This essay was originally published in March 1973 in The Ayn Rand Letter and later anthologized in Philosophy: Who Needs It (1982).
“God grant me the serenity to accept things I cannot change, courage to change things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”
This remarkable statement is attributed to a theologian with whose ideas I disagree in every fundamental respect: Reinhold Niebuhr. But — omitting the form of a prayer, i.e., the implication that one’s mental-emotional states are a gift from God — that statement is profoundly true, as a summary and a guideline: it names the mental attitude which a rational man must seek to achieve. The statement is beautiful in its eloquent simplicity; but the achievement of that attitude involves philosophy’s deepest metaphysical-moral issues.
Most men spend their lives in futile rebellion against things they cannot change, in passive resignation to things they can, and — never attempting to learn the difference — in chronic guilt and self-doubt on both counts.
Observe what philosophical premises are implicit in that advice and are required for an attempt to live up to it. If there are things that man can change, it means that he possesses the power of choice, i.e., the faculty of volition. If he does not possess it, he can change nothing, including his own actions and characteristics, such as courage or lack of it. If there are things that man cannot change, it means that there are things that cannot be affected by his actions and are not open to his choice. This leads to the basic metaphysical issue that lies at the root of any system of philosophy: the primacy of existence or the primacy of consciousness.
The primacy of existence (of reality) is the axiom that existence exists, i.e., that the universe exists independent of consciousness (of any consciousness), that things are what they are, that they possess a specific nature, an identity. The epistemological corollary is the axiom that consciousness is the faculty of perceiving that which exists — and that man gains knowledge of reality by looking outward. The rejection of these axioms represents a reversal: the primacy of consciousness — the notion that the universe has no independent existence, that it is the product of a consciousness (either human or divine or both). The epistemological corollary is the notion that man gains knowledge of reality by looking inward (either at his own consciousness or at the revelations it receives from another, superior consciousness).
To grasp the axiom that existence exists, means to grasp the fact that nature, i.e., the universe as a whole, cannot be created or annihilated, that it cannot come into or go out of existence. Whether its basic constituent elements are atoms, or subatomic particles, or some yet undiscovered forms of energy, it is not ruled by a consciousness or by will or by chance, but by the Law of Identity. All the countless forms, motions, combinations and dissolutions of elements within the universe — from a floating speck of dust to the formation of a galaxy to the emergence of life — are caused and determined by the identities of the elements involved. Nature is the metaphysically given — i.e., the nature of nature is outside the power of any volition.
Man’s volition is an attribute of his consciousness (of his rational faculty) and consists in the choice to perceive existence or to evade it. To perceive existence, to discover the characteristics or properties (the identities) of the things that exist, means to discover and accept the metaphysically given. Only on the basis of this knowledge is man able to learn how the things given in nature can be rearranged to serve his needs (which is his method of survival).
The power to rearrange the combinations of natural elements is the only creative power man possesses. It is an enormous and glorious power — and it is the only meaning of the concept “creative.” “Creation” does not (and metaphysically cannot) mean the power to bring something into existence out of nothing. “Creation” means the power to bring into existence an arrangement (or combination or integration) of natural elements that had not existed before. (This is true of any human product, scientific or esthetic: man’s imagination is nothing more than the ability to rearrange the things he has observed in reality.) The best and briefest identification of man’s power in regard to nature is Francis Bacon’s “Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed.” In this context, “to be commanded” means to be made to serve man’s purposes; “to be obeyed” means that they cannot be served unless man discovers the properties of natural elements and uses them accordingly.
For example, two hundred years ago, men would have said that it is impossible to hear a human voice at a distance of 238,000 miles. It is as impossible today as it was then. But if we are able to hear an astronaut’s voice coming from the moon, it is by means of the science of electronics, which discovered certain natural phenomena and enabled men to build the kind of equipment that picks up the vibrations of that voice, transmits them, and reproduces them on earth. Without this knowledge and this equipment, centuries of wishing, praying, screaming and foot-stamping would not make a man’s voice heard at the distance of ten miles.
Today, this is (implicitly) understood and (more or less) accepted in regard to the physical sciences (hence their progress). It is neither understood nor accepted — and is, in fact, vociferously denied — in regard to the humanities, the sciences dealing with man (hence their stagnant barbarism). Almost unanimously, man is regarded as an unnatural phenomenon: either as a supernatural entity, whose mystic (divine) endowment, the mind (“soul”), is above nature — or as a subnatural entity, whose mystic (demoniacal) endowment, the mind, is an enemy of nature (“ecology”). The purpose of all such theories is to exempt man from the Law of Identity.
