Can the thinking of a single philosopher be so influential as to change the fundamental values of a society and lead to tremors of transcontinental proportions, like the economic crisis that began in 2007? Could Ayn Rand’s philosophy be the almost-imperceptible reason for transforming the United States, as Levine puts it, into a “selfish nation”?
Make sure you read the first part of this feature:
Of course, in theory anything is possible, but such a hypothesis is difficult to test empirically. On the one hand, it is a little too much to claim that the influence of a single person, be that even a figure as compelling as Ayn Rand, was decisive for a change that involves such complex mechanisms. On the other hand, those who have dedicated years of their careers to studying the American social mentality have not yet agreed on the morality of the American nation’s self-centeredness. Yes, this implies that a form of self-centeredness is indeed manifesting itself in the American space. It is what political scientists have called “exceptionalism”, a form of national selfishness that has characterised, in one way or another, all the powerful states of the world throughout history—even countries that did not have an Ayn Rand.
A nation of selfish people
Perhaps more interesting than the political science dimension of a nation’s selfishness is its psychosociological dimension. There are many researchers who have studied this in connection with the concept of self-esteem, which I mentioned in part 1 of this article. But while the origins of this self-centeredness are somewhat controversial, what psychologists generally agree on is that self-esteem is an extremely relevant concept in today’s American society.
Americans seem so convinced of the necessity to societal success of cultivating self-esteem in themselves and in others that the self-esteem movement has become somewhat representative of the mentality in the United States. Any ideology that suggests the opposite is viewed with suspicion, if not labelled from the start as erroneous. However, there are also psychologists willing to assume such a position, and their opinions have a fairly convincing line of argument.
Lauren Slater is just one such psychologist who believes that Americans have unnecessarily indulged in self-praise, artificially inflating their egos in the hope (based on numerous socio-psychological studies) that this will increase their efficiency and civility. An action group meant to generate policies to stimulate the self-respect of students enrolled in the state education system in 1986 failed to produce the expected results. “In fact, crime rates and substance abuse rates are formidable, right along with our self-assessment scores on paper-and-pencil tests”, lamented Slater in an essay published in The New York Times. However, the psychologist drew hope from the research of other psychologists who studied the dynamics of American self-esteem: Roy Baumeister and Nicholas Emler. Like Slater, they argued that seeing self-esteem as a panacea is a wrong philosophy and that overemphasising self-esteem may even be a cause for dysfunction, not a cure for it.
The theories of these psychologists have an intuitive force as strong as the hypotheses that highlight the need to cultivate self-esteem. That is, while Nathaniel Branden claims that people need to increase their self-esteem in order to be cured of various psychological disorders, Baumeister, Emler and colleagues argue the opposite: that people need to cure various psychological disorders in order to grow self-esteem. In assessing the two visions, the idea was put forward that a low self-esteem is even more beneficial than a high one, because the former leaves room for growth and development, while the latter is fertile ground for violence (think of the inflated ego that sees the slightest insult as an unforgivable crime).
The battle has also taken place in the field of sociological research, but it is still not clear who is right, because, as sometimes happens in the field of sociology, studies repeated for verification have generated different results to the initial ones. By the nature of sociological science, this is not necessarily a guarantee of initial inaccuracy, the differences often being attributed to the subjective factor and interpretation. However, what this means is that a clear consensus on the matter does not yet exist.
Ultimately, some wonder if we can really talk about a culture of self-esteem that has a significant impact on society, or if society itself, through its characteristics, generates a culture of self-esteem. It is a “chicken-or-the egg?” type of question or, more academically, a dilemma such as, “Do we create language or does language create us?”
If self-esteem really has a dark side to it, what options for growth could a person with social-emotional problems have? It is interesting to see what kind of treatments would be proposed for disorders such as anxiety and depression if we choose not to associate them, as is generally practiced in Western society, with low self-esteem. And the best place to look for an alternative could be within a society with an alternative mentality. Japan is such a place. The Japanese culture opposes American individualism in favour of Asian collectivism in which the community is what gives meaning and value to the individual, not the other way around.
Morita therapy, based on the theories of psychiatrist Morita Masatake (1874-1938), the manager of a busy psychiatric hospital in Tokyo, is one of the best-known psychological approaches of Asian origin. This assumes that psychological suffering starts from an “extreme self-awareness” and is treated by restoring control over one’s own emotional states, in a very different way to Western treatment.
