From Chapter 7 of Man Alive, “A calculus of morality on a first-grade number line.”Spirit your mind back to your first-grade classroom. Can you see that number line tacked up above the blackboard? In the middle is the number zero – one of the most important inventions in mathematics, incidentally. To the right are the positive integers – 1, 2, 3 – up to 10 or 25 or 100. To the left are the negative integers – and take a moment to salute the incomparable genius of subjunctivity who first thought to count things that are not in evidence to be counted. Your teacher used that number line to demonstrate to you, by moving his hand to the right or to the left, that
It seems plausible to me that enumeration – counting things – was the birth of Fathertongue in the mind of the proto-human who passed the idea of notation systems down to us. Real estate is all about location, location, location, and the locations that would have been most valuable to starving ex-brachiators stranded on the savannah would have been those spots on that veldt that were home to the greatest number of things worth eating and the fewest ferocious predators. That’s the kind of multi-variable problem we solve today using game theory and linear programming, but the father of Fathertongue – and each one of the failed fathers of Fathertongue before him – had no one but himself to turn to for answers. If he was right about where to scavenge or hunt, he and his family could eat – for that day, at least. And if we was wrong for a few days in a row, everyone he knew and loved would die in agony.
That is the value of values – discovering and perfecting them in your thoughts and pursuing them in your actions. Unlike every other type of organism, you are not equipped with an in-born survival strategy. You do not know what is food for you and what is poison. You do not know from genetics or race memory where to hunt, what to hunt or how to hunt. The simple fact that you are reading this book argues that you are richer in survival values than 99.9% of all the human beings who trod this Earth before you were born, but you yourself produced virtually none of that wealth.
Do you want proof of that claim? Walk over to the refrigerator in your kitchen and pop an ice-cube in your mouth. Very satisfying – isn’t it? – especially on a hot day. That little piece of ice has a resale value of $0.00 – nothing – but just 100 years ago that ice cube would have been unobtainable in an ordinary domicile. Could you reproduce the ice-maker in your fridge – or even repair it when it breaks down? No. And yet you are so amazingly rich that you never gave a second thought to that one minor treasure, one among hundreds in your vast horde of riches.
You live an easy life, and that has made it easy for you to be thoughtless and glib about your values. You say things like “Whatcha gonna do?” and “Life’s a bitch and then you die,” and you don’t realize that you are making outrageously misleading statements about ontology and teleology – about your own unchangeable nature as a human being. If you are casting about in your mind for a slang expression that would have meant something to the father of Fathertongue, the man who gave you the first treasure in that huge cache of incomparable wealth that you could never have produced on your own, try this on for size: “Some days you eat the bear, some days the bear eats you.” But even that doesn’t fit, because once the bear eats you, it’s lights out. Game over. Forever.
When you are starving, there is no room in your mind for cynicism or boredom or superciliousness or ennui. You don’t waste your time crafting ridiculous arguments conflating unlike things, and you don’t deface, deride, damage and denigrate the very values you need to sustain your tenuous survival. A starving human being can think of many different things, but it seems hugely unlikely to me that any of those notions would win the approval of the smug jackasses down at the Student Union. They – and you – have the luxury of living off of a legacy of inherited wealth, in the form of the accumulated intellectual and economic power of thousands of years worth of carefully-curated Fathertongue. And like most heirs of unearned wealth, they have lived their lives – at least the life of the mind – as unrepentant wastrels.
And the truth of the matter – and I’m willing to acknowledge it, even if you are not – is that the only reason you are willing to attend to what I have to say now is that the people you trusted to manage your inherited wealth of Fathertongue have squandered your legacy behind your back. You are not staring starvation in the face, not quite yet, but there is an icy dread in your gut suggesting to you that things could get very ugly very soon. I am not a kind man, not at all, but I am not so cruel as to say, “None so deserving.” But, brother, you really did ask for what you fear you are going to get, and, if you do, you’re going to get it good and hard. You have time to learn to do better. While you are still alive, you always have time to learn to do better. But I think you ought to get very serious very quickly. Starvation is pass/fail, with no retakes if you blow the test. If the world turns against you, it will not give you an A for effort, and it will not grade your performance on a curve.
So let’s go back to that number line in your first-grade classroom and see what it can tell us about values – about virtue and vice. Imagine your self as a marker on that number line. You can start at zero or ten or ten thousand for all of me. Did you start with a negative number? That would be an interesting evaluation of your life as it is right now, and I’m not a hard sell on the notion that it might be true. But wherever you started, the issue that should matter to you, going forward, is which way is your life moving?
Suppose you have cheated on your spouse. Would that move your self rightward on the number line, toward greater values – toward a higher opinion of your self, a deeper and more satisfying self-adoration? Or would it move your self leftward, in the negative direction – toward self-contempt and self-loathing?
