since it is a characteristic of the subject, the concept(s) designating the subject in fact includes the predicate from the outset. If one wishes to use the term “tautology” in this context, then all truths are “tautological.” (And, by the same reasoning, all falsehoods are self-contradictions.)
When making a statement about an existent, one has, ultimately, only two alternatives: “X (which means X, the existent, including all its characteristics) is what it is” — or: “X is not what it is.” The choice between truth and falsehood is the choice between “tautology” (in the sense explained) and self-contradiction.
In the realm of propositions, there is only one basic epistemological distinction: truth vs. falsehood, and only one fundamental issue: By what method is truth discovered and validated? To plant a dichotomy at the base of human knowledge — to claim that there are opposite methods of validation and opposite types of truth — is a procedure without grounds for justification.
In one sense, no truths are “analytic.” No proposition can be validated merely by “conceptual analysis”; the content of the concept — i.e., the characteristics of the existents it integrates — must be discovered and validated by observation, before any “analysis” is possible. In another sense, all truths are “analytic.” When some characteristic of an entity has been discovered, the proposition ascribing it to the entity will be seen to be “logically true” (its opposite would contradict the meaning of the concept designating the entity). In either case, the analytic-logical-tautological vs. synthetic-factual dichotomy collapses.
To justify their view that some of an entity’s characteristics are excluded from the concept designating it, both Platonists and nominalists appeal to the distinction between the “essential” and the “non-essential” characteristics of an entity. For the Platonists, this distinction represents a metaphysical division, intrinsic to the entity, independent of man and of man’s knowledge. For the nominalists, it represents a subjective human decree, independent of the facts of reality. For both schools, whatever their terminological or other differences, a concept means only the essential (or defining) characteristic of its units.
Neither school provides an objective basis for the distinction between an entity’s “essential” and “non-essential” characteristics. (Supernaturalism — in its avowed or secularized form — is not an objective basis for anything.) Neither school explains why such a distinction is objectively required in the process of conceptualization.
This explanation is provided by Objectivism, and exposes the basic error in the Platonic-nominalist position.
When a man reaches a certain level of conceptual complexity, he needs to discover a method of organizing and interrelating his concepts; he needs a method that will enable him to keep each of his concepts clearly distinguished from all the others, each connected to a specific group of existents clearly distinguished from the other existents he knows. (In the early stages of conceptual development, when a child’s concepts are comparatively few in number and designate directly perceivable concretes, “ostensive definitions” are sufficient for this purpose.) The method consists of defining each concept, by specifying the characteristic(s) of its units upon which the greatest number of their other known characteristics depends, and which distinguishes the units from all other known existents. The characteristic(s) which fulfills this requirement is designated the “essential” characteristic, in that context of knowledge.
Essential characteristics are determined contextually. The characteristic(s) which most fundamentally distinguishes a certain type of entity from all other existents known at the time, may not do so within a wider field of knowledge, when more existents become known and/or more of the entity’s characteristics are discovered. The characteristic(s) designated as “essential” — and the definition which expresses it — may alter as one’s cognitive context expands. Thus, essences are not intrinsic to entities, in the Platonic (or Aristotelian) manner; they are epistemological, not metaphysical. A definition in terms of essential characteristics “is a device of man’s method of cognition — a means of classifying, condensing and integrating an ever-growing body of knowledge.”
Nor is the designation of essential characteristics a matter of arbitrary choice or subjective decree. A contextual definition can be formulated only after one has fully considered all the known facts pertaining to the units in question: their similarities, their differences from other existents, the causal relationships among their characteristics, etc. This knowledge determines which characteristic(s) is objectively essential — and, therefore, which definition is objectively correct — in a given cognitive context. Although the definition explicitly mentions only the essential characteristic(s), it implies and condenses all of this knowledge.
On the objective, contextual view of essences, a concept does not mean only the essential or defining characteristics of its units. To designate a certain characteristic as “essential” or “defining” is to select, from the total content of the concept, the characteristic that best condenses and differentiates that content in a specific cognitive context. Such a selection presupposes the relationship between the concept and its units: it presupposes that the concept is an integration of units, and that its content consists of its units, including all their characteristics. It is only because of this fact that the same concept can receive varying definitions in varying cognitive contexts.
When “rational animal” is selected as the definition of “man,” this does not mean that the concept “man” becomes a shorthand tag for “anything whatever that has rationality and animality.” It does not mean that the concept “man” is interchangeable with the phrase “rational animal,” and that all of man’s other characteristics are excluded from the concept. It means: A certain type of entity, including all its characteristics, is, in the present context of knowledge, most fundamentally distinguished from all other entities by the fact that it is a rational animal. All the presently available knowledge of man’s other characteristics is required to validate this definition, and is implied by it. All these other characteristics remain part of the content of the concept “man.”
The nominalist view that a concept is merely a shorthand tag for its definition, represents a profound failure to grasp the function of a definition in the process of concept formation. The penalty for this failure is that the process of definition, in the hands of the nominalists, achieves the exact opposite of its actual purpose. The purpose of a definition is to keep a concept distinct from all others, to keep it connected to a specific group of existents. On the nominalist view, it is precisely this connection that is severed: as soon as a concept is defined, it ceases to designate existents, and designates instead only the defining characteristic.
And further: On a rational view of definitions, a definition organizes and condenses — and thus helps one to retain — a wealth of knowledge about the characteristics of a concept’s units. On the nominalist view, it is precisely this knowledge that is discarded when one defines a concept: as soon as a defining characteristic is chosen, all the other characteristics of the units are banished from the concept, which shrivels to mean merely the definition. For instance, as long as a child’s concept of “man” is retained ostensively, the child knows that man has a head, two eyes, two arms, etc.; on the nominalist view, as soon as the child defines “man,” he discards all this knowledge; thereafter, “man” means to him only: “a thing with rationality and animality.”
On the nominalist view, the process of defining a concept is a process of cutting the concept off from its referents, and of systematically evading what one knows about their characteristics. Definition, the very tool which is designed to promote conceptual integration, becomes an agent of its destruction, a means of disintegration.
The advocates of the view that a concept means its definition, cannot escape the knowledge that people actually use concepts to designate existents. (When a woman says: “I married a wonderful man,” it is clear to most philosophers that she does not mean: “I married a wonderful combination of rationality and animality.”) Having severed the connection between a concept and its referents, such philosophers sense that somehow this connection nevertheless exists and is important. To account for it, they appeal to a theory which goes back many centuries and is now commonly regarded as uncontroversial: the theory that a concept has two kinds or dimensions of meaning. Traditionally, these are referred to as a concept’s “extension” (or “denotation”) and its “intension” (or “connotation”).
By the “extension” of a concept, the theory’s advocates mean the concretes subsumed under that concept. By the “intension” of a concept, they mean those characteristics of the concretes which are stated in the concept’s definition. (Today, this is commonly called the “conventional” intension; the distinction among various types of intension, however, merely compounds the errors of the theory, and is irrelevant in this context.) Thus in the extensional sense, “man” means Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Tom, Dick, Harry, etc. In the intensional sense, “man” means “rational animal.”
A standard logic text summarizes the theory as follows: “The intension of a term, as we have noted, is what is usually called its definition. The extension, on the other hand, simply refers us to the set of objects to which the definition applies. . . . Extension and intension are thus intimately related, but they refer to objects in different ways — extension to a listing of the individuals who fall within its quantitative scope, intension to the qualities or characteristics of the individuals.” (Lionel Ruby, Logic: An introduction.)
This theory introduces another artificial split: between an existent and its characteristics. In the sense in which a concept means its referents (its extensional meaning), it does not mean or refer to their characteristics (its intensional meaning), and vice versa. One’s choice, in effect, is: either to mean existents, apart from their characteristics — or (certain) characteristics, apart from the existents which possess them.
In fact, neither of these alleged types of meaning is metaphysically or epistemologically possible.
A concept cannot mean existents, apart from their characteristics. A thing is — what it is; its characteristics constitute its identity. An existent apart from its characteristics would be an existent apart from its identity, which means: a nothing, a non-existent. To be conscious of an existent is to be conscious of (some of) its characteristics. This is true on all levels of consciousness, but it is particularly obvious on the conceptual level. When one conceptualizes a group of existents, one isolates them mentally from others, on the basis of certain of their characteristics. A concept cannot integrate — or mean — a miscellaneous grab bag of objects; it can only integrate, designate, refer to and mean: existents of a certain kind, existents possessing certain characteristics.
Nor can the concept of an existent mean its characteristics (some or all), apart from the existent. It is not a disembodied, Platonic universal. Just as a concept cannot mean existents apart from their identity, so it cannot mean identity apart from that which exists. Existence is Identity (Atlas Shrugged).
The theory that a concept means its definition, is not improved when it is combined with the view that, in another sense, a concept means its “extension.” Two errors do not make a truth. They merely produce greater chaos and confusion. The truth is that a concept means the existents it integrates, including all their characteristics. It is the view of a concept’s meaning that keeps man’s concepts anchored to reality. On this view, the dichotomy between “analytic” and “synthetic” propositions cannot arise.
Necessity and Contingency
The theory of the analytic-synthetic dichotomy has its roots in two types of error: one epistemological, the other metaphysical. The epistemological error, as I have discussed, is an incorrect view of the nature of concepts. The metaphysical error is: the dichotomy between the necessary and contingent facts.
This theory goes back to Greek philosophy, and was endorsed in some form by virtually all philosophical traditions prior to Kant. In the form in which it is here relevant, the theory holds that some facts are inherent in the nature of reality; they must exist; they are “necessary.” Other facts, however, happen to exist in the world that men now observe, but they did not have to exist; they could have been otherwise; they are “contingent.” For instance, that water is wet would be a “necessary” fact; that water turns to ice at a given temperature, would be “contingent.”
Given this dichotomy, the question arises: How does one know in a particular case, that a certain fact is necessary? Observation, it was commonly said, is insufficient for this purpose. “Experience,” wrote Kant in the Critique of Pure Reason, “tells us, indeed, what is, but not that it must necessarily be so, and not otherwise.” To establish that something is a fact, one employs observation and the appropriate inductive procedures; but, it was claimed, to establish that something is a fact is not yet to show that the fact in question is necessary. Some warrant or guarantee, over and above the fact’s existence, is required if the fact is to be necessary; and some insight, over and above that yielded by observation and induction, is required to grasp this guarantee.
In the pre-Kantian era, it was common to appeal to some form of “intellectual intuition” for this purpose. In some cases, it was said, one could just “see” that a certain fact was necessary. How one could see this remained a mystery. I appeared that human beings had a strange, inexplicable capacity to grasp by unspecified means that certain facts not only were, but had to be. In other cases, no such intuition operated, and the facts in question were deemed contingent.
In the post-Kantian era, appeals to “intellectual intuition” lost favor among philosophers, but the necessary-contingent dichotomy went on. Perpetuated in various forms in the nineteenth century, it was reinterpreted in the twentieth as follows: since facts are learned only by experience, and experience does not reveal necessity, the concept of “necessary facts” must be abandoned. Facts, it is now held, are one and all contingent — and the propositions describing them are “contingent truths.” As for necessary truths, they are merely the products of man’s linguistic or conceptual conventions. They do not refer to facts, they are empty, “analytic,” “tautological.” In this manner, the necessary-contingent dichotomy is used to support the alleged distinction between analytic and synthetic propositions. Today, it is a commonplace for philosophers to remark that “factual” statements are “synthetic” and “contingent,” whereas “necessary” statements are “non-factual” and “analytic.”
