Monday, July 23, 2007

Is Human Excellence the Mark of Mental Illness?

Last week's Chronicle of Higher Ed featured a trio of articles on followers of Ayn Rand. In one of them, an organization fronted by the bank BB&T's CEO is bribing philosophy departments with large barrels of cash if they will add a position for a pro-Rand member. It has set me to thinking.

You see, when you get on an airplane for a cross-country flight as a philosopher, you would much rather be seated next to the person who suffers from intense airsickness the entire way than the white guy who turns and says, "Oh, I'm kind of a philosopher, too. I LOVE Ayn Rand." Turns out that those little headphones they sell to listen to the in-flight movie are insufficient to strangle such an individual and the airline magazines do not produce papercuts deep enough to slice your wrists.

I've said it before and I'll say it again. If you take the writings of Nietzsche and remove everything insightful, interesting, and funny, what's left are the writings of Ayn Rand. these works are a narcotic to the upper-middle class white male of above average means and intelligence because it simultaneously meets two needs:

(1) Ego-stroking

Your comfortable place in society is a result of your being a more fit human who is the model of what the species should look like. You can sublimate the insecurity you feel about whether you will remain in your little bubble of contentment because the mere fact that you are there now is (unfalsifiable and tautological) proof that you are a superior human specimen who is realizing the excellence that the rest could achieve if they were not dragged down by those inferior welfare cases. You are where others want to be because you are who they strive to be...even if you can't get laid.

(2) Rationalization for Not Being an Empathetic Individual

Not caring about the less-fortunate when you have so much more than you need might be thought to be morally problematic. Those gosh darn bleeding hearts are always prattling on about how we should consider the needy and help those who are less fortunate. But I don't want to. Yet, holding my hands over my ears and loudly proclaiming, "LALALALALALALA," somehow seems insufficiently intellectual. I don't just want "I can't hear you," I need "I shouldn't hear you." But if I mix two parts social Darwinism with one part attacks on strawmen of Communism, I have the solution. I'm left with the idea that caring about others is actually going to harm others. If only I think about nothing but myself, I'm doing the best for everyone else because the rest will become better. My selfishness is the tide that raises all boats, so it would be immoral of me to be moral. Hence, I can relax and be a jerk who never helps anyone because only jerks never help anyone truly help anyone.

But while this may be a psychological explanation for the appeal, there is still the central doctrine itself which stands apart from its proponents. The view contends that human society ought to be oriented in such a way as to maximize the production of great individuals and that concern for all only causes, in a zero-sum game, the weak to be elevated at the expense of the great, an effect that evolutionarily has disastrous consequences for the species as a whole. The pivot of this view, of course, is this notion of great individuals of human excellence.

The notion is reminiscent of Aristotle who held that within each member of a species is a potentiality, the ultimate figure of that species, and through its lifespan each individual is acting to actualize that potential. The great ones are those who come closest to full actualization, who come closest to becoming the embodiment of the perfect being. Excellence, the line goes, is a mark of attaining a higher level of human perfection and the more people we have of higher levels of perfection, the more they will serve as models for even higher perfection to follow.

But the fly in the ointment here is whether it actually is true that excellent people are, in fact, better people. Let me put forward the possibility that those who achieve excellence are the last ones we would want to serve as models of lives well-lived.

Let me posit that humans are multi-faceted and that all people will have a range of projects and relationships. We are all being pulled in many directions at the same time. Excellence in any of these areas requires focus that will necessarily detract from our excellence in other areas. There is example after example of great political leaders who are terrible parents, great athletes who are horrible spouses, great academics who are pathetic teachers, great figure skaters and tennis players who are sorry excuses for teenagers. Excellence, rising above the crowd, requires a mixture of talent and determination. The determination means that there will be other parts of life that fail to receive the attention they need to help the individual flourish. Excellence in one area seems to have deleterious effects in others, meaning that this naive picture of human excellence that the Randians hold is worrisome. Indeed, it seems not to be evolutionary at all, but rather harken back to the old religious pre-Darwinian notion of the Great Chain of Being. Could it be that these objectivists are much more religious than they let on?

This leads to the next question, which is where this single-minded drive to excel in an area of life comes from. What would lead you to neglect central parts of your life in the name of excellence? I wonder how much of this disregard on the part of those we consider truly great is actually the result of mental illness or at least extremely deep-seated insecurity. I remember an interview with Lance Alworth, the hall of fame wide receiver for the San Diego Chargers, who said that the thing that always drove him was a memory of his father advising him with the old chestnut, "No matter how good you are, there's always someone better." Apparently missing the point that the lesson to be learned from the aphorism is to always be humble, Alworth was so irritated by his father's insistence that he would never be the absolute best that he was constantly driven to make sure he was. At all times, it was of paramount importance to him that he prove his father wrong. Maybe it's me, but this seems more than a little pathological...and, I would contend, not particularly unusual. Those who are so driven often have something that is driving them.

To be more than good, but truly great requires sacrifice that would make most normal (and I would argue, rational) people say, "No, thank you." I posit that "love of the game," whether the game is football, academic scholarship, attaining political power, seeking social change, or whatever else one might engage in, will only get you to really good. To become great requires more and that more requires the willingness to step away from that which would make your life, writ large, well lived.

Am I glad that there are those who have made such irrational choices -- doctors who work all night and day to develop life-saving measures, civil rights activists who gave their bodies and lives in leading the charge for equality, artists who suffered to create great beauty? Yeah, I am. But while I am glad there are such people, I am also glad I am not one. Their works should be admired, but I am not sure they should be. Let me argue from a cliche...I'll assert as a premise, "jack of all trades, master of none," and conclude that the masters don't know jack.

If these Rand lovers want idols, they should not look at excellence, but at well-rounded competence. Of course, that would mean their heroes would not be heroic and so they couldn't set themselves up as superior, and that they would have to care about folks other than themselves since success in inter-personal relationships would become one measure of human achievement. But then, what do I know? I'm just a bleeding heart, mediocre philosopher who will never achieve greatness because he has too much fun playing around.