A Solution For The ‘Terminal Commuter’

“…I’m so
Eager to identify with
Someone above the ground,
Someone who seemed to feel the same,
Someone prepared to lead the way, with
Someone who would die for me.”               ‘Eulogy’ – Maynard James Keenan

Freud taught us that the particular rules for goodness or conscience are taught to children; that children have to learn the “rules for feeling good.” Ernest Becker tells us that “Freud mapped out the dream of freedom of the Enlightenment: to expose artificial moral constrains on the expansive self-feeling of the life force,” but in doing so he emphasized only one half of man’s nature (Eros) at the expense of the other (Agape), which Freud thought of as a catchall for every human weakness. Immanuel Kant was certainly correct to think that conscience was one of the two sublime mysteries of creation; that it is simply a fact of our nature, regardless of which particular rules for feeling good we are taught. Unfortunately, nature does not allow us to feel “right” in any clear and intelligible way, because we are stuck with the twin ontological motives of Agape and Eros, which point in exactly opposite directions. In western civilization, Eros has been stressed to the near total exclusion of Agape, leaving western man teetering on the brink of losing himself entirely if he does not manage to succeed in his hero-projects (his work). Freud famously defined psychological health as the ability to love and to work, but traditional psychology has sensed the aforementioned stress on work in western culture and swung to the opposite extreme, emphasizing relationships (family and community) as the only true source of emotional health. Researchers such as Anthony Storr (author of “Solitude”) try to reestablish a balance, stressing the importance of one’s passions and projects, even if they be pursued in solitude, but in so doing reinforces western culture’s penchant for justifying the workaholic. Books like “The Schopenhauer Cure” by Irvin Yalom strike a better balance, in my view, especially for the introverts among us, and hint at the possibility of finding community even among the dead. However, this view still is incomplete. I believe I can articulate a better foundation for dignity and self-worth, which must start with the following insight:

“Psychology has limited its understanding of human unhappiness to the personal life-history of the individual and has not understood how much individual unhappiness is itself a historical problem in the larger sense, a problem of the eclipse of secure communal ideologies of redemption.” -Becker

Without these secure communal ideologies, we are all islands unto ourselves; we all must invent our own ideologies from scratch or merge with other movements at the considerable risk of feeling worthless on account of being a follower rather than a leader. I propose a new communal ideology of redemption, a new “immortality project,” a new “constructive neurosis” if you will, that is based on a core of Virtue Ethics and aesthetics that merges Agape and Eros.

Agape, which springs from man’s fear of isolation, impels him to merge with the “All,” with the cosmic process; to “become part of a great and higher whole”; to attain a sense of self-expansion in a larger beyond (through submission to something greater). This is what children seek in their “identification” with others (and the tribe as a whole). As Rank notes, “For  only by living in close union with a god-ideal that has been erected outside one’s own ego is one able to live at all.” Modern man, however, is in a sticky situation in this regard.

Ah, mon cher, for anyone who is alone, without God and without a master, the weight of days is dreadful. Hence one must choose a master, God being out of style.” -Camus

Eros, on the other hand, represents “the urge for more life, for exciting experience, for the development of the self-powers, for developing the uniqueness of the individual creature, the impulsion to stick out of nature and shine,” as Becker defines it; “the urge for individuation.” Because it is pointed in exactly the opposite direction as Agape, man finds himself in what Becker calls “the ontological or creature tragedy” that is uniquely man’s burden.  Both ontological motives spring from our fear of death, which we seek to assuage with Agape by merging with powerful individuals, the community, or somehow with nature, or by way of the self-expansion of Eros that would give us a “special immunity” from death that results from being good or having ultimate value through one’s own efforts. In line with the general “individualist” trend in western civilization, “Freud seems to have scorned Agape as he scorned the religion that preached it,” Becker writes. He continues by explaining the thoughts of Jung, who “…concludes that Freud must himself be so profoundly affected by the power of Eros that he actually wishes to elevate it into a dogma…like a religious numen.'”

“It is not so much that man is a herd animal, said Freud, but that he is a horde animal led by a chief,” Becker tells us. Nowhere is this more true than in western societies, where ‘the leader’ is truly worshiped. Seth Godin implores us to go out and start our own tribes–to become leaders all!  But, Becker would remind us that “all through history it is the ‘normal, average men’ who, like locusts, have laid waste to the world in order to forget themselves.” Lurking behind this fiery individualism are still more problems. Becker tells us that “Leaders need followers as much as they are needed by them: the leader projects onto his followers his own inability to stand alone, his own fear of isolation.” In this way, leaders can covertly express their urges to merge into something greater than themselves, though always in the assurance that they in fact are what made it so great! You can see here how “man wants the impossible: He wants to lose his isolation and keep it as the same time,” as Becker phrases it. This is something slightly tougher to deal with than the old adage from Shakespeare: “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.” Heavier than the burden of leadership is the nagging suspicion that one’s pathetic followers lend him no glory–that only the strength of an enemy will do him glory, if there be any glory to be had at all in this life. You can see here the genius in Nietzsche’s thought that “war has always been the grand sagacity of every spirit which has grown too inward and too profound; its curative power lies even in the wounds one receives.” The reason that many leader have taken the war path is certainly a nagging suspicion of the following truth:

“There is really no conviction possible for man unless it comes from others or from outside himself in some way –at least not for long. One simply cannot justify his own heroism in his own inner symbolic fantasy, which is what leads the neurotic to feel more unworthy and inferior.” -Becker

But what dignity can be found by clamoring to the top of the human ladder, by finding the conviction endemic to having followers, if you have no respect for the human species to begin with?

