This essay was first published in the April 1966 issue of The Objectivist and later anthologized in The Voice of Reason: Essays in Objectivist Thought (1989).
A 55-minute lecture version was delivered in April 1966 at Boston’s Ford Hall Forum.
In the years 1951 to 1954, a group of scientists at McGill University conducted a series of experiments that attracted a great deal of attention, led to many further inquiries, and became famous under the general title of “sensory deprivation.”
The experiments consisted of observing the behavior of a man in conditions of isolation which eliminated or significantly reduced the sensations of sight, hearing, and touch. The subject was placed in a small, semi-sound-proofed cubicle, he wore translucent goggles which admitted only a diffuse light, he wore heavy gloves and cardboard cuffs over his hands, and he lay in bed for two to three days, with a minimum of motion.
The results varied from subject to subject, but certain general observations could be made: the subjects found it exceedingly difficult or impossible to concentrate, to maintain a systematic process of thought; they lost their sense of time, they felt disoriented, dissociated from reality, unable to tell the difference between sleeping and waking; many subjects experienced hallucinations. Most of them spoke of feeling as if they were losing control of their consciousness. These effects disappeared shortly after the termination of the experiments.
The scientists pursuing these inquiries state emphatically that no theoretical conclusions can yet be drawn from these and other, similar experiments, because they involve too many variables, as well as undefined differences in the psychological character of the subjects, which led to significant differences in their reactions. But certain general indications can be observed: the experiments seem to indicate that man’s consciousness requires constant activity, a constant stream of changing sensory stimuli, and that monotony or insufficient stimulation impairs its efficiency.
Even though man ignores and, to a large extent, shuts out the messages of his senses when he is concentrating on some specific intellectual task — his senses are his contact with reality, that contact is not stagnant, but is maintained by a constant active process, and when that process is slowed down artificially to subnormal levels, his mind slows down as well.
Man’s consciousness is his least known and most abused vital organ. Most people believe that consciousness as such is some sort of indeterminate faculty which has no nature, no specific identity, and, therefore, no requirements, no needs, no rules for being properly or improperly used. The simplest example of this belief is people’s willingness to lie or cheat, to fake reality on the premise that “I’m the only one who’ll know” or “It’s only in my mind” — without any concern for what this does to one’s mind, what complex, untraceable, disastrous impairments it produces, what crippling damage may result.
The loss of control over one’s consciousness is the most terrifying of human experiences: a consciousness that doubts its own efficacy is in a monstrously intolerable state. Yet men abuse, subvert, and starve their consciousness in a manner they would not dream of applying to their hair, toenails, or stomachs. They know that these things have a specific identity and specific requirements, and if one wishes to preserve them, one must comb one’s hair, trim one’s toenails, and refrain from swallowing rat poison. But one’s mind? Aw, it needs nothing and can swallow anything. Or so most people believe. And they go on believing it while they toss in agony on a psychologist’s couch, screaming that their mind keeps them in a state of chronic terror for no reason whatever.
One valuable aspect of the sensory-deprivation experiments is that they call attention to and dramatize a fact which neither laymen nor psychologists are willing fully to accept: the fact that man’s consciousness possesses a specific nature with specific cognitive needs, that it is not infinitely malleable and cannot be twisted, like a piece of putty, to fit any private evasions or any public “conditioning.”
If sensory deprivation has such serious consequences, what are the consequences of “conceptual deprivation”? This is a question untouched by psychologists, so far, since the majority of today’s psychologists do not recognize the significance of the fact that man’s consciousness requires a conceptual mode of functioning — that thinking is the process of cognition appropriate to man. The ravages of “conceptual deprivation” can be observed all around us. Two interacting aspects of this issue must be distinguished: the primary cause is individual, but the contributory cause is social.