(Contemporary philosophers prefer to talk about propositions or statements, rather than about facts; they rarely say that facts are contingent, attributing contingency instead to statements about facts. There is nothing to justify this mode of speech, and I shall not adhere to it in discussing their views.)
Observe that both traditional pre-Kantians and the contemporary conventionalists are in essential agreement: both endorse the necessary-contingent dichotomy, and both hold that necessary truths cannot be validated by experience. The difference is only this: for the traditional philosophers, necessity is a metaphysical phenomenon, grasped by an act of intuition; for the conventionalists, it is a product of man’s subjective choices. The relationship between the two viewpoints is similar to the relationship between Platonists and nominalists on the issue of essences. In both cases, the moderns adopt the fundamentals of the traditionalist position; their “contribution” is merely to interpret that position in an avowedly subjectivist manner.
In the present issue, the basic error of both schools is the view that facts, some or all, are contingent. As far as metaphysical reality is concerned (omitting human actions from consideration, for the moment), there are no “facts which happen to be but could have been otherwise” as against “facts which must be.” There are only: facts which are.
The view that facts are contingent — that the way things actually are is only one among a number of alternative possibilities, that things could have been different metaphysically — represents a failure to grasp the Law of Identity. Since things are what they are, since everything that exists possesses a specific identity, nothing in reality can occur causelessly or by chance. The nature of an entity determines what it can do and, in any given set of circumstances, dictates what it will do. The Law of Causality is entailed by the Law of Identity. Entities follow certain laws of action in consequence of their identity, and have no alternative to doing so.
Metaphysically, all facts are inherent in the identities of the entities that exist; i.e., all facts are “necessary.” In this sense, to be is to be “necessary.” The concept of “necessity,” in a metaphysical context, is superfluous.
(The problem of epistemology is: how to discover facts, how to discover what is. Its task is to formulate the proper methods of induction, the methods of acquiring and validating scientific knowledge. There is no problem of grasping that a fact is necessary, after one has grasped that it is a fact.)
For many centuries, the theory of “contingent facts” was associated with a supernaturalistic metaphysics; such facts, it was said, are the products of a divine creator who could have created them differently — and who can change them at will. This view represents the metaphysics of miracles — the notion that an entity’s actions are unrelated to its nature, that anything is possible to an entity regardless of its identity. On this view, an entity acts as it does, not because of its nature, but because of an omnipotent God’s decree.
Contemporary advocates of the theory of “contingent facts” hold, in essence, the same metaphysics. They, too, hold that anything is possible to an entity, that its actions are unrelated to its nature, that the universe which exists is only one of a number of “possible worlds.” They merely omit God, but they retain the consequences of the religious view. Once more, theirs is a secularized mysticism.
The fundamental error in all such doctrines is the failure to grasp that existence is a self-sufficient primary. It is not a product of a supernatural dimension, or of anything else. There is nothing antecedent to existence, nothing apart from it — and no alternative to it. Existence exists — and only existence exists. Its existence and its nature are irreducible and unalterable.
The climax of the “miraculous” view of existence is represented by those existentialists who echo Heidegger, demanding: “Why is there any being at all and not rather nothing?” — i.e., why does existence exist? This is the projection of a zero as an alternative to existence, with the demand that one explain why existence exists and not the zero.
Non-existentialist philosophers typically disdain Heidegger’s alleged question, writing it off as normal existentialist lunacy. They do not apparently realize that in holding facts to be contingent, they are committing the same error. When they claim that facts could have been otherwise, they are claiming that existence could have been otherwise. They scorn the existentialists for projecting an alternative to the existence of existence, but spend their time projecting alternatives to the identity of existence.
While the existentialists clamor to know why there is something and not nothing, the non-existentialists answer them (by implication): “This is a ridiculous question. Of course, there is something. The real question is: Why is the something what it is, and not something else?”
A major source of confusion, in this issue, is the failure to distinguish metaphysical facts from man-made facts — i.e., facts which are inherent in the identities of that which exists, from facts which depend upon the exercise of human volition. Because man has free-will, no human choice — and no phenomenon which is a product of human choice — is metaphysically necessary. In regard to any man-made fact, it is valid to claim that man has chosen thus, but it was not inherent in the nature of existence for him to have done so; he could have chosen otherwise. For instance, the U.S. did not have to consist of 50 states; men could have subdivided the larger ones or consolidated the smaller ones, etc.
Choice, however, is not chance. Volition is not an exception to the Law of Causality; it is a type of causation. Further, metaphysical facts are unalterable by man, and limit the alternatives open to his choice. Man can rearrange the materials that exist in reality, but he cannot violate their identity; he cannot escape the laws of nature. “Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed.”
Only in regard to the man-made is it valid to claim: “It happens to be, but it could have been otherwise.” Even here, the term “contingent” is highly misleading. Historically, that term has been used to designate a metaphysical category of much wider scope than the realm of human action; and it has always been associated with a metaphysics which, in one form or another, denies the facts of Identity and Causality. The “necessary-contingent” terminology serves only to introduce confusion, and should be abandoned. What is required in this context is the distinction between the “metaphysical” and the “man-made.”
The existence of human volition cannot be used to justify the theory that there is a dichotomy of propositions or of truths. Propositions about metaphysical facts and propositions about man-made facts do not have different characteristics qua propositions. They differ merely in their subject matter, but then so do the propositions of astronomy and immunology. Truths about metaphysical and about man-made facts are learned and validated by the same process: by observation; and, qua truths, both are equally necessary. Some facts are not necessary, but all truths are.
Truth is the identification of a fact of reality. Whether the fact in question is metaphysical or man-made, the fact determines the truth: if the fact exists, there is no alternative in regard to what is true. For instance, the fact that the U.S. has 50 states was not metaphysically necessary — but as long as this is men’s choice, the proposition that “The U.S. has 50 states” is necessarily true. A true proposition must describe the facts as they are. In this sense, a “necessary truth” is a redundancy, and a “contingent truth” is a self-contradiction.
Logic and Experience
Throughout its history, philosophy has been torn by the conflict between the rationalists and the empiricists. The former stress the role of logic in man’s acquisitions of knowledge, while minimizing the role of experience; the latter claim that experience is the source of man’s knowledge, while minimizing the role of logic. This split between logic and experience is institutionalized in the theory of the analytic-synthetic dichotomy.
Analytic statements, it is said, are independent of experience; they are “logical” propositions. Synthetic statements, on the other hand, are devoid of logical necessity; they are “empirical” propositions.
Any theory that propounds an opposition between the logical and the empirical, represents a failure to grasp the nature of logic and its role in human cognition. Man’s knowledge is not acquired by logic apart from experience or by experience apart from logic, but by the application of logic to experience. All truths are the product of a logical identification of the facts of experience.
Man is born tabula rasa; all his knowledge is based on and derived from the evidence of his senses. To reach the distinctively human level of cognition, man must conceptualize his perceptual data — and conceptualization is a process which is neither automatic nor infallible. Man needs to discover a method to guide this process, if it is to yield conclusions which correspond to the facts of reality — i.e., which represent knowledge. The principle at the base of the proper method is the fundamental principle of metaphysics: the Law of Identity. In reality, contradictions cannot exist; in a cognitive process, a contradiction is the proof of an error. Hence the method man must follow: to identify the facts he observes, in a non-contradictory manner. This method is logic — “the art of non-contradictory identification.” (Atlas Shrugged.) Logic must be employed at every step of a man’s conceptual development, from the formation of his first concepts to the discovery of the most complex scientific laws and theories. Only when a conclusion is based on a noncontradictory identification and integration of all the evidence available at a given time, can it qualify as knowledge.
The failure to recognize that logic is a man’s method of cognition, has produced a brood of artificial splits and dichotomies which represent restatements of the analytic-synthetic dichotomy from various aspects. Three in particular are prevalent today: logical truth vs. factual truth; the logically possible vs. the empirically possible; and the a priori vs. the a posteriori.
The logical-factual dichotomy opposes truths which are validated “merely” by the use of logic (the analytic ones), to truths which describe the facts of experience (the synthetic ones). Implicit in this dichotomy is the view that logic is a subjective game, a method of manipulating arbitrary symbols, not a method of acquiring knowledge.
It is the use of logic that enables man to determine what is and what is not a fact. To introduce an opposition between the “logical” and the “factual” is to create a split between consciousness and existence, between truths in accordance with man’s method of cognition and truths in accordance with the facts of reality. The result of such a dichotomy is that logic is divorced from reality (“Logical truths are empty and conventional”) — and reality becomes unknowable (“Factual truths are contingent and uncertain”). This amounts to the claim that man has no method of cognition, i.e., no way of acquiring knowledge.
The acquisition of knowledge, as Ayn Rand has observed, involves two fundamental functions: “What do I know?” and “How do I know it?” The advocates of the logical-factual dichotomy tell man, in effect: “You can’t know the ‘what’ — because there is no ‘how.’” (These same philosophers claim to know the truth of their position by means of an unanswerable logical argument.)
To grasp the nature of their epistemological procedure, consider a mathematician who would claim that there is a dichotomy between two types of truth in the manner of adding columns of figures: truths which state the actual sum of a given column versus truths which are reached by adherence to the laws of addition — the “summational truths” vs. the “additive truths.” The former represent the actual sums — which, however, are unfortunately unprovable and unknowable, since they cannot be arrived at by the methods of addition; the latter, which are perfectly certain and necessary, are unfortunately a subjective fantasy-creation, with no relationship to actual sums in the actual world. (At this point, a pragmatist mathematician comes along and provides his “solution”: “Adding,” he tells us, “may be subjective, but it works.” Why does it? How does he know it does? What about tomorrow? “Those questions,” he replies, “aren’t fruitful.”)
If mathematicians were to accept this doctrine, the destruction of mathematics would follow. When philosophers accept such a doctrine, the same consequences may be expected — with only this difference: the province of philosophy embraces the total of human knowledge.
Another restatement of the analytic-synthetic dichotomy is the view that opposes the “logically” possible and the “empirically” possible.
If the proposition that a give phenomenon exists is not self-contradictory, then that phenomenon, it is claimed, is “logically” possible; if the proposition is self-contradictory, then the phenomenon is “logically” impossible. Certain phenomena, however, although logically possible, are contrary to the “contingent” laws of nature that men discover by experience; these phenomena are “empirically” — but not “logically” — impossible. Thus, a married bachelor is “logically” impossible; but a bachelor who can fly to the moon by means of flapping his arms is merely “empirically” impossible (i.e., the proposition that such a bachelor exists is not self-contradictory, but such a bachelor is not in accordance with the laws that happen to govern the universe).
The metaphysical basis of this dichotomy is the premise that a violation of the laws of nature would not involve a contradiction. But as we have seen, the laws of nature are inherent in the identities of the entities that exist. A violation of the laws of nature would require that an entity act in contradiction to its identity; i.e., it would require the existence of a contradiction. To project such a violation is to endorse the “miraculous” view of the universe, as already discussed.
The epistemological basis of this dichotomy is the view that a concept consists only of its definition. According to the dichotomy, it is logically impermissible to contradict the definition of a concept; what one asserts by this means is “logically” impossible. But to contradict any of the non-defining characteristics of a concept’s referents, is regarded as logically permissible; what one asserts in such a case is merely “empirically” impossible.