“The Sunset Limited” is an exquisite film that places this ‘impossible situation’ in clear relief, while articulating the unique difficulty faced only by the western intellectual (here I am assuming that the eastern intellectual has a greater sense of community). Mr. White, a professor played by Tommy Lee Jones, is just such a western intellectual, who has been saved from a suicide attempt by Mr. Black, played by Samuel L. Jackson. The two spar intellectually for the entire film, with Mr. Black representing life, Agape and the hope of merging with a “brotherhood of man,” while Mr. White represents death and a failed, solipsistic Eros. Mr. White, being a self-respecting intellectual, believes only in “the primacy of the intellect,” thus rendering religion and god moot avenues for apotheosis. He cannot find meaning in “the herd” because most people are far below him intellectually, to say nothing of the spiritually atrophied he sees in the “moral leper colony” (a term he uses to describe the lost souls living in Mr. Black’s building). How is he supposed to find self-respect when he merely sits atop the human shit heap? Mr. Black seems dumbfounded that Mr. White could not find any kindred souls to at least share in the company of his misery; couldn’t find any “brothers in self-destruction and despair.” “What about all them professors, their aint any kinship their,” he asks. “Good god…I loathe them and they loathe me,” Mr. White responds (loathing being a powerful word that “aint powerful enough”). And who can blame him for feeling this way?

“The great characteristic of our time is that we know everything important about human nature that there is to know. Yet never has there been an age in which so little knowledge is securely possessed, so little a part of the common understanding. The reason is precisely the advance of specialization, the impossibility of making safe general statements, which has led to a general imbecility.”

Perhaps Mr. White could handle this “general imbecility” in the herd, but it became too much for him when he realized that the shepherds offer only the “kinship” of backbiting specialists hell-bent on winning intellectual knife fights in order to carve out a reputation from the pile of “kinsmen” whose corpses they leave behind. Maynard, in the song quoted at the top of the page, yearns not just for “someone above the ground,” (above the crowd) but also for someone “who would die for me.” The intellectual knife fights may give the intellectual a sense of pride or superiority, won at the expense of his fellows, but this Erotic expansion hardly offers community. So where does this leave the modern intellectual, if he can find no community in academia? Well, perhaps he can find other professors like himself, now long-since dead. Mr White worries that even the treasures of culture will be gone someday, and given the “general imbecility” that he sees all around him, who are we to disagree? “The things I believe in are very frail,” Mr. White laments of his treasured works of fine art and high culture. He can find no community in his intellectual fore-bearers. “I want the dead to be dead. Forever. And I want to be one of them. Except, of course, you can’t be one of them, you can’t be be one of the dead, because that which has no existence can have no community. No community! My heart warms just thinking about it.” This is where Mr. White makes a crucial mistake. This is where, despite his worship of the intellect, he has failed to use his own. “Show me a religion,” he says, “that prepares one for nothingness, for death. That’s a church I might enter.” He should have looked up Existentialism or wandered into his university’s Philosophy department, but even if he didn’t, he should have realized that the inevitability of the future (the fact that there will be a future) does not negate the existence of the past (nor of human freedom, Dennet reminds us). History still happened; it is still a part of reality! Mr. White’s claim that death is equivalent to nothingness is only half true. There is an afterlife of sorts, but the rub is that you aren’t going to be alive to enjoy it–you have to enjoy it right now, in anticipation! Of course, the rub gets worse: “One has to pay dearly for immortality; one has to die several times while one is still alive.” -Nietzsche

People like Mr. White should dine with Schopenhauer for a while, not because misery enjoys company, but because he could find his kin; he could find the people who could validate his inner symbolic hero-fantasy and thus grant him what Mr. Black calls “life eternal,” or “the love of god;” something I would call eudaimonia, flourishing, or true happiness, which must be based on secure inner values. Mr. Black asserts that this “love of god” is essentially “what everyone really wants.” The problem with Christianity  (among other problems of course) is that it demands that we worship and follow the dictates of an all-powerful, all-knowing figment of our imaginations, but this is simply impossible given our cognitive limitations. Instead, we should implore people like Mr. White to worship and seek affirmation from the greatest of human intellects that have ever lived–to find kinship in an ideal community that, though in one sense is still a “figment of his imagination,” nonetheless actually lived in this world at one point and lived with such a burning passion that we can still warm our hands by its light today! Human beings can know another person’s soul so well that they can imagine a remarkably accurate model of it in their minds eye, hold conversations with it, and even be persuaded by it! This is perhaps what all writers dream of: to live on in the adoring minds of future humans like themselves, albeit as a lower-fidelity simulacrum of their living, conscious selves.

Douglas Hofstadter reminds us that in the Romance languages, the words for conscience and consciousness are one and the same. “This may merely be a lexical gap or a confusing semantic blur in these languages (the meaning on a literal level is “co-knowledge”), but even if that’s the case, I nonetheless think of it as offering us an insight that might otherwise never occur to us: that the partial internalization of other creature’ inferiority (conscience) is what most clearly marks off creatures who have large souls (much consciousness) from creatures that have small souls, and from yet others that have none or next to none.” This appears to be the exact antithesis to Nietzsche’s assertion that “Egoism is the very essence of a noble soul.” Talking of the compassion, magnanimity, and reverence for life of Albert Schweitzer, Hofstadter notes that though Schweitzer was truly “selfless,” “I have been arguing, as does etymology, that the more magnanimous one is, the greater one’s self or soul is, not the smaller! So I would say that those who strike us as self-less are in fact very soul-full — that is, they house many other souls inside their own skulls/brains/minds/souls –and I don’t think this sharing of mind-space diminishes their central core but enlarges and enriches it. As Walt Whitman put it in his poem “Song of Myself”, “I am large, I contain multitudes.” All this richness is a consequence of the fact that at some point in the dim past, the generic human brain surpassed a critical threshold of flexibility and become quasi-universal, able to internalize the abstract essences of other human brains.”

