Ayn Rand - A Critical Encounter
Scholars of English and American literature, with a few exceptions, have largely ignored [Ayn Rand’s] work.
Neither the literary nor the academic community takes Ayn Rand seriously, and they should, both as an artist and a philosopher:
Rand's work has been mostly ignored by the academic philosophers of the English-speaking world. (1)
Whether or not one can ultimately agree or even admire her work, she stands virtually alone in the scale of her literary accomplishments. Yet she is routinely ignored, casually dismissed or actively despised. Greg Barnhisel writes in a recent article that “literary critics often treat Rand’s novels like something the cat coughed up.” (2) In the same article he writes that
a columnist for the liberal-minded Salon.com slammed [Atlas Shrugged] as “a novelization of Mein Kampf by Barbara Cartland.* (3)
*In fairness to Salon.com, while looking for the original article so that I could quote the columnist in context, I found Steve King’s balanced and respectful account of Ayn Rand’s life and her work on the anniversary of her death:
On this day in 1982 [March 6] Ayn Rand died, at the age of 77. Whatever might be said about Rand’s controversial philosophy, difficult personality and long books, her life story is a remarkable one.
King goes on to discuss her life and her work, and quotes directly from Rand, instead of issuing the usual gross misrepresentations like the one directly above.
On the 50th anniversary of the publication of Atlas Shrugged, Harriet Rubin wrote “Gore Vidal described [Atlas Shrugged’s] philosophy as ‘nearly perfect in its immorality.’” In the same article, she characterizes the critical reception of Atlas Shrugged as follows:
The book was released to terrible reviews. Critics faulted its length, its philosophy and its literary ambitions. Conservatives and liberals were unstinting in disparaging the book; the right saw promotion of godlessness, and the left saw a message of “greed is good.” (4)
Glance through the index of any contemporary work of philosophy or literary criticism, and you will find very few, if any, references to her work. Ones you do find will likely lack meaning or inaccurately characterize her views. For example, this from the third edition of The Growth of American Thought:
Not too much importance was to be attached to the campus popularity of Ayn Rand’s message of cynical egotism. (5)
That’s it, in a 793 page book on the intellectual history of the US: neither meaningful nor accurate (there is nothing “cynical” in Rand’s thought. She is quite sincere).
What appears to be missing is an evaluation written by a critic who does not admire Rand’s philosophy or her novels, yet is competent and sympathetic enough to render a meaningful judgment, and place her work within a proper literary context.
Perhaps the tide is turning. In Michael Dirda’s recent book Bound to Please (2005), he refers to Rand’s work in a perfectly respectable and meaningful way (although not without the standard qualification – note the parenthetical):
The Lunar Men is a grand story—imagine a kind of historical version of Atlas Shrugged set in eighteenth-century England (and minus Ayn Rand’s tendentious economic didacticism). Of course, here James Watt, with the help of the industrialist Boulton, starts, rather than stops, the engine of the world. Like Rand’s heroes, these overreachers—several of whom began their careers as boy apprentices—were not merely gifted; they were determined and indefatigable. (6)
Rand would appreciate this reference (and enjoy the irony of the parenthetical. It was the substance of Rand’s “tendentious economic didacticism” that set these “heroes” apart from other men, and made them “determined and indefatigable”). Comparing these historical figures to her fictional ones is absolutely apposite, and demonstrates a rare appreciation and understanding of her novel, Atlas Shrugged. Another reference by Dirda serves as a better example, how Rand’s work can be used in a meaningful and respectful comparison:
Don DeLillo’s eagerly awaited new novel, Underworld, is extremely long, no question about it. But I’d have been happy if the book had been the length of Possession, Atlas Shrugged, and Studs Lonigan combined. That it recalls all these very different modern classics, as well as much of DeLillo’s earlier work…(7)
But why is this so uncommon? The following judgment concerning Rand’s novel Anthem may provide insight into Rand’s critical reception:
Unfortunately, Anthem is not timeless; without the context, it becomes an extremely opinionated, harsh novel setting forth an unnecessary dichotomy. Perhaps at the time of its writing the future Anthem proposed was immediate enough that the fanatical individualistic attitude of its main character was a warranted countermeasure, but it strikes the modern reader as barbarically confrontational. (8)
After providing several specific examples, she goes on to conclude:
The novel does not allow for any compromise, any shade of grey. Both of its proposed societies could not function, and the people who inhabit them act in a baffling, alien manner. Therein lies its fatal flaw; the world it creates is impossible. Its philosophy is so egocentric that it does not consider how other individuals fit into it. Anthem is a rather troubling novel with very little bearing upon the life of a modern person; it does not help answer any questions about human nature, other than to give a chilling snapshot of selfishness. Nor does it propose a method by which one can comfortably live. (9)
Given her apolitical and unpartisan encounter with Rand, along with her literary competence, I grant this assessment considerable credibility (even though I don’t agree with it), and it goes a long way to explain why others react to Rand’s work like they do.