Thus, a “married bachelor” contradicts the definition of “bachelor” and hence is regarded as “logically” impossible. But a “bachelor who can fly to the moon by means of flapping his arms” is regarded as “logically” possible, because the definition of “bachelor” (“an unmarried man”) does not specify his means of locomotion. What is ignored here is the fact that the concept “bachelor” is a subcategory of the concept “man,” that as such it includes all the characteristics of the entity “man,” and that these exclude the ability to fly by flapping his arms. Only by reducing a concept to its definition and by evading all the other characteristics of its referents can one claim that such projections do not involve a self-contradiction.
Those who attempt to distinguish the “logically” possible and the “empirically” possible commonly maintain that the “logically” impossible is unimaginable or inconceivable, whereas the merely “empirically” impossible is at least imaginable or conceivable, and that this difference supports the distinction. For instance, “ice which is not solid” (a “logical” impossibility) is inconceivable; but “ice which sinks in water” (a merely “empirical” impossibility) is at least conceivable, they claim, even though it does not exist; one need merely visualize a block of ice floating on water, and suddenly plummeting straight to the bottom.
This argument confuses Walt Disney with metaphysics. That a man can project an image or draw an animated cartoon at variance with the facts of reality, does not alter the facts; it does not alter the nature or the potentialities of the entities which exist. An image of ice sinking in water does not alter the nature of ice; it does not constitute evidence that it is possible for ice to sink in water. It is evidence only of man’s capacity to engage in fantasy. Fantasy is not a form of cognition.
Further: the fact that man possesses the capacity to fantasize does not mean that the opposite of demonstrated truths is “imaginable” or “conceivable.” In a serious, epistemological sense of the word, a man cannot conceive the opposite of a proposition he knows to be true (as apart from propositions dealing with man-made facts). If a proposition asserting a metaphysical fact has been demonstrated to be true, this means that that fact has been demonstrated to be inherent in the identities of the entities in question, and that any alternative to it would require the existence of a contradiction. Only ignorance or evasion can enable a man to attempt to project such an alternative. If a man does not know that a certain fact has been demonstrated, he will not know that its denial involves a contradiction. If a man does know it, but evades his knowledge and drops his full cognitive context, there is no limit to what he can pretend to conceive. But what one can project by means of ignorance or evasion, is philosophically irrelevant. It does not constitute a basis for instituting two separate categories of possibility.
There is no distinction between the “logically” and the “empirically” possible (or impossible). All truths, as I have said, are the product of a logical identification of the facts of experience. This applies as much to the identification of possibilities as of actualities.
The same considerations invalidate the dichotomy between the a priori and the a posteriori. According to this variant, certain propositions (the analytic ones) are validated independently of experience, simply by an analysis of the definitions of their constituent concepts; these propositions are “a priori.” Others (the synthetic ones) are dependent upon existence for their validation; they are “a posteriori.”
As we have seen, definitions represent condensations of a wealth of observations, i.e., a wealth of “empirical” knowledge; definitions can be arrived at and validated only on the basis of experience. It is senseless, therefore, to contrast propositions which are true “by experience.” If an “empirical” truth is one derived from, and validated by reference to, perceptual observations, then all truths are “empirical.” Since truth is the identification of a fact of reality, a “non-empirical truth” would be identification of a fact of reality which is validated independently of observation of reality. This would imply a theory of innate ideas, or some equally mystical construct.
Those who claim to distinguish a posteriori and a priori propositions commonly maintain that certain truths (the synthetic, factual ones) are “empirically falsifiable,” whereas others (the analytic, logical ones) are not. In the former case, it is said, one can specify experiences which, if they occurred, would invalidate the proposition; in the latter, one cannot. For instance, the proposition “Cats give birth only to kittens” is “empirically falsifiable” because one can invent experiences that would refute it such as the spectacle of tiny elephants emerging from a cat’s womb. But the proposition “Cats are animals” is not “empirically falsifiable” because “cat” is defined as a species of animal. In the former case, the proposition remains true only as long as experience continues to bear it out; therefore, it depends on experience, i.e., it is a posteriori. In the latter case, the truth of the proposition is immune to any imaginable change in experience and, therefore, is independent of experience, i.e., is a priori.
Observe the inversion propounded by this argument: a proposition can qualify as a factual empirical truth only if man is able to evade the facts of experience and arbitrarily to invent a set of impossible circumstances that contradict these facts; but a truth whose opposite is beyond man’s power of invention, is regarded as independent of and irrelevant to the nature of reality, i.e., as an arbitrary product of human “convention.”
Such is the unavoidable consequence of the attempt to divorce logic and experience.
As I have said, knowledge cannot be acquired by experience apart from logic, nor by logic apart from experience. Without the use of logic, man has no method of drawing conclusions from his perceptual data; he is confined to range-of-the-moment observations, but any perceptual fantasy that occurs to him qualifies as a future possibility which can invalidate his “empirical” propositions. And without reference to the facts of experience, man has no basis for his “logical” propositions, which become mere arbitrary products of his own invention. Divorced from logic, the arbitrary exercise of the human imagination systematically undercuts the “empirical”; and divorced from the facts of experience, the same imagination arbitrarily creates the “logical.”
I challenge anyone to invent a more thorough way of invalidating all of human knowledge.
The ultimate result of the theory of the analytic-synthetic dichotomy is the following verdict pronounced on human cognition: if the denial of a proposition is inconceivable, if there is no possibility that any fact of reality can contradict it, i.e., if the proposition represents knowledge which is certain, then it does not represent knowledge of reality. In other words: if a proposition cannot be wrong, it cannot be right. A proposition qualifies as factual only when it asserts facts which are still unknown, i.e., only when it represents a hypothesis; should a hypothesis be proved and become a certainty, it ceases to refer to facts and ceases to represent knowledge of reality. If a proposition is conclusively demonstrated — so that to deny it is obviously to endorse a logical contradiction — then in virtue of this fact, the proposition is written off as a product of human convention or arbitrary whim.
This means: a proposition is regarded as arbitrary precisely because it has been logically proved. The fact that a proposition cannot be refuted, refutes it (i.e., removes it from reality). A proposition can retain a connection to facts only insofar as it has not been validated by man’s method of cognition, i.e., by the use of logic. Thus proof is made the disqualifying element of knowledge, and knowledge is made a function of human ignorance.
This theory represents a total epistemological inversion: it penalizes cognitive success for being success. Just as the altruist mentality penalizes the good for being the good, so the analytic-synthetic mentality penalizes knowledge for being knowledge. Just as, according to altruism, a man is entitled only to what he has not earned, so, according to this theory, a man is entitled to claim as knowledge only what he has not proved. Epistemological humility becomes the prerequisite of cognition: “the meek shall inherit the truth.”
The philosopher most responsible for these inversions is Kant. Kant’s system secularized the mysticism of the preceding centuries and thereby gave it a new lease on life in the modern world. In the religious tradition, “necessary” truths were commonly held to be consequences of God’s mode of thought. Kant substituted the “innate structure of the human mind” for God, as the source and creator of “necessary” truths (which thus became independent of the facts of reality).
The philosophers of the twentieth century merely drew the final consequences of the Kantian view. If it is man’s mode of thought (independent of reality) that creates “necessary” truths, they argued, then these are not fixed or absolute; men have a choice in regard to their modes of thought; what the mind giveth; the mind taketh away. Thus, the contemporary conventionalist viewpoint.
We can know only the “phenomenal,” mind-created realm, according to Kant; in regard to reality, knowledge is impossible. We can be certain only within the realm of our own conventions, according to the moderns; in regard to facts, certainty is impossible.
The moderns represent a logical, consistent development from Kant’s premises. They represent Kant plus choice — a voluntaristic Kantianism, a whim-worshipping Kantianism. Kant marked the cards and made reason an agent of distortion. The moderns are playing with the same deck; their contribution is to play it deuces wild, besides.
Now observe what is left of philosophy in consequence of this neo-Kantianism.
Metaphysics has been all but obliterated: its most influential opponents have declared that all metaphysical statements are neither analytic nor synthetic, and therefore are meaningless.
Ethics has been virtually banished from the province of philosophy: some groups have claimed that ethical statements are neither analytic nor synthetic, but are mere “emotive ejaculations” — and other groups have consigned ethics to the province of the man in the street, claiming that philosophers may analyze the language of ethical statements, but are not competent to prescribe ethical norms.
Politics has been discarded by virtually all philosophic schools: insofar as politics deals with values, it has been relegated to the same status as ethics.
Epistemology, the theory of knowledge, the science that defines the rules by which man is to acquire knowledge of facts, has been disintegrated by the notion that facts are the subject matter of “synthetic,” “empirical” propositions and, therefore, are outside the province of philosophy — with the result that the special sciences are now left adrift in a rising tide of irrationalism.
What we are witnessing is the self-liquidation of philosophy.
To regain philosophy’s realm, it is necessary to challenge and reject the fundamental premises which are responsible for today’s debacle. A major step in that direction is the elimination of the death carrier known as the analytic-synthetic dichotomy.
This essay was originally published in The Objectivist Newsletter in May 1963 and later anthologized in The Voice of Reason: Essays in Objectivist Thought (1989).
A version was also delivered as a 28-minute radio address in May 1963.
If there is a philosophical Atlas who carries the whole of Western civilization on his shoulders, it is Aristotle. He has been opposed, misinterpreted, misrepresented, and — like an axiom — used by his enemies in the very act of denying him. Whatever intellectual progress men have achieved rests on his achievements.
Aristotle may be regarded as the cultural barometer of Western history. Whenever his influence dominated the scene, it paved the way for one of history’s brilliant eras; whenever it fell, so did mankind. The Aristotelian revival of the thirteenth century brought men to the Renaissance. The intellectual counterrevolution turned them back toward the cave of his antipode: Plato.
There is only one fundamental issue in philosophy: the cognitive efficacy of man’s mind. The conflict of Aristotle versus Plato is the conflict of reason versus mysticism. It was Plato who formulated most of philosophy’s basic questions — and doubts. It was Aristotle who laid the foundation for most of the answers. Thereafter, the record of their duel is the record of man’s long struggle to deny and surrender or to uphold and assert the validity of his particular mode of consciousness.
Today, philosophy has sunk below the level of Aristotle versus Plato, down to the primitive gropings of Parmenides versus Heraclitus; whose disciples were unable to reconcile the concept of intellectual certainty with the phenomenon of change: the Eleatics, who claimed that change is illogical, that in any clash between mind and reality, reality is dispensable and, therefore, change is an illusion — versus the Heraclitean Sophists, who claimed that mind is dispensable, that knowledge is an illusion and nothing exists but change. Or: consciousness without existence versus existence without consciousness. Or: blind dogmatism versus cynical subjectivism. Or: Rationalism versus Empiricism.
Aristotle was the first man who integrated the facts of identity and change, thus solving that ancient dichotomy. Or rather, he laid the foundation and indicated the method by which a full solution could be reached. In order to resurrect that dichotomy thereafter, it was necessary to ignore and evade his works. Ever since the Renaissance, the dichotomy kept being resurrected, in one form or another, always aimed at one crucial target: the concept of identity — always leading to some alleged demonstration of the deceptiveness, the limitations, the ultimate impotence of reason.
It took several centuries of misrepresenting Aristotle to turn him into a straw man, to declare the straw man invalidated, and to release such a torrent of irrationality that it is now sweeping philosophy away and carrying us back past the pre-Socratics, past Western civilization, into the prehistorical swamps of the Orient, via Existentialism and Zen Buddhism.