“what seems to be the epitome of selfhood–a sense of “I”–is in reality brought into being if and only if along with that self there is a sense of other selves with whom one has bonds of affection. In short, only when generosity is born is an ego born.”

Whether or not “generosity” is the key in developing an ego is debatable, but the rest of Hofstadter’s argument is in line with the research literature on the topic. Moreover, this generosity is certainly necessary from the parent.

“I am trying to justify the paradox that the capacity to be alone is based on the experience of being alone in the presence of someone, and that without a sufficiency of this experience the capacity to be alone cannot develop.”Winnicott

“Winnicott suggests that the capacity to be alone in adult life originates with the infant’s experience of being alone in the presence of the mother.” -Storr

Here you can see what has grown from the seed of thought perhaps planted first by Aristotle, who suggested that a friend is another self, and later taken up by William James, who proclaimed that “A man has as many social selves as there are individuals who recognize him.” We can also see that Schopenhauer was only partly correct when he asserted that “A man can be himself only so long as he is alone.” I would simply add that he is truly himself when physically alone and thus more free to simulate other minds that matter; gaining perspective on who he really is from the recognition of his betters. Those “universal lovers” or extroverts that constantly surround themselves with others, any others, are like those whom Nietzsche tells us talk much about themselves as a “means to conceal” their self. As Schopenhauer points out, “What now on the other hand makes people sociable is their incapacity to endure solitude and thus themselves.”

In the following explanation from Storr we see Hofstadter’s process of growing a larger soul put into clinical terms:

“Psycho-analysts usually refer to this process as introjecting a good object; meaning by this that the attachment figure has become part of the individual’s inner world, and therefore someone on whom he can rely even though the person concerned is no actually present.”

But can we not do this with the dead as well? I routinely call upon Schopenhauer, whom I have introjected more completely than any other thinker on my shelves, to lift my spirits or give me insight. He did the same with Plato, the Upanishads, and Kant, finding comfort among this community, as is evident in his observation that “I’ve never known any trouble than an hour’s reading didn’t assuage.” He did not mean to advocate a simple escapism, which Freud no doubt would accuse him of, but instead, he sought the advice and community of his intellectual ancestors. In doing so he connected himself with real events and people from the past while weaving himself into a future where his essence might live on despite his lack of consciousness of this afterlife once dead. A failure to connect oneself like this leads to solipsism, nihilism and illness. It leads one to throw his hands up and say “let’s eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die!”

The drunk has absorbed other souls, souls greater than his own, and he cannot stomach the view of himself attainable from standing on their shoulders–he seeks to annihilate his own soul (his conscience), but somehow remain conscious to enjoy it! Any serious drinker can attest to the difficulty of this task! But Mr. Black is certainly right to say that he nonetheless wants what everyone wants: “the love of god.” He just doesn’t think that this community of souls teeming inside his scull could possibly love him! And who can blame him for seeing this search for love as a fools errand anyway? Modern psychology tells him to love real people, not imaginary friends, and to justify his existence through work, not through being worthy of the respect of his imaginary friends.

Becker explains that one reason why converts proselytize so manically is that they have experienced the fact that “To see others like oneself is to believe in oneself.” The convert gets addicted to this affirmation of his existence and never seeks to outgrow the community that he found in order to satisfy Agape; he lacks Eros. Finding Schopenhauer helped me believe in myself; helped me believe that my experience of life and reality was in deed truthful and meaningful. However, if I did not seek to outgrow the great pessimist, to expand my self beyond even the self that I discovered atop his shoulders, then I would be no better than the mindless convert. But this philosophical laziness is impossible insofar as I actually have introjected Schopenhauer’s thought (or that of his successor, Nietzsche)! This is the beauty of counting these great souls among my ideal community! Finding Schopenhauer, in addition, allowed me to regain just a little bit of faith in humanity. The same can be said for the music of the band Tool (whose song is quoted at the top) and the physical abilities of Bruce Lee, which gave me some sense that the top of the human shit heap wasn’t so bad after all. Furthermore, it gave me some faith in human freedom; in man’s ability to transcend his species nature. I later found that this drive for transcendence is part of that very species nature, and that human beings become ill when they ignore this Erotic drive. They become equally ill, however, when they satisfy Eros to the total exclusion of Agape–a process that we see in the extreme of the psychotic or sociopath. “Madmen are the greatest reasoners we know” Becker reminds us, but their reason is not the Reason of Kant, and this is their problem: Reason has been divorced from their bodies, which might bring their own idiosyncratic reason back down to the ground, where they would realize that everyone bleeds. They have failed to arrive at the “point of view of a member of an intelligible world,” (Kant) that is so central to Kant’s moral thinking.

