I can say for myself – and I only mean this for myself – that although the truth often does press down like the weight of a cathedral on my sometimes-sloping shoulders, and though it does lower a dark and rippled glass between myself and the companions and family of my youth, and though it startles and scatters shocked glances in the faces of those around me, and although it renders the present unstable and the future uncertain – even with all that the truth demands and imposes upon me, I would not let you tear it from my heart with any power at your command.
The truth was not something that I set out to pursue. I dabbled in ideas when I was a child, just as I dabbled in playing certain instruments and painting in watercolor – never once dreaming that it would be anything other than a mildly diverting hobby. Looking back on it now, many decades later, it reminds me of one of those horror stories which depicts the disastrous consequences that result from “delving too deep” into the earth. Some sort of unholy beast arises from the depths and lays waste to the surface world – a beast that has lain dormant for hundreds or thousands of years is suddenly disturbed, and awakes with a sky-splitting roar, and a savage and unquenchable hunger for destruction.
During that shock of initial eruption, when the ideas that we started out merely playing with suddenly seem to take on a life of their own, like the escalating spells of Mickey Mouse, we do recoil in horror and leap back as if laser-scoped by a trigger-happy sniper, but we quickly learn the lesson of all horror stories, which is that the monsters are never outside our head.
The truth is an angry, demanding and liberating coach, who drags us kicking and screaming up a sharp and broken mountainside, and then sets us down gently to marvel in breathless wonder at the most beautiful view that can ever be conceived. As our complaints roll emptily down to disappear into the fogs of our past, in a bare ripple of white smoke, our eyes stream with tears in mute gratitude at what we have been able to behold.
Such happy and driven fools often look quite mad to those around them. The truth is a drug that renders the motives of those who pursue it incomprehensible and strangely disturbing to everyone else. The ferocity of truth’s beauty is utterly beyond addictive; there is a passion and almost desperation to regain and reenter the perfection of consistent reason and the beauty of the clicking matchup between thought and observation. It keeps us awake even when we are exhausted; it strikes us with fits of passion even when we must be both silent and still; it obscures mere faces and opens up real minds; it peels away all the petty shallowness of the world and reveals all the glories and horrors of true depth.
And that makes it all worth it. The pursuit of truth only seems like masochism to those who have not tasted its joys. If your personal pleasures tend to center around social acceptance, then you unconsciously know – or perhaps consciously – that the pursuit of philosophical truth and wisdom will strip away that which gives you the most happiness in the moment. In a very real sense, you are huddling at the oasis of small-minded social pleasures, and cannot see beyond the desert that surrounds you, to a wider and greater world.
Unfortunately, there are very few philosophers who will help you to let go of this illusion. Most philosophers will talk endlessly about the beauty of the world beyond the desert, but will not confidently lead people away from the oasis they cling to. “You really should come with me,” they say, “because this oasis is pretty bad, you know, and there is this wonderful world beyond the desert that we should all go to!” And they tug at everyone’s trousers and endlessly cajole everyone to start marching across the desert to this wonderful new world – which baffles and irritates everyone in sight.
“If this new world is so wonderful, and it is supposed to set you so free, then why does the sum total of your freedom appear to be nothing more than your endless insistence that we all follow you out into the desert? If our world is actually so small, petty and unsatisfying, then why do you spend your time here, rather than in this new world that gives you such endless pleasure and freedom?
Because we must tell you directly that it appears to us that you are also afraid of this desert, and you do not wish to cross it alone, and so you are desperate to find people who will come with you, because you do not in fact believe in this wonderful new world of happiness and freedom. If you had cancer, and you had discovered a cure for it, you would not refrain from taking that cure until you had convinced everyone else with cancer to take it. Rather, you would take the cure, and document everything with as much detail as possible, so that you could better make the case to others that they should take your cure. But, this is not what you are doing. You say that you have a cure for unhappiness called “wisdom,” but this “cure” seems to require that everyone else take it at the same time. You do not appear to be willing to lead by example, but instead seem to be enslaved by a compulsive need to get everyone else to take this red pill at the same time that you do. Your pursuit of wisdom has clearly not given you the freedom, happiness and peace of mind that you claim it does – that you portray as a benefit in order to sell it to others. The world is full of people who will try to sell you ‘cures’ that they will not take themselves, and there is no good reason to believe that your claim that philosophical wisdom leads to happiness is any different!”
