I read an essay by Ayn Rand that argued that today’s modern society has descended ever and ever to a lower rung of hell. Let’s suppose that she’s right. Let’s supposed that modernity, in conquering the material world has vanquished the spiritual, leaving us with a vapid, soul-less existence.
But my question is, what is this Hell she envisions? Can she describe it for me? Can she define it? Shouldn’t the misery of Hell be palpable to everyone if it is an objective Hell? Philosophically, is it really Hell if no one realizes it? Or is her version of Hell purely personal and subjective- for whatever sick reason, you’ve been placed in a Hell where everyone but you is satisfied with this world. But even then, it’s not just you, because you find that there are others who agree you live in a spiritual Hell, so you have companionship and camaraderie, making it something more than a subjective Hell (you now have the shared perception of this spiritual waste land) but less acute (you have the solace of like-minded company to sustain each other). So I’m not sure how, or what it is, that defines this Hell she imagines society is living in.
Maybe it’s more nuanced, and are we closing in on some hell- like state; sliding down some slippery slope. But when will that day take place when we reach that final rung down the evolutionary ladder, resulting in an apocalypse (whether humanistic or religious- after all, that is what Rand is describing- an apocalypse when all of the shortcomings of man’s abilities finally result in his spiritual death)? And what will happen when we get to that point? And, to be sure, we are not talking about a physical Armageddon- this is a spiritual one, so vast, so permeable in its effect that we could live like animals, immortality bestowed by unwitting and unreasoned scientists, devoid of meaning.
Everyone loves to remind us that man does not live on bread alone and I agree that is likely true. But it is certainly true that man does, at a very meaningful level, live on bread. And this current version of mankind, this “hell” certainly provides the value of that bread to us, both literally and figuratively. We are well fed in this country, more so than at any other time in history. We are clothed, educated, provided for both technologically and medically. We have made amazing inroads into human psychology and physiology so that people can gain awareness and insight into their own physical and mental health. The insane are often allowed to live out sane lives and the crippled and infirm are afforded greater degrees of self- sufficiency than ever before. We have codes of conduct, laws that govern our actions. We have a modern notion of civil rights that curb our ancient instinct to enslave others different from us. We can pursue careers in just about any avenue we choose regardless of race or gender and can cultivate hobbies that no one ever had time to enjoy before. And, even if I were to concede that these things are temporal and imperfect, it does not make them untrue- it doesn’t eradicate their existence. We certainly could lose these things, or become overly attached to them in our reckless pursuit. But that is my point- we have many things to loose- things that even Rand would concede have value- which we do not want to lose. And what kind definition of hell is that, where you care for and protect so many things in a world that has, according to Rand, descended to a “lower and ever lower rung of hell.”
I don’t want to overstate my point- this argument is not some utopian hymn in praise of the modern world. My point is that Ayn Rand, and anyone who agrees with her, has made the grotesque, inverse proposition that ours is a dystopian world. So what if humanity does not have a fully developed insight into the moral, the just, the reasonable? So what if your idea of the virtuous life is different than society at large (or, more dramatically, a society does not even conceive of the concept of a virtuous life)? There are so many examples as to why man is thriving in some ways, that to argue he is not thriving in any way, makes Rand’s argument look cynical and absurd.
Here is my point in a nutshell. Mankind has demonstrated, and often succeeded, at improving his surroundings. The argument that man needs to have a better, more solid, philosophical understanding of life to improve civilization is to only restate the obvious- that man is an imperfect creature. Either we get there or we don’t. Either that spiritual component that we wrestle with matters or it does not. Man’s spiritual existence is a 50/50 proposition that operates with 100% certainty: Either man’s life has meaning or it does not, but it is a virtual certainty that we live nonetheless.
I know I need to have more meaning in my life other than the material staples this society provides and I have an intuitive belief that the majority of people need the same thing. My experiences have led me to trust that intuition. But I may be wrong. It may very well be that this world can sustain itself indefinitely on man’s ability to refine and rarify his outside condition without ever dramatically improving his personal well- being. It may very well be that our spiritual self is nothing more than a unique mix of endorphins, serotonin and dopamine that disguises itself as spiritual insight. In that case what of it? I still have that shortfall in common with my fellow man by virtue of the very fact that he is my fellow man.
My problem with Rand is best summed up with this poor analogy: no one likes a spoiled rich kid who takes their parents wealth for granted. That type of selfishness reminds me of Howard Hughes response to Katherine Hepburn’s mother in the movie The Aviator, who scolded him about proper subject matters for dinner conversation: “We don’t speak of such crude things as money, Howard” and he quipped, “Well, that’s because you never were in the position of having to earn it”. Complaining so loudly about the shortcomings of this world comes off as more than a little arrogant, ungrateful and spoiled.
-  Ironically (hypocritically) religious types have a similar weapon against secularists to keep us off balance: first is the pity they express over the spiritual despair we must experience because we suffer the absence of God’s love. But then, when we argue the benefits this physical world provide a measure of happiness, when we become apologists for man’s progress, they mock our simple naiveté and answer “Don’t you know you all this material wellbeing is just an illusion?” In thinking of my rebuttal, I’m reminded of Voltaire’s quip on his deathbed to the priest that asked him to renounce the devil and turn to God, “Now is no time to be making new enemies… For God’s sake, let me die in peace.” The problem is that believers always misunderstand and equate doubt over the existence of God as despair over that doubt. I suppose it’s easier to pity than understand.