Banality Verses Romanticism

By banality I mean that view of life dominated by the prosaic and mundane, the view that sees life itself as a "problem" to be solved.

In contrast to the banal, the romantic sees life as a grand adventure, an opportunity for achievement and accomplishment with his own success and happiness as his ideal.

Why This Article?

The contrast between the banal and romantic views of life was recently illustrated for me by responses I received to a comment I made to a recent article. This was my response:

Quoting the article, "This thing we call human life is primarily one thing, itís a lifetime exercise in problem solving."

To which I made the comment, "What a horrible view of life!"

I was not at all surprised that my response was completely misunderstood. Most people's view of life is a banal one. They really do view life is, "primarily one thing ... problem solving."

The purpose of this article is to explain what is wrong with that view. When I say wrong, I do not mean morally wrong, or even logically wrong, although there are elements of both those mistakes. I mean it is a view of life that takes all real meaning or purpose from it and turns it into drudgery, a constant battle against difficulties and degradation, with nothing uplifting, rewarding, or worth living for.

A Philosopher's Point Of View

I do not know when I first became aware of the difference between the romantic view of life and the more common banal view of life. It may perhaps have been when a coworker on my first full-time job in a paint factory heard me describe some pending task as a problem. What he said was surprising in that filthy environment where absolutely nothing was easy. He was certainly no philosopher, but what he said was philosophy. Paint spattered and grimey he stated frimly and kindly, "there are no problems around here, there are only opportunities and challenges."

While I do not identify myself with anyone else's ideologies or philosophies there is one philosopher I have found much of real value in studying, Ayn Rand. Though there is much I disagree with, she did have some profound insights.

I have not read everything ever written by anyone who is considered a philosopher, but I have read most of them. Except for Rand, I have never found another philosopher who clearly articulated the difference between the romantic and banal views of life.

In, "Philosophy: who needs it," a lecture she gave at West Point, originally published as an article in, The Ayn Rand Letter, concerning ethics, she asked:

"What is good or evil for man—and why? Should man's primary concern be a quest for joy—or an escape from suffering?" [The Ayn Rand Letter Vol. III, No. 7 December 31, 1973] [Emphasis mine.]

The question is, "what should man's primary concern be?" It is not questioning whether there can or will be suffering, it is questioning whether that should be man's primary interest or value.

Rand answers that question in a letter to a fan, explaining what Dagny Taggert's words to John Galt, "We never had to take any of it seriously," actually meant. This is the expanation:

"What Dagny expresses here is the conviction that joy, exaltation, beauty, greatness, heroism, all the supreme, uplifting values of man's existence on earth, are the meaning of life—not the pain or ugliness he may encounter—that one must live for the sake of such exalted moments as one may be able to achieve or experience, not for the sake of suffering—that happiness matters, but suffering does not—that no matter how much pain one may have to endure, it is never to be taken seriously, that is: never to be taken as the essence and meaning of life—that the essence of life is the achievement of joy, not the escape from pain. ...

"It is the difference between those who think that man's life is important and that happiness is possible—and those who think that man's life, by its very nature, is a hopeless, senseless tragedy .... It is the difference between those whose basic motive is the desire to achieve values, to experience joy—and those whose basic motive is the desire to escape from pain, to experience a momentary relief from their chronic anxiety ...." [The Letters of Ayn Rand, The Later Years (1960-1981), To R. A. Williams, August 29, 1960.]

Rand repeats the theme here:

"You seek escape from pain. We seek the achievement of happiness. You exist for the sake of avoiding punishment. We exist for the sake of earning rewards." [Atlas Shrugged, Part Three / Chapter VII "This Is John Galt Speaking."]

In her work on aesthetics, The Romantic Manifesto, Rand identified the dichotomy of life views as a difference in one's, "sense of life." "A sense of life," she wrote, "is a pre-conceptual equivalent of metaphysics, an emotional, subconsciously integrated appraisal of man and of existence." [The Romantic Manifesto, "Philosophy and Sense of Life."]

I do not exactly agree with Rand's description of "a sense of life," but I agree with the sentiment, that a sense of life is one's overall evaluation of human life, its nature and its purpose, and that it colors or influences every aspect of one's way of thinking. The two views of life Rand has described represent two opposite versions of a sense of life, a positive romantic sense of life and a negative banal sense of life.