Kant thought of morality as a kind of “universal legislation” that would be binding on any intelligent, rational being, leading to a conception of a “kingdom of ends” in which this legislation has become natural law. Roger Scruton informs us that for Kant “all speculation about ends is also the postulation of an ideal world, in which things are as they ought to be and ought to be as they are.” I don’t know if James read Kant, but this Kantian germ seems to be growing in the following thought from James: “The best argument I know for an immortal life is the existence of a man who deserves one.” We all know of these people who deserve immortality, these exceptional souls. All I am proposing is that we each build this ‘world of ends’ for ourselves, populated by the best ‘universal legislators’ that we can think of. We should base our self-worth on their recognition–which amounts to our recognition that we deserve the immortal life in that kingdom of ends, as adjudicated by these legislators.  Otto Rank would be in agreement with the intensity of this project.

“Here Rank joins Kierkegaard in the belief that one should not stop and circumscribe his life with beyonds that are near at hand, or a bit further out, or created by oneself. One should reach for the highest beyond of religion: man should cultivate the passivity of renunciation to the highest powers no matter how difficult it is.” -Becker

This renunciation or submission to the highest powers, Becker tells us, “represents the fulfillment of the Agape love-expansion, the achievement of the truly creative type. Only in this way, says Rank, only by surrendering to the bigness of nature on the highest, least fetishezed level, can man conquer death.”

Without doing this, man has no center; he has no true inner values. “Man feels inferior precisely when he lacks ‘true inner values in the personality,’ when he is merely a reflex of something next to him and has no steadying inner gyroscope, no centering in himself,” Becker continues. But as we learned earlier, this center cannot grow without introjecting others into one’s own soul. Voltair said that “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” Yet we have forgotten this. God has fallen out of style, and we have ignored the necessity of inventing a new one! However, here I think that we need to pull the concept of God back down to earth, where his intelligence is limited, but limited to the point of view from the ideal community of human legislators–legislators who once had bodies! After all, as Nietzsche tells us, “There is in general good reason to suppose that in several respects the gods could all benefit from instruction by us human beings. We humans are – more humane.” There are two problems with the omnipotent god: 1) we can’t possibly model his essence in our minds, hold a conversation with it, or learn anything from it, and 2) because this god is beyond our comprehension, we can justify all of the evils of this world as part of his perfect, and perfectly incomprehensible “divine plan.”

So why can’t Science become our new avenue for apotheosis? Our modern worship of Science, though not without a rich culture of Enlightenment values, is ultimately inadequate to the task of apotheosis (and let’s not blind ourselves to the truth that Science is now a religion–perhaps it has been all along.) William James prophetically espoused that “Our esteem for facts has not neutralized in us all religiousness. It is itself almost religious. Our scientific temper is devout.” The problem with science as a personal faith or “secure communal ideology” is that, as the scientist James puts it, “Our faith is faith in someone else’s faith, and in the greatest matters this is most the case. Our belief in truth itself, for instance, that there is a truth, and that our minds and it are made for each other — what is it but a passionate affirmation of desire, in which our social system backs us up?” The particle physicist has faith in Einstein’s faith that “god doesn’t play dice.” But if we find later that god does play dice, then this faith is shattered. Because our faith in Einstein is based entirely on results, he can fall from the pantheon of god-like scientists for too many reasons. Instead, we should respect the man, the character Einstein; not simply the number of equations he got right in the end. Why must scientists have only the faith in another’s faith? “The jump doesn’t depend on man after all–there’s the rub: faith is a matter of grace” (Becker). We do not get to choose to have faith; some of us are just blessed with it. The same is true of values: we do not get to choose which things we happen to find valuable after sober reflection–these are just existential realities; givens of existence. More important with regards to our initial question, faith in Science doesn’t give people a means of salvation–unless of course they manage to garner the prestige of an Einstein (and keep it!). In short, the scientific community often offers little room for Agape, though its worship of figures like Einstein smacks of a deep longing for submission to such intrepid leadership. James explains that often it is “not insight but the prestige of the opinions, that makes the spark shoot from them and light up our sleeping magazines of faith.” Our culture worships the leader, the doer, and has little respect for the person who has merely absorbed a great deal of scientific thought.

The dilettante has always been forgotten, remarkable as many of them have been. Would we even know the name Boswell did he not preserve for us the essence of the great Samuel Johnson? Nathaniel Branden attempts to deride the dilettante or “Spiritual social metaphysician,” whom he claims “does virtually nothing at all” and whose “chief virtue, he proclaims or implies, is that he is too good for this world.” He believes the standards of his society to be beneath him and demands respect from his friends and acquaintances not based on what he does but for “what he is.” His “claim to esteem rests on his alleged possession of a superior kind of soul–a soul that is not his mind, not his thoughts, not his values, not anything specifiable.” To be sure, we have all met the shallow spiritualist, the tortured artist who never displays his art, the seeker only in appearance. But in one stroke Branden has dismissed the the actual spiritualist, the actual artist, the actual seeker simply on account of his inability to show in action the worth of his soul! The creative artist, Anthony Storr tells us, forgets “that art is communication, and that, implicitly or explicitly, the work which they produce in solitude is aimed at somebody,” but then very correctly backtracks a little to point out that the artist is a self too, is a “somebody” to which it is still valuable to communicate.Though the cultivation of a great soul is no doubt the achievement of a lifetime, Branden only affords it legitimate respect if the large-souled person can wield this soul out in society for some productive end; can display the first half of self-esteem, self-efficacy. What happened to the second half of his self-esteem equation: self-respect? Does this large-souled person not deserve self-respect based on the achievement of his large soul? Perhaps this problem will be solved in due time, as the dilettante can now show his worth in myriad ways through the internet.

