THE POVERTY OF SACRIFICE
Reason is man's
only means for grasping reality and of acquiring knowledge-
and, therefore, the rejection of reason means that men should act
regardless of and/or in contradiction to the facts of reality.
The most eloquent critic of sacrifice, I know of, is Ayn Rand. The thrust of her writings have to do with the individual verses the Church and the State. She is in a class by herself and worth getting to know. For interested readers, two good places to start are, The Virtue of Selfishness and For the New Intellectual.
I could not do her justice by summarizing her, so as a way of introducing her I have drawn from pages 139-140 of For the New Intellectual. This is a critique of both the State's and the Church's calls to sacrifice.
Selfishness-say both-is man's evil. Man's good-say both-is to give up his personal desires, to deny himself, renounce himself, surrender; man's good is to negate the life he lives. Sacrifice-cry both-is the essence of morality, the highest virtue within man's reach.
Whoever is now within reach of my voice, whoever is man the victim, not man the killer, I am speaking at the deathbed of your mind, at the brink of that darkness in which you're drowning, and if there still remains within you the power to struggle to hold on to those fading sparks which had been yourself-use it now. The word that has destroyed you is 'sacrifice.' Use the last of your strength to understand its meaning. You're still alive. You have a chance.
'Sacrifice' does not mean the rejection of the worthless, but of the precious. 'Sacrifice' does not mean the rejection of the evil for the sake of the good, but of the good for the sake of the evil. 'Sacrifice' is the surrender of that which you value in favor of that which you don't.
If you exchange a penny for a dollar, it is not sacrifice; if you exchange a dollar for a penny, it is. If you achieve the career you wanted, after years of struggle, it is not sacrifice; if you then renounce it for the sake of a rival, it is. If you own a bottle of milk and give it to your starving child, it is not sacrifice; if you give it to your neighbor's child and let your own die, it is.
If you give money to help a friend, it is not sacrifice; if you give it to a worthless stranger, it is. If you give your friend a sum you can afford, it is not sacrifice; if you give him money at the cost of your own discomfort, it is only a partial virtue, according to this sort of moral standard; if you give him money at the cost of disaster to yourself-that is the virtue of sacrifice in full.
If you renounce all personal desires and dedicate your life to those you love, you did not achieve full virtue; you still retain a value of your own, which is your love. If you devote your life to random strangers, it is an act of greater virtue. If you devote your life to serving men you hate-that is the greatest of the virtues you can practice.
A sacrifice is the surrender of a value. Full sacrifice is full surrender of all values. If you wish to achieve full virtue, you must seek no gratitude in return for your sacrifice, no praise, no love, no admiration, no self-esteem, not even the pride of becoming virtuous; the faintest trace of any gain dilutes your virtue. If you pursue a course of action that does not taint your life by any joy, that brings you no value in matter, no value in spirit, no gain, no profit, no reward-if you achieve this state of total zero, you have achieved the ideal of moral perfection.
You are told that moral perfection is impossible to man-and, by this standard it is. You cannot achieve it as long as you live, but the value of your life and of your person is gauged by how closely you succeed in approaching that ideal zero which is death.
If you start, however, as a passionless blank, as a vegetable seeking to be eaten, with no values to reject and no wishes to renounce, you will not win the crown of sacrifice. It is not a sacrifice to renounce the unwanted. It is not a sacrifice to give your life for others, if death is your personal desire. To achieve the virtue of sacrifice, you must want to live, you must love it, you must burn with passion for this earth and for all the splendor it can give you-you must feel the twist of every knife as it slashes you desires away from your reach and drains your live out of your body. It is not mere death that the morality of sacrifice holds out to you as an ideal, but death by slow torture.
Do not remind me that it pertains only to this life on earth. I am concerned with no other. Neither are you.
If you wish to save the last of your dignity, do not call your best actions a 'sacrifice'; that term brands you as immoral. If a mother buys food for her hungry child rather than a hat for herself, it is not a sacrifice; she values the child higher than the hat; but it is a sacrifice to the kind of mother whose higher value is the hat, who would prefer her child to starve, and feed him only from a sense of duty. If a man dies fighting for his freedom, it is not a sacrifice to the kind of man who's willing. If a man refuses to sell his convictions, it is not a sacrifice, unless he is the sort of man who has no convictions.
Sacrifice could be proper only for those who have nothing to sacrifice-no values, no standards, no judgment-those whose desires are irrational whims, blindly conceived and lightly surrendered. For a man of moral stature, whose desires are born of rational values, sacrifice is the surrender of the right to the wrong, of the good to the evil.
The creed of sacrifice is the morality for the immoral-a morality that declares its own bankruptcy by confessing that it can't impart to men any personal stake in virtues or values, and that their souls are sewers of depravity, which be taught to sacrifice. By its own confession, it is impotent to teach men to be good and only subject them to constant punishment.
The primary beneficiaries of sacrifice are the Church and the State. If the elites can get you to sacrifice, your loss becomes their gain. Their wealth and their power comes by whatever they can induce you to give up.