Category Archives: novels of ideas

Weston’s disease

Scientism dna
Scientism dna

I have discovered that there is a name for Weston’s “disease”: it is called scientism. From Wikipedia,

Scientism is the idea that natural science is the most authoritative worldview or aspect of human education, and that it is superior to all other interpretations of life.[1] The term is used by social scientists such as Friedrich Hayek,[2] or philosophers of science such as Karl Popper, to describe what they see as the underlying attitudes and beliefs common to many scientists, whereby the study and methods of natural science have risen to the level of ideology.[3] The classic statement of scientism is from the physicist Ernest Rutherford: “there is physics and there is stamp-collecting.”[4]

There it is: Weston’s disease, or evil is that for him, science has “risen to the level of ideology”. It is not a criticism of science, but of a few people who go to an extreme and take science into something that it is not – an ideology. For those who remember, this is similar to Lewis’ criticism of Darwinism. He was not criticising Darwinism itself but rather some of its crazy supporters. As this writer puts it,

C.S. Lewis (1898–1963), perhaps the most widely read Christian apologist of the 20th
century, was careful to distinguish between evolution as a theory in biology and Evolution as an idea that came to dominate the politics and religion of his time. He noted that decades before Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, poets and musicians had started proclaiming that humanity was inevitably evolving, onward and upward, to a glorious future    [ ]

This belief in the inevitable upward evolution of humanity, that human society and the world in general is always improving and can only improve, is what Lewis called “The Myth”. He grew up with it. He fought against it. Yet it still sings its siren song. Are we not also still in thrall to it today?

One of our members mentioned the word “hubris” last time in connection with Weston. Today I came across a blog entry titled, “Scientism, Secular Humanism, Hubris“, in which the writer how closely connected are these three ideas.

The Wikipedia entry on scientism points out how similar scientism is to a kind of religion:

The Persian scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr, commented that in the West, many will accept the ideology of modern science, not as “simple ordinary science”, but as a replacement for religion.

CS Lewis understood that scientism is a kind of competing religion. Unlike Lewis’ Christianity, however, scientism does not bring love, joy, power, peace, awe, wonder, admiration, poetry, to the human spirit. It is not a coincidence that in Perelandra the Un-Man takes Weston’s physical form. Ransom, who we might take to be Lewis himself, fights Weston, i.e. Christianity in the form of its present, living believers fights against scientism.

By the way, this blog entry calls Stephen Hawking the Grand High Priest of Scientism, mockingly identifying scientism as a religion.

The same blog entry points out the important consequences of scientism:

We have to tell our grandchildren that they have no soul, no higher purpose in life, that they are just a mix-up of chemicals.  They are not the gift of God, but rather, worthless trash destined to die in a dying universe. 

Ayn Rand took up arms against the very same beliefs, and for the same reason: she saw the terrible and terrifying consequences of these beliefs on the human spirit and mind, especially the minds of the young. And yet Rand was not a believer in any religion. In fact, she was very strongly anti-religious for the latter part of her life.

Till We Have Faces

I just finished reading C.S. Lewis‘ story Till We Have Faces. I found it very enjoyable.

I had thought it would be an allegory like The Pilgrim’s Regress, with lots of literary and classical allusions and references. I thought I would need to at least know the original story of Cupid and Psyche. However, I found that was not necessary. The best part was when Orual meets her sister Psyche once more, beyond all hope, in a secret valley; she can see Psyche, but she cannot see the palace she lives in. Why not? She does not want to. She sees that Psyche is happy, happier than she has ever been, but Orual does not allow herself to accept Psyche’s happiness. All she wants to know is, “Does Psyche still love me?” In other words, she is self-centred.

The most significant thing about Psyche, as far as the world is concerned, is her physical beauty. However, it is also mentioned that she was a happy person, without malice. When Orual meets Psyche in the secret valley, Psyche’s happiness and the power of that happiness, rather than her physical beauty, become clear to the reader. It also becomes clear that Orual is an unreliable narrator.