But man exists and his mind exists. Both are part of nature, both possess a specific identity. The attribute of volition does not contradict the fact of identity, just as the existence of living organisms does not contradict the existence of inanimate matter. Living organisms possess the power of self-initiated motion, which inanimate matter does not possess; man’s consciousness possesses the power of self-initiated motion in the realm of cognition (thinking), which the consciousnesses of other living species do not possess. But just as animals are able to move only in accordance with the nature of their bodies, so man is able to initiate and direct his mental action only in accordance with the nature (the identity) of his consciousness. His volition is limited to his cognitive processes; he has the power to identify (and to conceive of rearranging) the elements of reality, but not the power to alter them. He has the power to use his cognitive faculty as its nature requires, but not the power to alter it nor to escape the consequences of its misuse. He has the power to suspend, evade, corrupt or subvert his perception of reality, but not the power to escape the existential and psychological disasters that follow. (The use or misuse of his cognitive faculty determines a man’s choice of values, which determine his emotions and his character. It is in this sense that man is a being of self-made soul.)
Man’s faculty of volition as such is not a contradiction of nature, but it opens the way for a host of contradictions — when and if men do not grasp the crucial difference between the metaphysically given and any object, institution, procedure, or rule of conduct made by man.
The metaphysically given cannot be true or false, it simply is — and man determines the truth or falsehood of his judgments by whether they correspond to or contradict the facts of reality. The metaphysically given cannot be right or wrong — it is the standard of right or wrong, by which a (rational) man judges his goals, his values, his choices. The metaphysically given is, was, will be, and had to be. Nothing made by man had to be: it was made by choice.
To rebel against the metaphysically given is to engage in a futile attempt to negate existence. To accept the man-made as beyond challenge is to engage in a successful attempt to negate one’s own consciousness. Serenity comes from the ability to say “Yes” to existence. Courage comes from the ability to say “No” to the wrong choices made by others.
Any natural phenomenon, i.e., any event which occurs without human participation, is the metaphysically given, and could not have occurred differently or failed to occur; any phenomenon involving human action is the man-made, and could have been different. For example, a flood occurring in an uninhabited land, is the metaphysically given; a dam built to contain the flood water, is the man-made; if the builders miscalculate and the dam breaks, the disaster is metaphysical in its origin, but intensified by man in its consequences. To correct the situation, men must obey nature by studying the causes and potentialities of the flood, then command nature by building better flood controls.
But to declare that all of man’s efforts to improve the conditions of his existence are futile, to declare that nature is unknowable because we cannot prove that there will be a flood next year, even though there has been one every year in memory, to declare that human knowledge is an illusion because the original dam builders were certain that the dam would hold, but it did not — is to drive men back to the primordial confusion on the relationship of consciousness to existence, and thus to rob men of serenity and courage (as well as of many other things). Yet this is what modern philosophy has been declaring for two hundred years or longer.
Observe that the philosophical system based on the axiom of the primacy of existence (i.e., on recognizing the absolutism of reality) led to the recognition of man’s identity and rights. But the philosophical systems based on the primacy of consciousness (i.e., on the seemingly megalomaniacal notion that nature is whatever man wants it to be) lead to the view that man possesses no identity, that he is infinitely flexible, malleable, usable and disposable. Ask yourself why.
A major part of the philosophers’ attack on man’s mind is devoted to attempts to obliterate the difference between the metaphysically given and the man-made. The confusion on this issue started as an ancient error (to which even Aristotle contributed in some of his Platonist aspects); but today it is running deliberately and inexcusably wild.
A typical package-deal, used by professors of philosophy, runs as follows: to prove the assertion that there is no such thing as “necessity” in the universe, a professor declares that just as this country did not have to have fifty states, there could have been forty-eight or fifty-two — so the solar system did not have to have nine planets, there could have been seven or eleven. It is not sufficient, he declares, to prove that something is, one must also prove that it had to be — and since nothing had to be, nothing is certain and anything goes.
The technique of undercutting man’s mind consists in palming off the man-made as if it were the metaphysically given, then ascribing to nature the concepts that refer only to men’s lack of knowledge, such as “chance” or “contingency,” then reversing the two elements of the package-deal. From the assertion: “Man is unpredictable, therefore nature is unpredictable,” the argument goes to: “Nature possesses volition, man does not — nature is free, man is ruled by unknowable forces — nature is not to be conquered, man is.”
Most people believe that an issue of this kind is empty academic talk, of no practical significance to anyone — which blinds them to its consequences in their own lives. If one were to tell them that the package-deal made of this issue is part of the nagging uncertainty, the quiet hopelessness, the gray despair of their daily inner state, they would deny it: they would not recognize it introspectively. But the inability to introspect is one of the consequences of this package-deal.
