This essay was originally published in the February 1966 issue of The Objectivist and later anthologized in The Romantic Manifesto (1969 and 1971).
Since religion is a primitive form of philosophy — an attempt to offer a comprehensive view of reality — many of its myths are distorted, dramatized allegories based on some element of truth, some actual, if profoundly elusive, aspect of man’s existence. One of such allegories, which men find particularly terrifying, is the myth of a supernatural recorder from whom nothing can be hidden, who lists all of a man’s deeds — the good and the evil, the noble and the vile — and who confronts a man with that record on judgment day.
That myth is true, not existentially, but psychologically. The merciless recorder is the integrating mechanism of a man’s subconscious; the record is his sense of life.
A sense of life is a pre-conceptual equivalent of metaphysics, an emotional, subconsciously integrated appraisal of man and of existence. It sets the nature of a man’s emotional responses and the essence of his character.
Long before he is old enough to grasp such a concept as metaphysics, man makes choices, forms value-judgments, experiences emotions and acquires a certain implicit view of life. Every choice and value-judgment implies some estimate of himself and of the world around him — most particularly, of his capacity to deal with the world. He may draw conscious conclusions, which may be true or false; or he may remain mentally passive and merely react to events (i.e., merely feel). Whatever the case may be, his subconscious mechanism sums up his psychological activities, integrating his conclusions, reactions or evasions into an emotional sum that establishes a habitual pattern and becomes his automatic response to the world around him, What began as a series of single, discrete conclusions (or evasions) about his own particular problems, becomes a generalized feeling about existence, an implicit metaphysics with the compelling motivational power of a constant, basic emotion — an emotion which is part of all his other emotions and underlies all his experiences. This is a sense of life.
To the extent to which a man is mentally active, i.e., motivated by the desire to know, to understand, his mind works as the programmer of his emotional computer — and his sense of life develops into a bright counterpart of a rational philosophy. To the extent to which a man evades, the programming of his emotional computer is done by chance influences; by random impressions, associations, imitations, by undigested snatches of environmental bromides, by cultural osmosis. If evasion or lethargy is a man’s predominant method of mental functioning, the result is a sense of life dominated by fear — a soul like a shapeless piece of clay stamped by footprints going in all directions. (In later years, such a man cries that he has lost his sense of identity; the fact is that he never acquired it.)
Man, by his nature, cannot refrain from generalizing; he cannot live moment by moment, without context, without past or future; he cannot eliminate his integrating capacity, i.e., his conceptual capacity, and confine his consciousness to an animal’s perceptual range. Just as an animal’s consciousness cannot be stretched to deal with abstractions, so man’s consciousness cannot be shrunk to deal with nothing but immediate concretes. The enormously powerful integrating mechanism of man’s consciousness is there at birth; his only choice is to drive it or to be driven by it. Since an act of volition — a process of thought — is required to use that mechanism for a cognitive purpose, man can evade that effort. But if he evades, chance takes over: the mechanism functions on its own, like a machine without a driver; it goes on integrating, but integrating blindly, incongruously, at random — not as an instrument of cognition, but as an instrument of distortion, delusion and nightmare terror, bent on wrecking its defaulting processor’s consciousness.
A sense of life is formed by a process of emotional generalization which may be described as a subconscious counterpart of a process of abstraction, since it is a method of classifying and integrating. But it is a process of emotional abstraction: it consists of classifying things according to the emotions they invoke — i.e., of tying together, by association or connotation, all those things which have the power to make an individual experience the same (or a similar) emotion. For instance: a new neighborhood, a discovery, adventure, struggle, triumph — or: the folks next door, a memorized recitation, a family picnic, a known routine, comfort. On a more adult level: a heroic man, the skyline of New York, a sunlit landscape, pure colors, ecstatic music — or: a humble man, an old village, a foggy landscape, muddy colors, folk music.
Which particular emotions will be invoked by the things in these examples, as their respective common denominators, depends on which set of things fits an individual’s view of himself. For a man of self-esteem, the emotion uniting the things in the first part of these examples is admiration, exaltation, a sense of challenge; the emotion uniting the things in the second part is disgust or boredom. For a man who lacks self-esteem, the emotion uniting the things in the first part of these examples is fear, guilt, resentment; the emotion uniting the things in the second part is relief from fear, reassurance, the undemanding safety of passivity.
