Part 1: “How to Maintain a Benevolent Sense of Life in Today’s World”
Many things have been written about the appeal of Ayn Rand’s novels, but one of the central reasons for her enduring popularity and influence is her concept of a “benevolent sense of life.” Her novels are not just about striving and struggle, but also about success, joy, and achievement—and the sense of a world in which all of those things are possible. This is a large part of the reason her novels are cited as an influence by the most unlikely people and help inspire the achievements of those who share little of Ayn Rand’s explicit philosophy.
Many fans of Ayn Rand’s novels don’t think of the issue in that precise terminology, a “benevolent sense of life,” but that is the way she described it in her philosophy and in her writings on the art of fiction. A “sense of life,” as she used the term, refers to an implicit estimate of the nature of the world and one’s place in it, which is experienced emotionally. A “benevolent sense of life” refers to a particular kind of estimate: a sense that the world is open to you, that success is possible, that happiness is normal.
Its opposite, a malevolent sense of life, is the belief that the world is hostile, success is impossible, and you’d better get used to being miserable.
The best way to get a quick sense of the difference, in visual terms, is to think of Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer
versus, say, Edvard Munch’s The Scream.
Or Michelangelo’s David
versus Donatello’s Mary Magdalene.
The contrast is summed up in a conversation I had once with a Polish au pair who was taking care of my niece. We were talking about the difference between being back in Poland and being in America, and she said that in America, whenever you ask how anyone is doing, the answer is always “fine” or “great” and everybody is all smiles. Even if it’s not true, this is what people are expected to say, and she said that it can almost make you feel like a loser if you’re not deliriously happy all the time. Whereas back in Poland, if you ask someone how things are going you will get a litany of complaints, terminated with a very eloquent gesture she made of drawing your finger across your neck as if slitting your throat. In this case, too, you say it even if you don’t mean it and are not actually on the verge of suicide. But you do it because it’s expected. That’s a real difference in the sense of life of two cultures.
Other cultures are more noncommittal. My favorite expression in French is, when asked ça va?, “How is it going?” to reply, ça peut aller, “It could go.” Apparently the default sense of life in France is a state of ennui. But we knew that already.
So you can see the weirdly distorted view of Americans that people from these countries initially get when they ask us how we’re doing, and all they hear is “great,” “terrific,” “beautiful day, isn’t it?” By the benchmark of their cultures, we must all seem like a bunch of insanely grinning idiots. But the joke’s on them, because it’s just that Americans tend to have a remarkably benevolent sense of life. Even if things are not great at the moment, we know that they can be great, that they are usually great, and that we should expect them to be great.
Which also happens to be an enormous advantage, both for a culture and for an individual. If you have a benevolent sense of life, it will be easier for you to take on big challenges, to act confidently, to rebound quickly from setbacks, and to succeed. In my experience, it is a source of boundless energy. If you think the universe is open to you and you can get what you want, you will find an inexhaustible source of motivation to keep applying effort to reach your goals.
By contrast, a malevolent sense of life can be psychologically devastating. It encourages passivity, fatalism, and stagnation. It is constantly telling you to fold at the first sign of resistance or to give up before you even begin.
I don’t mean to imply that we are slaves to our emotions and that you are locked into defeatist behavior if you suffer from a malevolent sense of life. Conscious convictions can overcome inappropriate emotional reactions. Otherwise, there would be no point in giving advice on how to achieve a benevolent sense of life; you would be stuck with (or blessed by) whatever you’ve got. But even if you can overcome a malevolent sense of life, the point is that you have to overcome it. It is a constant source of friction in your life.
Because of her emphasis on the power and primacy of reason, Ayn Rand is often caricatured as being against emotions. A quick read of her novels will disabuse you of that notion; she loved the emotional intensity of high drama. Philosophically, she understood that emotions serve a vital function. They are lightning-fast estimates that serve as green lights or red lights, giving us a sense of freedom to move forward or of danger on the tracks ahead. It’s up to our conscious thinking to check these signals, identify what they’re reacting to, and confirm or override their message. But a malevolent sense of life is like a signal that is permanently stuck on red, stopping you at every junction and forcing you to override it by brute force of will.
What I’ve also noticed is that, regardless of your actual level of achievement and success, a benevolent sense of life makes it easier to enjoy whatever you have—whereas a malevolent sense of life sucks the joy out of success even when you do achieve it. I have often been amazed when I meet people who enjoy circumstances that are better than mine in a number of different ways: they have more money, are better established in their careers, and can point to big, well-known accomplishments—yet they don’t seem to really be enjoying it, and they’re convinced that everything is going downhill and the world is doomed. That is the opposite of the actual, everyday experience of their lives, yet none of what is good about their lives seems to make an impression on their outlook or demeanor.