Today, Aristotle is the forgotten man of philosophy. Slick young men go about droning the wearisome sophistries of the fifth century B.C., to the effect that man can know nothing, while unshaven young men go about chanting that they do know by means of their whole body from the neck down.
It is in this context that one must evaluate the significance of an unusual book appearing on such a scene — Aristotle by John Herman Randall, Jr.
Let me hasten to state that the above remarks are mine, not Professor Randall’s. He does not condemn modern philosophy as it deserves — he seems to share some of its errors. But the theme of his book is the crucial relevance and importance of Aristotle to the philosophical problems of our age. And his book is an attempt to bring Aristotle’s theories back into the light of day — of our day — from under the shambles of misrepresentation by medieval mystics and by modern Platonists.
“Indeed,” he writes, “[Aristotle’s] may well be the most passionate mind in history: it shines through every page, almost every line. His crabbed documents exhibit, not ‘cold thought,’ but the passionate search for passionless truth. For him, there is no ‘mean,’ no moderation, in intellectual excellence. The ‘theoretical life’ is not for him the life of quiet ‘contemplation,’ serene and unemotional, but the life of nous, of theoria, of intelligence, burning, immoderate, without bounds or limits.”
Indicating that the early scientists had discarded Aristotle in rebellion against his religious interpreters, Professor Randall points out that their scientific achievements had, in fact, an unacknowledged Aristotelian base and were carrying out the implications of Aristotle’s theories.
Blaming the epistemological chaos of modern science on the influence of Newton’s mechanistic philosophy of nature, he writes:
It is fascinating to speculate how, had it been possible in the seventeenth century to reconstruct rather than abandon Aristotle, we might have been saved several centuries of gross confusion and error. . . . Where we are often still groping, Aristotle is frequently clear, suggestive, and fruitful. This holds true of many of his analyses: his doctrine of natural teleology; his view of natural necessity as not simple and mechanical but hypothetical; his conception of the infinite as potential, not actual; his notion of a finite universe; his doctrine of natural place; his conception of time as not absolute, but rather a dimension, a system of measurement; his conception that place is a coordinate system, and hence relative. On countless problems, from the standpoint of our present theory, Aristotle was right, where the nineteenth-century Newtonian physicists were wrong.
Objecting to “the structureless world of Hume in which ‘anything may be followed by anything,’” Professor Randall writes:
To such a view, which he found maintained by the Megarians, Aristotle answers, No! Every process involves the operation of determinate powers. There is nothing that can become anything else whatsoever. A thing can become only what it has the specific power to become, only what it already is, in a sense, potentially. And a thing can be understood only as that kind of thing that has that kind of a specific power; while the process can be understood only as the operation, the actualization, the functioning of the powers of its subject or bearer.
To read a concise, lucid presentation of Aristotle’s system, written by a distinguished modern philosopher — written in terms of basic principles and broad fundamentals, as against the senseless “teasing” of trivia by today’s alleged thinkers — is so rare a value that it is sufficient to establish the importance of Professor Randall’s book, in spite of its flaws.
Its flaws, unfortunately, are numerous. Professor Randall describes his book as “a philosopher’s delineation of Aristotle.” Since there are many contradictory elements and many obscure passages in Aristotle’s own works (including, in some cases, the question of their authenticity), it is a philosopher’s privilege (within demonstrable limits) to decide which strands of a badly torn fabric he chooses to present as significantly “Aristotelian.” But nothing — particularly not Aristotle — is infinite and indeterminate. And while Professor Randall tries to separate his presentation from his interpretation, he does not always succeed. Some of his interpretations are questionable: some are stretched beyond the limit of the permissible.
For instance, he describes Aristotle’s approach to knowledge as follows: “Knowing is for him an obvious fact. . . . The real question, as he sees it, is, ‘In what kind of a world is knowing possible?’ What does the fact of knowing imply about our world?” This is a form of “the prior certainty of consciousness” — the notion that one can first possess knowledge and then proceed to discover what that knowledge is of, thus making the world a derivative of consciousness — a Cartesian approach which would have been inconceivable to Aristotle and which Professor Randall himself is combating throughout his book.
Most of the book’s flaws come from the same root: from Professor Randall’s inability or unwillingness to break with modern premises, methods and terminology. The perceptiveness he brings to his consideration of Aristotle’s ideas, seems to vanish whenever he attempts to equate Aristotle with modern trends. To claim, as he does, that: “In modern terms, Aristotle can be viewed as a behaviorist, an operationalist, and a contextualist” (and, later, as a “functionalist” and a “relativist”), is either inexcusable or so loosely generalized as to rob those terms of any meaning.
Granted that those terms have no specific definitions and are used, like most of today’s philosophical language, in the manner of “mobiles” which connote, rather than denote — even so, their accepted “connotations” are so anti-Aristotelian that one is forced, at times, to wonder whether Professor Randall is trying to put something over on the moderns or on Aristotle. There are passages in the book to support either hypothesis.
On the one hand, Professor Randall writes: “That we can know things as they are, that such knowledge is possible, is the fact that Aristotle is trying to explain, and not, like Kant and his followers, trying to deny and explain away.” And: “Indeed, any construing of the fact of ‘knowledge,’ whether Kantian, Hegelian, Deweyan, Positivistic, or any other, seems to be consistent and fruitful, and to avoid the impasses of barren self-contradiction, and insoluble and meaningless problems, only when it proceeds from the Aristotelian approach, and pushes Aristotle’s own analyses further . . . only, that is, in the measure that it is conducted upon an Aristotelian basis.” (Though one wonders what exactly would be left of Kant, Hegel, Dewey, or the Positivists if they were stripped of their non-Aristotelian elements.)
On the other hand, Professor Randall seems to turn Aristotle into some foggy combination of a linguistic analyst and a Heraclitean, as if language and reality could be understood as two separate, unconnected dimensions — in such passages as: “When [Aristotle] goes on to examine what is involved in ‘being’ anything . . . he is led to formulate two sets of distinctions: the one set appropriate to understanding any ‘thing’ or ousia as a subject of discourse, the other set appropriate to understanding any ‘thing’ or ousia as the outcome of a process, as the operation or functioning of powers, and ultimately as sheer functioning, activity.”
It is true that Aristotle holds the answer to Professor Randall’s “structuralism-functionalism” dichotomy and that his answer is vitally important today. But his answer eliminates that dichotomy altogether — and one cannot solve it by classifying him as a “functionalist” who believed that things are “sheer process.”
The best parts of Professor Randall’s book are Chapters VIII, IX, and XI, particularly this last. In discussing the importance of Aristotle’s biological theory and “the biological motivation of Aristotle’s thought,” he brings out an aspect of Aristotle which has been featured too seldom in recent discussions and which is much more profound than the question of Aristotle’s “functionalism”: the central place given to living entities, to the phenomenon of life, in Aristotle’s philosophy.
For Aristotle, life is not an inexplicable, supernatural mystery, but a fact of nature. And consciousness is a natural attribute of certain living entities, their natural power, their specific mode of action — not an unaccountable element in a mechanistic universe, to be explained away somehow in terms of inanimate matter, nor a mystic miracle incompatible with physical reality, to be attributed to some occult source in another dimension. For Aristotle, “living” and “knowing” are facts of reality; man’s mind is neither unnatural nor supernatural, but natural — and this is the root of Aristotle’s greatness, of the immeasurable distance that separates him from other thinkers.
Life — and its highest form, man’s life — is the central fact in Aristotle’s view of reality. The best way to describe it is to say that Aristotle’s philosophy is “biocentric.”
This is the source of Aristotle’s intense concern with the study of living entities, the source of the enormously “pro-life” attitude that dominates his thinking. In some oddly undefined manner, Professor Randall seems to share it. This, in spite of all his contradictions, seems to be his real bond with Aristotle.
“Life is the end of living bodies,” writes Professor Randall, “since they exist for the sake of living.” And: “No kind of thing, no species is subordinated to the purposes and interests of any other kind. In biological theory, the end served by the structure of any specific kind of living thing is the good — ultimately, the ’survival’ — of that kind of thing.” And, discussing the ends and conclusions of natural processes: “Only in human life are these ends and conclusions consciously intended, only in men are purposes found. For Aristotle, even God has no purpose, only man!”
The blackest patch in this often illuminating book is Chapter XII, which deals with ethics and politics. Its contradictions are apparent even without reference to Aristotle’s text. It is astonishing to read the assertion: “Aristotle’s ethics and politics are actually his supreme achievement.” They are not, even in their original form — let alone in Professor Randall’s version, which transforms them into the ethics of pragmatism.
It is shocking to read the assertion that Aristotle is an advocate of the “welfare state.” Whatever flaws there are in Aristotle’s political theory — and there are many — he does not deserve that kind of indignity.
Professor Randall, who stresses that knowledge must rest on empirical evidence, should take cognizance of the empirical fact that throughout history the influence of Aristotle’s philosophy (particularly of his epistemology) has led in the direction of individual freedom, of man’s liberation from the power of the state — that Aristotle (via John Locke) was the philosophical father of the Constitution of the United States and thus of capitalism — that it is Plato and Hegel, not Aristotle, who have been the philosophical ancestors of all totalitarian and welfare states, whether Bismarck’s, Lenin’s, or Hitler’s.
An “Aristotelian statist” is a contradiction in terms — and this, perhaps, is a clue to the conflict that mars the value of Professor Randall’s book.
But if read critically, this book is of great value in the study of Aristotle’s philosophy. It is a concise and comprehensive presentation which many people need and look for, but cannot find today. It is of particular value to college students: by providing a frame of reference, a clear summary of the whole, it will help them to grasp the meaning of the issues through the fog of the fragmentary, unintelligible manner in which most courses on Aristotle are taught today.
Above all, this book is important culturally, as a step in the right direction, as a recognition of the fact that the great physician needed by our dying science of philosophy is Aristotle — that if we are to emerge from the intellectual shambles of the present, we can do it only by means of an Aristotelian approach.
“Clearly,” writes Professor Randall, “Aristotle did not say everything; though without what he first said, all words would be meaningless, and when it is forgotten they usually are.”
This essay was first published in the September – November 1968 issues of The Objectivist and later anthologized in The Voice of Reason: Essays in Objectivist Thought (1989).
It was also delivered in lecture form in December 1968 at Boston’s Ford Hall Forum and as a radio address. The lecture audio lasts 56 minutes, followed by a 55-minute Q&A.
Those who wish to observe the role of philosophy in human existence may see it dramatized on a grand (and gruesome) scale in the conflict splitting the Catholic church today.
Observe, in that conflict, men’s fear of identifying or challenging philosophical fundamentals: both sides are willing to fight in silent confusion, to stake their beliefs, their careers, their reputations on the outcome of a battle over the effects of an unnamed cause. One side is composed predominantly of men who dare not name the cause; the other, of men who dare not discover it.
Both sides claim to be puzzled and disappointed by what they regard as a contradiction in the two recent encyclicals of Pope Paul VI. The so-called conservatives (speaking in religious, not political, terms) were dismayed by the encyclical Populorum Progressio (On the Development of Peoples) — which advocated global statism — while the so-called liberals hailed it as a progressive document. Now the conservatives are hailing the encyclical Humanae Vitae (Of Human Life) — which forbids the use of contraceptives — while the liberals are dismayed by it. Both sides seem to find the two documents inconsistent. But the inconsistency is theirs, not the pontiff’s. The two encyclicals are strictly, flawlessly consistent in respect to their basic philosophy and ultimate goal: both come from the same view of man’s nature and are aimed at establishing the same conditions for his life on earth. The first of these two encyclicals forbade ambition, the second forbids enjoyment; the first enslaved man to the physical needs of others, the second enslaves him to the physical capacities of his own body; the first damned achievement, the second damns love.