Only Rand partisans write about her with respect and understanding, and this small group appears (at least from the outside) to be isolated from the intellectual mainstream. One notable exception is Alan Greenspan, former Chairman of the Federal Reserve:
Of all my teachers, Arthur Burns and Ayn Rand had the greatest impact on my life….Ayn Rand expanded my intellectual horizons, challenging me to look beyond economics to understand the behavior of individuals and societies. (10)
Greenspan met Rand in the late fifties while he was still a young intellectual, and she made an immediate and lasting impression:
Ayn Rand became a stabilizing force in my life….She was a wholly original thinker, sharply analytical, strong-willed, highly principled, and very insistent on rationality as the highest value….
But she had gone far beyond that, thinking more broadly than I had ever dared. (11)
Among the partisans, the best books I have found about Rand and her work (other than those written by Rand herself) include:
Rand’s work is immensely popular among common readers. As of 2005, over 22 million of her books have sold, with some 500,000 more each year. Atlas Shrugged alone sold 150,000 copies in 2006. (12)
On the reader’s list of top 100 novels written in English during the 20th Century, Ayn Rand’s magnum opus Atlas Shrugged ranked #1, followed by The Fountainhead at #2. Rand’s Anthem and We the Living ranked #7 and #8 respectively. None of her novels made the Board’s top 100 (a list based presumably on literary merit), although both The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged made Radcliffe’s list, at 43 and 92 respectively (interesting that The Fountainhead ranked far above Atlas Shrugged on their list. All those ‘girls’ I suppose).
After the two lists were published, Erica Jong noted that
The Random House readers who posted their choices on the Web site wound up with a list that puts four Ayn Rand novels in place of Ulysses, The Great Gatsby, Catch-22 and Darkness at Noon. Since Ayn Rand is not my cup of tea, I must abstain, but the reader’s list is far more gender neutral than the original and doesn’t discriminate against sci-fi or horror authors. (Robert Heinlein and Stephen King figure prominently.) (13)
But there was a fundamental problem with the original list:
When Random House’s Modern Library imprint issued a list in 1998 of the one hundred best novels in English published during the twentieth century, surely I was not alone in noticing that only nine books written by women were among the designees…
There was plenty of printed reaction to the Modern Library announcement, but none I saw seemed to offer an alternative list. The Random House Web site was deluged with reactions from angry readers who wondered where their favorite novels were, but nobody…thought to come up with a list of women writers in English who published novels in this century. (14)
To rectify this oversight, she
wrote the 250 or so distinguished women writers and critics whose correct addresses I have in my database. I posted a notice on the rather lively writers’ forum that used to be on my Web site…until it was spammed out of existence, and for good measure, I wrote to about thirty male novelists, critics, and poets whose judgment I respect and whose addresses I happen to have. (15)
Jong provides the list of women-authored novels, and unsurprisingly, despite her documented awareness of Rand as a popular author, exactly zero Rand novels appear.
The same pattern occurs with non-fiction. While Rand’s work does not appear on the Board’s list, The Virtue of Selfishness ranks #1 on the reader’s list, and Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand by Peikoff ranks number three. Paxton’s Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life appears in the six slot. Interestingly, I could identify at least 13 titles on the Reader’s list that present various shades of a Libertarian perspective (there may be more), including works such as Hayak’s Road to Serfdom, Friedman’s Free to Choose, More Liberty Means Less Government by Walter Williams, and Libertarianism: a Primer by David Boaz.
This doesn’t prove anything. It simply demonstrates that readers admire Ayn Rand’s work (and apparently individual freedom) more than the literary establishment. Does that make Rand’s novels literature? Not necessarily. While the reader’s 4th 5th and 6th choices are superb novels (Lord of the Rings, To Kill a Mockingbird, and 1984 respectively), Ron Hubbard’s Battlefield Earth, ranked number three, is incredibly typical and unworthy of serious consideration, demonstrating that not everything on the reader’s list is worth reading.
