Flame Spotting

How to Achieve a Benevolent Sense of Life

Part two of a four-part series.

In the first installment of this series, I challenged the notion that a malevolent sense of life is a reaction to the uniquely bad circumstances of “today’s world,” both because sense of life is not about your momentary circumstances and because today’s world just isn’t horrible enough.

I also challenged the idea that your sense of life is something to be “maintained” by shielding it from exposure to the outside world. Instead, “a benevolent sense of life…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.”

That is my first big piece of advice about how to achieve a benevolent sense of life: don’t block out, seek out.

The biggest temptation of a malevolent sense of life is the desire to block out what you see as intrusions from the outside world. This means avoiding too much access to current events in politics or in the culture, in order to keep them from becoming “too real” for you psychologically. You can see how this is a self-reinforcing mechanism for a malevolent sense of life: to not want to see is to assume the worst.

The antidote is to seek out the good, because it is there.

I want to reiterate that your sense of life is not just about what you think of “today’s world.” The proper intellectual context for a sense of life is your view of all men, everywhere, throughout history. So the context for a benevolent sense of life is man’s rise out of the cave, through the achievements of Ancient Greece, the Renaissance, the Scientific Revolution, the American Revolution, the defeat of totalitarianism, the revolution in modern technology—everything in history that shows what human beings can achieve. In this respect, I have already given my ultimate pep-talk about what human history shows about the nature of man.

But it is also important to recognize that “today’s world” is actually pretty good by historical standards. You didn’t grow up with your friends dying from influenza epidemics. Your father probably wasn’t killed in a World War. You don’t see abject poverty and horrible suffering on the streets every day, as people routinely did in the West until 100 years ago, and which still happens in some parts of the world today. These are all parts of our material circumstances—and also parts of our culture—that have happily faded away. So you probably grew up among the happiest and healthiest people in history, in one of the great periods of relative peace and prosperity.

There are still plenty of bad things going on in the world, of course, and if you read my more political newsletter for RealClearPolitics, you know that it is my job to document all of these bad things as they go by. But your reaction to the world is a matter of emphasis. It is not just about what you see happening in the world around you. It’s about what you single out as most important and most worthy of your attention.

I have said that we’re in the middle of a mini-resurgence of the malevolent sense of life, and as an indication of that, a common contemporary attitude is to view only the depressing and morose as genuine and real. One writer recently made a very good observation about this trend.

“On May 18, former White House speechwriter Jon Lovett gave the commencement address to the graduating class of Pitzer College in California. Interspersed with bits of life advice was this observation:

‘We see it across our culture, with not only popularity but hunger for the intellectual honesty of Jon Stewart or the raw sincerity of performers like Louis CK and Lena Dunham. You can even add the rise of dark, brooding, “authentic” superheroes in our blockbuster movies. We see…a rejection of the processed as inauthentic.’

“Whether he intended it or not, Lovett’s choices of pop culture examples hit on an intriguing idea: that things are most ‘honest,’ ‘sincere,’ and ‘authentic’ if their view of the world is relatively dark….

“Pop culture keeps telling us that the world is a difficult place to live in, people behave badly in it, and anyone who says otherwise is either deluding himself or attempting to put one over on us.”

That’s the malevolent sense of life at work. Perhaps the best answer to this is to demonstrate how ridiculous it is compared to what is really going on in “today’s world.” A Washington Post blogger recently posted his own version of 31 charts showing enormous economic and material progress in recent decades—but comically recasting each of them with a negative headline. The tone is set by the first item, which shows a collapse in the number of armed conflicts—but which calls out, as its headline, a relatively minor uptick in the past few years.

That’s what I mean about how a sense of life is formed. It’s not about what you see around you. It’s about which part of it you decide to call out as most significant. A malevolent sense of life pushes you to always dwell on the worst parts while ignoring the good parts. “Dwell” is a good metaphor; it’s like you have voluntarily chosen to move to a bad neighborhood.