Most men have no knowledge of the nature or the functioning of a human consciousness and, consequently, no knowledge of what is or is not possible to them, what one can or cannot demand of oneself and of others, what is or is not one’s fault. On the implicit premise that consciousness has no identity, men alternate between the feeling that they possess some sort of omnipotent power over their consciousness and can abuse it with impunity (“It doesn’t matter, it’s only in my mind”) — and the feeling that they have no choice, no control, that the content of consciousness is innately predetermined, that they are victims of the impenetrable mystery inside their own skulls, prisoners of an unknowable enemy, helpless automatons driven by inexplicable emotions (“I can’t help it, that’s the way I am”).
Many men are crippled by the influence of this uncertainty. When such a man considers a goal or desire he wants to achieve, the first question in his mind is: “Can I do it?” — not: “What is required to do it?” His question means: “Do I have the innate ability?” For example: “I want to be a composer more than anything else on earth, but I have no idea of how it’s done. Do I have that mysterious gift which will do it for me, somehow?” He has never heard of a premise such as the primacy of consciousness, but that is the premise moving him as he embarks on a hopeless search through the dark labyrinth of his consciousness (hopeless, because without reference to existence, nothing can be learned about one’s consciousness).
If he does not give up his desire right then, he stumbles uncertainly to attempt to achieve it. Any small success augments his anxiety: he does not know what caused it and whether he can repeat it. Any small failure is a crushing blow: he takes it as proof that he lacks the mystic endowment. When he makes a mistake, he does not ask himself: “What do I need to learn?” — he asks: “What’s wrong with me?” He waits for an automatic and omnipotent inspiration, which never comes. He spends years on a cheerless struggle, with his eyes focused inward, on the growing, leering monster of self-doubt, while existence drifts by, unseen, on the periphery of his mental vision. Eventually, he gives up.
Substitute for “composer” any other profession, goal or desire — to be a scientist, a businessman, a reporter or a headwaiter, to get rich, to find friends, to lose weight — and the pattern remains the same. Some of the pattern’s victims are phonies, but not all. It is impossible to tell what amount of authentic intelligence, particularly in the arts, has been hampered, stunted or crushed by the myth of “innate endowment.”
Unable to determine what they can or cannot change, some men attempt to “rewrite reality,” i.e., to alter the nature of the metaphysically given. Some dream of a universe in which man experiences nothing but happiness — no pain, no frustration, no illness — and wonder why they lose the desire to improve their life on earth.
Some men switch to others (who were helpless in the matter) the blame for their own actions; some men, who were helpless in the matter, accept the blame for the actions of others. Some feel guilty because they do not know what they have no way of knowing. Some feel guilty for not having known yesterday what they have learned today. Some feel guilty for not being able to convert the whole world to their own ideas effortlessly and overnight.
The question of how to deal with nature is partially understood, at least by some people; but the question of how to deal with men and how to judge them is still in the state of a primeval jungle. It is man’s faculty of volition that sets him apart (even in the eyes of those who deny the existence of that faculty), and makes men regard themselves and others as unintelligible, unknowable, exempt from the Law of Identity.
But nothing is exempt from the Law of Identity. A man-made product did not have to exist, but, once made, it does exist. A man’s actions did not have to be performed, but, once performed, they are facts of reality. The same is true of a man’s character: he did not have to make the choices he made, but, once he has formed his character, it is a fact, and it is his personal identity. (Man’s volition gives him great, but not unlimited, latitude to change his character; if he does, the change becomes a fact.)
Things of human origin (whether physical or psychological) may be designated as “man-made facts” — as distinguished from the metaphysically given facts. A skyscraper is a man-made fact, a mountain is a metaphysically given fact. One can alter a skyscraper or blow it up (just as one can alter or blow up a mountain), but so long as it exists, one cannot pretend that it is not there or that it is not what it is. The same principle applies to men’s actions and character. A man does not have to be a worthless scoundrel, but so long as he chooses to be, he is a worthless scoundrel and must be treated accordingly; to treat him otherwise is to contradict a fact. A man does not have to be a heroic achiever; but so long as he chooses to be, he is a heroic achiever and must be treated accordingly; to treat him otherwise is to contradict a fact. Men did not have to build a skyscraper; but, once they did, it is worse than a contradiction to regard a skyscraper as a mountain, as a metaphysically given fact which, on this view, “just happened to happen.”
