Of Living Death

by Ayn Rand
From The Voice of Reason: Essays in Objectivist Thought
The Voice of Reason
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Now consider the position of the majority of mankind, who are barely able to subsist on a level of prehistorical poverty. No strain, no backbreaking effort of the ablest, most conscientious father can enable him properly to feed one child — let alone an open-end progression. The unspeakable misery of stunted, disease-eaten, chronically undernourished children, who die in droves before the age of ten, is a matter of public record. Pope Paul VI — who closes his encyclical by mentioning his title as earthly representative of “the God of holiness and mercy” — cannot be ignorant of these facts; yet he is able to ignore them.

The encyclical brushes this issue aside in a singularly irresponsible manner:

We are well aware of the serious difficulties experienced by public authorities in this regard, especially in the developing countries. To their legitimate preoccupations we devoted our encyclical letter Populorum Progressio. . . . The only possible solution to this question is one which envisages the social and economic progress both of individuals and of the whole of human society, and which respects and promotes true human values.

Neither can one, without grave injustice, consider Divine Providence to be responsible for what depends, instead, on a lack of wisdom in government, on an insufficient sense of social justice, on selfish monopolization or again on blameworthy indolence in confronting the efforts and the sacrifices necessary to insure the raising of living standards of a people and of all its sons. [23]

The encyclical Populorum Progressio advocated the abolition of capitalism and the establishment of a totalitarian, socialist-fascist, global state — in which the right to “the minimum essential for life” is to be the ruling principle and “all other rights whatsoever, including those of property and of free commerce, are to be subordinated to this principle.” (For a discussion of that encyclical, see my article “Requiem for Man” in [Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal].)

If, today, a struggling, desperate man, somewhere in Peru or China or Egypt or Nigeria, accepted the commandments of the present encyclical and strove to be moral, but saw his horde of children dying of hunger around him, the only practical advice the encyclical would give him is: Wait for the establishment of a collectivist world state. What, in God’s name, is he to do in the meantime?

Philosophically, however, the reference to the earlier encyclical, Populorum Progressio, is extremely significant: it is as if Pope Paul VI were pointing to the bridge between the two documents and to their common base.

The global state advocated in Populorum Progressio is a nightmare utopia where all are enslaved to the physical needs of all; its inhabitants are selfless robots, programmed by the tenets of altruism, without personal ambition, without mind, pride, or self-esteem. But self-esteem is a stubborn enemy of all utopias of that kind, and it is doubtful whether mere economic enslavement would destroy it wholly in men’s souls. What Populorum Progressio was intended to achieve from without, in regard to the physical conditions of man’s existence, Humanae Vitae is intended to achieve from within, in regard to the devastation of man’s consciousness.

“Don’t allow men to be happy,” said Ellsworth Toohey in The Fountainhead. “Happiness is self-contained and self-sufficient. . . . Happy men are free men. So kill their joy in living. . . . Make them feel that the mere fact of a personal desire is evil. . . . Unhappy men will come to you. They’ll need you. They’ll come for consolation, for support, for escape. Nature allows no vacuum. Empty man’s soul — and the space is yours to fill.”

Deprived of ambition, yet sentenced to endless toil; deprived of rewards, yet ordered to produce; deprived of sexual enjoyment, yet commanded to procreate; deprived of the right to live, yet forbidden to die — condemned to this state of living death, the graduates of the encyclical Humanae Vitae will be ready to move into the world of Populorum Progressio; they will have no other place to go.

“If some man like Hugh Akston,” said Hank Rearden in Atlas Shrugged, “had told me, when I started, that by accepting the mystics’ theory of sex I was accepting the looters’ theory of economics, I would have laughed in his face. I would not laugh at him now.”

It would be a mistake, however, to suppose that in the subconscious hierarchy of motives of the men who wrote these two encyclicals, the second, Humanae Vitae, was merely the spiritual means to the first, Populorum Progressio, which was the material end. The motives, I believe, were the reverse: Populorum Progressio was merely the material means to Humanae Vitae, which was the spiritual end.