I found these lines particularly poignant:

I was too busy… What did I not do? … I did and I did and I did – and what does it matter what I did? I cared for all these things only as a man cares for a hunt or a game, which fills the mind and seems of some moment while it lasts, but then the beast’s killed or the king’s mated, and now who cares? It was so with me almost every evening of my life; one little stairway led me from feast or council, all the bustle and skill and glory of queenship, to my own chamber to be alone with myself – that is, with a nothingness. Going to bed and waking in the morning… were bad times – so many hundreds of evenings and mornings. Sometimes I wondered who or what sends us this senseless repetition of days and nights and seasons and years; is it not like hearing a stupid boy whistle the same tune over and over, till you wonder how he can bear it himself? (the end of chapter 20.)

Work can be a distraction from what is truly important. Does Orual busy herself with mundane tasks in order to avoid facing the truth? Is what she is busy doing the most important thing? If not, why does she keep doing them? What should she be making her top priority? The more one busies oneself with mundane tasks, the more important they seem; and the more difficult it becomes to stop doing them.

The Greek tutor perhaps represents rational thinking, human intelligence. He despises the pagan religion, the superstitious worship of the goddess Ungit, and the uncritical belief in Ungit by the common people of that land, and as he is made tutor of the King’s daughters, he teaches them his philosophy. He manages to make Orual hate the native, pagan religion, but is not able to persuade her that the religion is powerless or meaningless.

In one memorable scene, we see the Fox (the Greek tutor) pitted against the Head Priest of the Temple of Ungit, in the presence of the King and Orual. The Priest has come to tell the King that the drought, the famine, lions, and now some mysterious horror called “the Brute”, are because Ungit is angry, and must be propitiated

“Those who have seen [the Brute] closest can least say what it is like, King… Your own chief shepherd on the Grey Mountain saw it the night the first lion came. He fell upon the lion with a burning torch. And in the light of the torch he saw the Brute – behind the lion – very black and big, a terrible shape….”

“By the King’s permission,” said the Fox, “the shepherd’s tale is very questionable. If the man had a torch, of necessity the lion would have a big black shadow behind it. The man was scared and new waked from sleep. He took a shadow for a monster.”

“That is the wisdom of the Greeks,” said the Priest…. “We are hearing much Greek wisdom this morning, King… and I have heard most of it before. … It is very subtle. But it brings no rain and grows no corn; sacrifice does both. It does not even give them the boldness to die. That Greek there is your slave because in some battle he threw down his arms and let them bind his hands and lead him away and sell him, rather than take a spear-thrust in his heart. Much less does it give them understanding of holy things. They demand to see such things clearly, as if the gods were no more than letters written in a book… nothing that is said clearly can be said truly about [the gods]. Holy places are dark places. It is life and strength, not knowledge and words, that we get in them. Holy wisdom is not clear and thin like water, but thick and dark like blood.”

Later in the same scene, the angry King “had the point of the dagger through the Priest’s robes and into his skin. I have never… seen anything more wonderful than the Priest’s stillness… The Fox had taught me to think… of the Priest as of a mere schemer and a politic man who put into the mouth of Ungit whatever might most increase his own power and lands or most harm his enemies. I saw it was not so… The room was full of spirits, and the horror of holiness.”

Later, Psyche, who is to be sacrificed to Ungit, tells her sister Orual,“The Priest has been with me. I never knew him before. He is not what the Fox thinks. Do you know, Sister, I have come to feel more and more that the Fox hasn’t the whole truth. Oh, he has much of it. It’d be dark as a dungeon within me but for hist teaching. And yet… He calls the whole world a city. But what’s a city built on? There’s earth beneath. And outside the wall? Doesn’t all the food come from there as well as all the dangers? … things growing and rotting, strengthening and poisoning, things shining wet… in one way (I don’t know which way) more like, yes, even more like the House of [Ungit].”

Orual slowly becomes convinced that the Fox indeed does not know everything, wise though he is, and that the Priest knows of a deeper, stronger power. She believes that power is evil, “He thought there were no gods, or else (the fool!) that they were better than men. It never entered his mind – he was too good – to believe that the gods are real, and viler than the vilest men”; but Psyche is not so sure: “Or else thy are real gods but don’t really do these things. Or even – mightn’t it be – they do these things and the things are not what they seem to be. How if I am indeed to wed a god?” “Wed the god” is how Psyche’s sacrifice is called, although everyone believes this means in fact she will die, perhaps by being eaten by “the Brute”. In fact, Psyche is correct: the reality is more wonderful than anyone imagines, of a wonder that most people, including Orual, cannot conceive of or accept.

