Steven Pinker describes the Tragic Vision as follows:
In the Tragic Vision, humans are inherently limited in knowledge, wisdom, and virtue, and all social arrangements must acknowledge those limits. “Mortal things suit mortals best” wrote Pindar; “from the crooked timber of humanity no truly straight thing can be made,” wrote Kant. The Tragic Vision is associated with Hobbes, Burke, Smith, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, the jurist Oliver Wendell Homes Jr., the economists Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, the philosophers Isaiah Berlin and Karl Popper, and the legal scholar Richard Posner…
In the Tragic Vision, ...human nature has not changed. [Pareto: “The centuries roll by, human nature remains the same!”] Traditions such as religion, the family, social customs, sexual mores, and political institutions are a distillation of time-tested techniques that let us work around the shortcomings of human nature. They are as applicable to humans today as they were when they were developed, even if no one today can explain their rationale. However imperfect society may be, we should measure it against the cruelty and deprivation of the actual past, not the harmony and affluence of an imagined future. We are fortunate enough to live in a society that more or less works, and our first priority should be not to screw it up, because human nature always leaves us teetering on the brink of barbarism. [Blank Slate, 287]
How does Rand’s vision of human nature and the human condition compare with that projected by the Tragic Vision of conservatism? Let’s examine this in a bit more detail.
First off, Rand would probably have objected to the phrase “Tragic Vision,” which can so easily be conflated with her “malevolent universe” premise. Indeed, that would have been consistent with Rand’s typical modus operandi: she not infrequently exaggerated the views of those she disagreed with so that she could more easily dismiss them out of hand. Rand defined the malevolent universe premise as “the theory that man, by his very nature, is helpless and doomed—that success, happiness, achievement are impossible to him—that emergencies, disasters, catastrophes are the norm of his life and that his primary goal is to combat them.” Now that is clearly an exaggeration of the Tragic Vision, which merely asserts that things can go very wrong when men lose their sense of the dangers and challenges that threaten them. In the Tragic Vision, life is a struggle against evil, stupidity, arrogance, vanity, and all the other ills that flesh is heir to; yet it is a struggle that can be waged with at least a moderate degree of success.
What about the view that human knowledge faces limits? While Rand recognized some limits to human knowledge (e.g., she recognized that human beings are not omniscient), she tended to regard any insistence on such limits as an attack against man’s mind. Moreover, there is a strain of rationalism in Rand that is entirely foreign to representatives of the Tragic Vision such as Hume, Burke, Hayek, Polanyi, and Oakeshott. Rand insists on knowing the rationale for everything in society. No tradition has any worth whatsoever in her mind unless it can defend itself on the basis of “reason.” The notion that some things are too complicated to be understood by “reason” is entirely foreign to her. So on this issue Rand clearly finds herself diametrically opposed to the Tragic Vision.
Because the Tragic Vision recognizes the limitations of human knowledge, it adopts a more cautious, pragmatic approach to political questions. Whereas Rand simply declares, ex cathedra, against any initiation of coercion (which, in her mind, includes such things as involuntary taxation and military conscription), the Tragic Vision recognizes the danger of trying to make a very broad principle fit each and every circumstance that might confront a nation. As Burke put it: “The nature of man is intricate; the objects of society are of the greatest possible complexity; and therefore no simple disposition or direction of power can be suitable either to man's nature, or to the quality of his affairs.” So once again we find Rand and her philosophy at odds with the Tragic Vision.
What about the issue of the permanence of human nature? Given Rand’s repeated mantra “A is A,” isn’t it obvious that she shares the belief that human nature is fixed? After all, wasn’t it Rand who insisted that “you are not free to escape from your nature.” However, there is a large dose of equivocation in all of this, of playing fast and loose with the meanings of words. Rand defines human nature in terms of its impermanence. Human nature, for Rand, means having a “volitional consciousness.” By this phrase, Rand is not merely noting the capability of choosing, say, between chocolate and strawberry ice cream. No, human beings have the ability, according to Rand, of actually choosing their fundamental character. (Man is a being of "self-made soul.") What is innate in man is not his characteristics, nor his personality, nor his deepest sentiments, but his capacity for having characteristics. Men are a product of their premises; and they may choose which premises they please. So for all practical purposes, Rand does not believe that human nature fixed. The crooked timber of humanity can be made straight—provided humanity adopts better premises!
What about the conviction, share by those who partake of the Tragic vision, that our first priority is not to screw up and make things worse? While Rand may not have been entirely unsympathetic with this fear, she tended to frame the issue very differently. Rand was fond of viewing society through the prism of her novel, Atlas Shrugged, in which society's lapse into barbarism serves as a kind of purge, opening the way for a new social order dominated by Rand's political preference and her peculiar brand of heroism. So while Rand might have agreed that society can easily slip into barbarism, she appears to have been much more sanguine about the prospects of putting it back together again. Since all that matters is what premises people believed, and since individuals were free to choose any premises they like, there is always hope that society can be “saved.” “Ideas take time to spread,” Rand once wrote, “but we will only have to wait decades [for our ideas to triumph]—because reason and reality are on our side." [Letters of Ayn Rand, 596] Such wishful thinking does not accord well with the Tragic Vision.
So in conclusion: it would appear that Rand’s Objectivist philosophy cannot, in any meaningful sense of the word, be reconciled with the Tragic Vision. Yet if Rand is not a partaker of the Tragic Vision, does this mean she partakes of the Utopian Vision? That will be a question addressed in my next post.