The faculty of volition gives man a special status in two crucial respects: 1. unlike the metaphysically given, man’s products, whether material or intellectual, are not to be accepted uncritically — and 2. by its metaphysically given nature, a man’s volition is outside the power of other men. What the unalterable basic constituents are to nature, the attribute of a volitional consciousness is to the entity “man.” Nothing can force a man to think. Others may offer him incentives or impediments, rewards or punishments, they may destroy his brain by drugs or by the blow of a club, but they cannot order his mind to function: this is in his exclusive, sovereign power. Man is neither to be obeyed nor to be commanded.
What has to be “obeyed” is man’s metaphysically given nature — in the sense in which one “obeys” the nature of all existents; this means, in man’s case, that one must recognize the fact that his mind is not to be “commanded” in any sense, including the sense applicable to the rest of nature. Natural objects can be reshaped to serve men’s goals and are to be regarded as means to men’s ends, but man himself cannot and is not.
In regard to nature, “to accept what I cannot change” means to accept the metaphysically given; “to change what I can” means to strive to rearrange the given by acquiring knowledge — as science and technology (e.g., medicine) are doing; “to know the difference” means to know that one cannot rebel against nature and, when no action is possible, one must accept nature serenely.
In regard to man, “to accept” does not mean to agree, and “to change” does not mean to force. What one must accept is the fact that the minds of other men are not in one’s power, as one’s own mind is not in theirs; one must accept their right to make their own choices, and one must agree or disagree, accept or reject, join or oppose them, as one’s mind dictates. The only means of “changing” men is the same as the means of “changing” nature: knowledge — which, in regard to men, is to be used as a process of persuasion, when and if their minds are active; when they are not, one must leave them to the consequences of their own errors. “To know the difference” means that one must never accept man-made evils (there are no others) in silent resignation, one must never submit to them voluntarily — and even if one is imprisoned in some ghastly dictatorship’s jail, where no action is possible, serenity comes from the knowledge that one does not accept it.
To deal with men by force is as impractical as to deal with nature by persuasion — which is the policy of savages, who rule men by force and plead with nature by prayers, incantations and bribes (sacrifices). It does not work and has not worked in any human society in history. Yet this is the policy to which modern philosophers are urging mankind to revert — as they have reverted to the notion of the primacy of consciousness. They urge a passive, mystic, “ecological” submission to nature — and the rule of brute force for men.
Today, intelligence is neither recognized nor rewarded, but is being systematically extinguished in a growing flood of brazenly flaunted irrationality. As just one example of the extent to which today’s culture is dominated by the primacy of consciousness, observe the following: in politics, people hold a ruthless, absolutist, either-or attitude toward elections, they expect a man either to win or not and are concerned only with the winner, ignoring the loser altogether (even though, in some cases, the loser was right) — while in economics, in the realm of production, they evade the absolutism of reality, of the fact that a man either produces or not, and destroy the winners in favor of the losers. To them, men’s decisions are an absolute; reality’s demands are not.
The climax of that trend, the ultimate cashing-in on the package-deal of the metaphysical and the man-made, is the egalitarian movement and its philosophical manifesto, John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice. This obscenely evil theory proposes to subordinate man’s nature and mind to the desires (including the envy), not merely of the lowest human specimens, but of the lowest non-existents — to the emotions these would have felt before they were born — and requires that men make lifelong choices on the premise that they are all equally devoid of brains. The fact that a brain cannot project an alteration of its own nature and power, that a genius cannot project himself into the state of a moron, and vice versa, that the needs and desires of a genius and a moron are not identical, that a genius reduced to the existential level of a moron would perish in unspeakable agony, and a moron raised to the existential level of a genius would paint graffiti on the sides of a computer, then die of starvation — all this does not enter the skulls of men who have dispensed with the Law of Identity (and, therefore, with reality), who demand “equal results” regardless of unequal causes, and who propose to alter metaphysical facts by the power of whims and guns.
This is being preached, touted and demanded today. There can be no intellectual — or moral — neutrality on such an issue. The moral cowards who try to evade it by pleading ignorance, confusion or helplessness, who keep silent and avoid the battle, yet feel a growing sense of guilty terror over the question of what they can or cannot change, are paving the way for the egalitarians’ atrocities, and will end up like the derelicts whom Alcoholics Anonymous is struggling to help.
The least that any decent man can do today is to fight that book’s doctrine — to fight it intransigently on moral grounds. A proposal to annihilate intelligence by slow torture cannot be treated as a difference of civilized opinion.
If any man feels that the world is too complex and its evil is too big to cope with, let him remember that it is too big to drown in a glass of whiskey.