Of Living Death

by Ayn Rand
From The Voice of Reason: Essays in Objectivist Thought
The Voice of Reason
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This essay was first published in the September – November 1968 issues of The Objectivist and later anthologized in The Voice of Reason: Essays in Objectivist Thought (1989).

It was also delivered in lecture form in December 1968 at Boston’s Ford Hall Forum and as a radio address. The lecture audio lasts 56 minutes, followed by a 55-minute Q&A.

Those who wish to observe the role of philosophy in human existence may see it dramatized on a grand (and gruesome) scale in the conflict splitting the Catholic church today.

Observe, in that conflict, men’s fear of identifying or challenging philosophical fundamentals: both sides are willing to fight in silent confusion, to stake their beliefs, their careers, their reputations on the outcome of a battle over the effects of an unnamed cause. One side is composed predominantly of men who dare not name the cause; the other, of men who dare not discover it.

Both sides claim to be puzzled and disappointed by what they regard as a contradiction in the two recent encyclicals of Pope Paul VI. The so-called conservatives (speaking in religious, not political, terms) were dismayed by the encyclical Populorum Progressio (On the Development of Peoples) — which advocated global statism — while the so-called liberals hailed it as a progressive document. Now the conservatives are hailing the encyclical Humanae Vitae (Of Human Life) — which forbids the use of contraceptives — while the liberals are dismayed by it. Both sides seem to find the two documents inconsistent. But the inconsistency is theirs, not the pontiff’s. The two encyclicals are strictly, flawlessly consistent in respect to their basic philosophy and ultimate goal: both come from the same view of man’s nature and are aimed at establishing the same conditions for his life on earth. The first of these two encyclicals forbade ambition, the second forbids enjoyment; the first enslaved man to the physical needs of others, the second enslaves him to the physical capacities of his own body; the first damned achievement, the second damns love.

The doctrine that man’s sexual capacity belongs to a lower or animal part of his nature has had a long history in the Catholic church. It is the necessary consequence of the doctrine that man is not an integrated entity, but a being torn apart by two opposite, antagonistic, irreconcilable elements: his body, which is of this earth, and his soul, which is of another, supernatural realm. According to that doctrine, man’s sexual capacity — regardless of how it is exercised or motivated, not merely its abuses, not unfastidious indulgence or promiscuity, but the capacity as such — is sinful or depraved.

For centuries, the dominant teaching of the church held that sexuality is evil, that only the need to avoid the extinction of the human species grants sex the status of a necessary evil and, therefore, only procreation can redeem or excuse it. In modern times, many Catholic writers have denied that such is the church’s view. But what is its view? They did not answer.

Let us see if we can find the answer in the encyclical Humanae Vitae.

Dealing with the subject of birth control, the encyclical prohibits all forms of contraception (except the so-called “rhythm method”). The prohibition is total, rigid, unequivocal. It is enunciated as a moral absolute.

Bear in mind what this subject entails. Try to hold an image of horror spread across space and time — across the entire globe and through all the centuries — the image of parents chained, like beasts of burden, to the physical needs of a growing brood of children — young parents aging prematurely while fighting a losing battle against starvation — the skeletal hordes of unwanted children born without a chance to live — the unwed mothers slaughtered in the unsanitary dens of incompetent abortionists — the silent terror hanging, for every couple, over every moment of love. If one holds this image while hearing that this nightmare is not to be stopped, the first question one will ask is: Why? In the name of humanity, one will assume that some inconceivable, but crucially important reason must motivate any human being who would seek to let that carnage go on uncontested.

So the first thing one will look for in the encyclical, is that reason, an answer to that Why?

“The problem of birth,” the encyclical declares, “like every other problem regarding human life, is to be considered . . . in the light of an integral vision of man and of his vocation, not only his natural and earthly, but also his supernatural and eternal, vocation.” [Paragraph 7]

And:

A reciprocal act of love, which jeopardizes the responsibility to transmit life which God the Creator, according to particular laws, inserted therein, is in contradiction with the design constitutive of marriage, and with the will of the author of life. To use this divine gift, destroying, even if only partially, its meaning and its purpose, is to contradict the nature both of man and of woman and of their most intimate relationship, and therefore it is to contradict also the plan of God and His will. [13]

And this is all. In the entire encyclical, this is the only reason given (but repeated over and over again) why men should transform their highest experience of happiness — their love — into a source of lifelong agony. Do so — the encyclical commands — because it is God’s will.