The doctrine that man’s sexual capacity belongs to a lower or animal part of his nature has had a long history in the Catholic church. It is the necessary consequence of the doctrine that man is not an integrated entity, but a being torn apart by two opposite, antagonistic, irreconcilable elements: his body, which is of this earth, and his soul, which is of another, supernatural realm. According to that doctrine, man’s sexual capacity — regardless of how it is exercised or motivated, not merely its abuses, not unfastidious indulgence or promiscuity, but the capacity as such — is sinful or depraved.
For centuries, the dominant teaching of the church held that sexuality is evil, that only the need to avoid the extinction of the human species grants sex the status of a necessary evil and, therefore, only procreation can redeem or excuse it. In modern times, many Catholic writers have denied that such is the church’s view. But what is its view? They did not answer.
Let us see if we can find the answer in the encyclical Humanae Vitae.
Dealing with the subject of birth control, the encyclical prohibits all forms of contraception (except the so-called “rhythm method”). The prohibition is total, rigid, unequivocal. It is enunciated as a moral absolute.
Bear in mind what this subject entails. Try to hold an image of horror spread across space and time — across the entire globe and through all the centuries — the image of parents chained, like beasts of burden, to the physical needs of a growing brood of children — young parents aging prematurely while fighting a losing battle against starvation — the skeletal hordes of unwanted children born without a chance to live — the unwed mothers slaughtered in the unsanitary dens of incompetent abortionists — the silent terror hanging, for every couple, over every moment of love. If one holds this image while hearing that this nightmare is not to be stopped, the first question one will ask is: Why? In the name of humanity, one will assume that some inconceivable, but crucially important reason must motivate any human being who would seek to let that carnage go on uncontested.
So the first thing one will look for in the encyclical, is that reason, an answer to that Why?
“The problem of birth,” the encyclical declares, “like every other problem regarding human life, is to be considered . . . in the light of an integral vision of man and of his vocation, not only his natural and earthly, but also his supernatural and eternal, vocation.” [Paragraph 7]
A reciprocal act of love, which jeopardizes the responsibility to transmit life which God the Creator, according to particular laws, inserted therein, is in contradiction with the design constitutive of marriage, and with the will of the author of life. To use this divine gift, destroying, even if only partially, its meaning and its purpose, is to contradict the nature both of man and of woman and of their most intimate relationship, and therefore it is to contradict also the plan of God and His will. 
And this is all. In the entire encyclical, this is the only reason given (but repeated over and over again) why men should transform their highest experience of happiness — their love — into a source of lifelong agony. Do so — the encyclical commands — because it is God’s will.
I, who do not believe in God, wonder why those who do would ascribe to him such a sadistic design, when God is supposed to be the archetype of mercy, kindness, and benevolence. What earthly goal is served by that doctrine? The answer runs like a hidden thread through the encyclical’s labyrinthian convolutions, repetitions, and exhortations.
In the darker corners of that labyrinth, one finds some snatches of argument, in alleged support of the mystic axiom, but these arguments are embarrassingly transparent equivocations. For instance:
. . . to make use of the gift of conjugal love while respecting the laws of the generative process means to acknowledge oneself not to be the arbiter of the sources of human life, but rather the minister of the design established by the Creator. In fact, just as man does not have unlimited dominion over his body in general, so also, with particular reason, he has no such dominion over his creative faculties as such, because of their intrinsic ordination toward raising up life, of which God is the principle. 
What is meant here by the words “man does not have unlimited dominion over his body in general?” The obvious meaning is that man cannot change the metaphysical nature of his body; which is true. But man has the power of choice in regard to the actions of his body — specifically, in regard to “his creative faculties,” and the responsibility for the use of these particular faculties is most crucially his. “To acknowledge oneself not to be the arbiter of the sources of human life” is to evade and to default on that responsibility. Here again, the same equivocation or package deal is involved. Does man have the power to determine the nature of his procreative faculty? No. But granted that nature, is he the arbiter of bringing a new human life into existence? He most certainly is, and he (with his mate) is the sole arbiter of that decision — and the consequences of that decision affect and determine the entire course of his life.
This is a clue to that paragraph’s intention: if man believed that so crucial a choice as procreation is not in his control, what would it do to his control over his life, his goals, his future?
The passive obedience and helpless surrender to the physical functions of one’s body, the necessity to let procreation be the inevitable result of the sexual act, is the natural fate of animals, not of men. In spite of its concern with man’s higher aspirations, with his soul, with the sanctity of married love — it is to the level of animals that the encyclical seeks to reduce man’s sex life, in fact, in reality, on earth. What does this indicate about the encyclical’s view of sex?
Anticipating certain obvious objections, the encyclical declares:
Now some may ask: In the present case, is it not reasonable in many circumstances to have recourse to artificial birth control if, thereby, was secure the harmony and peace of the family, and better conditions for the education of children already born? To this question it is necessary to reply with clarity: The church is the first to praise and recommend the intervention of intelligence in a function which so closely associates the rational creature with his Creator; but she affirms that this must be one with respect for the order established by God. 
To what does this subordinate man’s intelligence? If intelligence is forbidden to consider the fundamental problems of man’s existence, forbidden to alleviate his suffering, what does this indicate about the encyclical’s view of man — and of reason?
History can answer this particular question. History has seen a period of approximately ten centuries, known as the Dark and Middle Ages, when philosophy was regarded as “the handmaiden of theology,” and reason as the humble subordinate of faith. The results speak for themselves.
It must not be forgotten that the Catholic church has fought the advance of science since the Renaissance: from Galileo’s astronomy, to the dissection of corpses, which was the start of modern medicine, to the discovery of anesthesia in the nineteenth century, the greatest single discovery in respect to the incalculable amount of terrible suffering it has spared mankind. The Catholic church has fought medical progress by means of the same argument: that the application of knowledge to the relief of human suffering is an attempt to contradict God’s design. Specifically in regard to anesthesia during childbirth, the argument claimed that since God intended woman to suffer while giving birth, man has no right to intervene. (!)
The encyclical does not recommend unlimited procreation. It does not object to all means of birth control — only to those it calls “artificial” (i.e., scientific). It does not object to man “contradicting God’s will” nor to man being “the arbiter of the sources of human life,” provided he uses the means it endorses: abstinence.
Discussing the issue of “responsible parenthood,” the encyclical states: “In relation to physical, economic, psychological and social conditions, responsible parenthood is exercised, either by the deliberate and generous decision to raise a numerous family, or by the decision, made for grave motives and with due respect for the moral law, to avoid for the time being, or even for an indeterminate period, a new birth.”  To avoid — by what means? By abstaining from sexual intercourse.
The lines preceding that passage are: “In relation to the tendencies of instinct or passion, responsible parenthood means the necessary dominion which reason and will must exercise over them.”  How a man is to force his reason to obey an irrational injunction and what it would do to him psychologically, is not mentioned.
Further on, under the heading “Mastery of Self,” the encyclical declares:
To dominate instinct by means of one’s reason and free will undoubtedly requires ascetic practices . . . Yet this discipline which is proper to the purity of married couples, far from harming conjugal love, rather confers on it a higher human value. It demands continual effort yet, thanks to its beneficent influence, husband and wife fully develop their personalities, being enriched with spiritual values. . . . Such discipline . . . helps both parties to drive out selfishness, the enemy of true love; and deepens their sense of responsibility. 
If you can bear that style of expression being used to discuss such matters — which I find close to unbearable — and if you focus on the meaning, you will observe that the “discipline,” the “continual effort,” the “beneficent influence,” the “higher human value” refer to the torture of sexual frustration.
No, the encyclical does not say that sex as such is evil; it merely says that sexual abstinence in marriage is “a higher human value.” What does this indicate about the encyclical’s view of sex — and of marriage?
Its view of marriage is fairly explicit. “[Conjugal] love is first of all fully human, that is to say, of the senses and of the spirit at the same time. It is not, then, a simple transport of instinct and sentiment, but also, and principally, an act of the free will, intended to endure and to grow by means of the joys and sorrows of daily life, in such a way that husband and wife become one only heart and one only soul, and together attain their human perfection.
“Then this love is total; that is to say, it is a very special form of personal friendship, in which husband and wife generously share everything, without undue reservations or selfish calculations.” 
To classify the unique emotion of romantic love as a form of friendship is to obliterate it: the two emotional categories are mutually exclusive. The feeling of friendship is asexual; it can be experienced toward a member of one’s own sex.
There are many other indications of this kind scattered through the encyclical. For instance: “These acts, by which husband and wife are united in chaste intimacy and by means of which human life is transmitted, are, as the council recalled, ‘noble and worthy.’”  It is not chastity that one seeks in sex, and to describe it this way is to emasculate the meaning of marriage.
There are constant references to a married couple’s duties, which have to be considered in the context of the sexual act — “duties toward God, toward themselves, toward the family and toward society.” If there is any one concept which, when associated with sex, would render a man impotent, it is the concept of “duty.”
To understand the full meaning of the encyclical’s view of sex, I shall ask you to identify the common denominator — the common intention — of the following quotations:
[The church’s] teaching, often set forth by the Magisterium, is founded upon the inseparable connection, willed by God and unable to be broken by man on his own initiative, between the two meanings of the conjugal act: the unitive meaning and the procreative meaning. Indeed, by its intimate structure, the conjugal act, while most closely uniting husband and wife, capacitates them for the generation of new lives. 
“[The conjugal acts] do not cease to be lawful if, for causes independent of the will of husband and wife, they are foreseen to be infecund.” [11, emphasis added.]
The church forbids: “every action which, either in anticipation of the conjugal act or its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible.” 
The church does not object to “an impediment to procreation” which might result from the medical treatment of a disease, “provided such impediment is not, for whatever motive, directly willed.” [15, emphasis added.]
And finally, the church “teaches that each and every marriage act (‘quilibet matrimonii usus,’) must remain open to the transmission of life.” 
What is the common denominator of these statements? It is not merely the tenet that sex as such is evil, but deeper: it is the commandment by means of which sex will become evil, the commandment which, if accepted, will divorce sex from love, will castrate man spiritually and will turn sex into a meaningless physical indulgence. That commandment is: man must not regard sex as an end in itself, but only as a means to an end.
Procreation and “God’s design” are not the major concern of that doctrine; they are merely primitive rationalizations to which man’s self-esteem is to be sacrificed. If it were otherwise, why the stressed insistence on forbidding man to impede procreation by his conscious will and choice? Why the tolerance of the conjugal acts of couples who are infecund by nature rather than by choice? What is so evil about that choice? There is only one answer: that choice rests on a couple’s conviction that the justification of sex is their own enjoyment. And this is the view which the church’s doctrine is intent on forbidding at any price.
That such is the doctrine’s intention, is supported by the church’s stand on the so-called “rhythm method” of birth control, which the encyclical approves and recommends.
The church is coherent with herself when she considers recourse to the infecund periods to be licit, while at the same time condemning, as being always illicit, the use of means directly contrary to fecundation, even if such use is inspired by reasons which may appear honest and serious. . . . It is true that, in the one and the other case, the married couple are concordant in the positive will of avoiding children for plausible reasons, seeking the certainty that offspring will not arrive; but it is also true that only in the former case are they able to renounce the use of marriage in the fecund periods when, for just motives, procreation is not desirable, while making use of it during infecund periods to manifest their affection and to safeguard their mutual fidelity. By so doing, they give proof of a truly and integrally honest love. 
