I was pretty pleased with the discussion thread in comments last week when I first posted about this: Man Alive! A Survival Manual For the Human Mind. Because of that, I thought it would be a reasonable thing to do over the next 12 weeks is to put it up chapter by chapter, every Saturday morning, and hash it out over the weekend for those interested. It could be fun and educational. Minds might even be changed, the possibility for which is really the premise of discussion—or should be—in the first place. So here we go. Most chapters are pretty short.
by Greg Swann
Chapter 1. You’re in this all alone.
What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form, in moving, how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals!
That speech is from Hamlet, of course. Shakespeare, dead four-hundred years, loved your mind much more than does almost anyone alive today. If you read contemporary authors – theologians or philosophers or academics or artists or journalists – they will insist that your reason is either impotent or incompetent, your faculties inept, your simplest movements clumsy and chaotic, your actions and apprehension diabolical, your every attribute a manifestation either of an ugly corruption or of meaningless chance, your very existence an insult to all of existence. You will have to dig through a lot of garbage to find someone who will come right out and say that the universe would be better if the human mind did not exist, but this is the philosophy undergirding modern claims made about humanity.
The culture at large, all over the world, is at war with the human mind – and you don’t know it.
The world you’ve always known is collapsing around you – or has it already collapsed? – and you don’t know why.
Does it occur to you now that those two observations might have something to do with each other?
If we assume that Shakespeare is correct – as Shakespeare’s corpus itself proves! – what might be the objective of all those people hurling insults at your mind? Where might they be hoping to land, as the grand edifices of Western Civilization crumble to rubble? “Cui bono?” – who benefits? The truly awful truth is that no one does. The people lecturing you about how vile you are surely hope to reign over you and to seize your wealth for themselves. But in denigrating the mind they are dismantling the very mechanisms keeping themselves – and you – alive. When we have smothered human reason with bile and invective, all of our lives will be worse – those of us who are lucky enough to stay alive.
But I am not concerned with error, no matter what its motivation. If you read this treatise carefully, I will identify for you a host of egregious philosophical errors, the elucidation of each one of which might be worthy of yet another worthless doctorate degree. But even the most complete catalog of errors will not yield a single useful truth, and an infinite list of vices will not result in even one moment of virtue in your life. I leave error and deception and perversion and spite to the people who love them best. I love the truth and the Splendor I earn only by loving the truth, and I am writing to share with you the essence of my love for the human mind – for your mind.
You’ve been told your whole life that philosophy is hard, too hard for a feeble little mind like yours to apprehend. This is false, and, as you’ll gather as we go along, virtually everything you have been told about the life of the mind is false. Philosophy can be arcane, with lots of big words being tossed around. But most of this is simply a smokescreen: The arguments being propped up by those incomprehensible terms are false – and the philosophers making them know it. They write in an unintelligible jargon in the hope that you will not discover that you are being hustled out of every value your life requires.
This is the truth of your life, concealed from you until now: Each one of us is a philosopher. Most of us, most probably including you, have just been bad at the job. You have surrendered your mind to other people – to theologians or philosophers or academics or artists or journalists – or politicians – and those people have abused your misplaced trust in them. This was villainous on their part, but the error before that one is much worse, and it is no one’s fault but yours: You were a volunteer for your own despoiling. Other people cannot think for you, no matter how much you might wish they could. Take careful note: This includes me. I plan to show you how to do a better job of thinking for yourself, but I can’t think for you, nor would I want to, nor should you want me to.
Here is the most important question in the entire discipline of philosophy, and it is one that you must confront in every moment of your life – in order that you might have a life:
“What should I do?”
That’s the subject matter of the philosophical discipline called ethics, and every professional philosopher will insist that ethics is just a puny little branch of philosophy. What matters, they will declaim, is cosmology (the structure of the universe) or metaphysics (the nature of existence) or epistemology (the theory of knowledge). All of these disciplines, plus many others, are important for building a philosophical system. But why do we build philosophical systems at all? The answer is to be found in the paragraph immediately preceding this one: “What should I do?”
Each individual human being is his own first and best philosopher, like it or don’t, for this simple reason: You are not born knowing how to stay alive, and, absent some sort of cosmic-injustice machine like the Big Mother welfare state, if you don’t figure out what to do – and then do it – you will die. If you do nothing in your own behalf, you will die. If you pursue errors, your own errors or the kind that come with a tony religious or academic pedigree, you will die. If you attempt to exist as an animal does, trying to steal the values you need to survive, you will live in Squalor until one of your would-be victims catches up to you, and then you will die.
What is more, you cannot live the uniquely-human life – the fully-human life – unless you think in your own behalf, in pursuit of your own values. The philosophical or theological doctrine you have followed until now has been aimed, most likely, in the opposite direction: It sought to get you to supplant your own reason with someone else’s dogma, and to pursue that person’s values rather than your own.
Why is Western Civilization collapsing? Because you defaulted on your responsibility to defend it – by defending the values that make your life possible.
But, but, but... We’re all in this together, aren’t we? Wrong. That’s just another hustle, devised to get you to give up everything you have earned so that the person making the claim does not have to earn anything at all. This is the truth of your life, which perhaps no one has ever told you before today:
You’re in this all alone.
You can choose to throw in your lot with a spouse or a friend or your children, but nothing causes or sustains your community except the on-going choices – instantly reversible – of each of the members of that group. And you cannot be a member of any group without your freely-chosen, on-going consent and active participation. And beyond all that, the you that is most fundamentally you is always and necessarily isolated from all other people and all other things. This is a statement of ontology – the philosophy of the factual nature of real things, regardless of what anyone thinks about them. We’ll be coming back to this later, because your fundamental independence from all other people is the most important – and therefore the most deliberately obscured – issue in all of modern philosophy. But for now it suffices to note that other people cannot choose for you for the same reason they cannot think for you – or eat for you: Because you are in this all alone.
I used the word “Splendor” before, and this is a term of art – which means a word I made up. The coinage itself predates my appropriation of it, obviously, but when I capitalize that word, what I mean is a mental state that is possible only to human beings – and “human being” is itself a term of art for me – and only then to human beings who are fully committed to being alive as human beings. I will defend my concept of Splendor as we go along, but for now, if you want a full and fully-captivating experience of the state of mind I aspire to – for you, too, but especially for myself – give your whole mind to the Ode to Joy, the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. That is the fully-human life. I am eager to help you understand what has gone wrong in your life and in the world around you. But my full objective is to teach you what I mean by Splendor and how to identify, achieve and sustain it in your own life.
Here’s some very good news: We are not doomed. We have just been very poor philosophers until now. If you will lend me your mind for a while, I will show you how to get much better results from it, now and enduringly.