Laissez Faire Books
Old Nick's Guide To Happiness: A Philosophical Novel, by Nicholas Dykes
Reviewed by C. Jeffery Small
First the acknowledgments: Nicholas Dykes has been an acquaintance for a number of years, during which we having corresponded, on and off, on a variety of topics. However, we had not recently been in touch, and for some unexplainable reason, although published in 2008, I was unaware that he had written a novel. When I recently stumbled across it at Laissez Faire Books, I immediately ordered a copy and then placed it on my massive stack of reading materials awaiting my attention, while I plowed through the five or six other volumes that, as is often the case, I have going simultaneously. (No, it's not pretty!) Finally, having cleared the decks, I pick up this book with the provocative title, not knowing what to expect. I was captivated from the opening page, reading the entire book without interruption or distraction, which, as you may note by my more typical habits, is the high-water mark of compelling storytelling communicated through a clear and effective writing style.
An eighteen year old English school graduate, planning to attend Oxford in the fall to study literature, decides to spend his summer hiking the Scottish highlands, only to find himself suddenly awakening, alone, on a grassy slope, suffering amnesia, and unable to recall his name or how he has arrived there. Surrounded by the sea to one side and unscalable cliffs all around, he is trapped and must fend for his survival while working to resolve his predicament. From this point the mystery-adventure unfolds as this boy is drawn into a world unlike anything he has previously experienced, encountering a cast of characters that include a Russian miner/philosopher, a woman biologist, who, while fluent in many languages, refuses to speak anything other than Gaelic, and a love goddess! The story is an intellectual journey of discovery and development as the protagonist matures from boy to man.
As the title indicates, this is not merely a story, but a book of ideas in the tradition of Atlas Shrugged, combining detailed expositions on philosophical subjects intermixed with a plot designed to illustrate many of the issues being raised. And the comparison to Atlas Shrugged is no accident, as the author has been significantly influenced by Ayn Rand's philosophy of Objectivism, which plays a major role throughout the book. However, this is not merely a straight interpretation of Rand's philosophy, but a detailed account of the author's personal philosophic views and conclusions, resulting from a life of study, reflection and integration. Over the course of the book, the entire structure of philosophy is examined, starting with the basic axioms (existence, consciousness, identity and free will), building them into a set of five fundamental laws, and then extending onward to cover the broader areas of metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, aesthetics and politics, along the way touching upon themes as diverse as the nature of life, individual rights, values, religion, privacy, money, education, drugs and sex, to name a few. The book is rich in details, with a cursory pass revealing discussions referencing at least thirty-seven different philosophers, twelve economists, twenty writers and numerous scientists. From this, the reader is presented with a broad overview of the history of philosophy and a concise refresher on Objectivism in the bargain.
Much of the philosophical discussion is presented in the form of Socratic dialogs between the philosopher Nikolai [Old Nick of the title, and, self-referentially, the author, who goes by the same "nickname" (OK, tell me you could have resisted that one!)] and the young protagonist, who, as a surrogate for the reader, digests the material and poses questions in response to what has been presented. To get a taste of the writing style, consider this passage during a discussion on ethics:
Or this, from a conversation on religion:
Those familiar with Objectivism will find common cause in these quotes. But where the author parts ways with Rand is in the realm of politics. Nicholas Dykes is a confirmed libertarian anarcho-capitalist, and he devotes a good portion of this book to a defense of this position on historical, practical, and philosophical grounds. His stance is best summarized early in the novel when Nikolai states:
and he intends for this book, in part, to back up that proposition.
