I’ve known for more than a year that I want to write a book about what we’re getting wrong.
As a species, that is.
Through all of human history.
Surely that’s a man-sized ambition — and perhaps also a new high-water mark for the abstract concept denoted by the word “hubris.”
That’s as may be. In truth, this is an undertaking I would rather not undertake. For one thing, I’m busy and, in consequence, I’m physically tired much of the time. For another, this is less a thankless job than it is a task for which I can reasonably expect to be punished. Not officially punished, one may hope, but it seems likely that I will be derided, hectored or hounded as I proceed with this project. I don’t shun that sort of thing, not ever, but it’s not something I actively court.
But none of that matters. The ideas I want to talk about drive me wild — in the best of all possible senses. I abhor every form of the claim of unchosen duty, and yet I feel that I must go through all this, that I cannot live in peace, much less die in peace, until I have transcribed every bit of everything that races through my brain.
But I can laugh at myself, too, so much am I alike, in my incipient dotage, to Dostoevsky’s Underground Man: “I am a sick man. I am a spiteful man.” Saving the world is a madman’s obsession, after all, a belfry awaiting its loyal complement of bats.
So that’s one caveat, one of plenty more to come: I might be completely mad. Or I might simply be madly wrong. Or I might be so cloyingly clever as a demagogue that I can make you think that wrong is right and right is wrong. I believe with everything I have within me that I am telling the full truth about everything I understand, but I understand, too well, that your mind is your own to maintain. I will do my best to speak the truth as best as I can, but I will also point out what I consider to be weaknesses in my arguments, as I go along, so that you can be that much better prepared to maintain your own mind.
There’s more: I have no education to speak of, and I bear my ignorance like a curse, like a bloody caul over my eyes, obscuring everything I see. I’m a clumsy oaf in Latin, and I have no Greek at all. I am a mongrel dog without pedigree, so much a child of the gutter as to make making distinctions a vanity. I argue well, I think, and I hope validly, but I want to give you every excuse I can think of to dismiss me, to turn your back and insist — at full voice — that there is nothing here of interest to you or to anyone. I don’t reject your disagreement, but I don’t intend to waste my time on people seeking to undermine my case. If you want to spurn this offering of my mind, you could not possibly want that outcome more than I do.
Even so, I want to do my best to be nice about this. I’m not a nice person, and I suffer fools very badly, but I am not doing this to whip anyone into line. Too much the contrary! It happens that much of what I have to talk about will cause just about everyone some pain, but neither pain nor pain-compliance are among my objectives.
Again: Too much the contrary! The essence of everything I have to say, the thing humanity has gotten most wrong through all of human history, is an idea I call Splendor. We’ll define that concept again and again, as we go along, but this is the shortest definition I have come up with so far:
Splendor is the interior experience of being so enthralled by the act of creating the values that contribute to and ultimately comprise your idealized perfect self that, while you are experiencing it, you are your idealized perfect self.
What is the meaning of life? What is the purpose of man’s existence on Earth? The objective of questions like those two and many others is to absolve the questioner’s furtively pre-planned failures in advance. But the purpose of a properly functioning human consciousness is Splendor. Whether or not there is anything like a designer of the human mind, Splendor is what the human mind is designed to do.
And that’s what this book is about, this instead-of-a-book for now. I have a lot to talk about, and for a solid year I’ve been thinking about how to commence. But I had no idea how to begin this project until I understood that — no matter how much Squalor we might have to slog through to understand the mess we have made of the world — the proper subject and object of all truly human thought is Splendor — attaining it, sustaining it, transmitting it to and cultivating it within other human minds, spreading it to every last corner of this too-often-benighted orb.
Do you want to talk about ambition? I know how to heal the global economy. I know how to win the War on Terror. I know how best to safeguard the environment, and how, even, to rid the world of virtually all conflict. I wrote the headline above — “Save the world from home in your spare time!” — a long time ago as a parody of matchbook advertisements. But it’s really no joke: I can show you and your neighbors and everyone on the planet how to save the world — how to make this world the paradise we have so far only dared to imagine in other realms.
How much more ambition must I claim for myself? This much, at least: I am writing this now in the hope that humanity can avoid yet another Dark Age, yet another descent into centuries of tyranny and unreason. But it seems plausible to me that I might well be writing to the other side of that awful crevasse. It is hubris indeed to plant myself in the path of Socrates as he saves the human race for the third time, but the world needs saving for a third time because of the vital work the Greeks and their children of the mind have never yet been fully able to accomplish.
To the Greeks, to the Romans, to the British and to the Americans, each at the finest moments in their histories, individual human beings were suffered to be free in their bodies. But never in human history have we acknowledged the simple ontological fact that the human mind, by its nature, is free of every bond that might be imposed upon it by other people.
When we “suffer” human liberty, we imply that the natural and ongoing state of human existence is slavery, an existence confined by cages and chains, constrained by whips and guns and contained, ultimately, by a silent language of shame and fear. But every bit of this is false. The would be masters of human minds require chains and whips and fear to effect their tyranny precisely because the human mind cannot be compelled by any force whatever. You cannot be caused to believe some external doctrine, and you cannot be prevented from upholding whatever ideas you might choose. You can be pushed around like a barrel or locked up like an animal. But you cannot be controlled by anyone, ever, from the outside.
The purpose of human consciousness is Splendor, but Splendor is itself a secondary consequence of a properly-functioning human mind. And the nature of that mind, thriving in delight, aglow with wonder for itself? The inescapable ontological nature of the human mind is independence. That’s not an “ought,” not a moral ideal invented by the Greeks, cherished and improved upon by their students. This is simply the way we are made, the way all of us are made, no matter how oppressive our upbringing might have been.
I would free the Americans because I am one — and I crave freedom with an American’s outsized hunger. But there are people on this Earth who are much more terribly constrained than the Americans, and I would deliver the gifts of Splendor to them, as well. I know what I want to say, and I believe that if I can say it in the way it should be said, I can correct this awful error, this awful omission of the Greeks, for every one of us, forevermore.
That’s right. You, too, can save the world — forevermore — from home in your spare time! It’s not even hard — and that just by itself is funny to me. The errors we make, the errors we have always made, are pitiful and small. Here’s what I want for you, here’s what I want for me, here’s what I want for all of us: I want for the human race to be admirable and immense. Consciously. Conscientiously. Constantly.
I can’t say that people will do as I advise them to — although you can rest assured that my advice will never extend beyond rational persuasion. But I know that what I have to say is important, and I know that if some people elect to pursue and perfect the ideas discussed here, they will live better, happier lives. And if enough people act upon these ideas, the world around them will change for the better, too.
Can I promise you a better world? No, alas. All I can do is show you the world as I can envision it. If I am mad, to do as I do will result in disaster. And if I am wrong, willfully or not, so much the worse. But in the end I am doing this because I must, because I desperately want for my fellow human beings to do better — to be better — and so I am taking the time to explain what I know about the science of being a better human being.
What you do about it — now or later or never — is your business.