The choice to think or not is volitional. If an individual’s choice is predominantly negative, the result is his self-arrested mental development, a self-made cognitive malnutrition, a stagnant, eroded, impoverished, anxiety-ridden inner life. A social environment can neither force a man to think nor prevent him from thinking. But a social environment can offer incentives or impediments; it can make the exercise of one’s rational faculty easier or harder; it can encourage thinking and penalize evasion or vice versa. Today, our social environment is ruled by evasion — by entrenched, institutionalized evasion — while reason is an outcast and almost an outlaw.
The brashly aggressive irrationality and anti-rationality of today’s culture leaves an individual in an intellectual desert. He is deprived of conceptual stimulation and communication; he is unable to understand people or to be understood. He is locked in the equivalent of an experimental cubicle — only that cubicle is the size of a continent — where he is given the sensory stimulation of screeching, screaming, twisting, jostling throngs, but is cut off from ideas: the sounds are unintelligible, the motions incomprehensible, the pressures unpredictable. In such conditions, only the toughest intellectual giants will preserve the unimpaired efficiency of their mind, at the price of an excruciating effort. The rest will give up — usually, in college — and will collapse into hysterical panic (the “activists”) or into sluggish lethargy (the consensus-followers); and some will suffer from conceptual hallucinations (the existentialists).
The subject of “conceptual deprivation” is too vast to cover in one lecture and can merely be indicated. What I want to discuss today is one particular aspect of it: the question of value-deprivation.
A value is that which one acts to gain and/or keep. Values are the motivating power of man’s actions and a necessity of his survival, psychologically as well as physically.
Man’s values control his subconscious emotional mechanism, which functions like a computer adding up his desires, his experiences, his fulfillments and frustrations — like a sensitive guardian watching and constantly assessing his relationship to reality. The key question which this computer is programmed to answer is: What is possible to me?
There is a certain similarity between the issue of sensory perception and the issue of values. Discussing “The Cognitive Consequences of Early Sensory Deprivation,” Dr. Jerome S. Brunet writes: “One may suggest that one of the prime sources of anxiety is a state in which one’s conception or perception of the environment with which one must deal does not ‘fit’ or predict that environment in a manner that makes action possible.’’ [Sensory Deprivation, a symposium at Harvard Medical School, edited by Philip Solomon et al., Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1961.] If severe and prolonged enough, the absence of a normal, active flow of sensory stimuli may disintegrate the complex organization and the interdependent functions of man’s consciousness.
Man’s emotional mechanism works as the barometer of the efficacy or impotence of his actions. If severe and prolonged enough, the absence of a normal, active flow of value experiences may disintegrate and paralyze man’s consciousness — by telling him that no action is possible.
The form in which man experiences the reality of his values is pleasure.
[An essay from The Virtue of Selfishness on “The Psychology of Pleasure” states,] “Pleasure, for man, is not a luxury, but a profound psychological need. Pleasure (in the widest sense of the term) is a metaphysical concomitant of life, the reward and consequence of successful action — just as pain is the insignia of failure, destruction, death. . . . The state of enjoyment gives [man] a direct experience of his own efficacy, of his competence to deal with the facts of reality, to achieve his values, to live. . . . As pleasure emotionally entails a sense of efficacy, so pain emotionally entails a sense of impotence. In letting man experience, in his own person, the sense that life is a value and that he is a value, pleasure serves as the emotional fuel of man’s existence.”
Where — in today’s culture — can a man find any values or any meaningful pleasure?
If a man holds a rational, or even semi-rational, view of life, where can he find any confirmation of it, any inspiring or encouraging phenomena?
A chronic lack of pleasure, of any enjoyable, rewarding or stimulating experiences, produces a slow, gradual, day-by-day erosion of man’s emotional vitality, which he may ignore or repress, but which is recorded by the relentless computer of his subconscious mechanism that registers an ebbing flow, then a trickle, then a few last drops of fuel — until the day when his inner motor stops and he wonders desperately why he has no desire to go on, unable to find any definable cause of his hopeless, chronic sense of exhaustion.
Yes, there are a few giants of spiritual self-sufficiency who can withstand even this. But this is too much to ask or to expect of most people, who are unable to generate and to maintain their own emotional fuel — their love of life — in the midst of a dead planet or a dead culture. And it is not an accident that this is the kind of agony — death by value-strangulation — that a culture dominated by alleged humanitarians imposes on the millions of men who need its help.
