In Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, during the party organized by Hank Reardern’s wife Lillian to celebrate their anniversary, there are fantastic dialogues. One of them has to do with Hugh Akston, the person who gives his name to this blog. I will relate it at the end of this article.
Dr. Simon Pritchett is, for a time, the center of attention. He is the Chairman of the Department of Philosophy of Patrick Henrt University, in Cleveland, OH, where the three heroes of the novel, John Galt, Francisco D’Anconia and Ragnar Danneskjöld once studied, under Hugh Akston, who was the Chairman of the Department prior to Dr. Pritchett.
It is interesting that Pritchett is always called Dr. Pritchett, or simply Professor (even, ironically, by Francisco d’Anconia, who even bows to him, in simulated respect), whereas Akston is referred to as simply Hugh Akston (even by his students)…
Pritchett can be described as a post-modernist, or a philosophical deconstructionist, intent on destroying everything that was at the basis of rational philosophy.
“Man? What is man?”, he asks — and replies: “He’s just a collection of chemicals with delusions of grandeur”, or “a miserable bit of protoplasm” that “imagines itself important” (p.131).
Standards? “There aren’t any standards” (p.132).
If so, what is the purpose of philosophy? “It remained for our century to redefine the purpose of philosophy. The purpose of philosophy is not to help men find the meaning of life, but to prove to them that there isn’t any” (p.132). “The purpose of philosophy is not to seek knowledge, but to prove that knowledge is impossible to man” (p.133). The duty of a philosopher “is not to explain, but to demonstrate that nothing can be explained” (p.133).
In the sequence he says that man is such a difficult creature because he insists in considering himself important in the overall scheme of things, in viewing his activities as significant… “Once he realizes that he is of no importance whatever in the vast scheme of the universe, that no possible significance can be attached to his activities, that it does not matter whether he lives or dies, he will become much more … tractable” (p.132).
In the socio-political real, he defends a decree issued by the government called the Equalization of Opportunity Bill. This bills tries to equalize the field, compelling those who are quite successful, in whatever activity in the economic realm, to divest of some of their interests, or to limit their output, so that less successful people can have a chance to compete…
Says Pritchett: “I am in favor of it, because I am in favor of a free economy. A free economy cannot exist without competition. Therefore, men must be forced to compete” (p.132).
A novelist, Balph Eubank, intervenes in the discussion to defend the thesis that the Equalization of Opportunity Bill ought to be applied even in the literary realm (p.133). “It would be very simple” to do it. “There should be a law limiting the sale of any book to ten thousand copies. This would throw the literary market open to new talent, fresh ideas, and non-commercial writing. If people were forbidden to buy a million copies of the same piece of trash, they would be forced to buy better books” — such as the ones he writes, which never sold more than three thousand copies (p.134). In fact, he argues that “only those whose motive is not money-making should be allowed to write” (p.134).
(Brazilians can compare this to the attempts by its socialist government to “democratize the monopolistic media”…).
“Plot”, says Eubank, “is a primitive vulgarity in literature” (p.134).
“Just as melody is a primitive vulgarity in music”, adds a third participant, Mort Liddly (p.134).
“Property rights are a superstition”, says a fourth participant in the discussion, Bertram Scudder (p.135).
Reason “is the most naïve of all superstions”, says Pritchett. Men only believe in it because they “suffer from the popular delusion that things can be understood” (p.132). “Logic is a primitive vulgarity in philosophy”, he continues (p.134), only to close the discussion a few moments later with a magistral conclusion: “Nothing is anything” (p.141).
At this point Francisco d’Anconia breaks into the discussion to remind the participants that Hugh Akston, his teacher of old taught, in contrast to Pritchett’s conclusion, that “everything is something” (p.142).
Nothing is anything vs everything is something.
Akston’s thesis is that everything that exists is something, has a particular nature, that leads it to behave in a particular manner — and that, through observation and reflexion, we can know what that nature is.
The enormous list of absurdities that the participants in the discussion state is the result of their negation of the thesis that everything is something. With Pritchett, they all believe that nothing is anything.
In São Paulo, on the 14th of September of 2013