This story contains several themes that recur in many of C.S. Lewis’ stories:

  1. true joy comes from God
  2. human beings, as they are, are not ready to actually see God directly, or to experience the true joy
  3. God, in his kindness and wisdom, gives human beings chances to taste a little of the true joy, for example through art, or through friendship, or family love or romantic love
  4. the reality of God cannot be understood solely by intellect
  5. although human beings are not gods and are separated from God, nevertheless it is possible for them to see God or experience God
  6. most people are self-centred; they are thinking of themselves only; to see God or come closer to God, to experience true joy, one must stop thinking of oneself and think of others; this is not easy for anyone;
  7. however, in order to see God or experience God, they must first go through a transformation, as Psyche does and as, eventually, Orual does, too
  8. this transformation involves letting go of everything they hold dear, including their own life itself – they must trust God completely and not try to rely on their own efforts to obtain their own happiness
  9. that life itself offers us from time to time clues to the source of true joy
  10. that life itself offers opportunities for the transformation, for letting go completely and hence knowing (seeing, experiencing) God.

One of the key points of the Psyche and Cupid story is that Cupid fell in love with Psyche and built a palace for her, but he forbade her to see his face. This fits in with Lewis’ understanding of God, as expressed in points #2 and #6 above. We can now understand why Lewis changed the original story (by Apuleius): “The central alteration  in my own version consists in making Psyche’s palace invisible to normal, mortal eyes – if ‘making’ is not the wrong word for something which forced itself upon me, almost at my first reading of the story, as the way the things must have been.” (Note, hardback edition, Harcourt, Brace & Company, New York, 1956.) 

Related to the idea that Orual is not ready, psychologically, emotionally, spiritually, to see the god’s palace, is the idea of face. Orual is so ugly that she wears a veil over her face most of the time. When she meets Psyche in the secret valley the second time, she describes her as “so young, so brightface.”  “Brightface” is not a native English word. It is a made-up word, probably a literal translation of a Greek word or phrase. Much later in the story, Orual understands how she, and humans generally, use words believing that they are getting closer to the truth, but in fact they are often only building a wall, or repeating the same nonsensical things over and over. Orual herself kept in her heart for years her hatred, her complaint, her bitterness, and finally expressed it to the gods. However, her complaint had no end: if the gods had not told her shut up, she would have continued forever. Perhaps she felt that to express her complaint would bring her relief, but it did not, and never could. What she was looking for was relief, was true joy, but in order to experience that true relief and joy she would have to let go of her hurt, or her resentment, of her complaint, and also let go of her self and her self-centredness. When she meets Psyche again in the secret valley, she is more interested in whether Psyche still loves her than in finding out the source of Psyche’s happiness. In the second part of the book, she is forced to think about other people more than she has done before: about Bardia and Bardia’s wife; about her sister Redival; about her own father. She is accustomed to thinking of other people only in how they affect herself, but little by little she discovers how little she knew about those people. At one point, the Fox, her old tutor and advisor, tells her that the King is actually a little afraid of priests and women, and this astonishes Orual: she had never considered that possibility; in fact, she had never really considered the King, her father’s, real needs or feelings at all; she was only concerned with protecting herself against him. She is actually in his room where he lies dying, looking for a helmet to protect herself in her coming duel, when the King dies!

Lewis felt that myth was a vehicle for truth, a way to tell the truth in a way that people could understand more easily, more directly perhaps, than by simple straightforward exposition or explanation.

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Session #10: June 24th, 2009

Atlas Shrugged
Image by Rodrigo Paoletti via Flickr

In today’s session, we finished reading two extracts from Ayn Rand‘s 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged.

We continued discussion some of the issues Ayn Rand raises in that book: capitalism, free trade, individualism, the axiom of non-aggression, etc.

We read a few extracts from Rand’s 1974 address to the graduating students at West Point, “Philosophy: Who Needs It?” We also read a quote from John Maynard Keynes about the importance of philosophers in general and of economists in particular to influence the thinking of the ordinary citizen.

The next session (July 1st, 2009) will be about irony.