A peculiarity of certain types of asphyxiation — such as death from carbon monoxide — is that the victims do not notice it: the fumes leave them no awareness of their need of fresh air. The specific symptom of value-deprivation is a gradual lowering of one’s expectations. We have already absorbed so much of our cultural fumes that we take the constant pressure of irrationality, injustice, corruption and hooligan tactics for granted, as if nothing better could be expected of life. It is only in the privacy of their own mind that men scream in protest at times — and promptly stifle the scream as “unrealistic” or “impractical.” The man to whom values have no reality any longer — the man or the society that regards the pursuit of values, of the good, as impractical — is finished psychologically.
If, subconsciously, incoherently, inarticulately, men are still struggling for a breath of fresh air — where would they find it in today’s cultural atmosphere?
The foundation of any culture, the source responsible for all of its manifestations, is its philosophy. What does modern philosophy offer us? Virtually the only point of agreement among today’s leading philosophers is that there is no such thing as philosophy — and that this knowledge constitutes their claim to the title of philosophers. With a hysterical virulence, strange in advocates of skepticism, they insist that there can be no valid philosophical systems (i.e., there can be no integrated, consistent, comprehensive view of existence) — that there are no answers to fundamental questions — there is no such thing as truth — there is no such thing as reason, and the battle is only over what should replace it: “linguistic games” or unbridled feelings?
An excellent summary of the state of modern philosophy was offered in Time (January 7, 1966).
Philosophy dead? It often seems so. In a world of war and change, of principles armed with bombs and technology searching for principles, the alarming thing is not what philosophers say but what they fail to say. When reason is overturned, blind passions are rampant, and urgent questions mount, men turn for guidance to . . . almost anyone except their traditional guide, the philosopher. . . . Contemporary philosophy looks inward at its own problems rather than outward at men, and philosophizes about philosophy, not about life.
For both movements [the analytic and the existentialist], a question such as ‘What is truth?’ becomes impossible to answer. The logical positivist would say that a particular statement of fact can be declared true or false by empirical evidence; anything else is meaningless. A language philosopher would content himself with analyzing all the ways the word true can be used. The existentialist would emphasize what is true for a person in a particular situation.
What, then, are modern philosophers busy doing? “Laymen glancing at the June 10, 1965, issue of the Journal of Philosophy will find a brace of learned analysts discussing whether the sentence ‘There are brown things and there are cows’ is best expressed by the formula (Ǝx) Exw • (Ǝx) Exy or by (Ǝx) Bx • (Ǝx) Cx.”
If, in spite of this, someone might still hope to find something of value in modern philosophy, he will be told off explicitly.
A great many of his colleagues in the U.S. today would agree with Donald Kalish, chairman of the philosophy department at U.C.L.A., who says: “There is no system of philosophy to spin out. There are no ethical truths, there are just clarifications of particular ethical problems. Take advantage of these clarifications and work out your own existence. You are mistaken to think anyone ever had the answers. There are no answers. Be brave and face up to it.”
This means that to look for ethical truths (for moral principles or values) is to be a coward — and that bravery consists of dispensing with ethics, truth, values, and of acting like a drunken driver or like the mobs that riot in the streets of the cities throughout the world.
If men seek guidance, the very motive that draws them to philosophy — the desire to understand — makes them give it up. And, along with philosophy, a man gives up the ambitious eagerness of his mind, the quest for knowledge, the cleanliness of certainty. He shrinks the range of his vision, lowers his expectations and his eyes, and moves on, watching the small square of his immediate steps, never raising his head again. He had looked for intellectual values; the emotion of contempt and revulsion was all he found.
If anyone attempts to turn from philosophy to religion, he will find the situation still worse. When religious leaders form a new movement under a slogan such as “God is dead,” there is no lower place to go in terms of cynical obfuscation.
