A zen-objectivist alpinist

Ross Barlow

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A zen-objectivist alpinist - [intro post, belched out of the black hole and re-posted]

Hello, everyone. Glad to be aboard Objectivist Living. You seem awfully friendly, tolerant and cheerful for Objectivists, which is a welcome relief, since I am a perennial heretic. (I have the feeling I have joined this group after yet another dozen or so schisms within Objectivism, which is par for the course in this philosophy, as it usually is for any philosophy, ideology or religion with strong moral positions.)

Objectivist Living was recommended to me by Ellen Stuttle, an online friend whose taste and judgment I respect so much. I see that I also know a lot of other members here from objectivist-inspired e-lists in the past. Hello to Barbara, Roger, Chris, Rich, Mike and many others who might remember running into me online. For anyone else interested, I will introduce myself so that you know where (i.e., which planet) I am coming from.

I am a retired American high school teacher, who taught history, philosophy and geography, and who retired early because of health problems. I now live in Thailand, so I am a stranger in a strange land, and you folks will have to keep me up-to-date on what is going on in the West and in Objectivist-land.

My intellectual history:

Having escaped from a strict Christian upbringing, I first read Rand’s works back in the 60s while in high school. I was already an atheist drifting toward libertinism [yes, I spelled that correctly], and I found her writings to be a welcome model of disciplined thinking. Rand taught me the basics of philosophy and ignited a passion for the further study of the history of ideas. I read almost everything published by her and the Brandens up to about 1969, thoroughly. I already had an intense love for liberty, but it took Rand to articulate a radically principled libertarianism for me. I have always been inspired by heroes in both art and real life, so Rand’s aesthetic vision really got me off. Her greatest lessons to me were the ideas that a ruthless and rigorous scientific attitude is also to be considered an essential moral virtue and that a heroic sense of life is sacred.

In addition to Rand, I have always been strongly attracted to the individual intellectual and psychological quest modeled by Gautama the ascetic, the original founder of Buddhism. I still try to make every waking breath and activity as meditative, clear and mindful as possible. Long ago, I also used to read a lot of the Beat Zen writers like Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyder. So you could label my journeys as those of an “objectivist, dharma bum and mountain climber.”

Therefore, with heretical interests such as these, I have always felt like an outsider in the Objectivist movement, although I have always drawn great spiritual sustenance from Rand’s depiction of outsider figures like Howard Roark. During the 1970s, Nathaniel Branden’s works supplemented my Buddhist studies to help me achieve more equanimity and peace. Thanks, Nathaniel. Also helpful to me in my philosophical studies were any writings, translations or recommendations by the late Walter Kaufmann, a scholar that I greatly admire.

Many of the Beats were pathetic, irrational and self-destructive losers, but as a teen in the 60s I felt some affinity with Kerouac as a fellow alienated wanderer and chronic stranger. I have always been a loner and very hermit-like. Today, wandering through the side-streets and back-road paths of Thailand as an out-of-place “farang” (Western foreigner) fits me well.

Gary Snyder, a mountain climbing Zen poet, was the healthiest Beat influence on me. Snyder’s translations of the *Cold Mountain Poems* by the ancient Chinese Zen/Taoist mountain hermit, Han Shan, introduced me to an aesthetic of nature – of mountain peaks in the fog, silent full moons, roaring brooks, pines singing in the wind, and soaring rock cliffs – that I recognized at once as part of my own aesthetic synthesis and that goes well with my outdoor lifestyle. I love the aesthetics and the ascetic style of wilderness and wildness.

So, take these aesthetic threads – Gautama’s ideal of striving, Han Shan’s visions of craggy pine-tree summits and Rand’s vision of heroic upward achievement – and you get a mountain-climbing madman … I mean, seeker of outrageous adventure. The entire 1970s was for me one big expedition to the wilderness.

During the 1980s, two books got me interested once again in Objectivism and libertarianism: first, George H. Smith’s excellent *Atheism: the case against god* got me to re-read Rand again, and then Barbara Branden’s wonderful *The Passion of Ayn Rand* really launched a renaissance in my studies. Thanks again, Barbara.

This interest induced me to return to college, study some more philosophy and get a teaching certificate. My concentrations of study have always been philosophy, history, comparative religion and geography.

My wife is Thai and a Theravadin (“Hinayana”) Buddhist. Theravada can easily accommodate an individualist and atheist. But, naturally, I do not fit in that well, as it is too traditional and formal for a zen-objectivist like me. I am too skeptical, and I would rather simply seek a glimpse of the Moon and feel that stray cool breeze.

My physical history:

I grew up on a dairy farm in rural NW Pennsylvania. After high school in 1968, I did the rucksack thing -- the *On the Road*, *The Dharma Bums* thing -- and then I joined the Marines, doing a tour of duty in Vietnam. In my boxed-up library in the States, I still have an extremely battered, mildewed and almost unreadable copy of *For the New Intellectual* that I carried with me during my hitchhiking days and during my year of combat.

Since my return to civilian life, I have worked as a psychiatric aide, a certified firearms instructor and a school teacher.

For fun, I have had over three decades of priceless experience in mountaineering, especially in alpinism, an aesthetically spare and ascetic style of extreme climbing. I was never really an exceptionally strong climber, but I pushed myself right to the limits of my ability and fear, and frequently beyond them. Some of the things that I have always loved about climbing are that you must use your mind rigorously and you must know your psyche intimately. Decisive action in a potentially dangerous situation, undertaken with clarity of mind and with the rational control of fear, is invigorating. And, of course, aesthetically speaking, the view from the top is beyond belief.

I have taught people the fundamentals of mountain climbing on rock, snow and ice, and I have led groups on extended wilderness climbs in all types of weather extremes, including sub-zero expeditions. I intend to write a short primer someday on the Art of the Bivouac, the light-weight style of bare-bones alpinist expeditioning where you usually leave comforts such as tents behind. Light and fast.

But it has always been solo climbing – either unroped or roped, on day-climbs or extended expeditions, on rock, snow or ice -- that has been the most rewarding and soul-enriching for me. In those moments, when pulling up over the top of an extreme climb that has radically tested my body and spirit, I feel the same thing I felt when reading Rand’s novels for the first time: exaltation.

So, the healthy and productive influences on my life have been the Marine Corps, Buddhism, Objectivism (which includes Rand and the Brandens), and, especially, climbing.

I probably will not be able to post much here on OL, as I am trying to learn the Thai language and to build up my health and strength again. But I will try to read as much as I can. Damn! You folks are as wordy as I am.

-Ross Barlow.


“To hold an unchanging youth is to reach, in the end, the vision with which one started.” ~A. Rand.


“Strive on with diligence.” ~The Buddha.


My Climbing Log: records of my climbing adventures:



My other Blog: reviews, commentary, and other intellectual adventures:



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