The difference between a positive and negative sense of life shows up in every aspect of one's approach to life. Rand used all these comparisons:

—quest for joy vs. escape from suffering
—achievement of happiness vs. escape from pain
—earning rewards vs. avoiding punishment
—joy, exaltation, beauty, greatness, heroism vs. pain or ugliness
—exalted moments vs. suffering
—happiness matters, suffering does not
—achievement of joy vs. escape from pain
—life is important vs. life is a hopeless
—happiness possible vs certain tragedy
—basic motive: the desire to achieve values vs. desire to escape chronic anxiety (e.g. worrying about perpetual problems.)

The difference in each case is not an exclusive difference, it is not either all positive or all negative, the difference is in what is primary in one's life and approach to living; which is important and which incidental; which is the major reason for living; which is the purpose of life?

The romanic view does not deny the existence of suffering, pain, punishment, ugliness, tragedy, anxiety, or problems, it denies that they are primary, that they are even important when compared to what is primary, that which is the reason and purpose for living.

Though Rand never explicitly identifies, "problems," as one of the negative views of life, it is exactly like the others. To a psychologically healthy individual, solving problems is a side issue, not the meaning and thrust of life. Those who see all of life as nothing but a continuous series problems to be solved have a negative view of life. Only those who see life as primarily one of infinite possibility and potential, a grand adventure to be lived and experienced with real goals to be achieved and real things of value to be made and produced have a positive view, a right view, of life. Problems, like pain, suffering, and difficulties are incidentals along the way of one's adventure.

What Is A Problem?

The term, "problem," is a value term, and like all value terms identifies a relationship. Before there can be a value there must be a purpose, a goal, or an objective relative to which a thing has some value; a positive value like good or important if the thing enables or furthers the goal or purpose, a negative value like bad or wrong if it hinders or interferes in the achievement of the goal or purpose.

The word, "problem," is a negative value term. It identifies something, an entity, a state, or a condition, that interferes with the achievement of some objective, goal, or purpose. Like all value terms, there are no intrinsic problems. Nothing is just, "a problem." A thing is a problem only if it is a problem to someone hindering them from achieving their objective, goal, or purpose. Whenever something is declared to be a problem the question must always be asked, "a problem for whom relative to which of their goals or purposes?"

Having a purpose and pursuing it is not a problem. Very often there is nothing interfering with achieving a goal, except that one has to do the thinking and work necessary to accomplish it. Unless one regards thinking and work as problems (many people actually do) so long is there is nothing interfereing with achieving a goal or purpose, no matter how difficult it is, there is NO problem.

A problem assumes there is some solution or way to overcome whatever is inhibiting the achievement of an objective, goal, or purpose. If a thing prevents that achievement, that is, if it makes that achievement physically or logically impossible, it is not a problem, it is just a fact which must be accepted. Before a thing can be identified as a problem, whether or not a solution is possible must be determined.

Problem—Ambiguous Meanings

The word problem is sometimes used in everyday language to identify things that are not a problem in the sense so-far described.

One mistaken use confuses problem solving with creativity. Solving problems does not create anything. It is possible that in some cases one or more problems must be solved before the creative process can be carried out, but all problem solving can ever do is eliminate barriers or impediments to the creative process, it never actually creates anything itself.

Sometimes things that require extra effort to accomplish like mathematical solutions or complex design are referred to as, "problems." I think it is "problem" in that sense many people mean by questions such as "How can you possibly achieve anything without solving problems?" There is nothing wrong with using problems in such cases because most people understand it is only "difficulty" that is being referred to. The question ought to be, "How can you possibly achieve anything without overcoming difficulties?"

That is not how the word "problem" is being used when someone describes it as, "This thing we call human life is primarily one thing, itís a lifetime exercise in problem solving." That is a perfect example of a negative view of life. It is the view that life is nothing but a series of crises that must be solved, and he lists them: the crisis of international war, the crisis of world starvation, the crisis of widespread poverty, the crisis of economic depression, the crisis of currency inflation, the crisis of epidemic crime, the crisis of failing education.

Nothing illustrates more powerfully the banality of the negative view of life, the reduction of life to nothing more than endless political crises.

"Now, if men give up all abstract speculation and turn to the immediate conditions of their existence—to the realm of politics—what values or moral inspiration will they find?" [Ayn Rand, The Objectivist, April 1966, "Our Cultural Value-Deprivation"]

They'll find none! All they will find is a life reduced to dreary repitious purposeless solving of problems, which, most likely, are not even their own.