My subject today is the philosophy of history. The philosophy of history asks: why did men act as they did in the past? What is the cause and the meaning of the key developments of previous cultures and centuries, up to an including our own? What is the fundamental factor, the prime mover, shaping the course of human history?
Note the phrase philosophy of history. Peikoff eschews more modest phrases such as study of history or historical sociology or sociocultural evolution. The study of the factors shaping human history, Peikoff implies, can only be discovered through philosophy. Detailed knowledge of sociology, psychology, politics, economics is, presumably, not necessary. Philosophical knowledge holds the key to understanding history.
Here we touch upon the main epistemological error of the Objectivist philosophy of history, an error stemming from the tendency in Randian thought to place to much emphasis on the cognitive value of wide abstractions. People lacking detailed knowledge like to assume that one can get by merely by manipulating broad essentials. But no great insight into human nature or the human condition can be discovered through this method. History, which is a product of the actions (though not necessarily the intentions) of many human beings, often acting contrary to one another, cannot be discovered through the logical or rhetorical manipulation of broad essentials. Detailed knowledge is necessary before we can even begin making educated guesses. The reasoning-by-broad-essentials method advocated by Peikoff (see the final chapter of OPAR) can only lead to rationalization. Since many different conclusions can be inferred from broad essentials, each individual inference is entirely arbitrary. In such a case, the only governing mechanism for determining a specific inference is ideology and wishful thinking. The Objectivist philosophy of history is mere rationalization. It has no cognitive worth other than providing insight into the psychology and motives of Rand and her orthodox followers.
What, precisely, are Objectivists rationalizing in their philosophy of history? The purpose of their theory is twofold: (1) To harmonize the facts of history with Rand's view of human nature; and (2) To explain why Objectivism will triumph in the end. Let’s examine these two goals of rationalization more closely:
1. Human nature and history. Unlike most theories of human nature, which focus on proclivities of behavior observable in the human species, Rand isolated one factor, which she greatly exaggerated—namely, free will. Because human beings have free will, Rand argued, this means that man can shape “his soul in the image of his moral ideal, in the image of … the rational being he is born able to create.” But what about those inherent tendencies that make up traditional theories of human nature, such as those encapsulated in the myth of original sin? Rand denied that any such tendencies exist: “Do not hide behind the cowardly evasion that man is born with free will, but with a ‘tendency’ to evil. A free will saddled with a tendency is like a game with loaded dice. It forces man to struggle through the effort of playing, to bear responsibility and pay for the game, but the decision is weighted in favor of a tendency that he had no power to escape. If the tendency is of his choice, he cannot possess it at birth; if it is not of his choice, his will is not free.” [FNI, 168-169]
The essential point in this passage is Rand’s insistence about the innateness of tendencies. Rand does not deny that tendencies exist; she simply insists that if man has free will, his tendencies must be of his choice. That, in short, is what Rand means by free will: that we choose our tendencies. If men display a tendency to evil (and, historically, some men have displayed such a tendency), that tendency arises from their own free choice.
Although Rand denied that any innate tendencies toward evil existed in human nature, she made statements implying the existence of innate tendencies toward goodness. Consider what she says in her Playboy Interview:
In any historical period when men were free, it has always been the most rational philosophy that won. It is from this perspective that I would say, yes, Objectivism will win. But there is no guarantee, no predetermined necessity about it.
What this statement implies is that when people are free, they will make the morally proper choice—i.e., they will choose “the most rational philosophy,” which, according to Objectivism, would also be the most moral philosophy. And this view is entirely consistent with Rand’s insistence that men have no evil tendencies: because in the absence of such tendencies, why would anyone, let alone the majority, choose the more evil option?
Yet this immediately raises the problem. Since historically, many men have chosen (perhaps most) philosophies that Rand would have regarded as irrational (and hence evil), how are we to explain this? If men can freely choose their tendencies, why have so many men throughout history chosen evil tendencies? This is the first question that Objectivist philosophy of history sets out to answer.
2. Objectivist eschatology. The other main goal of the Objectivist philosophy of history is to explain why Rand’s philosophy will win in the end. Thus speaketh Leonard Peikoff:
On the basis of the theory of history I have put forth today, therefore, it is proper to have hope for the future. I do think that Objectivism will triumph ultimately and shape the world’s course… ‘Ultimately,’ however, can be a long time [perhaps forever?]…. But if we spread the right ideas now, we each will have a share in bringing about that shining future…” [“Philosophy and Psychology in History”]
Is not this wonderful? Objectivism will triumph in the end! Of course, there is no guarantee, no predetermined necessity about it. But “ultimately” it will happen!
Note as well how it will happen: by spreading the “right” ideas—which means, practically speaking, by spreading the ideas approved of by ARI. Every one of us can help bring about a “shining future.” It’s really all very simple. It doesn’t require getting involved in politics or making a breakthrough in science or engineering or anything that requires a high degree of intellect and energy and loads of work: no, it is not difficult at all: you merely have to spread the ideas of orthodox Objectivism. The Objectivist who runs about debating and denouncing those who disagree with orthodox Objectivism is therefore helping to bring about a shining future! How blessed are they that walketh in the paths of Rand and Peikoff!