“Theologian Calls ‘God-Talk’ Irrelevant,” announces a headline in The New York Times of November 21, 1965. What sort of talk is relevant is not made clear in the accompanying story which is closer to double-talk than to any other linguistic category — as may be judged from the following quotations: “Even if there once was a God, they say, He is no longer part of human experience, and hence ‘God-talk’ is both meaningless and irrelevant in the contemporary situation.” And: “The function of religion is not to overcome the realities of evil, hopelessness and anguish with an apocalyptic vision, but to equip people to live with these problems and to share them through the religious community.”
Does this mean: not to oppose, not to resist, but to share “evil, hopelessness and anguish”? Your guess is as good as mine.
From a report on a television discussion in Denver, Colorado, I gather that one member of this movement has made its goal and meaning a little clearer. “God,” he said, “is a process of creative social intercourse.”
This, I submit, is obscene. I, who am an atheist, am shocked by so brazen an attempt to rob religion of whatever dignity and philosophical intention it might once have possessed. I am shocked by so cynically enormous a degree of contempt for the intelligence and the sensibility of people, specifically of those intended to be taken in by the switch.
Now, if men give up all abstract speculation and turn to the immediate conditions of their existence — to the realm of politics — what values or moral inspiration will they find?
There is a popular saying that alcohol and gasoline don’t mix. Morality and cynicism are as deadly a mixture. But a political system that mixes freedom and controls will try to mix anything — with the same kind of results on the dark roads of men’s spirit.
On the one hand, we are drenched in the slick, stale, sticky platitudes of altruism, an overripe altruism running amok, pouring money, blood, and slogans about global welfare, which everyone drips and no one hears any longer, since monotony — in moral, as well as sensory, deprivation — deadens perception. On the other hand, we all know and say and read in the same newspapers that all these welfare projects are merely a cynical power game, the game of buying votes with public funds, of paying off “election debts” to pressure groups, and of creating new pressure groups to pay off since the sole purpose of political power, people tacitly believe, is to keep oneself in power, and the sole recourse of the citizens is to gang up on one another and maneuver for who’ll get sacrificed to whom.
The first makes the second possible: altruism gives people an excuse to put up with it. Altruism serves as the veneer — a fading, cracking, peeling veneer — to hide from themselves the terror of their actual belief: that there are no moral principles, that morality is impotent to affect the course of their existence, that they are blind brutes caught in a charnel house and doomed to destruction.
No one believes the political proclamations of our day; no one opposes them. There is no public policy, no ideology, no goals, no convictions, no moral fire, no crusading spirit — nothing but the quiet panic of clinging to the status quo, with the dread of looking back to check the start of the road, with terror of looking ahead to check its end, and with a leadership whose range of vision is shrinking down to the public poll the day after tomorrow’s television appearance.
Promises? “Don’t remind us of promises, that was yesterday, it’s too late.” Results? “Don’t expect results, it’s too soon.” Costs? “Don’t think in terms of old-fashioned economics — the more we spend, the richer we’ll get.” Principles? “Don’t think in terms of old-fashioned labels — we’ve got a consensus.” The future? “Don’t think.”
Whatever public images President Johnson may project, a moral crusader is not one of them. This lends special significance — and a typical whiff of today’s cultural atmosphere — to a column entitled “President Johnson’s Dreams” by James Reston, in The New York Times (February 25, 1966).
Though his reach may exceed his grasp, it has to be said for him that he is a yearner after great ideals. . . . He makes the New Deal seem like a grudging handout. . . . Nothing is beyond his aspirations. Roosevelt’s Vice President, Henry Wallace, was condemned as a visionary because he wanted to give every Hottentot a quart of milk. Humphrey came back talking as if he wanted to send them all to college, and the President’s message in New York was that the Four Freedoms can never be secure in America if they are violated elsewhere in the world. This is not mere speechmaking to Lyndon Johnson. . . . He remains a believer in an unbelieving and cynical world. . . . He is out to eliminate poverty in America. Without any doubt, he feels he can bring adequate education to the multitude, and his confidence goes beyond the boundaries of the nation. Never mind that the British and the French let him know this week that they were reducing their commitments in the world; he sees a combination of American power and generosity dealing somehow with the problem. Has Malthus become as great a menace as Marx? Are the death rate and the birth rate too high? He has programs for them all . . . He looked troubled and sounded harried in New York, and no wonder, for he is bearing all the dreams and lost causes of the century.