In Morita therapy, a person suffering from anxiety, for example, is treated in several stages. The first is isolation in a pleasant space, but without books and without access to information technology to bombard them with stimuli, a place to rest under the supervision of a specialist. After this stage of “soul detoxification”, the patient is exposed to an easy occupational therapy, aiming to engage in low difficulty activities. In the third stage, the difficulty of the tasks increase, until the final stage, in which the patient can complete complex activities. That is why Morita therapy is seen as a form of resocialisation and relies heavily on the social influence of those around the patient to regain personal discipline and control over their emotions.
Self-awareness should therefore be paramount (knowing one’s good qualities and defects alike). This should be followed by self-control, which is acquired through the persevering exercise of behavioural changes necessary for adjustment (possible through self-discipline). “If our lives are stories in the making, then we must be able to edit as well as advertise the text” says Lauren Slater.
Freedom of self-forgetfulness
It would be tempting to believe that community-type societies are clearly the superior alternative to the individualistic ones, which glorify personal interest, but also superior to the current of self-esteem promotion, which is apparently more balanced, because both societies have had enough time to reveal their consequences. However, if we look at both from a Christian perspective, we realise that such a conclusion is contrary to our faith. In fact, not even the therapy proposed by Slater is preferable to the other two, because, in essence, they all have the same referential.
Whether they propose that actions be based on one’s own interest, or whether they propose actions that take into account the good of others, these philosophies relate their values to a human focus. At the centre of man’s existence is either himself or others. But both are variants that cannot be included in a Christian perspective. Why? In his book, The Sickness Unto Death, philosopher Søren Kierkegaard said that the natural tendency of the human heart is to place everything but God in the centre of its existence and of its identity. Placing God at the centre is a completely counter-cultural perspective, because it involves not having a choice between ourselves and others, but between God and everything else. It is also a biblical perspective, for which the apostle Paul advocates eloquently when he writes to the Christians in Corinth: “I myself am no longer judging myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me (…) For who makes you different from anyone else?”. The passage where these words are found is one in which Paul advises the Corinthians to give up pride and self-praise, because these attitudes are the seeds of the division that the Christian church has faced since its inception.
The concept of a healthy self-image, as we inherit it from Paul, is therefore one of modesty and humility. When placing this concept in the arena with the current efforts of cultivating one’s “personal brand” we realise that the two are deeply irreconcilable. But this conflict has not always existed.
The condemnation of pride has been the dominant philosophy throughout history.
To be precise, an overly good image of oneself was seen as the root of all evil. Today, in the Western world at least, most seem to support what Nathaniel Branden said: that the root of all evil is a negative image of oneself.
But Paul also contradicts traditional philosophy and modern/postmodern philosophy. When he advises the Corinthians not to judge themselves, he actually tells them that they do not represent the standard. They need an external scale of values, because the soul is not designed to be its own norm.
Christianity teaches that the value humans is rooted in their origin; more precisely in the fact that their existence was desired by God, who manifested Himself in universal splendour to offer them life in paradise, and who loved them with supreme love, in order to help them return to the divine communion they had renounced out of self-interest.
“See to it”, Paul writes, this time to the Colossians, “that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ”. The teachings of Christ are, in their depth, the driving force behind altruism. Biblical altruism, however, is not the “enslavement” that disgusted Ayn Rand, but, on the contrary, a liberation from selfishness that, when satisfied, “becomes a controlling power“, as Christian author Ellen White said. Nevertheless, biblical altruism is not bound to collectivism, like the Japanese mentality, but it includes collectivism, provided it derives from the love of God.
From a Christian perspective, the individual is not able to love (in the truly altruistic sense) unless they first love God. They do not have this capacity in themselves, because, according to the words of Christ, apart from God we can do nothing—all the more we are unable to love. (A separate discussion is needed in order to discern what exactly it means “not to be apart from God,” but it would divert the subject.)
When we love God (in response to His love for us), we become more and more capable to copy His pattern of love in our relationships with those around us. But fellow human beings never come to occupy the central place that only God must occupy in our values system, because otherwise our religion would, in fact, be an idolatry of fellow humans.
Deciding to consider God the sole standard of our values is even more controversial today than the egocentric philosophy proposed by Ayn Rand. It certainly carries less currency than the current self-esteem development therapy. But it is a decision that still fulfils souls and that, if perpetuated, can still change the course of history, as it has done so many times before.
PS: The quote in the title, “For who makes you different from anyone else?” is from a biblical verse of piercing wisdom: “For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?” (1 Corinthians 4:7)
Alina Kartman is a senior editor at ST Network and Semnele timpului.