Above, I talked about the error of blocking out the world, but this is even more destructive. It consists of seeking out the bad. The term you sometimes see for this is “awfulizing,” a kind of reflexive wallowing in bad news. In one respect, this is perfectly natural and is a normal process of the brain. Constant self-criticism is a survival mechanism, meant to keep you from acting on unchecked premises and doing foolish things. This cognitive faculty has a somewhat vulgar but colorfully descriptive name which I’ve even seen referenced in medical literature, particularly to describe how it can get out of control in those who are recovering from a brain injury or a stroke, who do not yet have the psychological strength to provide an adequate counterbalance to self-criticism.

The perversity of a malevolent sense of life is that it leads people to damage themselves with a runaway faculty of criticism, which they then project outward onto the world. Rather than using it to damage their own sense of self-worth—or perhaps in compensation for that damage—they turn it into a crutch to provide an irrational defense for their sense of self-worth.

A Russian author described this best—and when it comes to a malevolent sense of life, there is no better expert than a Russian—when he said that “you can’t become a saint through the sins of others.” For years, I wasn’t sure whether this was Dostoevsky or Tolstoy; Google says it’s Chekhov. Apparently, it’s a pretty obscure quote. It shouldn’t be.

The attitude it describes is one of the defining themes of the contemporary culture of “cool.” Young people are taught that they way you establish your own credibility is to criticize the flaws of others and tear them down through ridicule. It is all about becoming a saint through the sins of others.

This is the worst trap of a malevolent sense of life. A malevolent sense of life is an expression of the premise that achievement in this world is not possible, that the good has no chance to succeed. So it leaves you only one way to establish your own worth and maintain your own set of standards: not through creation but through negation. This is why Dominique Francon and Gail Wynand, the Ayn Rand characters who adopt this approach, have always struck me as the most “modern” of her heroes, the ones who seem to fit into today’s world with no trouble and even to be a better fit today than when the book was written. I suspect this is why you hear more literary praise for The Fountainhead than for Atlas Shrugged. For those steeped on today’s culture, Atlas Shrugged seems less realistic and “authentic” because it does not have a prominent role for this kind of brooding “anti-hero.”

The phenomenon of becoming a saint through the sins of others is something I know all too well from writing about politics, which is almost a kind of mini-malevolent universe of its own. You know you will eventually get in trouble for liking or supporting any particular political figure, because they are all going to disappoint you in some way. Politicians are all going to have flaws which are magnified by a natural tendency to pander—a characteristic strongly selected for in their profession. At the same time, you will find yourself rewarded for sarcasm and biting commentary about the other guys’ flaws, an approach that makes you seem strong rather than vulnerable. Call this the Ann Coulter effect: a partisan attack dog will always have a bone to chew on.

But to tell the real story of what is going on the world, you always have to ask: who holds the roof up? Who is keeping the bad guys in check, acting to preserve the American system, and pushing for the reforms we really need? And if you look, you can find them. The same thing applies to the culture at large. You have to remember that the real story isn’t all of the forces trying to tear everything down, but the people who hold it up by pursuing and preserving real achievements.

To achieve a benevolent sense of life—not to mention staying in touch with what is really happening in the world—you have to seek out the good, appreciate it, and pay attention to it. Which is the same thing as to say: treat it as if it is important.

I should repeat that you do not need to look only for what is good in the present day. The proof that this is not a Dark Age is that the accomplishments of previous eras have not been lost and are in fact more readily available than they have ever been—as you will appreciate if you click on the Rachmaninoff link I give you below. And remember that these things are available because someone today is keeping them alive. So they are not dead relics of a better past; they are a living legacy. But there is a special power in finding achievements in our own age, letting us know that the good is a living power, that it is something that is actual and not just a potential.

As for specifics, I try to do my part to bring some of these achievements to light, particularly in my series on contemporary achievements in science, technology, and economics. In politics, I try to draw attention to the people who hold the roof up—which reminds me that it is time for an article, not about the growing list of Obama administration scandals, but about the politicians and reporters who are doggedly tracking them down.

