Rebirth of Reason


Repeating Peter Keating
by Eric Rockwell

I ran into none other than Peter Keating today. First I passed him walking south on Ninth Avenue, schmoozing someone on his cell phone. Then I noticed him sitting in a Chinese restaurant, using chopsticks rather than silverware so as to better assimilate to the restaurant's culture. When I arrived at work, the elevator doors opened to reveal eleven Peter Keatings, all of whom flashed a smile at me in the event that I was someone who might better their status.

Peter Keating is legion. Whenever I meet him, I notice him carefully calculating what he thinks I might want him to be, and like a chameleon, he quickly adapts. Peter Keating, as you all know, is a fictional character from Ayn Rand's novel The Fountainhead, though "character" is not an appropriate designation, for he is actually a character without a character. He is the quintessential second-hander, re-inventing himself with each encounter to win the admiration of whoever is present. Without his own life and authenticity held as any value, the Peter Keatings of the world must seek it through the eyes of others.

There is the Activist Keating, who wore an AIDS ribbon through most of the 90's, but removed it the moment it seemed to be going out of fashion. The ribbon, Peter claimed, was a way to help "raise awareness" of an epidemic that was already well known to everyone. The ribbon was worn to raise awareness, yes, not of a disease, but of the wearer's charitable and sympathetic nature. Look at Peter. He's wearing a ribbon. He cares.

There is Vegetarian Keating, who when pushed to explain why he doesn't eat meat, will only say that he won't eat anything that once had a face. This also raises awareness, not so much that chickens and cows suffer, but that the vegetarian is sympathetic and charitable to the animal kingdom. Look at Peter. He won't eat anything with a face. He cares.

And there is Spiritual Keating, whose apartment includes eye-catching Buddhist accessories. Visitors can't help but inquire what that odd-shaped piece of furniture is; why, it's a Meditation Chair, of course. Without evangelizing, Peter explains how Mindfulness Meditation (which is basically doing nothing for extended periods of time) is made easier with this spiritual accoutrement. This consciousness-raising is less about his consciousness than ours. We are expected to infer that the spiritual trappings indicate depth of soul. Look at Peter. He practices an Eastern religion and sacrifices his time to achieve nothingness. He cares.

And there's Politically Correct Keating, Environmentally-Conscious Keating, Christian Keating, Anti-War Keating and Family Values Keating. Because none of them have a solidly authentic character, attaining a label can be a big attraction for them. The insecurity Peter has over his lack of identity is numbed a bit through attaining the label, and the label then serves to function in lieu of an honest individualism. In addition, the label immediately puts him in the comfortable state of belonging to a larger collective. As the group establishes the beliefs, Peter is free to cease thinking on his own and instead adopt the group's agenda.

Keatings are our neighbors. They are our friends. Our family. They are us. Yes, there is a little Keating in everyone.

Is there hope? Is conformity intrinsic to human nature, or is change possible? Here's where Objectivism can come to the rescue. As an integrated philosophy, it has the power to transform even the Keatingest Keating from a groupthink conformist to an authentic individual. The popular assumption is that authenticity is about expressing one's emotions and behaving in accordance with them. We all embrace the maxim "To thine own self be true," but in order to accomplish that, the self needs to be defined. And it is thinking, not mere emotions, which defines the nature of the self. To evade the thinking process leaves a self that is defined by a default philosophy, which is most likely a haphazard collection of contradictory assumptions. Objectivism challenges that default philosophy and requires the individual to think and to reason.

However, Objectivism can also be a haven for Peter Keatings to assume yet another label, cease thinking on their own and opt instead for taking on the thoughts of the group. If misapplied, this philosophy of reason can be subverted to be nothing more than a religion, where the congregation smiles in agreement with every word uttered from the pulpit.

Thus, the more diversity of thinking among Objectivists, the more we can rest assured that there are fewer Keatings among us. And vice versa, the more unity (a terrible word) there is between individual Objectivists, the more likely that there are some (or many) Keatings among us.

Objectivism offers the insights of a life-changing philosophy, but it will remain up to the individual whether they choose to employ their reason, or sit idly on their Buddhist Meditation Chair contemplating nothingness. The results are nothing more than a matter of Life and Death.

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