In this modern digital age we actually have the technical means at our disposal for the true immortality of our essence! Our Facebook profile will exist after we die, and our great-great grand-kids can actually know us from this digital presence–this digital ghost! We don’t have to wait until Kurzweil’s Singularity in order to upload ourselves. Soon the fear of our digital ghosts–of the imprint that we will unintentionally leave behind–will be impossible to ignore. Beware all those who film Jackass-style stunts, for they will stay in the cloud forever! I propose that this will be a very good thing. We are entering an age when even the plumber can have the self-respect of a professor, so long as he invests in his soul and uploads the products and artifacts of his investment to the cloud. Perhaps the dilettante does have a future, one in which he can actually feel good about himself, even by Branden’s draconian standards!


At this point I think we are ready to articulate the new religion, which would “prepare one for nothingness,” which would offer modern man his salvation. Where Mr. Black holds that “you must love your brother or die,” echoing W.H. Auden’s reflection that “We must love one another or die,” I would say that each gets this equation entirely backwards: “you must find the love of your ideal brothers or die!” You must find some human beings, living, dead or both, whom you can truly respect, absorb as much of their perspective as possible, and do what you have to in order to gain their respect. In order to fully understand my position, we will need to compare it with the thought of some giants in humanistic psychology, whose position on self-esteem needs some work.

Nathaniel Branden defines “self-esteem as the experience of being competent to cope with the basic challenges of life and of being worthy of happiness.” For him, self-esteem has two components, self-efficacy and self-respect, however, his position here is entirely inconsistent from one paragraph to the next. He is in one breath saying that competence (self-efficacy) makes one feel worthy of happiness (self-respect), and in another breath he is saying that this feeling of worthiness (self-respect) is the natural state of man, regardless of his competence. He cannot have it both ways. He throws out the whole of Existentialism as being essentially “religionist” and claims that there is no “natural” conflict in man’s psyche; there is no “Original Sin” or “creature guilt,” but instead “sin is originated.”

“A state of chronic dread is not man’s natural condition. The fact that man is neither omniscient nor omnipotent nor infallible nor immortal, does not constitute grounds for his ego to feel overwhelmed by a sense of inefficacy. A rational man does not set his standard of efficacy in opposition to his own nature and to the nature of reality.” -Branden

The most obvious problem with this view is that in fact a rational man does not “set his standard of efficacy” at all! Branden would have us believe that man’s “emotional apparatus is a machine. Man is its driver. According to the values he selects, he makes the motivational power of his emotions work in the service of his life—or against it.” But man does not select his values! He absorbs some of the causa-sui project from his culture, but ultimately cannot choose what he happens to find valuable anymore than he can choose his faith! (He can choose to build novel immortality-projects out of the values he discovers in his soul, of course, but he cannot choose his own values.) Man’s standard of efficacy is naturally in “opposition to his own nature” because his two basic motives point in different directions and seem impossible to reconcile. Man cannot help but value Eros and Agape–try as he might to indulge one at the expense of the other. A woman cannot decide to love the baby that she has just given birth to: she values it as a matter of biological fact. Our “free will” does not allow us to shut off the oxytocin valves or decide by dint of shear will-power to find sexual stimulation unbearably painful or a radiant sunset unbearably ugly. Man cannot choose to jettison values like beauty or justice, they are simply facts about what human nature tends towards valuing! One does not need to go to the lengths of Kant in proposing an ideal world that any intelligent being could approve of, but instead one needs only to propose an ideal world that any intelligent human being could approve of! The second massive error that Branden makes here is to assume that man’s “natural condition,” as he calls it, is that of healthy self-esteem. He implies here that something has gone wrong in his environment if man lacks self-respect. But something has gone wrong in man’s environment! Namely, man has fucked up his environment and destroyed nearly all of his secure communal ideologies! How could Branden, who came after Becker, not see the truth in the following quote?

“Psychology has limited its understanding of human unhappiness to the personal life-history of the individual and has not understood how much individual unhappiness is itself a historical problem in the larger sense, a problem of the eclipse of secure communal ideologies of redemption.” -Becker

Branden takes for granted that we have a secure communal ideology: that of competence and a good protestant work ethic! He does not see how flimsy his own immortality-project would be for people lacking his talent for selling books! He takes as complete what Becker calls “The creative solution” to the “impossible situation.” As Becker explains, “the real problem that genius has: how to develop a creative work with the full force of one’s passion, a work that saves one’s soul, and at the same time to renounce that very work because it cannot by itself give salvation. In the creative genius we see the need to combine the most intensive Eros of self-expression with the most complete Agape of self-surrender.” But the artist attempts to surrender himself to an adoring society of his contemporaries, when he should base his self-respect instead on a society of his betters, most of whom having long since departed this earth. Although, Schopenhauer, who tried this successfully, would warn us that it is easier said than done! Returning to Branden, we find that his communal ideology of redemption goes as follows:

“Life is growth; not to move forward, is to fall backward; life remains life, only so long as it advances. Every step upward opens to man a wider range of action and achievement, and creates the need for that action and achievement. There is no final, permanent ‘plateau.'”