On the face of it, this does not make any kind of sense at all — and the church has often been accused of hypocrisy or compromise because it permits this very unreliable method of birth control while forbidding all others. But examine that statement from the aspect of its intention, and you will see that the church is indeed “coherent with herself,” i.e., consistent.
What is the psychological difference between the “rhythm method” and other means of contraception? The difference lies in the fact that, using the “rhythm method,” a couple cannot regard sexual enjoyment as a right and as an end in itself. With the help of some hypocrisy, they merely sneak and snatch some personal pleasure, while keeping the marriage act “open to the transmission of life,” thus acknowledging that childbirth is the only moral justification of sex and that only by the grace of the calendar are they unable to comply.
This acknowledgment is the meaning of the encyclical’s peculiar implication that “to renounce the use of marriage in the fecund periods” is, somehow, a virtue (a renunciation which proper methods of birth control would not require). What else but this acknowledgment can be the meaning of the otherwise unintelligible statement that by the use of the “rhythm method” a couple “give proof of a truly and integrally honest love”?
There is a widespread popular notion to the effect that the Catholic church’s motive in opposing birth control is the desire to enlarge the Catholic population of the world. This may be superficially true of some people’s motives, but it is not the full truth. If it were, the Catholic church would forbid the “rhythm method” along with all other forms of contraception. And, more important, the Catholic church would not fight for anti-birth-control legislation all over the world: if numerical superiority were its motive, it would forbid birth control to its own followers and let it be available to other religious groups.
The motive of the church’s doctrine on this issue is, philosophically, much deeper than that and much worse; the goal is not metaphysical or political or biological, but psychological: if man is forbidden to regard sexual enjoyment as an end in itself, he will not regard love or his own happiness as an end in itself; if so, then he will not regard his own life as an end in itself; if so, then he will not attain self-esteem.
It is not against the gross, animal, physicalistic theories or uses of sex that the encyclical is directed, but against the spiritual meaning of sex in man’s life. (By “spiritual” I mean pertaining to man’s consciousness.) It is not directed against casual, mindless promiscuity, but against romantic love.
To make this clear, let me indicate, in brief essentials, a rational view of the role of sex in man’s existence.
Sex is a physical capacity, but its exercise is determined by man’s mind — by his choice of values, held consciously or subconsciously. To a rational man, sex is an expression of self-esteem — a celebration of himself and of existence. To the man who lacks self-esteem, sex is an attempt to fake it, to acquire its momentary illusion.
Romantic love, in the full sense of the term, is an emotion possible only to the man (or woman) of unbreached self-esteem: it is his response to his own highest values in the person of another — an integrated response of mind and body, of love and sexual desire. Such a man (or woman) is incapable of experiencing a sexual desire divorced from spiritual values.
I quote from Atlas Shrugged: “The men who think that wealth comes from material resources and has no intellectual root or meaning, are the men who think — for the same reason — that sex is a physical capacity which functions independently of one’s mind, choice or code of values. . . . But, in fact, a man’s sexual choice is the result and the sum of his fundamental convictions. . . . Sex is the most profoundly selfish of all acts, an act which [man] cannot perform for any motive but his own enjoyment — just try to think of performing it in a spirit of selfless charity! — an act which is not possible in self-abasement, only in self-exaltation, only in the confidence of being desired and being worthy of desire. . . . Love is our response to our highest values — and can be nothing else. . . . Only the man who extols the purity of a love devoid of desire, is capable of the depravity of a desire devoid of love.”
In other words, sexual promiscuity is to be condemned not because sex as such is evil, but because it is good — too good and too important to be treated casually.
In comparison to the moral and psychological importance of sexual happiness, the issue of procreation is insignificant and irrelevant, except as a deadly threat — and God bless the inventors of the Pill!
The capacity to procreate is merely a potential which man is not obligated to actualize. The choice to have children or not is morally optional. Nature endows man with a variety of potentials — and it is his mind that must decide which capacities he chooses to exercise, according to his own hierarchy of rational goals and values. The mere fact that man has the capacity to kill does not mean that it is his duty to become a murderer; in the same way, the mere fact that man has the capacity to procreate does not mean that it is his duty to commit spiritual suicide by making procreation his primary goal and turning himself into a stud-farm animal.
It is only animals that have to adapt themselves to their physical background and to the biological functions of their bodies. Man adapts his physical background and the use of his biological faculties to himself — to his own needs and values. That is his distinction from all other living species.
To an animal, the rearing of its young is a matter of temporary cycles. To man, it is a lifelong responsibility — a grave responsibility that must not be undertaken causelessly, thoughtlessly, or accidentally.
In regard to the moral aspects of birth control, the primary right involved is not the “right” of an unborn child, or of the family, or of society, or of God. The primary right is one which — in today’s public clamor on the subject — few, if any, voices have had the courage to uphold: the right of man and woman to their own life and happiness — the right not to be regarded as the means to any end.
Man is an end in himself. Romantic love — the profound, exalted, lifelong passion that unites his mind and body in the sexual act — is the living testimony to that principle.
This is what the encyclical seeks to destroy; or, more precisely, to obliterate, as if it does not and cannot exist.
Observe the encyclical’s contemptuous references to sexual desire as “instinct” or “passion,” as if “passion” were a pejorative term. Observe the false dichotomy offered; man’s choice is either mindless, “instinctual” copulation — or marriage, an institution presented not as a union of passionate love, but as a relationship of “chaste intimacy,” of “special personal friendship,” of “discipline proper to purity,” of unselfish duty, of alternating bouts with frustration and pregnancy, and of such unspeakable, Grade-B-movie-folks-next-door kind of boredom that any semi-living man would have to run, in self-preservation, to the nearest whorehouse.
No, I am not exaggerating. I have reserved — as my last piece of evidence on the question of the encyclical’s view of sex — the paragraph in which the coils and veils of euphemistic equivocation got torn, somehow, and the naked truth shows through.
It reads as follows:
Upright men can even better convince themselves of the solid grounds on which the teaching of the church in this field is based, if they care to reflect upon the consequences of methods of artificial birth control. Let them consider, first of all, how wide and easy a road would thus be opened up toward conjugal infidelity and the general lowering of morality. Not much experience is needed in order to know human weakness, and to understand that men — especially the young, who are so vulnerable on this point — have need of encouragement to be faithful to the moral law, so that they must not be offered some easy means of eluding its observance. It is also to be feared that the man, growing used to the employment of anticonceptive practices, may finally lose respect for the woman and, no longer caring for her physical and psychological equilibrium, may come to the point of considering her as a mere instrument of selfish enjoyment, and no longer as his respected and beloved companion. 
I cannot conceive of a rational woman who does not want to be precisely an instrument of her husband’s selfish enjoyment. I cannot conceive of what would have to be the mental state of a woman who could desire or accept the position of having a husband who does not derive any selfish enjoyment from sleeping with her. I cannot conceive of anyone, male or female, capable of believing that sexual enjoyment would destroy a husband’s love and respect for his wife — but regarding her as a brood mare and himself as a stud, would cause him to love and respect her.
Actually, this is too evil to discuss much further.
But we must also take note of the first part of that paragraph. It states that “artificial” contraception would open “a wide and easy road toward conjugal infidelity.” Such is the encyclical’s actual view of marriage: that marital fidelity rests on nothing better than fear of pregnancy. Well, “not much experience is needed in order to know” that that fear has never been much of a deterrent to anyone.
Now observe the inhuman cruelty of that paragraph’s reference to the young. Admitting that the young are “vulnerable on this point,” and declaring that they need “encouragement to be faithful to the moral law,” the encyclical forbids them the use of contraceptives, thus making it cold-bloodedly clear that its idea of moral encouragement consists of terror — the sheer, stark terror of young people caught between their first experience of love and the primitive brutality of the moral code of their elders. Surely the authors of the encyclical cannot be ignorant of the fact that it is not the young chasers or the teenage sluts who would be the victims of a ban on contraceptives, but the innocent young who risk their lives in the quest for love — the girl who finds herself pregnant and abandoned by her boyfriend, or the boy who is trapped into a premature, unwanted marriage. To ignore the agony of such victims — the countless suicides, the deaths at the hands of quack abortionists, the drained lives wasted under the double burden of a spurious “dishonor” and of an unwanted child — to ignore all that in the name of “the moral law” is to make a mockery of morality.
Another, and truly incredible mockery, leers at us from that same paragraph 17. As a warning against the use of contraceptives, the encyclical states:
Let it be considered also that a dangerous weapon would thus be placed in the hands of those public authorities who take no heed of moral exigencies. . . . Who will stop rulers from favoring, from even imposing upon their peoples, if they were to consider it necessary, the method of contraception which they judge to be most efficacious? In such a way men, wishing to avoid individual, family or social difficulties encountered in the observance of the divine law, would reach the point of placing at the mercy of the intervention of public authorities the most personal and most reserved sector of conjugal intimacy.
No public authorities have attempted — and no private groups have urged them to attempt — to force contraception on Catholics. But when one remembers that it is the Catholic church that has initiated anti-birth-control legislation the world over and thus has placed “at the mercy of the intervention of public authorities the most personal and most reserved sector of conjugal intimacy” — that statement becomes outrageous. Were it not for the politeness one should preserve toward the papal office, one would call that statement a brazen effrontery.
This leads us to the encyclical’s stand on the issue of abortion, and to another example of inhuman cruelty. Compare the coiling sentimentality of the encyclical’s style when it speaks of “conjugal love” to the clear, brusque, military tone of the following: “We must once again declare that the direct interruption of the generative process already begun, and, above all, directly willed and procured abortion, even if for therapeutic reasons, are to be absolutely excluded as licit means of regulating birth.” [14, emphasis added.]
After extolling the virtue and sanctity of motherhood, as a woman’s highest duty, as her “eternal vocation,” the encyclical attaches a special risk of death to the performance of that duty — an unnecessary death, in the presence of doctors forbidden to save her, as if a woman were only a screaming huddle of infected flesh who must not be permitted to imagine that she has the right to live.
And this policy is advocated by the encyclical’s supporters in the name of their concern for “the sanctity of life” and for “rights” — the rights of the embryo. (!)
I suppose that only the psychological mechanism of projection can make it possible for such advocates to accuse their opponents of being “anti-life.”
Observe that the men who uphold such a concept as “the rights of an embryo,” are the men who deny, negate, and violate the rights of a living human being.
An embryo has no rights. Rights do not pertain to a potential, only to an actual being. A child cannot acquire any rights until it is born. The living take precedence over the not yet living (or the unborn).
Abortion is a moral right — which should be left to the sole discretion of the woman involved; morally, nothing other than her wish in the matter is to be considered. Who can conceivably have the right to dictate to her what disposition she is to make of the functions of her own body? The Catholic church is responsible for this country’s disgracefully barbarian anti-abortion laws, which should be repealed and abolished.
The intensity of the importance that the Catholic church attaches to its doctrine on sex may be gauged by the enormity of the indifference to human suffering expressed in the encyclical. Its authors cannot be ignorant of the fact that man has to earn his living by his own effort, and that there is no couple on earth — on any level of income, in any country, civilized or not — who would be able to support the number of children they would produce if they obeyed the encyclical to the letter.
If we assume the richest couple and include time off for the periods of “purity,” it will still be true that the physical and psychological strain of their “vocation” would be so great that nothing much would be left of them, particularly of the mother, by the time they reached the age of forty.