Ask yourself: what is the moral and intellectual state of a nation that gives a blank check on its wealth, its work, its efforts, its lives to a “yearner” and “dreamer,” to spend on lost causes?
Can anyone feel morally inspired to live and work for such a purpose?
Can anyone preserve any values by looking at anything today? If a man who earns his living hears constant denunciations of his “selfish greed” and then, as a moral example, is offered the spectacle of the War on Poverty — which fills the newspapers with allegations of political favoritism, intrigues, maneuvering, corruption among its “selfless” administrators — what will happen to his sense of honesty? If a young man struggles sixteen hours a day to work his way through school, and then has to pay taxes to help the dropouts from the dropout programs — what will happen to his ambition? If a man saves for years to build a home, which is then seized by the profiteers of Urban Renewal because their profits are “in the public interest,” but his are not — what will happen to his sense of justice? If a miserable little private holdup man is hauled off to jail, but when the government forces men into a gang big enough to be called a union and they hold up New York City, they get away with it — what will happen to the public’s respect for the law?
Can anyone wish to give his life to defend the rights of South Vietnam — when the rights of Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Albania, East Germany, North Korea, Katanga, Cuba, and Hungary were not defended? Can anyone wish to uphold the honor of our treaty obligations in South Vietnam when it was not upheld on the construction site of the wall in Berlin? Can anyone acquire intellectual integrity by observing that it is the collectivists who take a moral stand against the draft, in defense of individual rights — while the so-called “conservatives” insist that young men must be drafted and sent to die in jungle swamps, in order that the South Vietnamese may hold a “democratic” election and vote themselves into communism, if they so choose?
The next time you hear about a crazed gang of juvenile delinquents, don’t look for such explanations as “slum childhood,” “economic underprivilege,” or “parental neglect.” Look at the moral atmosphere of the country, at the example set by their elders and by their public leaders.
Today, the very motive that arouses men’s interest in politics — their sense of responsibility — makes them give it up. And along with politics a man gives up his good will toward people, his benevolence, his openness, his fairness. He withdraws into the small, tight, windowless cellar of his range-of-the-moment concerns, shrinking from any human contact, convinced that the rule of the game is to kill or be killed and that the only action possible to him is to defend himself against every passerby. He had looked for social values; the emotion of contempt and revulsion was all he found.
In the decadent eras of history, in the periods when human hopes and values were collapsing, there was, as a rule, one realm to which men could turn for support, to preserve their image of man, their vision of life’s better possibilities, and their courage. That realm was art.
Let us take a look at the art of our age.
While preparing this discussion, I picked up at random the Sunday Book Review section of The New York Times of March 20, 1966. I shall quote from the three leading reviews of current fiction.
1. “In his new book, it is as if [the author] has taken hold of his flaws, weaknesses, errors, and indulgences, and instead of dealing strictly with them, has made them the subject of his esthetic intention. The scatology has hit the fan. When homosexual camp has become a cliché, he tries to make it new by poking it at the reader from every direction. . . . There are floating neon images of decay, corruption, putrefaction, illness.” This is not a negative review, but an admiringly reproachful one: the reviewer does not like this particular novel, but he extols the author’s talent and urges him to do better. As he puts it: “Give us this day our daily horror, agreed; but carry through on your promises.”