Do you want to insist that you have an “open” marriage and that betraying your marital vows is a net positive to your existence? Fine. I find that sort of claim to be hugely implausible, but there really are black swans – just not very many. The name for this almost-always-bogus argument, for the record, is the Fallacy of Special Pleading. It consists of conflating the exception with the norm. Journalists love it, as do many academics. It can make for fun reading, if you like to be lied to.
For the overwhelming majority of human beings, cheating on your spouse is obviously the wrong thing to do. Not just intellectually wrong, as it would be wrong to say that
But every purposive action you take in your life is taken first by your self upon your self, so the injury before every one of those other injuries will be the harm you have done to your self. You will have seen your self behaving despicably, and this is now and forevermore a fact of your life – and hence a lifelong memory that will come back to you unbidden, again and again – that you can never, ever erase.
So suppose instead that you did something truly wonderful. You started a new business or you converted a guest bedroom into a nursery for the child you and your spouse are expecting. Would that kind of behavior move your self leftward on the number line? Would you feel worse about your self – less admirable, less competent, less confident? Or, instead, as your self moves rightward on the number line, would you catch a hint of Splendor – now and in the future as the memory of your virtuous behavior recalls itself to mind – with you feeling as though you are a falcon soaring effortlessly, high above the Earth?
Of those two introspective experiences – shame and Squalor versus pride and Splendor – which would you say is the better expression of the idea of self-adoration?
This is really easy, isn’t it, when you have trained your mind to think in essentials?
Liars always quibble, alas. They are quibbling with this entire argument, even as they internalize in its entirety – and I will be in their heads forever. And they will try to quibble with you, when you catch them in their lies – to temporize or to shade the truth or to maneuver you into taking their side – but inside their own minds the quibbling can come to be a silent roar of cognitive dissonance. The reason for this is simply that every action is taken first by the self upon the self. A liar has to invent his lie before he mouths it, obviously, but usually the lie and the evil idea it purports to rationalize are born together, monstrous conjoined-twins of the mind. Younger children can get caught flat-footed telling fibs, but older kids and adults, if they plan to try to “get away” with something, will have their lies ready to roll out before they take any externally-observable actions.
There are some interesting conclusions that fall out from that observation. If you prepared your lies in advance, it is because you knew in advance that what you were planning to do was morally wrong – by your own ethical standards. That is the naked essence of evil, just as the good can be understood as doing those things you know in advance are morally righteous. You may want to argue that either doing nothing or not knowing in full consciousness what you are doing are morally neutral acts, and I might just give you a pass on that claim. Behaving that way persistently cannot be anything but a net negative for your future self-adoration, but anyone can make a simple mistake. I can express all of this in a very simple mathematical syllogism:
Your benevolent and malevolent thoughts, your virtuous and vicious impulses, your vigilantly-guarded secrets and your carefully-crafted rationales – you think these are unwitnessed unless you make them manifest in your behavior. But no purposive human action is ever unwitnessed. Every action is taken first by the self upon the self, so there is always an unimpeachable witness to every action you take, externally-observable or purely introspective – your self. No one ever gets away with anything, hence “the guilty flee where none pursueth.” The people of the lie are even now, even as they read these words, affecting to pretend to make believe that they have “gotten away” with cheating the universe of the truth. But just look at their faces, frozen in a rictus that is half fear and half resentment, terrified that they might let the mask slip and reveal the true self hidden behind it. What thug, what brute, what jailer could ever construct a prison so perfect – invisible, intangible and yet utterly inescapable.
Are you looking for the bright side? It’s there, I promise. It is for the exact same reason – because every action is taken first by the self upon the self – that “virtue is its own reward.” If other people are aware of your good behavior, if they like you more and treat you better because of it, that’s a bonus. But your own interior knowledge of your fundamental goodness is all the compensation you will ever need to pursue still more goodness, now and enduringly. Do you want proof? If you were all alone, your goodness would be no less potent than it is in a throng of millions. But liars and thieves and tyrants are impotent without other people to prey upon – to deceive and despoil and dominate. All of this is obvious to any five-year-old child, of course. Nature is always just, when you see it for what it really is. You have to memorize a library full of unintelligible dogma to affect to pretend to make believe otherwise.
I told you that I do not intend to “should” you in detail. The essence of human behavior – the nature of it and the inescapable consequences of virtue and vice – are by now undeniably clear to you. No one in your life has ever told you why your behavior, good or bad, really matters – until now.
If you commit your life to uninterrupted, undiluted virtue, Splendor will be yours, now and enduringly – and the greater your virtue, the greater that Splendor will be.
And if you devote your life to vice – to lying, to cheating, to stealing, to conniving and maneuvering and temporizing, to dominating other people physically or emotionally, to drowning your own mind with drink or drugs or indiscriminate sex or compulsive gambling – you will get to live with all the Squalor you can stand and ten thousand times more.
No one is good – or evil – by accident, and, in the long run, each one of us gets from his one, unique, irreplaceable human life exactly what he has earned and deserved.