In art, there is always something good being done somewhere, in some field, and more so today than when I was young, during the cultural nadir of the 1970s. Did I mention Dominique Francon? The cultural setting for The Fountainhead was America’s “Red Decade,” when actual Communism was in vogue and not just muddled modern Liberalism, and when a nihilistic, nonsensical Modernism was sweeping aside great achievements in art and literature. But you might also recall a scene late in the novel when Wynand is working late at the Banner and Dominique phones him to tell him that there will be a performance of a Rachmaninoff concerto on the radio. Given the time when The Fountainhead was written and when the main action is set—the 1930s—it is very possible that this performance would have been conducted and performed by Rachmaninoff himself and would have sounded something like this. (See what I mean about how readily available these things are today? Go back to 1929 and try to get Rachmaninoff to perform his Second Piano Concerto for you at the click of a button.) In Atlas Shrugged, Dagny Taggart talks of her admiration for the composer Richard Halley, whose works she used to eagerly anticipate as they came out. This must have been how a young Ayn Rand felt waiting for the release of the latest piece from Rachmaninoff, such as the great Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, written in 1934. And remember that the architectural setting of The Fountainhead was partly inspired by the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, who had just built his masterwork, Fallingwater, in 1935, and who was lifting off into one of the most productive periods of his career just as Ayn Rand was writing her novel.

Believe it or not, the same thing applies today. Sure, the Kardashians are famous. Yes, they canceled “Firefly.” But that’s not the whole story.

I could list some examples, and I will, elsewhere. But the point isn’t in having me list them for you, or in arguing about which is a great achievement and which isn’t. The point is the act of searching for them. When I say that you should seek out the good, the point isn’t just finding the good. It is the act of seeking it out.

A sense of life is formed, not from the top down but from the bottom up. Try to do it top-down and the results will be forced and artificial. I’ve met a lot of people who tried it, and their actual philosophy, the one that keeps bubbling up from below, from their sense of life, always ends up being different from the one they try to push on themselves from the top down. That’s why a sense of life isn’t changed by getting a list of good things to like. Changing it from the bottom up means seeking out the good for yourself, which requires that you make time for thinking about it and evaluating it on your own.

Thinking and evaluating are the key activities, and this implies that you cannot seek out the good by forcing yourself to find it, by pretending things are better than they are. That’s the difference between seeking out the good and the forced cheerfulness of a Pollyanna. It may seem paradoxical, but the runaway faculty of criticism that we talked about earlier actually becomes your friend, if it is placed in the service of seeking out the good. I’m reminded of a trip I made years ago to visit a friend, who treated us to a stage performance of Cyrano de Bergerac. In the car on the way home, he seemed somewhat crestfallen at the fact that the rest of us were discussing the performance critically, talking about some of things we didn’t like about it. I had to reassure him that criticizing the performance was our way of enjoying it.

So the point isn’t just to seek out the good. It is to seek out the best. And when you do, I think you will be pleasantly surprised at how many of the best things you find are the products of “today’s world.”

This act of searching is how you train yourself to take the existence of the good seriously: by giving it your time, your effort, and your thought. If that becomes the main activity of your life—trying to judge among various good things which is the best—then you can see the impact it will have on your sense of life.

In talking about moral character, Aristotle said that “we are what we repeatedly do.” The same thing applies to sense of life. In this case, if you are what you repeatedly do, become a flame-spotter. You may remember that this is how John Galt describes his role in Atlas Shrugged: he set out to become a flame-spotter, looking for men of genius and achievement. In the context of the novel, he was seeking them out in order to remove their support for a corrupt system and save them from its collapse, which is different from what I’m advocating—because despite the parallels, we are still very far from living in the decaying world of Atlas Shrugged.

What we can emulate from Galt is the direction in which he devotes his energies: he spends a lot more time looking for and thinking about the Dagny Taggarts and the Ellis Wyatts and the Hank Reardens than he does contemplating the Jim Taggarts and Wesley Mouches. This is because he understands, better than anyone else in the novel, that they are the ones who are really important.

That’s the very opposite of trying to become a saint through the sins of others. It elevates your own view of life by appreciating the achievements of others.

Accentuating the positive is a key part of achieving a benevolent sense of life, but as the old song would have it, there is a still a role for eliminating the negative—though not, perhaps, in the way you might think. That will be the topic of the next installment of this series.


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