Ah the workaholic rears its ugly head! If there is no permanent “plateau,” then where is self-respect supposed to rest? Where does it rest “naturally?” Is it not a carrot perpetually dangling in front of our faces as we desperately sprint towards it in utter futility? Branden presupposes self-respect as the “natural condition” of man, and then claims that he cannot keep this unless he constantly achieves more and more. Does this not smack of an insecure soul–one who must prove his efficacy again and again and doesn’t simply know who he is? In his view we are like sharks who would suffocate if they stopped moving forward. My god, I feel exhausted already! He contrasts the soul of the noble workaholic with “A different kind of soul” in the person who “takes pleasure in working only at the routine and familiar, who is inclined to enjoy working in a semi-daze, who sees happiness in freedom from challenge or struggle or effort: the soul of a person profoundly deficient in selfesteem, to whom the universe appears as unknowable and vaguely threatening.” Hold on here! The universe is in fact unknowable to any of us (perhaps a future science will render this untrue), and the universe is not just vaguely threatening; it is god damned menacing from the get-go! Branden fails to address the problem of Mr. White, who sees reality just fine, but finds only “nature red in tooth and claw.” Moreover, he just contradicted his attack on Existentialism by defining ever more “different kind[s] of soul[s].” “Still a different kind of soul is revealed,” he claims, in the person who sees no value in work and longs only for “relief” and finds enjoyment only in “the dim flicker of undemanding sensations.” To Branden this is “the soul of a person with scarcely a shred of self-esteem.” Didn’t he just claim that the natural condition of man is that of high self-esteem? How can these strange “other souls,” these “unnatural” souls exist?  They have been twisted by their environment, Branden would explain, but then he would double-back on himself and claim that “self-esteem can be better understood as a sort of spiritual achievement, that is, a victory in psyche’s evolution.” How can we “naturally” start out with something that we have to “achieve?” This view is simply incoherent. This “victory in psyche’s evolution,” furthermore, is only the basis for self-esteem if it produces competence and results out in the world of work! There is a deep confusion in Branden’s thinking, here, which at one time equates self-esteem with a capacity for self-efficacy (this “spiritual achievement”) and at another time defines it as self-efficacy itself (efficacy in action–i.e. “the experience of self-efficacy”)! “To develop self-esteem is to widen the capacity to be happy; self-esteem allows people to be convinced they deserve happiness,” Branden tells us. You can see clearly here how confused Branden is: self-esteem has two parts, one of which is the conviction that one deserves to be happy (self-respect), but here Branden defines self-esteem as empowering the same conviction that his definition of self-esteem presupposes. This is because Branden really doesn’t believe in the second part of self-esteem–only the first. He worships at the alter of Calvinist productivity! It is hard to pin Branden down to this claim of self-respect being natural, but his fellow humanistic psychologists come to my aid here.

“Every human being, with no exception, for the mere fact to be it, is worthy of unconditional respect of everybody else; he deserves to esteem himself and to be esteemed.” -Jose-Vincente Bonet

A person with a healthy self-esteem, humanistic psychologists tell us, accepts and loves himself/herself unconditionally, because he has a right to. Well this all sounds cheery and swell, but it is in direct conflict with Branden’s requirement of efficacy (it is not just the capacity but the experience of efficacy in action that is required). Carl Rogers agrees with Bonet here and since him, the concept of self-esteem has been approached in humanistic psychology as an inalienable right. But here they all posit some ideal world and fail to deal with the real world, where Branden is correct, where efficacy, competence, and success determine self-respect. Its all fine and dandy to claim that we have an “inalienable right” to feel good about ourselves, but how are you going to actually convince people to in fact feel good about themselves? It doesn’t do much good to tell a starving Rawandan refugee that he has a right to food! The important question is “how do we get him fed!?” How do you convince someone starved of love his whole life that all the while he “deserved this right?” What good does that do him? Will it not also do some harm? If all along this person deserved love but didn’t get any, will this not produce guilt? “What did I do wrong to thwart my birthright?” Insofar as it fails to produce guilt, this line of reasoning reinforces our helplessness: “there is nothing you could have done to get the love that you deserved.” The scene in Good Will Hunting springs to mind: “its not your fault, its not your fault!” But then are we not in the position of Branden’s whelp who feels no efficacy (and for good reason)? This twisted logic fails to see that a “right” implies a “freedom” or a “power,” but you can’t claim that every person has an inalienable “right” to something that most of them in fact don’t have the freedom or power to enjoy. This “right” is just meaningless, to say nothing of the ridiculous proposition that it is “inalienable” when clearly plenty of people find it quite alienable! In truth, this whole line about unconditional acceptance is simply a giving up on the project of secure communal values; in fact, it is the giving up of values; an admission that we don’t need communal values; an assertion that man does not need salvation! All we have to do now is convince every man that he requires no salvation, and we have mental health for the masses in one fell swoop!

Oddly enough, Branden is closer to the mark all along in his claims that efficacy is the foundation of self-esteem:

“It is not blind ‘acceptance’ that a normal person desires, nor unconditional ‘love,’ but understanding.”

Branden hits the nail right on the head here, so we will forgive him for completely contradicting himself, and parting dramatically from Rogers and other “unconditional lovers.” At least he shows us why Rogers failed to make any progress in the concept of self-esteem by deeming it a sacred right: people don’t actually want unconditional love and acceptance (Agape) alone; they also want earned respect (Eros). We want people to understand us, to truly see us before offering their approval, which would be meaningless if conferred solely on the basis of our pulse and opposable thumbs. To disagree with this is to deny that the rite of initiation, which was ubiquitous in every human culture before our own, was ever necessary! The necessity remains, though we ignore it in favor of telling our children that they are all unique little snowflakes who deserve love regardless of what they do (which we couldn’t possibly mean, but which we likely feel as parents). However, I will depart from Branden here in claiming that this “efficacy” does not always have to produce money or prove its utility in society. A firm self-esteem can be based on one’s objective knowledge of the greatness of his soul. This should be our society’s communal values! We should respect those with large souls, regardless of their earning power or how many inventions they have contributed to the community. We should worship figures like Samuel Johnson or Michel de Montaigne–men who didn’t invent nuclear physics, but who did become the closest thing to gods that we can hope for in this life.