“. . . with our predecessor Pope John XXIII,” says Pope Paul VI in Humanae Vitae, “we repeat: no solution to these difficulties is acceptable ‘which does violence to man’s essential dignity’ and is based only ‘on an utterly materialistic conception of man himself and of his life.’” [23, emphasis added.] They mean it — though not exactly in the way they would have us believe.

In terms of reality, nothing could be more materialistic than an existence devoted to feeding the whole world and procreating to the limit of one’s capacity. But when they say “materialistic,” they mean pertaining to man’s mind and to this earth; by “spiritual,’’ they mean whatever is anti-man, anti-mind, anti-life, and, above all, anti-possibility of human happiness on earth.

The ultimate goal of these encyclicals’ doctrine is not the material advantages to be gained by the rulers of a global slave state; the ultimate goal is the spiritual emasculation and degradation of man, the extinction of his love of life, which Humanae Vitae is intended to accomplish, and Populorum Progressio merely to embody and perpetuate.

The means of destroying man’s spirit is unearned guilt.

What I said in “Requiem for Man” about the motives of Populorum Progressio applies as fully to Humanae Vitae, with only a minor paraphrase pertaining to its subject. “But, you say, the encyclical’s ideal will not work? It is not intended to work. It is not intended to [achieve human chastity or sexual virtue]; it is intended to induce guilt. It is not intended to be accepted and practiced; it is intended to be accepted and broken — broken by man’s ‘selfish’ desire to [love], which will thus be turned into a shameful weakness. Men who accept as an ideal an irrational goal which they cannot achieve, never lift their heads thereafter — and never discover that their bowed heads were the only goal to be achieved.”

I said, in that article, that Populorum Progressio was produced by the sense of life not of an individual, but of an institution — whose driving power and dominant obsession is the desire to break man’s spirit. Today, I say it, with clearer evidence, about the encyclical Humanae Vitae.

This is the fundamental issue which neither side of the present conflict is willing fully to identify.

The conservatives or traditionalists of the Catholic church seem to know, no matter what rationalizations they propound, that such is the meaning and intention of their doctrine. The liberals seem to be more innocent, at least in this issue, and struggle not to have to face it. But they are the supporters of global statism and, in opposing Humanae Vitae, they are merely fighting the right battle for the wrong reasons. If they win, their social views will still lead them to the same ultimate results.

The rebellion of the victims, the Catholic laymen, has a touch of healthy self-assertiveness; however, if they defy the encyclical and continue to practice birth control, but regard it as a matter of their own weakness and guilt, the encyclical will have won: this is precisely what it was intended to accomplish.

The American bishops of the Catholic church, allegedly struggling to find a compromise, issued a pastoral letter declaring that contraception is an objective evil, but individuals are not necessarily guilty or sinful if they practice it — which amounts to a total abdication from the realm of morality and can lead men only to a deeper sense of guilt.

Such is the tragic futility of attempting to fight the existential consequences of a philosophical issue, without facing and challenging the philosophy that produced them.

This issue is not confined to the Catholic church, and it is deeper than the problem of contraception; it is a moral crisis approaching a climax. The core of the issue is Western civilization’s view of man and of his life. The essence of that view depends on the answer to two interrelated questions: Is man (man the individual) an end in himself? — and: Does man have the right to be happy on this earth?

Throughout its history, the West has been torn by a profound ambivalence on these questions: all of its achievements came from those periods when men acted as if the answer were “Yes” — but, with exceedingly rare exceptions, their spokesmen, the philosophers, kept proclaiming a thunderous “No,” in countless forms.

Neither an individual nor an entire civilization can exist indefinitely with an unresolved conflict of that kind. Our age is paying the penalty for it. And it is our age that will have to resolve it.

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Ayn Rand
Ayn Rand
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