To John Hospers [Letter 458]

Item Reference Code: 141_HO2_005_001

Date(s) of creation

August 29, 1960


John Hospers


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36 East 36th St.
New York City

August 29, 1960

Dear John:

Thank you for your letter of August 12 and for the two postcards you sent me from the road. I was happy to hear from you and to know that your home town has not swallowed you altogether. To tell you the truth, I miss you very much and I am looking forward to continuing our philosophical discussions by mail, in spite of my difficulty with letter-writing.

I read your paper on “Art and Emotion” with great interest. It is always a pleasure to read the clarity and precision of the manner in which you analyze specific issues—the orderly rationality of the way your mind works, or of what I call your “psychological epistemology.” I will not attempt to evaluate your theory of art on so brief a presentation. Am I correct in gathering that you suggest that a clue to the emotional meaning of art may be found in a parallel between the physical form of an art work and man’s physical states? If so, then man’s mental process in responding to an art work would be purely perceptual and associational, rather than conceptual and logical. (The equation of horizontal lines with security, in the example you give, is associational.) If this is true, then how would your theory apply to literature?

I will not attempt to argue against your theory, since I am not sure that I understand it correctly. When you have time, please read my third radio talk (“The Esthetic Vacuum [of Our Age]”). It presents (also much too briefly) the essence of my theory of art, and will serve as my answer, if we disagree.

In any case, your theory is more sensible in its approach than the kind of mystic nonsense people proclaim nowadays. And I hope that by the time you receive this letter, you will have delivered your speech with great success.

Now to the issue of your book on ethics. Does your contract give your publishers the right to omit any section with which they don’t agree? Or does the problem lie in the fact that they may not do their best for your book, if you don’t reach an agreement with them? (If I remember correctly, you told me it was this last.) In either case, the issue is too serious to settle hastily, and they cannot demand that you work on revisions while travelling. Unless some crucial deadline is involved, I would suggest that you delay the publication date until you have had time to return to Los Angeles and to do any revisions you might decide on, under proper working conditions. Surely your publishers will not object to such a delay, since it is they who changed their mind after approving the manuscript.

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As to the revisions you are considering, do your publishers want you to compromise, or merely to include some “good pro-religious arguments”? It is not the same thing. In fact, it is always advisable to present the best, not the worst, arguments of one’s opponent, in order to blast him thoroughly: it is more convincing to annihilate his intercontinental missiles rather than merely to destroy his old pocket pistols. But which do your publishers actually want: a strong case for both sides with the “best man” winning—or an indecisive, inconclusive case, with neither side winning? This last would be a compromise and it would amount to an argument slanted in favor of religion, because it would imply that nobody can refute the religionists’ case. Surely you wouldn’t and couldn’t want to do that?

A “compromise” does not mean a “fair presentation of both sides.” When one side is right and the other is wrong, a compromise necessarily means the distortion and suppression of the evidence, in favor of the side that is wrong. Any compromise between truth and falsehood can be only falsehood—as you yourself demonstrated brilliantly in the example you cited: if one tries to “compromise” on “2 plus 2 is 4,” it does not really matter whether one agrees to make it 4.5 or 5 or 10—if it is not 4, then truth and reason have lost, falsehood and irrationality have won.

You say that you consider rewriting that section in the form of a dialogue, “giving the better of the argument to one side.” You may be able to do it, but I want to warn you about the basic danger involved: if your publishers want a compromise, that is, an inconclusive case, they will see through your “slanting” and they will object; if you make the slanting so subtle and mild that they accept it, it will be of no value to the students whom you want to enlighten; in fact, it will harm them. A weak case is worse than no case at all; a half-truth is worse than a lie: it sanctions the lie.

Since I have not read your book as a whole, I cannot express a firm opinion on what you should do, but can only offer a tentative suggestion. As far as I can judge, I see two possible courses of action:

(1) Present the best, strongest, most authentic arguments tying morality to religion that you can find, in the words of their actual advocates (from Augustine on up)—and then, as answer and antidote, include in your book a presentation of my ethics. This would allow you to maintain the position of an impartial, critical observer and let me be the antagonist of religious doctrines, which I am known to be anyway. (Yes, of course, this would be to my own personal interest—but, as I’ve said in ATLAS SHRUGGED, the personal interests of men do not clash, when men pursue rational goals. I am not suggesting this because of my interest, but because I do not know of any other ethical theory or any other arguments that can defeat religious ethics fully and totally.) I know that you would need time

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to consider my ethics further, as you said, but your publishers ought to grant you that time. As for me, I would be delighted to help you with the presentation of my theory (the evaluation, of course, has to be your own.)

If that would be too lengthy a job of rewriting, then my alternative suggestion is:

(2) Omit that entire section. It would be regretable, but silence is always preferable to compromise. Silence, in these circumstances, is not a betrayal of one’s convictions; a compromise is.

The difficulty in your case seems to be the attempt to deal with so explosive and controversial a subject as criticism of religion, in the form of a side-issue in a book devoted to the wider theme of ethical history. Controversial subjects can be difficult or dangerous only when treated indirectly and incompletely. It would be much easier and safer to write a whole book openly criticizing religious ethics, presenting a complete case; publishers would be less afraid of it. Therefore, if you do not find a way to present a case for your actual viewpoint in your current book, I would rather see you omit the entire issue than see you compromise or fight a martyr’s battle. I am opposed to martyrdom as well as to compromise: neither is ever necessary. Integrity does not require martyrdom; but it does forbid compromise.

In conclusion, let me mention how much I like you for saying that you “do not want to pull a Dr. Stadler on this issue.”

Speaking of ATLAS SHRUGGED, I was amused (benevolently) to hear that you chose Ouray as your favorite spot in Colorado. That is the little town I had picked for Galt’s Gulch. To be exact, I marked it on a map as the right location, long before I saw it. Then, when I went to Colorado for research purposes and discovered Ouray, I fell in love with it. It is the most beautifully dramatic spot in the whole state, and it’s even surrounded by a ring of mountains (though Galt’s Valley would be somewhat larger).

I will be glad to answer any questions you may have about my philosophy. And I was delighted to hear that you found my philosophy helpful during your visit with your family.

Frank asks me to thank you for your comments on his painting (the cityscape), on your last visit here, which I told him. The perceptiveness and sensitivity of your reaction impressed and pleased him very much—so I thank you doubly, for both of us.

No, I have not left New York this summer. I have no specially exciting news to report, except the continuing and very successful sale of the pocket-books of my three novels, plus the signing of a contract for a pocket-book edition of ANTHEM, which will be published within the coming year. Also, the contract for the off-Broadway

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production of my play IDEAL has been agreed upon and is now being drawn up by lawyers and agents, so I will see the play produced during the coming season.

I am sending you my three novels (the hard-cover editions) to your California address, and also a copy of the magazine VITAL SPEECHES OF THE DAY which contains the speech I delivered at Brooklyn College. I hope they reach you by the time you come back. I don’t expect you to read my “complete works” all at once, so take your time. I will, of course, be very interested to hear your reaction when and as you read them.

I hope that you have enjoyed your whole trip. If you encounter any remnant of Aristotle’s ghost in Athens, please give him my love.

With my very best regards to you from both of us—