William James got it right when he claimed that “What every genuine philosopher (every genuine man, in fact) craves most is praise although the philosophers generally call it recognition!” We want to feel both Eros and Agape in the same round of applause! It is not unconditional acceptance, mind you, but unconditional acceptance of those above a certain standard! Once you reach a certain size of soul, you deserve unconditional love, but not until then! This should be the rite of passage in our society; not a drivers test and the SAT. There is a “plateau” out there: it is the “unshakable serenity” that the Stoics pursued, the “love of God,” the “life eternal, in the palm of your hand…warm to the touch” that Mr. Black speaks of, and the objective respect of one’s ideal community that I propose. Only when we have thoroughly vetted our worth by comparison with our betters do we possess secure inner values and discover harmony. Only then does our happiness rest on an unshakable foundation–a priori self esteem! I am proposing that Virtue Ethics be taken seriously again; that we take Martin Luther King up on his challenge to bring about a world where people “are judged on the contents of their character” instead of the color of their skin (or the color of their Porsche!). Many people are suspicious of Virtue Ethics because it sounds like a narcissistic doctrine where “the good” is tantamount to “whatever easily engenders respect from my fellows.” People don’t like to admit that 1) James is right that we all desire recognition, that we are all vane to this extent, and 2) that we are being judged in this manner anyway, regardless of what we may posit as ideal, though we are judged less on the contents of our character and more on the contents of our stock portfolio. But these people miss the point, which is that we should seek not the respect easily purchased from society, but the respect that is secured by dint of hard work on our souls; respect meted out by those who have done the same (be they living or dead). Virtue Ethics is about “being” rather than doing (though of course much “doing” is required to “be” something respectable)–it is about appreciating your own soul or character aesthetically. Do you want a deep, beautiful soul, or a shallow, ugly one? This is the proper perspective to take on morality: an aesthetic one. Do you want to paint your life’s canvas with shitty colors or beautiful colors? Kierkeegard would argue that the aesthetic attitude is only a bridge to the truly ethical, but a necessary one nonetheless (he would say that I only describe the “intellectual aesthete;” the Don Juan of intellectual pleasures).

Branden agrees in many ways with this project, though he grants the living a monopoly on the sale of approval.

“Is there a mirror in which man can perceive his psychological self? In which he can perceive his own soul? Yes. The mirror is another consciousness. Man is able, alone, to know himself conceptually. What another consciousness can offer is the opportunity for man to experience himself perceptually.”

“This, then, is the root of man’s desire for companionship and love: the desire to perceive himself as an entity in reality—to experience the perspective of objectivity—through and by means of the reactions and responses of other human beings.” -Branden

The piece that Brandon is missing is that man can also, by introjecting other great souls, appreciate himself not just “conceptually” but “perceptually” or aesthetically. Art historian Wilhelm Worringer, in total agreement with Schopenhauer, once wrote that:

“Aesthetic enjoyment is objectified self-enjoyment. To enjoy aesthetically means to enjoy myself in a sensuous object diverse from myself, to empathize myself into it.”

Nietzsche adds that: “Nothing is beautiful, only man: on this piece of naiveté rests all aesthetics, it is the first truth of aesthetics. Let us immediately add its second: nothing is ugly but degenerate man – the domain of aesthetic judgment is therewith defined.”

If we accept Bonet and Roger’s version of self-respect, then we have to unconditionally love even the ugliness of degenerate man! We have to strip ourselves of the values that come natural to human nature and pretend that even shit smells sweet. We should amend the first truth of aesthetics to read instead “nothing is beautiful but great men, full-souled men!” Otherwise, we have to call this beautiful as well:

Barring a thyroid condition or genetic obesity, does this really deserve unconditional respect?

What I am suggesting is nothing short of a kind of ancestor worship. Becker explains the basic psychology as follows:

“I am immortal by continuing to please this object who now may not be alive but continues to cast a shadow by what it has left behind and may even be working its powers from the invisible spirit world. This is a part of the psychology of ancient ancestor worshipers as well as of moderns who continue to live according to family codes of honor and conduct.”

Only when we have acknowledged history and regained this sense of who we are, when we have set a “plateau” for a minimum of Eros and set some minimum standards for our conferring of Agape, can we achieve harmony.

“Freud was right in seeing a similarity between the feeling of unity with the universe and the feeling of unity with a beloved person, but wrong to dismiss such experiences as merely regressive illusions. The sense of perfect harmony with the universe, of perfect harmony with another person, and of perfect harmony within the self are intimately connected; indeed, I believe them to be essentially the same phenomenon.” -Anthony Storr

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6 Responses to A Solution For The ‘Terminal Commuter’

  1. Pingback: A Solution For The 'Terminal Commuter' « Think On These Things | U.S. Justice Talk

  2. Where do I begin with this epic treatise? One question that occurs to me is, who is this prescription for? Is this a solution only for the Mr. Black types or do you think the common man who is much less aware of his existential angst can put this into practice?