2. The second review is of the same order: respectfully admiring toward the author, but critical of the particular novel under discussion. “It’s hard, bright, and as cold as a block of ice. Gratuitous evil, upholstered innocence, and insane social arrangements condemn [the author’s] characters to frightful violence. They must do or be done to. Under sentence, they move inexorably toward futility and destruction. . . . Three people are murdered during a wave of private crime in the West Indies. One of the murderers earns $100,000. The chief engineer of the bizarre electrochemical derangement of two of the prey collects a lifetime of compensation for a lousy childhood. The victims burn up, get shot or pushed down a thousand-foot ravine. It’s a total dark victory. One can infer positive values only by their absence. The author’s own attitude is as antimoral as a tombstone.”
3. The third review is enthusiastic about a novel which it describes as “remarkable as a rare instance of pornography sublimed to purest art.” The content of the novel is indicated as follows: “The story gradually opens out into a Daedalian maze of perverse relationships — a clandestine society of sinister formality and elegance where the primary bond is mutual complicity in dedication to the pleasures of sadism and masochism. [The heroine] is initiated into this world by her lover, who one day takes her to a secluded mansion where she is trained through the discipline of chains and whip to be totally submissive to the men who are her masters. . . . During her subsequent progress, she is subjected to every sort of sexual debasement and torture, only to be returned in the penultimate stage of her education to a still more brutal institution, a ‘gynaceum’ where she not only endures the cruelest torments but begins to fulfill the sadistic lesbian underside of her own nature.” The theme of this book, according to the reviewer, is: “a perversion of the Christian mystery of exaltation through debasement, of the extremity of suffering transformed into an ultimate victory over the limitations of being.”
If one turns from that muck to the visual arts, one finds the same sewer in somewhat different forms. To the extent that they communicate anything at all, the visual arts are ruled by a single principle: distortion. Distortion of perspective, of space, of shape, of color, and, above all, of the human figure. We are surrounded by images of distorted, dismembered, disintegrated human bodies — such as might be drawn by a retarded five-year-old — and they pursue us everywhere: on subway ads, in fashion magazines, in TV commercials, or suspended on chains over our heads in fashionable concert halls.
There is also the nonrepresentational — or Rorschach — school of art, consisting of blobs, swirls, and smears which are and aren’t, which are anything you might want them to be provided you stare at them long enough, keeping your eyes and mind out of focus. Provided also you forget that the Rorschach test was devised to detect mental illness.
If one were to look for the purpose of that sort of stuff, the kindest thing to say would be that the purpose is to take in the suckers and provide a field day for pretentious mediocrities. But if one looked deeper, one would find something much worse: the attempt to make you doubt the evidence of your senses and the sanity of your mind.
Art is a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist’s metaphysical value judgments. Observe what image of man, of life and of reality modern art infects people with — particularly the young whose first access to a broad view of existence and first source of values lie in the realm of art.
Today, the very motive that draws a man to art — the quest for enjoyment — makes him run from it for his life. He runs to the gray, sunless, meaningless drudgery of his daily routine, with nothing to relieve it, nothing to expect or to enjoy. And he soon stops asking the tortured question: “Is there anything to see tonight? Is there anything to read?” Along with art, he gives up his vision of values and forgets that he had ever hoped to find or to achieve them.
He had looked for inspiration. Contempt and revulsion were not the only emotions he found, but also horror, indignation, and such a degree of boredom and loathing that anything is preferable to it — including the brutalizing emptiness of an existence devoid of any longing for values.
If you wonder what is wrong with people today, consider the fact that no laboratory experiment could ever reproduce so thorough a state of value-deprivation.
The consequences take many forms. Here is some of the evidence.
A survey in The New York Times (March 21, 1966) quotes some observers who estimate that forty to fifty percent of college students are drug addicts, then adds:
Actually, no one knows, even approximately, how many students take drugs. But everyone agrees that the number is rising, that it has been for several years and that no one is quite sure what to do about it. . . .
The drug takers are majoring in the humanities or social sciences, with more in English than any other subject. There are fewer consistent users in the sciences or in the professional schools. . . .
[The drug takers] are vaguely leftist, disenchanted with American policies in Vietnam, agitated because there are Negro ghettos and bored with conventional politics. They do not join the Peace Corps, which, a student at Penn State said, “is for Boy Scouts.”