It reminds me of the line Milton gives to Satan:
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.
Sense of life is also important to an intellectual movement. A certain kind of fatalism and pessimism is inherent in conservatism, and it is part of what holds back the political right from offering a positive and optimistic view of the future. That is one reason, I think, why Ronald Reagan is so revered on the right: he managed to provide them with that sense of uplift and optimism.
I have also occasionally complained about the influence of a malevolent sense of life on the Objectivist movement, which is occasionally gripped by exaggerated prognostications of doom and often misses out on big positive developments in the culture.
This series of articles is my attempt to address that problem, not just for the Objectivist movement, but as advice for each of you to help achieve and expand your own sense of the benevolent possibilities of life.
The idea for this series started a number of years ago when an Objectivist I know proposed an article addressing precisely this issue—but under a somewhat different and very revealing title: “How to Maintain a Benevolent Sense of Life in Today’s World.” In talking the issue out, I realized that I strongly disagreed with this person’s advice. (I’ll describe specifically why in a moment.) Moreover, I realized that the whole problem is contained in that title, which reveals two key misconceptions about sense of life and grants two key premises behind a malevolent sense of life.
Let’s examine that title: “How to Maintain a Benevolent Sense of Life in Today’s World.” If that title really resonates with you, if you think it perfectly sums up the challenge of having a benevolent sense of life—then you really need this series of articles.
The first key word in this title is “maintain.” The assumption is that one naturally starts out, by default, with a benevolent sense of life, and one’s job is to “maintain” it, which means to keep the big bad world out there from chipping away at it piece by piece. It implies a process in which the world is constantly knocking down your sense of benevolence, and you are left with the Sisyphean task of trying to put the shattered pieces back together again.
Which leads me to the other significant phrase in that title: “in today’s world.” The assumption is that there is something so uniquely awful about today’s world that makes it especially difficult to preserve one’s delicate sense of a benevolent universe. But that cedes the whole malevolent universe premise right there, doesn’t it? From the beginning, it grants the premise that the world you live in is hostile. So you are sabotaging your sense of life from the very way you frame the question.
In short, “How to Maintain a Benevolent Sense of Life in Today’s World” is how you would phrase the issue—if you have a malevolent sense of life.
There’s no reason to be ashamed of having a malevolent sense of life. It is the product of assumptions that you formed very early in your life, and since a sense of life is by its very nature implicit—that is, grasped without explicit conscious analysis—it is particularly difficult to identify and to change. And I want to make clear that I’m not trying to run down the character of the person who proposed that ill-conceived title. This was a good person with significant accomplishments. But it shows how deeply ingrained the premises behind a malevolent sense of life can be and how hard it can be to identify them and move beyond them.
So where shall we begin? Let’s begin by taking apart those assumptions.
What about the malevolent estimate of “today’s world”? I could begin by citing all the reasons why today’s world is not particularly awful and does not deserve such a pessimistic evaluation. But it is more important to identify a deeper misconception about what a “sense of life” is.
A benevolent sense of life is not a passing or superficial mood; it is not the same as being cheerful. It is not an estimate of or reaction to the specific circumstances of your environment at this moment. It is an estimate of what is possible to man as such. It is about what kind of entity you are, and in what kind of universe.
I will grant that in extreme cases, your specific circumstances can make a difference. There is no advice I can offer on how to achieve a benevolent sense of life if you’re living in a concentration camp. But if you’re reading this, I’m willing to bet that your circumstances are far, far on the opposite end of the spectrum from a concentration camp.
Which means that even if you have reason to be very unhappy with your life at this particular moment, you know that something better is possible. Remember that Ayn Rand formed her earliest convictions about a benevolent sense of life while she was still in Soviet Russia, which was just a few steps away from being in a concentration camp. (And we must assume that a young Ayn Rand, given her personality and convictions, was a few steps closer than most to getting tossed into the gulag.) Yet she was able to draw on memories of life before the Soviet takeover, on her knowledge of human history, and on her love for American movies, all of which showed her that something much, much better was possible.
Or to take an example closer to home, if you are out of a job at the moment—and in the Obama economy, you might be—or if you can’t pay your bills, that does not mean it would be valid to conclude that you are never going to get a job and are never going to be able to pay your bills. Trust me on that one. In fact, struggling with poverty and going through other forms of adversity can, if you make good use of them, help to strengthen your sense of life, as I will describe in a future installment.