Consider the position of an average American couple. What would be their life, if they succeeded in raising, say, twelve children, by working from morning till night, by running a desperate race with the periodic trips to maternity wards, with rent bills, grocery bills, clothing bills, pediatricians’ bills, strained-vegetables bills, school book bills, measles, mumps, whooping cough, Christmas trees, movies, ice cream cones, summer camps, party dresses, dates, draft cards, hospitals, colleges — with every salary raise of the industrious, hardworking father mortgaged and swallowed before it is received — what would they have gained at the end of their life except the hope that they might be able to pay their cemetery bills, in advance?
Now consider the position of the majority of mankind, who are barely able to subsist on a level of prehistorical poverty. No strain, no backbreaking effort of the ablest, most conscientious father can enable him properly to feed one child — let alone an open-end progression. The unspeakable misery of stunted, disease-eaten, chronically undernourished children, who die in droves before the age of ten, is a matter of public record. Pope Paul VI — who closes his encyclical by mentioning his title as earthly representative of “the God of holiness and mercy” — cannot be ignorant of these facts; yet he is able to ignore them.
The encyclical brushes this issue aside in a singularly irresponsible manner:
We are well aware of the serious difficulties experienced by public authorities in this regard, especially in the developing countries. To their legitimate preoccupations we devoted our encyclical letter Populorum Progressio. . . . The only possible solution to this question is one which envisages the social and economic progress both of individuals and of the whole of human society, and which respects and promotes true human values.
Neither can one, without grave injustice, consider Divine Providence to be responsible for what depends, instead, on a lack of wisdom in government, on an insufficient sense of social justice, on selfish monopolization or again on blameworthy indolence in confronting the efforts and the sacrifices necessary to insure the raising of living standards of a people and of all its sons. 
The encyclical Populorum Progressio advocated the abolition of capitalism and the establishment of a totalitarian, socialist-fascist, global state — in which the right to “the minimum essential for life” is to be the ruling principle and “all other rights whatsoever, including those of property and of free commerce, are to be subordinated to this principle.” (For a discussion of that encyclical, see my article “Requiem for Man” in [Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal].)
If, today, a struggling, desperate man, somewhere in Peru or China or Egypt or Nigeria, accepted the commandments of the present encyclical and strove to be moral, but saw his horde of children dying of hunger around him, the only practical advice the encyclical would give him is: Wait for the establishment of a collectivist world state. What, in God’s name, is he to do in the meantime?
Philosophically, however, the reference to the earlier encyclical, Populorum Progressio, is extremely significant: it is as if Pope Paul VI were pointing to the bridge between the two documents and to their common base.
The global state advocated in Populorum Progressio is a nightmare utopia where all are enslaved to the physical needs of all; its inhabitants are selfless robots, programmed by the tenets of altruism, without personal ambition, without mind, pride, or self-esteem. But self-esteem is a stubborn enemy of all utopias of that kind, and it is doubtful whether mere economic enslavement would destroy it wholly in men’s souls. What Populorum Progressio was intended to achieve from without, in regard to the physical conditions of man’s existence, Humanae Vitae is intended to achieve from within, in regard to the devastation of man’s consciousness.
“Don’t allow men to be happy,” said Ellsworth Toohey in The Fountainhead. “Happiness is self-contained and self-sufficient. . . . Happy men are free men. So kill their joy in living. . . . Make them feel that the mere fact of a personal desire is evil. . . . Unhappy men will come to you. They’ll need you. They’ll come for consolation, for support, for escape. Nature allows no vacuum. Empty man’s soul — and the space is yours to fill.”
Deprived of ambition, yet sentenced to endless toil; deprived of rewards, yet ordered to produce; deprived of sexual enjoyment, yet commanded to procreate; deprived of the right to live, yet forbidden to die — condemned to this state of living death, the graduates of the encyclical Humanae Vitae will be ready to move into the world of Populorum Progressio; they will have no other place to go.
“If some man like Hugh Akston,” said Hank Rearden in Atlas Shrugged, “had told me, when I started, that by accepting the mystics’ theory of sex I was accepting the looters’ theory of economics, I would have laughed in his face. I would not laugh at him now.”
It would be a mistake, however, to suppose that in the subconscious hierarchy of motives of the men who wrote these two encyclicals, the second, Humanae Vitae, was merely the spiritual means to the first, Populorum Progressio, which was the material end. The motives, I believe, were the reverse: Populorum Progressio was merely the material means to Humanae Vitae, which was the spiritual end.
“. . . with our predecessor Pope John XXIII,” says Pope Paul VI in Humanae Vitae, “we repeat: no solution to these difficulties is acceptable ‘which does violence to man’s essential dignity’ and is based only ‘on an utterly materialistic conception of man himself and of his life.’” [23, emphasis added.] They mean it — though not exactly in the way they would have us believe.
In terms of reality, nothing could be more materialistic than an existence devoted to feeding the whole world and procreating to the limit of one’s capacity. But when they say “materialistic,” they mean pertaining to man’s mind and to this earth; by “spiritual,’’ they mean whatever is anti-man, anti-mind, anti-life, and, above all, anti-possibility of human happiness on earth.
The ultimate goal of these encyclicals’ doctrine is not the material advantages to be gained by the rulers of a global slave state; the ultimate goal is the spiritual emasculation and degradation of man, the extinction of his love of life, which Humanae Vitae is intended to accomplish, and Populorum Progressio merely to embody and perpetuate.
The means of destroying man’s spirit is unearned guilt.
What I said in “Requiem for Man” about the motives of Populorum Progressio applies as fully to Humanae Vitae, with only a minor paraphrase pertaining to its subject. “But, you say, the encyclical’s ideal will not work? It is not intended to work. It is not intended to [achieve human chastity or sexual virtue]; it is intended to induce guilt. It is not intended to be accepted and practiced; it is intended to be accepted and broken — broken by man’s ‘selfish’ desire to [love], which will thus be turned into a shameful weakness. Men who accept as an ideal an irrational goal which they cannot achieve, never lift their heads thereafter — and never discover that their bowed heads were the only goal to be achieved.”
I said, in that article, that Populorum Progressio was produced by the sense of life not of an individual, but of an institution — whose driving power and dominant obsession is the desire to break man’s spirit. Today, I say it, with clearer evidence, about the encyclical Humanae Vitae.
This is the fundamental issue which neither side of the present conflict is willing fully to identify.
The conservatives or traditionalists of the Catholic church seem to know, no matter what rationalizations they propound, that such is the meaning and intention of their doctrine. The liberals seem to be more innocent, at least in this issue, and struggle not to have to face it. But they are the supporters of global statism and, in opposing Humanae Vitae, they are merely fighting the right battle for the wrong reasons. If they win, their social views will still lead them to the same ultimate results.
The rebellion of the victims, the Catholic laymen, has a touch of healthy self-assertiveness; however, if they defy the encyclical and continue to practice birth control, but regard it as a matter of their own weakness and guilt, the encyclical will have won: this is precisely what it was intended to accomplish.
The American bishops of the Catholic church, allegedly struggling to find a compromise, issued a pastoral letter declaring that contraception is an objective evil, but individuals are not necessarily guilty or sinful if they practice it — which amounts to a total abdication from the realm of morality and can lead men only to a deeper sense of guilt.
Such is the tragic futility of attempting to fight the existential consequences of a philosophical issue, without facing and challenging the philosophy that produced them.
This issue is not confined to the Catholic church, and it is deeper than the problem of contraception; it is a moral crisis approaching a climax. The core of the issue is Western civilization’s view of man and of his life. The essence of that view depends on the answer to two interrelated questions: Is man (man the individual) an end in himself? — and: Does man have the right to be happy on this earth?
Throughout its history, the West has been torn by a profound ambivalence on these questions: all of its achievements came from those periods when men acted as if the answer were “Yes” — but, with exceedingly rare exceptions, their spokesmen, the philosophers, kept proclaiming a thunderous “No,” in countless forms.
Neither an individual nor an entire civilization can exist indefinitely with an unresolved conflict of that kind. Our age is paying the penalty for it. And it is our age that will have to resolve it.
This essay was originally published in the April 1965 issue of The Objectivist Newsletter and later anthologized in The Romantic Manifesto (1969 and 1971).
The position of art in the scale of human knowledge is, perhaps, the most eloquent symptom of the gulf between man’s progress in the physical sciences and his stagnation (or, today, his retrogression) in the humanities.
The physical sciences are still ruled by some remnants of a rational epistemology (which is rapidly being destroyed), but the humanities have been virtually abandoned to the primitive epistemology of mysticism. While physics has reached the level where men are able to study subatomic particles and interplanetary space, a phenomenon such as art has remained a dark mystery, with little or nothing known about its nature, its function in human life or the cause of its tremendous psychological power. Yet art is of passionately intense importance and profoundly personal concern to most men — and it has existed in every known civilization, accompanying man’s steps from the early hours of his prehistorical dawn, earlier than the birth of written language.
While, in other fields of knowledge, men have outgrown the practice of seeking the guidance of mystic oracles whose qualification for the job was unintelligibility, in the field of esthetics this practice has remained in full force and is becoming more crudely obvious today. Just as savages took the phenomena of nature for granted, as an irreducible primary not to be questioned or analyzed, as the exclusive domain of unknowable demons — so today’s epistemological savages take art for granted, as an irreducible primary not to be questioned or analyzed, as the exclusive domain of a special kind of unknowable demons: their emotions. The only difference is that the prehistorical savages’ error was innocent.
One of the grimmest monuments to altruism is man’s culturally induced selflessness: his willingness to live with himself as with the unknown, to ignore, evade, repress the personal (the non-social) needs of his soul, to know least about the things that matter most, and thus to consign his deepest values to the impotent underground of subjectivity and his life to the dreary wasteland of chronic guilt.
The cognitive neglect of art has persisted precisely because the function of art is non-social. (This is one more instance of altruism’s inhumanity, of its brutal indifference to the deepest needs of man — of an actual, individual man. It is an instance of the inhumanity of any moral theory that regards moral values as a purely social matter.) Art belongs to a non-socializable aspect of reality, which is universal (i.e., applicable to all men) but non-collective: to the nature of man’s consciousness.
One of the distinguishing characteristics of a work of art (including literature) is that it serves no practical, material end, but is an end in itself; it serves no purpose other than contemplation — and the pleasure of that contemplation is so intense, so deeply personal that a man experiences it as a self-sufficient, self-justifying primary and, often, resists or resents any suggestion to analyze it: the suggestion, to him, has the quality of an attack on his identity, on his deepest, essential self.
No human emotion can be causeless, nor can so intense an emotion be causeless, irreducible and unrelated to the source of emotions (and of values): to the needs of a living entity’s survival. Art does have a purpose and does serve a human need; only it is not a material need, but a need of man’s consciousness. Art is inextricably tied to man’s survival — not to his physical survival, but to that on which his physical survival depends: to the preservation and survival of his consciousness.
The source of art lies in the fact that man’s cognitive faculty is conceptual — i.e., that man acquires knowledge and guides his actions, not by means of single, isolated percepts, but by means of abstractions.
To understand the nature and function of art, one must understand the nature and function of concepts.
A concept is a mental integration of two or more units which are isolated by a process of abstraction and united by a specific definition. By organizing his perceptual material into concepts, and his concepts into wider and still wider concepts, man is able to grasp and retain, to identify and integrate an unlimited amount of knowledge, a knowledge extending beyond the immediate concretes of any given, immediate moment.
