Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Copper Pot

In The Facets of Ayn Rand, Mary Ann Sures tells the story of the "copper pot", a copper-clad frying pan that she enjoyed polishing and hanging in her kitchen. When a friend learned of this, he criticized her for such a non-intellectual activity. Mary Ann later had a discussion with Ayn Rand about her copper pot:
I told her about the incident, and she nodded in understanding. When I finished, she said, “Oh, check your premises.” I told her I didn’t know what premises to check. So, she led me to understand the issue by questioning me about my response to the copper pot. She pointed out that it was significant that I didn’t clean it and then put it away, that I hung it up so I could look at it and enjoy its beauty. That, she said, was a rational value, and I shouldn’t apologize for it....

Then she said, “Do you know what we are doing?” I didn’t know what she was getting at, and I said, “We are analyzing this situation.” She said, “What we are doing, Mary Ann, we are taking ideas seriously. You are applying philosophy to your life. This is what philosophy is for.”
Indeed, philosophy--or at least a rational philosophy--provides guidance for living our lives. It provides us with the principles by which we can make the countless choices that confront us. It provides us the means of choosing our values and the means by which to attain them. It helps us decide how to spend our precious time on earth. Philosophy--or at least a rational philosophy--is an eminently practical science.

Life is the pursuit of values. Life itself is our ultimate value, but everything we seek is also a value—something that will sustain our life or add to its enjoyment. If we are going to spend our precious time in the pursuit of something, shouldn’t we understand why it is worth spending the time and effort in that pursuit? We might discover that we are pursuing something out of habit, or social pressure, or some other non-rational reason—in other words, we don’t hold that object or activity as a value any longer.

I don’t mean to imply that this is a never ending cycle. But when we become aware of this issue, it means that we should examine our values and be certain why they are values to us.

A value is that which we seek to gain and/ or keep. It is something we want. But the fact that we want something doesn’t explain why we want it. It doesn’t explain the reasons for that desire. And the reasons are crucial. They are the cause for our actions. They determine how we spend our time and what we choose to do with it. If we cannot identify the reasons, we cannot identify the cause. If we don’t know the cause, then our actions are being guided by something outside of our awareness and therefore, outside of our control. And that is not a good thing.

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