This basic paradox enslaves everyone at the oasis. The anarchist or philosopher, it turns out, is only tortured by his vision of the world beyond the desert – and in fact is only reinforcing everyone’s belief in the necessity of social conformity for the achievement and maintenance of happiness. In this way, the philosopher is actually turning everyone against the pursuit of wisdom, for the sake of his own social anxieties. He is actually portraying philosophy as that which tortures you with a vision that you cannot achieve, but that you must continually harass others to pursue.
Finally, since the philosopher seems utterly unable to even perceive this basic paradox – let alone solve it – how much credibility are those around him going to grant his ability to perceive, pursue and capture the truth? If I claim to be a wonderful mathematician, and go on and on about the glories of exploring numbers, but all that anyone ever sees is my continual frustration at the fact that no one else seems to be very interested in math – and my complete inability to balance my checkbook, or even notice that it doesn’t add up – then will I not be perceived as a kind of arrant fool, motivated by heaven knows what?
The “desert” metaphor is somewhat limited, since when we leave the oasis and cross the desert, we pass completely out of view. However, when we pursue the truth from our love of truth, and shrug off those who do not wish to join us, we do arise as a beacon in our social world, a sort of lighthouse that can help guide the few who are capable of being seized by such a love of truth that they are willing to give up the immediate creature and social comforts of living in a world of lies.
Those of us who cross the desert first can be deemed the most courageous in a way, but I must confess that in fact my journey felt less like a fish who braves leaving the water for the shore than a fish that is caught by the hook of philosophy and yanked unceremoniously from the depths. The future pulled me forward – against my will at times – and it was with great regret that I left almost everyone behind. I was not convinced of the glories of the world beyond the desert, but rather feared that the desert would go on forever, and that actually I might go mad. Fortunately to say the least, this did not happen, and I did discover the world beyond the desert, and all the beauties and truths that it contains.
By the time that my particular journey had slowed to at least a walking pace, I felt very little desire to go back to the oasis and try and get my former companions to join me in this new world. Once we have made the wrenching transition from ignorance to wisdom, we genuinely understand and appreciate the difficulty of the process, and would no more imagine dragging our former companions across this desert than we would choose a random person on the street to join us in an ascent of Everest.
At the end of my last book, I talked about a small village inhabited by those of us who have made it across this desert. I believe that it is our job, if we choose it, to make this little village as hospitable and inviting as possible for those few hardy, thirsty souls that we can see struggling out of the shimmering heat of the sand dunes. Creating a place where truth is welcome is the first goal for us pioneers. We know that we cannot return to the half life that we had before; we know that it would be selfish to continue on and on in the path of wisdom without creating some markers and resting places for those who are following us; and we know that the incredible advances in communication technology have for the first time in history allowed the path across the desert to be mapped and visible.
Never before has it been so relatively inviting to pursue the path of truth and wisdom. The destination is no longer the Socratic cup of hemlock, or Nietzsche’s madness, or Rand’s later cultishness, or the dry death of academic conformity – but rather a gathering place – a forum, I would say – where we can exchange ideas and experiences, and support each other, and learn how to best defend ourselves against those who would do us harm, and build our new homes – virtual though they may be for many – in the company of others, rather than alone, which has so often been the case in the past.
As we make our new homes more comfortable and inviting, we will in fact begin to draw more and more people across the desert, because they will see that there is a destination that can be achieved, and they will get more than a glimpse of the life that can be lived beyond lies. No sailor can navigate by the stars if the night is overcast – or if only one star is visible. As more and more stars wink into view, the navigation becomes easier and easier.
If you are tempted to pursue the freedom of truth and wisdom – or, to be more accurate, if the skyhook of truth and wisdom snatches you into some unsuspected stratosphere – then the choice has to some degree been made for you. To hang suspended between the worlds of conformity and wisdom is to live in a kind of null zone, where you gain neither the satisfactions of conformity nor the joys of wisdom.
It can be truly hard to leave those behind who cannot or will not join you on this journey, and the only consolation that I have been able to offer myself – and which I offer to you now – is that there could be nothing better to do with our lives than to create a world where we do not have to choose between wisdom and companions, between virtue and society – where a unity with truth will not mean a disunity with those around us.