A criticism that is often made of Rand’s political philosophy, is that she championed the businessmen and industrialists, yet they are the ones (it is said) who created the present financial crisis. Some people assume this means Rand’s entire philosophy is therefore completely ridiculous and without merit.

Ayn Rand rarely gave credit to other philosophers or thinkers except Aristotle. However, she did inherit many ideas about libertarianism and free-market economics from other thinkers. Here is one, Gabriel Kolko, who writes about a flaw in Ayn Rand’s thinking:

“the lords of Big Business, far from being martyrs to the cause of free market capitalism and “America’s Most Persecuted Minority,” as Ayn Rand had put it, were actually the most powerful and implacable enemies of laissez-faire. The corporate giants  had not only favored the Progressive era regulations [e.g. the New Deal], but had also originated them in an effort to cartelize the markets. Instead of a “persecuted minority,” the coporate giants were, in large part, a state-privileged elite. Far from championing free markets in principle or in practice, corporate barons had ruthlessly used the blunt instrument of government to erect barriers to market entry and bludgeon their competitors into submission.”

(from  “An Enemy of the State” by Justin Raimondo, Prometheus Books, Amherst NY, 2000 (page  138-9), quoting Gabriel Kolko, “The Triumph of Conservatism” (Glencoe, Ill.: The Free Press, 1963).

So comedian  Stephen Colbert is hardly the first to point out this flaw in Rand’s world view.

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Why are Ayn Rand’s novels selling so well?

Quote from novelist Ayn Rand.
Image via Wikipedia

A few weeks ago, I blogged about how well Ayn Rand’s books are selling, and some possible reasons.

I found several articles on the Internet on this topic. Here is one which quoted a Wall Street Journal article, which gave 3 reasons for the growing popularity of Atlas Shrugged,

  1. Atlas Shrugged depicted a future in which America descends into economic chaos due to ever-increasing government regulations. … The result is a downward spiral that nearly destroys America. Many Americans are finding Rand’s predictions uncomfortably close to real-life events.
  2. Another reason for Rand’s appeal is her emphasis on the moral dimension. One of her themes was that no country can survive when its government constantly punishes good men for their virtues and rewards bad men for their vices. Americans correctly recognize that it is unjust for the government to take money from those who have lived frugally to bail out those who have lived beyond their means. Honest men should not be forced to pay for the irresponsibility of others.
  3. Finally, Atlas Shrugged resonates with many Americans because they recognize that our current crisis is not just about bailouts and budget deficits. It’s also about a more fundamental issue — the proper scope of government.

Today, I found another article about Atlas Shrugged and how it is relevant to what is happening in the US today: Rand’s Atlas is Shrugging with a Growing Load.

“Atlas Shrugged” is becoming a political “Harry Potter” because Rand shone a spotlight on a problem that still exists: Not pre-1989 Soviet communism, but 2009-style state capitalism. Rand depicted government and companies colluding in the name of economic rescue at the expense of the entrepreneur. That entrepreneur is like the titan Atlas who carries the rest of the world on his shoulders — until he doesn’t.

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Session #9, June 3rd, 2009: The novel of ideas

Atlas Shrugged
Image by Rodrigo Paoletti via Flickr

Today, we read another excerpt from Ayn Rand‘s novel Atlas Shrugged. We read the scene where Hank Rearden‘s mother comes to his office to persuade him to give his younger brother, Philip, a job.

The participant who borrowed my Japanese translation of Atlas Shrugged last week, brought it back today: she had finished reading it. All 1,200 pages! She gave us some useful background information about the story. Another participant promptly borrowed the book.

We had a wide-ranging discussion which included the following:

  1. Why is Atlas Shrugged so popular today in the US?
  2. What is capitalism (and free-market economics)?
  3. What is socialism?
  4. What was the New Deal?
  5. What is the meaning of Karl Marx‘ dictum  “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need“?

Ayn Rand was a supporter of capitalism, of individualism, of free-market economics, of libertarianism (自由主義思想 ).

She believed that capitalism was losing popularity because many people did not fully understand the true meaning of capitalism and of socialism, nor did they understand the philosophical, economic, and moral basis for capitalism. She wrote her novels partly to educate people about these matters and partly to illustrate her philosophy “in action”.