Even though such emotional abstractions grow into a metaphysical view of man, their origin lies in an individual’s view of himself and of his own existence. The subverbal, subconscious criterion of selection that forms his emotional abstractions is: “That which is important to me” or: “The kind of universe which is right for me, in which I would feel at home.” It is obvious what immense psychological consequences will follow, depending on whether a man’s subconscious metaphysics is consonant with the facts of reality or contradicts them.
The key concept, in the formation of a sense of life, is the term “important.” It is a concept that belongs to the realm of values, since it implies an answer to the question: Important — to whom? Yet its meaning is different from that of moral values. “Important” does not necessarily mean “good.” It means “a quality, character or standing such as to entitle to attention or consideration.” (The American College Dictionary.). What, in a fundamental sense, is entitled to one’s attention or consideration? Reality.
“Important” — in its essential meaning, as distinguished from its more limited and superficial uses — is a metaphysical term. It pertains to that aspect of metaphysics which serves as a bridge between metaphysics and ethics: to a fundamental view of man’s nature. That view involves the answers to such questions as whether the universe is knowable or not, whether man has the power of choice or not, whether he can achieve his goals in life or not. The answers to such questions are “metaphysical value-judgments,” since they form the base of ethics.
It is only those values which he regards or grows to regard as “important,” those which represent his implicit view of reality, that remain in a man’s subconscious and form his sense of life.
“It is important to understand things” — “It is important to obey my parents” — “It is important to act on my own” — “It is important to please other people” — “It is important to fight for what I want” — “It is important not to make enemies” — “My life is important” — “Who am I to stick my neck out?” Man is a being of self-made soul — and it is of such conclusions that the stuff of his soul is made. (By “soul” I mean “consciousness.”)
The integrated sum of a man’s basic values is his sense of life.
A sense of life represents a man’s early value-integrations, which remain in a fluid, plastic, easily amendable state, while he gathers knowledge to reach full conceptual control and thus to drive his inner mechanism. A full conceptual control means a consciously directed process of cognitive integration, which means: a conscious philosophy of life.
By the time he reaches adolescence, a man’s knowledge is sufficient to deal with broad fundamentals; this is the period when he becomes aware of the need to translate his incoherent sense of life into conscious terms. This is the period when he gropes for such things as the meaning of life, for principles, ideals, values and, desperately, for self-assertion. And — since nothing is done, in our anti-rational culture, to assist a young mind in this crucial transition, and everything possible is done to hamper, cripple, stultify it — the result is the frantic, hysterical irrationality of most adolescents, particularly today. Theirs is the agony of the unborn — of minds going through a process of atrophy at the time set by nature for their growth.
The transition from guidance by a sense of life to guidance by a conscious philosophy takes many forms. For the rare exception, the fully rational child, it is a natural, absorbing, if difficult, process — the process of validating and, if necessary, correcting in conceptual terms what he had merely sensed about the nature of man’s existence, thus transforming a wordless feeling into clearly verbalized knowledge, and laying a firm foundation, an intellectual roadbed, for the course of his life. The result is a fully integrated personality, a man whose mind and emotions are in harmony, whose sense of life matches his conscious convictions.
Philosophy does not replace a man’s sense of life, which continues to function as the automatically integrated sum of his values. But philosophy sets the criteria of his emotional integrations according to a fully defined and consistent view of reality (if and to the extent that a philosophy is rational). Instead of deriving, subconsciously, an implicit metaphysics from his value-judgments, he now derives, conceptually, his value-judgments from an explicit metaphysics. His emotions proceed from his fully convinced judgments. The mind leads, the emotions follow.
For many men, the process of transition never takes place: they make no attempt to integrate their knowledge, to acquire any conscious convictions, and are left at the mercy of their inarticulate sense of life as their only guide.
For most men, the transition is a tortured and not fully successful process, leading to a fundamental inner conflict — a clash between a man’s conscious convictions and his repressed, unidentified (or only partially identified) sense of life. Very often, the transition is incomplete, as in the case of a man whose convictions are not part of a fully integrated philosophy, but are merely a collection of random, disconnected, often contradictory ideas, and, therefore, are unconvincing to his own mind against the power of his subconscious metaphysics. In some cases, a man’s sense of life is better (closer to the truth) than the kind of ideas he accepts. In other cases, his sense of life is much worse than the ideas he professes to accept but is unable fully to practice. Ironically enough, it is man’s emotions, in such cases, that act as the avengers of his neglected or betrayed intellect.