The essence of the presentation is as follows: Starting with an historical overview, many peaceful cultures are discussed which are said to have functioned successfully without any formal government structure, relying instead upon "customary" or common-sense laws, generally developed and agreed to by their community members. Much of this research was compiled by Bruce Benson in his book The Enterprise of Law: Justice Without the State, and includes groups such as the English Anglo-Saxons, Icelanders, Kapauku Tribe, American Indians, and Canadian Huron Indians, among others. These examples are used to establish that the presence of a formal government cannot be said to be an essential component of a functioning society. Next is an examination of the historical development of governments which are shown to have not grown out of the needs of individuals or groups, but were, uniformly, imposed upon them by force and continue their existence through the initiation of force. The fiction of the "consent of the governed" is examined, concluding that these are pretty words, which attempt to conceal the fact that, even in America, the U.S. Constitution was and is not voluntarily acceded to by each individual citizen, but is also imposed upon all, regardless of their consent -- or lack of it. Existing governments are then reviewed and found, without exception, to always grow in their scope and power, encroaching upon the lives of individuals in ever expanding ways. Constitutions are seen as nothing more than paper to be ignored when desired, with examples in the U.S. being the 1798 Sedition Act, sighed by John Adams, violating freedom of speech; the 1803 Louisiana Purchase by Thomas Jefferson, despite there being no constitutional authority for this action; the 1917 establishment of military conscription by Woodrow Wilson, explicitly violating the 13th Amendment; and the 1919 enactment of Prohibition, an excursion into the regulation of the lives of citizens, violating the purpose of the Constitution as a protector of individual rights. Of course, there is no longer a need to look to history for examples of constitutional violations, as we can find them in our daily news. Rather than being staunch defenders of the principles embodied in the Constitution, the courts are seen as all too often being complicit in aiding in their transgression. Having laid this groundwork, Nikolai then spends some time presenting an alternative form of governance based upon voluntary associations and free markets, with a justice system strictly focused upon providing restitution to victims of crimes, rather than upon meting out retribution. This is followed by a discussion of how one might logically transition from today's world to this very different system.
So, was the author successful in his goal of winning over another convert to his political viewpoint? I'm sorry, Old Nick, but for this reader, the answer remains no. There is not time, nor is this the place for a full discussion regarding the merits and problems pertaining to the practicality of anarchism, but if I were to point out what I would consider to be a weakness of the book, it would be the failure to dramatize anarchism, as envisioned, actually working in a complex society consisting of thousands of individuals, where real-world problems were shown being dealt with successfully -- including the types of contemporary issues and problems envisioned by minarchists who remain unconvinced that these ideas can be made workable under realistic conditions. However, that might provide the fertilizer for a very fascinating sequel.
Having said that, I did find the discussion on politics filled with many interesting and thought-provoking ideas that anyone who considers themselves to be an advocate of limited government should squarely face. For example, there is, to my mind, a very valid philosophical problem raised regarding the fundamental right to self-defense and the minarchist's claim that, in the name of rational self-interest, this must be relinquished to a government holding a monopoly on retaliatory force. And the ideas of exactly how (and even if!) the powers of any government could be successfully constrained, does need to be carefully reexamined. In light of current world events, I no longer find the simple suggestion that a rewriting of the U.S. Constitution, removing various flaws and contradictions, would be sufficient to stop the abuses we are currently witnessing. If that line of reasoning is to do intellectual battle with the anarcho-capitalist's views, then both need to move beyond their current hand-waving state and get down to the hard work of translating these visions into concrete proposals, backed up by rigorous philosophical analysis, and then made available for critical review and debate. My belief is that the best political solution resides somewhere in the middle, with a synthesis of ideas from both intellectual camps. But this can only happen after a productive dialog and a mutual desire for the free exchange of ideas is established. And Objectivists, let's not forget that for all practical purposes, Galt's Gulch was Ayn Rand's vision of the practicality of an anarchist society, given the right types of people. To which, I refer you to Aristotle's quote which opened this review.
When considering the book as a whole, there are a couple of quibbles I
might raise, such as a reliance on the idiom "The exception that proves
the rule", which I always find annoying in any philosophical
discussion, or the introduction of the "Law of the Constancy of the
Elements" which, stood out from the other four laws (identity,
contradiction, excluded middle, and causality) much as the parallel
postulate stands apart from the other four postulates of geometry.
However, these are minor issues in a book of such high ambitions and
grand scope, and do not undermine its purpose as a significant contribution
to the literary tradition in service of reason, values, liberty and the
heroic ideal. I highly recommend Old Nick's Guide To Happiness,
and believe that anyone who has enjoyed Rand's novels will find this book
to be both a stimulating and enjoyable experience.