This essay was originally published in March 1973 in The Ayn Rand Letter and later anthologized in Philosophy: Who Needs It (1982).
“God grant me the serenity to accept things I cannot change, courage to change things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”
This remarkable statement is attributed to a theologian with whose ideas I disagree in every fundamental respect: Reinhold Niebuhr. But — omitting the form of a prayer, i.e., the implication that one’s mental-emotional states are a gift from God — that statement is profoundly true, as a summary and a guideline: it names the mental attitude which a rational man must seek to achieve. The statement is beautiful in its eloquent simplicity; but the achievement of that attitude involves philosophy’s deepest metaphysicalI use the word “metaphysical” to mean: that which pertains to reality, to the
nature of things, to existence...
The Objectivist Ethics, 14View Full Lexicon Entry-moral issues.
The primacy of existence (of reality) is the axiom that existence exists, i.e., that the universe exists independent of consciousness (of any consciousness), that things are what they are, that they possess a specific nature, an identity.
I was startled to learn that that statement has been adopted as a prayer by Alcoholics Anonymous, which is not exactly a philosophical organization. In view of the fact that today’s social-psychological theories stress emotional, not intellectual, needs and frustrations as the cause of human suffering (e.g., the lack of “love”), it is astonishing that that organization has discovered that such a prayer is relevant to the problems of alcoholics — that the misery of confusion on those issues has devastating consequences and is one of the factors driving men to drink, i.e., to seek escape from reality. This is just one more example of the way in which philosophy rules the lives of men who have never heard or cared to hear about it.
Most men spend their lives in futile rebellion against things they cannot change, in passive resignation to things they can, and — never attempting to learn the difference — in chronic guilt and self-doubt on both counts.
Observe what philosophical premises are implicit in that advice and are required for an attempt to live up to it. If there are things that man can change, it means that he possesses the power of choice, i.e., the faculty of volition. If he does not possess it, he can change nothing, including his own actions and characteristics, such as courage or lack of it. If there are things that man cannot change, it means that there are things that cannot be affected by his actions and are not open to his choice. This leads to the basic metaphysical issue that lies at the root of any system of philosophy: the primacy of existence or the primacy of consciousness.
The primacy of existence (of reality) is the axiomAn axiom is a statement that identifies the base of knowledge and of any
further statement pertaining to that knowledge, a statement necessarily
contained in all others, whether any particular speaker chooses to identify it
Galt’s Speech, 155View Full Lexicon Entry that existence exists, i.e., that the universe exists independent of consciousness (of any consciousness), that things are what they are, that they possess a specific nature, an identity. The epistemological corollary is the axiom that consciousness is the faculty of perceiving that which exists — and that man gains knowledge of reality by looking outward. The rejection of these axioms represents a reversal: the primacy of consciousness — the notion that the universe has no independent existence, that it is the product of a consciousness (either human or divine or both). The epistemological corollary is the notion that man gains knowledge of reality by looking inward (either at his own consciousness or at the revelations it receives from another, superior consciousness).
The best and briefest identification of man’s power in regard to nature is Francis Bacon’s ‘Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed’
The source of this reversal is the inability or unwillingness fully to grasp the difference between one’s inner state and the outer world, i.e., between the perceiver and the perceived (thus blending consciousness and existence into one indeterminate package-deal). This crucial distinction is not given to man automatically; it has to be learned. It is implicit in any awareness, but it has to be grasped conceptually and held as an absolute. As far as can be observed, infants and savages do not grasp it (they may, perhaps, have some rudimentary glimmer of it). Very few men ever choose to grasp it and fully to accept it. The majority keep swinging from side to side, implicitly recognizing the primacy of existence in some cases and denying it in others, adopting a kind of hit-or-miss, rule-of-thumb epistemologicalEpistemology is a science devoted to the discovery of the proper methods of
acquiring and validating knowledge...
Definitions, 36View Full Lexicon Entry agnosticism, through ignorance and/or by intention — the result of which is the shrinking of their intellectual range, i.e., of their capacity to deal with abstractions. And although few people today believe that the singing of mystic incantations will bring rain, most people still regard as valid an argument such as: “If there is no God, who created the universe?”
To grasp the axiom that existence exists, means to grasp the fact that nature, i.e., the universe as a whole, cannot be created or annihilated, that it cannot come into or go out of existence. Whether its basic constituent elements are atoms, or subatomic particles, or some yet undiscovered forms of energy, it is not ruled by a consciousness or by will or by chance, but by the Law of Identity. All the countless forms, motions, combinations and dissolutions of elements within the universe — from a floating speck of dust to the formation of a galaxy to the emergence of life — are caused and determined by the identities of the elements involved. Nature is the metaphysically given — i.e., the nature of nature is outside the power of any volition.
Man’s volition is an attribute of his consciousness (of his rational faculty) and consists in the choice to perceive existence or to evade it. To perceive existenceExistence exists—and the act of grasping that statement implies two corollary axioms: that something exists which one perceives and that one exists possessing consciousness, consciousness being the faculty of perceiving that which exists...
Galt’s Speech, 124View Full Lexicon Entry, to discover the characteristics or properties (the identities) of the things that exist, means to discover and accept the metaphysically given. Only on the basis of this knowledge is man able to learn how the things given in nature can be rearranged to serve his needs (which is his method of survival).
The power to rearrange the combinations of natural elements is the only creative power man possesses. It is an enormous and glorious power — and it is the only meaning of the concept “creative.” “Creation” does not (and metaphysically cannot) mean the power to bring something into existence out of nothing. “Creation” means the power to bring into existence an arrangement (or combination or integration) of natural elements that had not existed before. (This is true of any human product, scientific or esthetic: man’s imagination is nothing more than the ability to rearrange the things he has observed in reality.) The best and briefest identification of man’s power in regard to nature is Francis Bacon’s “Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed.” In this context, “to be commanded” means to be made to serve man’s purposes; “to be obeyed” means that they cannot be served unless man discovers the properties of natural elements and uses them accordingly.
For example, two hundred years ago, men would have said that it is impossible to hear a human voice at a distance of 238,000 miles. It is as impossible today as it was then. But if we are able to hear an astronaut’s voice coming from the moon, it is by means of the science of electronics, which discovered certain natural phenomena and enabled men to build the kind of equipment that picks up the vibrations of that voice, transmits them, and reproduces them on earth. Without this knowledge and this equipment, centuries of wishing, praying, screaming and foot-stamping would not make a man’s voice heard at the distance of ten miles.