We discussed the philosophies or principles underlying what Hank Rearden says and what his mother says.

One principle which we did not discuss directly, but which is closely connected to our discussion today, is the principle (sometimes called the “axiom”) of non-aggression: that anything is permitted except the use of force or aggression against other people. People can use force or violence to defend themselves or their property, but may not initiate violence or aggression against other people to make them do things they do not want to do.

Ayn Rand believed in the power of philosophy. Philosophy – who needs it? is a good essay to read to understand why she thought philosophy was so important. Click  here for a Japanese translation).

For more information in Japanese about Ayn Rand, visit 藤森かよこの日本アイン・ランド研究会

Although she wrote about capitalism, Ayn Rand was not an economist. If you want to learn more about free-market economics, I recommend an easy-to-read book  Economics in One Lesson by Henry Hazlitt (I cannot find a Japanese translation of this; if you know of one, or – even better – a good Japanese book on free-market economics, please tell me).

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Session #8, May 27th, 2009: The novel of ideas

Image by morgret via Flickr

Today’s session began with a summary from one of our participants of A Pair of Blue Eyes by Thomas Hardy. We read an extract from this novel earlier this year in session #3. Although this story does not have a happy ending, it is still rather lighter in tone than later novels by Hardy.

This novel exists in Japanese translation, but it is out of print.

I recommend Far From the Madding Crowd by Hardy (Japanese title is 遥か群衆を離れて)

Then we read the selection for that day, which was a couple of segments from the first part of Ayn Rand‘s second blockbuster, Atlas Shrugged.

We discussed the meaning and some of the economic, geographical and philosophical background.

One participant borrowed my Japanese translation of Atlas Shrugged.

We will continue next week with another section of Atlas Shrugged.

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Ayn Rand and the Novel of Ideas

Atlas Shrugged
Image by Laughing Squid via Flickr

According to this press release on the website of the Ayn Rand Center for Individual Rights, sales of Rand’s blockbuster Atlas Shrugged have greatly increased this year and last year:

Reports from trade sources indicate that consumer purchases of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged have tripled in the first four months of 2009 compared to the first four months of 2008…. “Annual sales of Atlas Shrugged have been increasing for decades to a level not seen in Ayn Rand’s lifetime. Sales of the U.S. paperback editions averaged 74,000 copies a year in the 1980s, 95,000 copies a year in the 1990s and 139,000 copies a year in the current decade. After reaching an all-time high during the novel’s 50th anniversary in 2007, another new high was reached in 2008 and an even higher mark is expected for 2009.”

More than 6,500,000 copies of Atlas Shrugged have been sold to date.

This short blog entry Ayn Rand and the Tea Party Protests gives 3 reasons why so many people are buying and reading Atlas Shrugged:

Stephen Moore identified one reason in his Wall Street Journal column, “Atlas Shrugged: From Fiction to Fact in 52 Years.” Atlas Shrugged depicted a future in which America descends into economic chaos due to ever-increasing government regulations. Each new problem spawns new government controls that merely deepen the crisis. The result is a downward spiral that nearly destroys America. Many Americans are finding Rand’s predictions uncomfortably close to real-life events.

Another reason for Rand’s appeal is her emphasis on the moral dimension. One of her themes was that no country can survive when its government constantly punishes good men for their virtues and rewards bad men for their vices. Americans correctly recognize that it is unjust for the government to take money from those who have lived frugally to bail out those who have lived beyond their means. Honest men should not be forced to pay for the irresponsibility of others.

Finally, Atlas Shrugged resonates with many Americans because they recognize that our current crisis is not just about bailouts and budget deficits. It’s also about a more fundamental issue — the proper scope of government.

Yaron Brook, Director of the Ayn Rand Center, writes on the Fox News website about a fundamental point of Atlas Shrugged:

“Atlas Shrugged” argues that ideas shape society. A society that values reason, the individual, and freedom creates the United States of America. A society that denounces the mind, preaches self-sacrifice, and worships the collective creates Nazi Germany. What “Atlas” shows is how our culture’s ideas–particularly its ideas about morality–are moving us step by step away from the Founding Fathers’ ideal.

Ayn Rand
Image via Wikipedia
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