The New Millennium

by Warren Ross

This is an unusual year, and an especially good one to see the role of philosophy in people’s lives. As we turn the clock over to 2000, some irrational people are worried that this is the end of the world. Others are worried that there will be a massive failure of technology. Still others are planning to use force and terror to destroy the West, since despite all their predictions and prayers the West hasn’t self-destructed. Meanwhile, the rational people are going about their business, and solving any minor problems that arise due to the turnover. Corporations have planned for this date for years, tested and retested, and satisfied themselves that there is only a small probability of computer-related glitches, and only in relatively unimportant systems. The average citizen is planning to celebrate the way he always does, and the better people will make New Year’s resolutions, which (if treated seriously and not trivially) are essentialized statements of their goals for the new year. With this wide contrast in attitudes and actions regarding the 1999-2000 rollover, this is truly an opportunity to see that philosophy is everywhere.

Even though this isn’t really the true end of the millennium (next year holds that distinction), there have been a number of media pieces emphasizing the progress that has been made over the last 100 or 1000 years. A particularly good one was done by Morley Safer on CBS News. He went to a preserved Saxon village in Bury St. Edmund in England, which shows the way of life of our ancestors near the time of 1000 AD. At that time, if a child made it beyond infancy (and wasn’t killed by a host of childhood diseases that we now take for granted can be cured with a vaccine or antibiotics), life expectancy was in the 40’s. People lived in wooden huts with straw roofs. They barely survived by backbreaking labor. In contrast, the story went on to say, we now have all kinds of lifesaving medicines, with the prospect of curing more major diseases (like cancer) in the next century. We have all kinds of “gadgets” that make life easier. Life expectancy is in the 70’s and may be near 100 soon.

The contrast made by this story is striking, and no rational person would come away from it longing for that former life. The weakness in the story, though (aside from the term “gadgets,” which demeans labor-saving and pleasure-enhancing technology), was that it made not a single attempt to explain the difference between life then and life now. No hint was given of a revolution to come a few centuries after 1000 AD. No mention was made of the rediscovery by the West of the relatively rational philosophy of the ancients, especially the Greeks. No mention was made of how Renaissance men expanded on and improved what the ancients did by developing the scientific method, accepting as moral the pursuit of one’s own happiness and identifying the rights of man. As a consequence of these massive omissions, at best people must come away from such a story (and others like them) with the idea that it was “technology” or “science” that made the difference, with no true understanding of what it is that makes technology and science possible.

It is our job to tell people what is omitted here. We must tell them that reason and egoism undergird all of the great achievements of the last 1000 years (particularly the last 700 years). We must tell them that the consistent adherence to reason, and the exalting of the individual and his moral action, will make such achievements possible in the next millennium. And we must tell them about the philosopher who has the proper view of reason and egoism, who carefully defined these doctrines to avoid all of the pitfalls of her predecessors. If we do our job properly, truly understanding Ayn Rand’s views and promulgating them to the widest audience, WE will be partly responsible for the unimaginable achievements to come in the next 1000 years.

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