May 10, 2009

What is exaltation?

IMPORTANCE. In his first post (on April 11), "Introduction to 'Exalted Moments'," the anonymous author of the new Exalted Moments weblog quotes Ayn Rand's correspondence. In a letter she wrote in 1960, she said:

You [an admirer of Atlas Shrugged] ask me about the meaning of the dialogue on page 702 of Atlas Shrugged:

"'We never had to take any of it seriously, did we?' [Dagny Taggart] whispered. . . ."

Let me begin [Ayn Rand writes] by saying that this is perhaps the most important point in the whole book, because it is . . . the keynote . . . of the view of life presented in
Atlas Shrugged.

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 . . . that one must live for the sake of such exalted moments as one may be able to achieve or experience . . . .[1]

NATURE. In thinking about the meaning of the concept "exaltation," I have set aside related meanings that are merely social applications -- such as to exalt someone, that is, praise someone, perhaps in an effort to raise his position in the estimation of others.

One step in considering a puzzling term and the idea it names (if any) is to consider the word's origin historically. Etymology is not an infallible guide to current meaning, but sometimes the etymology of a word can give a clue to an early meaning that has survived in some form into modern times. Consider "exaltation." In Latin ex is a preposition that often means "from." Altus is an adjective having various meanings: "great"; "grown" (when one's potential is fully actualized); and "high." Our English word "altitude" reflects that last meaning.[2]

Another early step I take in considering a concept is to look at example referents in my own experience. As a hiker, runner, and walker, I have had a certain feeling when struggling up the side of a steep hill and finally reaching the top. From that high point, I can see far and wide, which is a perspective that reinforces a focus on the biggest values in life, not the trivia. The same three aspects--a certain mode of progressive activity culminating in a particular achievement, a certain feeling, and a certain perspective--appear also, but more intensely, when an individual is aware of achieving a high, long-term personal value (especially one supporting his central purpose in life), one earned through persistent effort. An example is an author reaching a major milestone in working on a book for many years.

PREREQUISITES. What philosophical values and virtues are required of a person to earn the feeling of exaltation? Of course, one needs all the philosophical values (reason, purpose, and self-esteem) and all the virtues, but especially the virtues of rationality (which allows one to set goals and devise plans for achieving them), pride (which is striving to make oneself better), and courage (which is required for achieving plans, even against opposition).

INTENSITY. What factors determine the intensity of exaltation? Working from my own experiences and some observation of others, I would suggest several factors make the feeling more intense: the more important the value--that is, the higher it is in one's hierarchy of personal values, the more intense the emotion; the more clearly one has identified and integrated one's actions and values, the more intense the emotion; and the greater the investment of time and effort in achieving the value, the more intense the emotion. Negatively, emotional repression can reduce the intensity of any emotion; that is a matter of the individual's psychology. I do not know if a person's intelligence or if the historical magnitude of his accomplishment--for example, a man who runs a global billion-dollar business in contrast to one who runs a small-town hundred-thousand-dollar business--affect the intensity of exaltation. I doubt it.

FICTIONAL EXAMPLES. Fiction offers examples of exaltation: the last, triumphant scene of Howard Roark in The Fountainhead, by Ayn Rand; on a smaller scale, some scenes from Heart of a Pagan, by Andrew Bernstein; the last scene of Von Ryan's Express (the book, not the movie), by David Westheimer; and, on a still smaller scale, and only implied, some scenes in success stories created even by emotionally repressed writers such Louis L'Amour, for example, in Utah Blaine. For objective readers, the facts in these scenes evoke positive evaluations that give rise to the emotion of exaltation.

CONCLUSION. Climbing to the top of a steep hill is both a narrow example and a symbol of the setting for feeling exaltation. The situation includes a pattern of progressive action toward a definite milestone or goal, evokes an awareness of intense accomplishment, and produces a broad perspective that casts aside trivia and involves the essence of one's soul--one's highest personal values. Action toward a high goal and its eventual accomplishment are the causes of the feeling, and the accompanying broad perspective is an immediate effect of the situation.

Exaltation is the emotion that arises from reaching a new high point in the core of one's life and knowing that one is worthy of standing there because one has earned it through thought and action.

Burgess Laughlin
Author, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith

[1] For the quotation: Ayn Rand, The Letters of Ayn Rand, editor Michael Berliner, Plume (Penguin), 1997, p. 583-584.

[2] I am working from Cassell's Latin Dictionary and from the The Random House Dictionary of the English Language, 2nd ed., unabridged.

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