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'Romance and Rationalism' Revisited and Revised
In the Objectivist world-view, there is an egregious fallacy identified as "rationalism." This is not to be confused with being rational — rather it refers to the habit of divorcing rationality from reality and proceeding to "reason" on the basis of floating abstractions which are internally self-consistent but whose starting point has no connection to the real world.
Religionists of whichever variety are rationalists in that they begin with a floating abstraction, God, which has no referent in reality. Ironically, though, the lure of rationalism is one to which Objectivists over the years have been chronically and notoriously susceptible, even while grasping the error of it in theory. So pervasive was rationalism among Objectivists that the philosophy's principal exponent at the time, Leonard Peikoff, once saw fit to deliver a series of lectures on the subject, proclaiming himself to be rationalism-prone and identifying a large number of philosophical and psychological warning signs.
Nowhere is rationalism more devastating than in the realm of romance.
Romantic love, said Ayn Rand, is one's response to one's own values embodied in the person of another. Now, this is undeniably true, and it was important that someone should say so at a time when the measure of romantic commitment was the extent to which one was prepared to sacrifice one's own values for the sake of one's partner. But it is not the *whole* truth. If it were, we would be obliged to become romantically involved with everyone who shared our values — a project that would have farcical repercussions.
In seeking a romantic partner, many Objectivists begin with a floating abstraction called John Galt, or Howard Roark, or Dagny Taggart — characters from Ayn Rand's novels. These characters always know their own minds, never falter, never experience fear, doubt, or confusion, never err, never belch, never break wind, never fumble when uncorking the wine. They are without flaw, failing or foible. In reality, they don't exist. But such is the power of Ayn Rand's projection of them that many Objectivists will settle for nothing less in their own lives, heedless of the fact that such "shortcomings" have been omitted from Rand’s characterisations simply because "in art, as in life, one ignores the unimportant." The consequences of this rationalistic attitude are personal misery & destruction — the very opposite of what Rand intended.
Recently, I have observed romantic rationalism in action first-hand. I have witnessed an otherwise highly intelligent, talented young Objectivist veritably destroy two consecutive, exceptional relationships in which he was involved - because of his rationalism. In each case he was in love with the other party, and it was mutual. In each case he persuaded himself that he ought *not* to be in love with the other party, since neither was John Galt. In each case, he *fixated* on the respects in which his lover was not John Galt, entered crosses on his check-list — and terminated the relationship, repressing and denying the actual love he felt. He himself described it to me as a "shovelling aside" process. I was aghast. The net outcome here was three very unhappy people. How on earth could this be reconciled with a philosophy that says, "The purpose of morality is to show you, not how to suffer & die, but to enjoy yourself & live"?
Another Objectivist I know of has lived an equally rationalistic lie for decades, in this case denying his homosexuality, denying himself the opportunity for any real romantic fulfillment, and subverting the happiness of a succession of unsuspecting female partners — who, he had persuaded himself, were Dagny Taggart, with whom he *ought* to be in love, even though in truth, he wasn't.
The rationale on which such rationalistic deceit is based, when practised by anti-gay homosexual Objectivists, usually goes something like this: the male and female genitals are a natural fit for each other, and serve the evolutionary purpose of procreation of the species. It must be concluded, therefore, that nature has decreed that any use of the genitalia other than penile/vaginal penetration for purposes of procreation is unnatural, and therefore immoral. This is the "barnyard" view of sex so rightly decried by Ayn Rand in her attack on Pope Paul’s encyclical on birth control, except that God has been replaced by Nature as the legislator of it. According to this rationale, of course, much more than homosexuality is immoral — masturbation must be immoral, oral sex between male and female must be immoral, and sodomy between male and female must truly be the absolute pits. (The rationalists usually stop short of stating such fatuous extensions of their facile, floating "logic," for understandable reasons that have much to do with not wanting to become laughing stocks.)
Another inanity that sometimes accompanies this rationalism is the notion that a *distinguishing* characteristic is an entity’s *only* characteristic, or that all its *other* characteristics are informed by its distinguishing one. In other words, if man’s distinguishing characteristic is volition, it must follow that *all* his *other* characteristics are chosen. Thus, for instance, volition and an innate sexual orientation (and preferences within that orientation, such as dark-skinned or fair, thick-set or slight, etc.) are deemed mutually exclusive, since man chooses his sexual orientation (just as assuredly as he chooses how many fingers he has, what colour are his eyes, etc.).
Thus do we see volition hijacked from its context and given the powers of God (omnipotence) - whereas a truly rational approach would seek to ascertain where volition’s limits lie and formulate morality accordingly. (Not for nothing was Ayn Rand a devotee of the spirit of the famous prayer, "Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change those I can … and the wisdom to know the difference.")
Thus does rationalism deify nature on the one hand and defy it on the other.
"Rationalism" may sound like an esoteric, irrelevant concept — in actual fact, it is as real & relevant as it is lethal. One of the reasons I am setting up SOLO — Sense of Life Objectivists (work in progress—see TFR 43)—is to provide a haven for people who are rational but not rationalistic. It will present Objectivism, as Tim Sturm observes later in this issue, "with slight adjustments & question marks where appropriate [not in defiance of, but in deference to, its fundamentals]." It will present Objectivism with more than a "slight" question mark over Ayn Rand's theory of romantic love, for reasons that should now be apparent.
Yet were she here to argue the point with me, I believe I could bring her round — and by her own dazzling lights. I believe I could demonstrate to her that she had overlooked her own distinction between a concept and a definition: the former subsumes every characteristic of an entity while the latter specifies its distinguishing one, the differentia, within the genus to which it belongs; so that while the entity man may legitimately be defined as the *rational* animal, the concept man takes in the totality of his being the rational *animal*. I would paraphrase her own paraphrasing of the bewildered question of philosophers through the centuries, "Where is the man-ness in man?" by asking her, "Where in your view of romantic love is the *animality* in man?"
In real life, of course, the "animality" in man is starkly manifest in his choice of romantic partner, as is his rationality (or lack of it). Rationality in this instance consists in *embracing* the animality (and, where appropriate, stylising it), unless it drives one to the harming of self or others. Galt forbid that it should ever be otherwise! True romance fulfils mind & body equally, to be sure. But the mind must accept, to be rational about it, that the body (the "heart," "electricity," "sexual chemistry" etc.) has reasons which, as yet at least — Rand notwithstanding — the mind knows not of. This is not a contradiction, nor even a concession, much less a dichotomy. It represents the most conscientious identification of, and respect for, the realities of sex and romance of which we are currently capable.
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