I, who do not believe in God, wonder why those who do would ascribe to him such a sadistic design, when God is supposed to be the archetype of mercy, kindness, and benevolence. What earthly goal is served by that doctrine? The answer runs like a hidden thread through the encyclical’s labyrinthian convolutions, repetitions, and exhortations.

In the darker corners of that labyrinth, one finds some snatches of argument, in alleged support of the mystic axiom, but these arguments are embarrassingly transparent equivocations. For instance:

. . . to make use of the gift of conjugal love while respecting the laws of the generative process means to acknowledge oneself not to be the arbiter of the sources of human life, but rather the minister of the design established by the Creator. In fact, just as man does not have unlimited dominion over his body in general, so also, with particular reason, he has no such dominion over his creative faculties as such, because of their intrinsic ordination toward raising up life, of which God is the principle. [13]

What is meant here by the words “man does not have unlimited dominion over his body in general?” The obvious meaning is that man cannot change the metaphysical nature of his body; which is true. But man has the power of choice in regard to the actions of his body — specifically, in regard to “his creative faculties,” and the responsibility for the use of these particular faculties is most crucially his. “To acknowledge oneself not to be the arbiter of the sources of human life” is to evade and to default on that responsibility. Here again, the same equivocation or package deal is involved. Does man have the power to determine the nature of his procreative faculty? No. But granted that nature, is he the arbiter of bringing a new human life into existence? He most certainly is, and he (with his mate) is the sole arbiter of that decision — and the consequences of that decision affect and determine the entire course of his life.

This is a clue to that paragraph’s intention: if man believed that so crucial a choice as procreation is not in his control, what would it do to his control over his life, his goals, his future?

The passive obedience and helpless surrender to the physical functions of one’s body, the necessity to let procreation be the inevitable result of the sexual act, is the natural fate of animals, not of men. In spite of its concern with man’s higher aspirations, with his soul, with the sanctity of married love — it is to the level of animals that the encyclical seeks to reduce man’s sex life, in fact, in reality, on earth. What does this indicate about the encyclical’s view of sex?

Anticipating certain obvious objections, the encyclical declares:

Now some may ask: In the present case, is it not reasonable in many circumstances to have recourse to artificial birth control if, thereby, was secure the harmony and peace of the family, and better conditions for the education of children already born? To this question it is necessary to reply with clarity: The church is the first to praise and recommend the intervention of intelligence in a function which so closely associates the rational creature with his Creator; but she affirms that this must be one with respect for the order established by God. [16]

To what does this subordinate man’s intelligence? If intelligence is forbidden to consider the fundamental problems of man’s existence, forbidden to alleviate his suffering, what does this indicate about the encyclical’s view of man — and of reason?

History can answer this particular question. History has seen a period of approximately ten centuries, known as the Dark and Middle Ages, when philosophy was regarded as “the handmaiden of theology,” and reason as the humble subordinate of faith. The results speak for themselves.

It must not be forgotten that the Catholic church has fought the advance of science since the Renaissance: from Galileo’s astronomy, to the dissection of corpses, which was the start of modern medicine, to the discovery of anesthesia in the nineteenth century, the greatest single discovery in respect to the incalculable amount of terrible suffering it has spared mankind. The Catholic church has fought medical progress by means of the same argument: that the application of knowledge to the relief of human suffering is an attempt to contradict God’s design. Specifically in regard to anesthesia during childbirth, the argument claimed that since God intended woman to suffer while giving birth, man has no right to intervene. (!)

The encyclical does not recommend unlimited procreation. It does not object to all means of birth control — only to those it calls “artificial” (i.e., scientific). It does not object to man “contradicting God’s will” nor to man being “the arbiter of the sources of human life,” provided he uses the means it endorses: abstinence.

Discussing the issue of “responsible parenthood,” the encyclical states: “In relation to physical, economic, psychological and social conditions, responsible parenthood is exercised, either by the deliberate and generous decision to raise a numerous family, or by the decision, made for grave motives and with due respect for the moral law, to avoid for the time being, or even for an indeterminate period, a new birth.” [10] To avoid — by what means? By abstaining from sexual intercourse.

About the Author
Ayn Rand
Ayn Rand
Learn more about Ayn Rand’s life and writings at AynRand.org.