Here’s another example of the kind of error I’m talking about. I knew a guy once whose girlfriend was getting anxious because they had been living together for several years but he resisted the idea of marriage, which naturally led her to question his commitment to her. He knew this and he really did love her, but he explained that he didn’t want to get married because his own parents had fought like cats and dogs, and he knew so many people who had suffered through bad marriages. Assuming this was a piece of honest introspection on his part—and I’m not absolutely vouching for that assumption—consider the specific error of thinking. Because some people he knew had bad marriages, he thought he was justified in concluding that his marriage in particular would be bad.
Actually, the error is bigger. This guy lived in a big city and mixed with a wide social circle. I am certain that he knew several people, probably many people, who were happily married. Yet he concluded that unhappiness was the norm. It was a failure of observation and of imagination. He was focused on the concrete circumstances of his childhood and wasn’t looking beyond them to observe what people in general are capable of.
That line about how difficult it is to stay benevolent in “today’s world” reflects a similar error. It focuses on a few of the negative circumstances of our current politics, economics, or popular culture—and projects these things as reasons for a negative estimate of human life in general.
This error is especially bizarre given the fact that we live in a world of technological wonders and marvels—yet we have managed to distort even these extraordinary advances in technology into a negative. The malevolent sense of life has waxed and waned in its influence over the years, but it is somewhat more prominent today, and that is ironically most noticeable in our science fiction, which has taken a particularly dark turn in recent decades. The future, as we project it in our books and movies, is always a dystopia. We fantasize about environmental catastrophe, killer robots, enslavement in a virtual reality “matrix,” what have you. The future isn’t interesting, it seems, unless everything has gone wrong.
When I was a kid, the tone for an optimistic portrayal of the future was set by “Star Trek.” The original series—which was all we had back then—was produced from 1966 through 1969. (I saw it in syndication some ten years later.) Smack dab in the middle of that original run was a truly terrible year, 1968. There was the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, the assassination of Martin Luther King set off race riots, and about a half dozen other really big, awful things happened in the world. Yet “Star Trek” showed a future in which all of these big problems were solved. Russians served alongside Americans, blacks alongside whites, and we had all stopped fighting each other and gone off to claim our destiny among the stars. Gene Rodenberry was able to do what we are talking about: to look beyond the specific circumstances of his time and see what is possible to man as such.
Now look at us today, when a lot of the problems of 1968 are much better than they used to be. The Cold War has receded into history, so much so that Germans are now protesting to preserve the Berlin Wall—as a historical monument. And when it comes to race relations, a black man has been elected president of the United States, though that particular development is offset by some less than ideal circumstances of its own. Yet note the direction taken by the Star Trek franchise, whose upcoming installment is titled Star Trek into Darkness. That kind of says it all about the direction some people are trying to pull our culture’s sense of life. There’s a lot of this going around, and it’s happening to all of our popular culture heroes. Batman has become “The Dark Knight,” and Daniel Craig apparently spends the latest James Bond film moping around in a funk—which is just about the most un-James-Bond-like thing he could possibly do.
What might seem bizarre about this is how opposite it is from the actual day-to-day content of the lives of people living in advanced industrial societies, where life on the whole is very, very good. But that proves my point. One’s sense of life is not just a reaction to the specific circumstances of the moment. In fact, the whole point of a sense of life is to provide you with a wider viewpoint that puts those specific circumstances in perspective.
Every era contains a mixture of good and bad, and if you want to complain about “today’s world,” there are a dozen different time periods I could ship you back to, if I had a time machine, that you would regard as a living hell by comparison. Yet mankind made it out of each of those periods and still somehow managed to make forward progress, because someone had the sense that it was possible. So the supposedly unique challenges of “today’s world” are not so unique. The real challenge is not about the world, but about your own mental work in forming the right conclusions about what is possible and keeping today’s world in the right perspective.
That brings me to my second big point. Note that my version of the title of this series is about how to achieve a benevolent sense of life. This is an accomplishment, something that has to be built. If you believe it is something that comes prepackaged and just has to be maintained, then you will focus all of your effort on protection, on shielding your sense of life from bruises and unwelcome intrusions. You will focus on the experiences to avoid—rather than the experiences to seek out. This was the essence of the advice offered by the person who proposed the ill-conceived version of the title: basically, it was a set of strategies for avoiding unpleasant encounters with the many bad things and people out there in today’s world. But this is an impossible defensive strategy that is based on preserving a limited resource rather than building up an unlimited one.
And that gives us our place to start, because the advice I am about to give is very much the opposite.
This series will be continued in a future edition of The Tracinski Letter.