    I want to pick apart the discussion of self esteem a bit because you left out one critical point that we have discussed previously, and I am curious whether that was done intentionally.

    There is one context in which the “self esteem is derived from efficacy” and the “self esteem is produced internally” theories converge, where “doing” and “knowing” become one. That context is self-mastery, or efficacy as applied to self-control. It seems to me that our internal experience of efficacy is the foundation upon which all other self-esteem is built.

    You state that: “A firm self-esteem can be based on one’s objective knowledge of the greatness of his soul.”

    But where does this objective knowledge come from? I think it must come from self-mastery. If we consider some simple examples I think this becomes obvious. If my brain is saying I should stop eating and yet I keep eating then I am unlikely to experience much self-respect. Even if the outside world sees me as efficacious and even if I internally want desperately to believe that I am worthy of respect, I am unlikely to experience much self respect if I can’t exhibit simple self control.

    Where does a master meditator’s self esteem come from. I would suggest that it comes from his capacity for self control. Certainly he does not demonstrate much efficacy to the outside world if he spends his whole day meditating. If the buddhist were to stop practicing meditation and allow himself to slowly descend into the monkey mind (beginner’s mind), would he still feel self esteem?

    • Hey Greg,

      To answer your first question: yes, I think that this sort of solution is apt for the western intellectual alone, though I can see where you might get confused about who I am directing this message to as I am also saying that we should change “our” communal values so as to encourage and thus produce more of these intellectuals.
      I completely agree with your take on self-mastery as the source of the objective knowledge we have about our worth. However, the introjection of the perspectives of other great minds help us establish the “milestones” for self-mastery. Before I saw Bruce Lee, I simply didn’t know that such degrees of self-mastery were possible! Once I have a “god” or “role model” or what have you, then I have some reference point from which to judge my own level of self-mastery.
      Regarding the Buddhist, I am not sure how to answer the question, because technically the question of “self-esteem” is going to be quite meaningless to a successful Buddhist (i.e. one who has extinguished his “self”). The Dalai Lama was confused when westerners told him about the concept of “low self-esteem,” which was almost inconceivable to him, but I am not sure if this is because he was enlightened and thus has no “self” to “esteem” or because his culture is extremely compassionate and forgiving and thus people don’t generally develop negative self-image from the opinions of others. I do think that the “self-mastery” aspect is what any ascetic is essentially “trading in” when it comes to respect and social currency, but I don’t think that it is entirely self-generated…it depends on his knowing that other people know how hard it is to master ones self. Schopenhauer once wrote that “Martyrdom is the only way a man can become famous without ability,” and Nietzsche has a similar criticism to throw at the ascetic, but even Nietzsche would have to respect to pure difficulty involved in such self-mastery, though he would view it as quite pointless, sick, needlessly masochistic, and ultimately directed still at the “external” respect implied by Branden’s “self-efficacy.”

  3. Ari Lovejoy says:

    …Interesting thoughts…self mastery and controll bring self esteem…I’m not so sure I agree with it though. Why? Because you not taking into account the fact that some people don’t have much controll over their situations.. and.are actually subject to oppresive or hostile and violent situations…those people aren’t allowed to have self esteem? How about an innocent person in jail..being tortured? Or that fat David…perhaps he had been physically and sexually abused as a child, and uses excess wieght to help cushion himself from the world..same with a women who’s been raped….No, I think self-esteem dosen’t come with your ability to controll or not controll these temporay situations…but with the ability to ask the question…why am I suffering, and to know that we’re not meant to suffer on this material level…we’re meant to be in bliss and to connect to the source of all living beings…this is the storehouse of bliss, knowledge, and compassion.. this brings self esteem….

    • Thanks for the comments Ari. Actually I agree with you here. I almost completely ignore the topic of “attachment,” which is entirely out of the control of the child, as well as abuse and so forth, and limited my project to the case of Mr. White and intellectuals like him. If you watch the Sunset Limited, Mr. Black explores the typical therapist angles, even asking if Mr. White has tried medication. Moreover, I completely agree with Carl Rogers approach to therapy (client-centered) where unconditional love and acceptance are used by the therapist to rebuilt the clients trust and self-esteem, however, I think at some point the therapist is doing damage if he doesn’t use a bit of “tough love” and demand that the client make hard choices for himself. The bit about “fat David” is simply to illustrate that we should not condone all forms of behavior as equally acceptable or equally worthy of honoring simply because they are “human.” After all, murdering is human as well, and despite the bad “attachment history,” or the likelihood of abuse in the persons past, if he murders, we should remove “acceptance” from our repertoire of moves (to say nothing of honoring). I don’t think that we need to condemn “fat David” or anything like this, but acceptance would not be an act of love either…because he is obviously eating himself into a wide but shallow grave. There are quite simply NO virtues that “fat David” appears to be demonstrating that would form the basis of our respect, admiration, and that would inspire us to greater heights ourselves. That is not to say that it would not “grow my soul” or whatever to sit down with him and try to understand him…but I think we all know people who sit on the couch all day eating chips and watching TV, whose souls are quite undeveloped despite their strong attachment history and lack of traumatic events in their past…people who simply don’t merit our respect and whose soul it would take all of 5 minutes to “introject.” I am simply saying that this kind of person should not be honored in our society on the level that David Hume ought to be (notice that Hume was a porker too, but had a remarkable soul).

  4. Apparently Aristotle has summarized my entire rant for me:

    “Dignity consists not in possessing honors, but in the consciousness that we deserve them.”

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