In any given moment, concepts enable man to hold in the focus of his conscious awareness much more than his purely perceptual capacity would permit. The range of man’s perceptual awareness — the number of percepts he can deal with at any one time — is limited. He may be able to visualize four or five units — as, for instance, five trees. He cannot visualize a hundred trees or a distance of ten light-years. It is only his conceptual faculty that makes it possible for him to deal with knowledge of that kind.
Man retains his concepts by means of language. With the exception of proper names, every word we use is a concept that stands for an unlimited number of concretes of a certain kind. A concept is like a mathematical series of specifically defined units, going off in both directions, open at both ends and including all units of that particular kind. For instance, the concept “man” includes all men who live at present, who have ever lived or will ever live — a number of men so great that one would not be able to perceive them all visually, let alone to study them or discover anything about them.
Language is a code of visual-auditory symbols that serves the psycho-epistemological function of converting abstractions into concretes or, more precisely, into the psycho-epistemological equivalent of concretes, into a manageable number of specific units.
(Psycho-epistemology is the study of man’s cognitive processes from the aspect of the interaction between the conscious mind and the automatic functions of the subconscious.)
Consider the enormous conceptual integration involved in any statement, from the conversation of a child to the discourse of a scientist. Consider the long conceptual chain that starts from simple, ostensive definitions and rises to higher and still higher concepts, forming a hierarchical structure of knowledge so complex that no electronic computer could approach it. It is by means of such chains that man has to acquire and retain his knowledge of reality.
Yet this is the simpler part of his psycho-epistemological task. There is another part which is still more complex.
The other part consists of applying his knowledge — i.e., evaluating the facts of reality, choosing his goals and guiding his actions accordingly. To do that, man needs another chain of concepts, derived from and dependent on the first, yet separate and, in a sense, more complex: a chain of normative abstractions.
While cognitive abstractions identify the facts of reality, normative abstractions evaluate the facts, thus prescribing a choice of values and a course of action. Cognitive abstractions deal with that which is; normative abstractions deal with that which ought to be (in the realms open to man’s choice).
Ethics, the normative science, is based on two cognitive branches of philosophy: metaphysics and epistemology. To prescribe what man ought to do, one must first know what he is and where he is — i.e., what is his nature (including his means of cognition) and the nature of the universe in which he acts. (It is irrelevant, in this context, whether the metaphysical base of a given system of ethics is true or false; if it is false, the error will make the ethics impracticable. What concerns us here is only the dependence of ethics on metaphysics.)
Is the universe intelligible to man, or unintelligible and unknowable? Can man find happiness on earth, or is he doomed to frustration and despair? Does man have the power of choice, the power to choose his goals and to achieve them, the power to direct the course of his life — or is he the helpless plaything of forces beyond his control, which determine his fate? Is man, by nature, to be valued as good, or to be despised as evil? These are metaphysical questions, but the answers to them determine the kind of ethics men will accept and practice; the answers are the link between metaphysics and ethics. And although metaphysics as such is not a normative science, the answers to this category of questions assume, in man’s mind, the function of metaphysical value-judgments, since they form the foundation of all of his moral values.
Consciously or subconsciously, explicitly or implicitly, man knows that he needs a comprehensive view of existence to integrate his values, to choose his goals, to plan his future, to maintain the unity and coherence of his life — and that his metaphysical value-judgments are involved in every moment of his life, in his every choice, decision and action.
Metaphysics — the science that deals with the fundamental nature of reality — involves man’s widest abstractions. It includes every concrete he has ever perceived, it involves such a vast sum of knowledge and such a long chain of concepts that no man could hold it all in the focus of his immediate conscious awareness. Yet he needs that sum and that awareness to guide him — he needs the power to summon them into full, conscious focus.
That power is given to him by art.
Art is a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist’s metaphysical value-judgments.
By a selective re-creation, art isolates and integrates those aspects of reality which represent man’s fundamental view of himself and of existence. Out of the countless number of concretes — of single, disorganized and (seemingly) contradictory attributes, actions and entities — an artist isolates the things which he regards as metaphysically essential and integrates them into a single new concrete that represents an embodied abstraction.
For instance, consider two statues of man: one as a Greek god, the other as a deformed medieval monstrosity. Both are metaphysical estimates of man; both are projections of the artist’s view of man’s nature; both are concretized representations of the philosophy of their respective cultures.
Art is a concretization of metaphysics. Art brings man’s concepts to the perceptual level of his consciousness and allows him to grasp them directly, as if they were percepts.
This is the psycho-epistemological function of art and the reason of its importance in man’s life (and the crux of the Objectivist esthetics).
Just as language converts abstractions into the psycho-epistemological equivalent of concretes, into a manageable number of specific units — so art converts man’s metaphysical abstractions into the equivalent of concretes, into specific entities open to man’s direct perception. The claim that “art is a universal language” is not an empty metaphor, it is literally true — in the sense of the psycho-epistemological function performed by art.
Observe that in mankind’s history, art began as an adjunct (and, often, a monopoly) of religion. Religion was the primitive form of philosophy: it provided man with a comprehensive view of existence. Observe that the art of those primitive cultures was a concretization of their religion’s metaphysical and ethical abstractions.
The best illustration of the psycho-epistemological process involved in art can be given by one aspect of one particular art: by characterization in literature. Human character — with all of its innumerable potentialities, virtues, vices, inconsistencies, contradictions — is so complex that man is his own most bewildering enigma. It is very difficult to isolate and integrate human traits even into purely cognitive abstractions and to bear them all in mind when seeking to understand the men one meets.
Now consider the figure of Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt. He is the concretization of an abstraction that covers an incalculable sum of observations and evaluations of an incalculable number of characteristics possessed by an incalculable number of men of a certain type. Lewis has isolated their essential traits and has integrated them into the concrete form of a single character — and when you say of someone, “He’s a Babbitt,” your appraisal includes, in a single judgment, the enormous total conveyed by that figure.
When we come to normative abstractions — to the task of defining moral principles and projecting what man ought to be — the psycho-epistemological process required is still harder. The task demands years of study — and the results are almost impossible to communicate without the assistance of art. An exhaustive philosophical treatise defining moral values, with a long list of virtues to be practiced, will not do it; it will not convey what an ideal man would be like and how he would act: no mind can deal with so immense a sum of abstractions. When I say “deal with” I mean retranslate all the abstractions into the perceptual concretes for which they stand — i.e., reconnect them to reality — and hold it all in the focus of one’s conscious awareness. There is no way to integrate such a sum without projecting an actual human figure — an integrated concretization that illuminates the theory and makes it intelligible.
Hence the sterile, uninspiring futility of a great many theoretical discussions of ethics, and the resentment which many people feel toward such discussions: moral principles remain in their minds as floating abstractions, offering them a goal they cannot grasp and demanding that they reshape their souls in its image, thus leaving them with a burden of undefinable moral guilt. Art is the indispensable medium for the communication of a moral ideal.
Observe that every religion has a mythology — a dramatized concretization of its moral code embodied in the figures of men who are its ultimate product. (The fact that some of these figures are more convincing than others depends on the comparative rationality or irrationality of the moral theory they exemplify.)
This does not mean that art is a substitute for philosophical thought: without a conceptual theory of ethics, an artist would not be able successfully to concretize an image of the ideal. But without the assistance of art, ethics remains in the position of theoretical engineering: art is the model-builder.
Many readers of The Fountainhead have told me that the character of Howard Roark helped them to make a decision when they faced a moral dilemma. They asked themselves: “What would Roark do in this situation?” — and, faster than their mind could identify the proper application of all the complex principles involved, the image of Roark gave them the answer. They sensed, almost instantly, what he would or would not do — and this helped them to isolate and to identify the reasons, the moral principles that would have guided him. Such is the psycho-epistemological function of a personified (concretized) human ideal.
It is important to stress, however, that even though moral values are inextricably involved in art, they are involved only as a consequence, not as a causal determinant: the primary focus of art is metaphysical, not ethical. Art is not the “handmaiden” of morality, its basic purpose is not to educate, to reform or to advocate anything. The concretization of a moral ideal is not a textbook on how to become one. The basic purpose of art is not to teach, but to show — to hold up to man a concretized image of his nature and his place in the universe.
Any metaphysical issue will necessarily have an enormous influence on man’s conduct and, therefore, on his ethics; and, since every art work has a theme, it will necessarily convey some conclusion, some “message,’’ to its audience. But that influence and that “message’’ are only secondary consequences. Art is not the means to any didactic end. This is the difference between a work of art and a morality play or a propaganda poster. The greater a work of art, the more profoundly universal its theme. Art is not the means of literal transcription. This is the difference between a work of art and a news story or a photograph.
The place of ethics in any given work of art depends on the metaphysical views of the artist. If, consciously or subconsciously, an artist holds the premise that man possesses the power of volition, it will lead his work to a value orientation (to Romanticism). If he holds the premise that man’s fate is determined by forces beyond his control, it will lead his work to an anti-value orientation (to Naturalism). The philosophical and esthetic contradictions of determinism are irrelevant in this context, just as the truth or falsehood of an artist’s metaphysical views is irrelevant to the nature of art as such. An art work may project the values man is to seek and hold up to him the concretized vision of the life he is to achieve. Or it may assert that man’s efforts are futile and hold up to him the concretized vision of defeat and despair as his ultimate fate. In either case, the esthetic means — the psycho-epistemological processes involved — remain the same.
The existential consequences, of course, will differ. Amidst the incalculable number and complexity of choices that confront a man in his day-by-day existence, with the frequently bewildering torrent of events, with the alternation of successes and failures, of joys that seem too rare and suffering that lasts too long — he is often in danger of losing his perspective and the reality of his own convictions. Remember that abstractions as such do not exist: they are merely man’s epistemological method of perceiving that which exists — and that which exists is concrete. To acquire the full, persuasive, irresistible power of reality, man’s metaphysical abstractions have to confront him in the form of concretes — i.e., in the form of art.
Consider the difference it would make if — in his need of philosophical guidance or confirmation or inspiration — man turns to the art of Ancient Greece or to the art of the Middle Ages. Reaching his mind and emotions simultaneously, with the combined impact of abstract thought and of immediate reality, one type of art tells him that disasters are transient, that grandeur, beauty, strength, self-confidence are his proper, natural state. The other tells him that happiness is transient and evil, that he is a distorted, impotent, miserable little sinner, pursued by leering gargoyles, crawling in terror on the brink of an eternal hell.
The consequences of both experiences are obvious — and history is their practical demonstration. It is not art alone that was responsible for the greatness or the horror of those two eras, but art as the voice of philosophy — of the particular philosophy that dominated those cultures.
As to the role of emotions in art and the subconscious mechanism that serves as the integrating factor both in artistic creation and in man’s response to art, they involve a psychological phenomenon which we call a sense of life. A sense of life is a pre-conceptual equivalent of metaphysics, an emotional, subconsciously integrated appraisal of man and of existence. But this is a different, though corollary, subject (which I discuss in [“Philosophy and Sense of Life” and “Art and Sense of Life”]). The present subject is only the psycho-epistemological role of art.
A question raised at the start of this discussion should now be clear. The reason why art has such a profoundly personal significance for men is that art confirms or denies the efficacy of a man’s consciousness, according to whether an art work supports or negates his own fundamental view of reality.
Such is the meaning and the power of a medium which, today, is predominantly in the hands of practitioners who boastfully offer, as their credentials, the fact that they do not know what they are doing.
Let us take them at their word: they don’t. We do.