Their fathers, more often than not, are professional men or white-collar executives. They are not deprived. A California psychiatrist says that the children of television writers in Hollywood use drugs more than any other group. . . .
The LSD users speak of dissolving the ego, meeting the naked self, finding a truly religious experience, and being so terribly honest with themselves that they know that all about them is sham. . . .
Why do they increasingly drop out of school and join the LSD cult, there to contemplate nature, induce periodic insanity, and pursue a philosophy that is a curious mélange of Zen, Aldous Huxley, existentialism, and leftover Orientalism? Dr. John D. Walmer, director of the mental health clinic at Penn State, suggests that “for people who are chronically unhappy drugs bring some relief from a world without purpose.” George H. Gaffney, deputy commissioner of narcotics, says students take drugs because “of the growing disrespect for authority, because some professors just don’t care to set any kind of moral influence and because of the growing beatnik influence.” Dr. Harvey Powleson, director of the psychiatric clinic at the Berkeley campus of the University of California, notes “a connection toward mystical movements in general.” . . .
A boy at San Francisco State may have spoken for his generation when he said he smoked marijuana and used LSD “because there is just no reason not to.” He was absolutely sure that this was so.
Who — in today’s culture — would have given him any valid reason to think otherwise?
Here is another aspect of the same phenomenon (The New York Times, December 29, 1964):
The number of adolescent suicides and suicide attempts is a source of alarm to an increasing number of educators, doctors, and parents. Princeton added a second full-time psychiatrist to its health services this fall; other schools are expanding existing services; at Columbia University the number of students seeking professional help has tripled in the last ten years. . . .
Surprisingly, Cornell doctors found that the student-patient who achieved the highest marks was the one most likely to do away with himself. Nonsuicidal students, on the other hand, were often doing poorly in their academic work. The bright students too often demanded far more of themselves than either their professors or the university.
Is it a matter of what the bright students demanded of themselves — or of life? A much more likely explanation is that the better the student, the more of today’s intellectual poison he had absorbed; being intelligent, he saw too clearly what sort of existence awaited him and, being too young to find an antidote, he could not stand the prospect.
When a culture is dedicated to the destruction of values — of all values, of values as such — men’s psychological destruction has to follow.
We hear it said that this is merely a period of transition, confusion, and growth, and that the leaders of today’s intellectual trends are groping for new values. But here is what makes their motives suspect. When the scientists of the Renaissance concluded that certain pseudo-sciences of the Middle Ages were invalid, they did not attempt to take them over and ride on their prestige; the chemists did not call themselves alchemists, the astronomers did not call themselves astrologers. But modern philosophers proclaim themselves to be philosophers while struggling to invalidate the essence of philosophy: the study of the fundamental, universal principles of existence. When men like Auguste Comte or Karl Marx decided to substitute society for God, they had the good grace not to call themselves theologians. When the esthetic innovators of the nineteenth century created a new literary form, they called it a “novel,” not an “anti-poem” — unlike the pretentious mediocrities of today who write “anti-novels.” When decorative artists began to design textiles and linoleums, they did not hang them up in frames on walls or entitle them “a representation of pure emotion.”
The exponents of modern movements do not seek to convert you to their values — they haven’t any — but to destroy yours. Nihilism and destruction are the almost explicit goals of today’s trends — and the horror is that these trends move on, unopposed.
Who is to blame? All those who are afraid to speak. All those who are still able to know better, but who are willing to temporize, to compromise, and thus to sanction an evil of that magnitude. All those intellectual leaders who are afraid to break with today’s culture, while knowing that it has rotted to the core — who are afraid to check, challenge, and reject its basic premises, while knowing that they are seeing the ultimate results — who are afraid to step out of the “mainstream,” while knowing that it is running with blood — who cringe, evade, and back away from the advance of screeching, bearded, drugged barbarians.
Now you may logically want to ask me the question: What is the solution and the antidote? But to this question, I have given an answer — at length — elsewhere. The answer lies outside today’s cultural “mainstream.” Its name is Objectivism.