Another recent indication of the bias against Rand is J. Peder Zane’s The Top Ten (2007). In this book, 125 American and British writers were asked to rank-order the ten greatest novels ever written. Out of the 544 novels selected by one writer or another, not one of them was written by Ayn Rand. Yet a survey reported in the New York Times in 1991 ranked Atlas Shrugged the second most influential book ever (the Bible was the most influential).
She simply doesn’t register any intellectual seismic presence in our literary establishment, yet in the broader culture she is well known, influential and appreciated.
In Her Own Words
Why the huge discrepancy between her popular and her official literary/academic/intellectual appeal? Does she really have nothing of value to offer, nothing worth admiring as literature, as philosophy? Decide for yourself:
My morality, the morality of reason, is contained in a single axiom: existence exists—and in a single choice: to live. The rest proceeds from these. To live, man must hold three things as the supreme and ruling values of his life: Reason—Purpose—Self-esteem. Reason, as his only tool of knowledge—Purpose, as his choice of the happiness which that tool must proceed to achieve—Self-esteem, as his inviolate certainty that his mind is competent to think and his person is worthy of happiness, which means: is worthy of living. These three values imply and require all of man's virtues, and all his virtues pertain to the relation of existence and consciousness: rationality, independence, integrity, honesty, justice, productiveness, pride.
Rationality is the recognition of the fact that existence exists, that nothing can alter the truth and nothing can take precedence over that act of perceiving it, which is thinking—that the mind is one's only judge of values and one's only guide of action—that reason is an absolute that permits no compromise—that a concession to the irrational invalidates one's consciousness and turns it from the task of perceiving to the task of faking reality—that the alleged short-cut to knowledge, which is faith, is only a short-circuit destroying the mind—that the acceptance of a mystical invention is a wish for the annihilation of existence and, properly, annihilates one's consciousness.
Independence is the recognition of the fact that yours is the responsibility of judgment and nothing can help you escape it—that no substitute can do your thinking, as no pinch-hitter can live your life—that that the vilest form of self-abasement and self-destruction is the subordination of your mind to the mind of another, the acceptance of an authority over your brain, the acceptance of his assertions as facts, his say-so as truth, his edicts as middle-man between your consciousness and your existence.
Integrity is the recognition of the fact that you cannot fake your consciousness, just as honesty is the recognition of the fact that you cannot fake existence—that man is an indivisible entity, and integrated unit of two attributes: of matter and consciousness, and that he may permit no breach between body and mind, between action and thought, between his life and his convictions—that, like a judge impervious to public opinion, he may not sacrifice his convictions to the wishes of others, be it the whole of mankind shouting pleas or threats against him—that courage and confidence are practical necessities, that courage is the practical form of being true to existence, of being true to truth, and confidence is the practical form of being true to one's own consciousness.
Honesty is the recognition of the fact that the unreal is unreal and can have no value, that neither love nor fame nor cash is a value if obtained by fraud—that an attempt to gain a value by deceiving the mind of others is an act of raising your victims to a position higher than reality, where you become a pawn of their blindness, a slave of their non-thinking and their evasions, while their intelligence, their rationality, their perceptiveness become the enemies you have to dread and flee—that you do not care to live as a dependent, least of all a dependent on the stupidity of others, or as a fool whose source of values is the fools he succeeds in fooling—that honesty is not a social duty, not a sacrifice for the sake of others, but the most profoundly selfish virtue man can practice: his refusal to sacrifice the reality of his own existence to the deluded consciousness of others.
Justice is the recognition of the fact that you cannot fake the character of men as you cannot fake the character of nature, that the must judge all men as conscientiously as you judge inanimate objects, with the same respect for truth, with the same incorruptible vision, by as pure and as rational a process of identification—that every man must be judged for what he is and treated accordingly, that just as you do not pay a higher price for a rusty chunk of scrap than for a piece of shining metal, so you do not value a rotter above a hero—that your moral appraisal is the coin paying men for their virtues or vices, and this payment demands of you as scrupulous an honor as you bring to financial transactions—that to withhold your contempt from men's vices is an act of moral counterfeiting, and to withhold your admiration from their virtues is an act of moral embezzlement—that to place any other concern higher than justice is to devaluate your moral currency and defraud the good in favor of the evil, since only the good can lose by a default of justice and only the evil can profit—and that the bottom of the pit at the end of that road, the act of moral bankruptcy, is to punish men for their virtues and reward them for their vices, that that is the collapse to full depravity, the Black Mass of the worship of death, the dedication of your consciousness to the destruction of existence.
Productiveness is your acceptance of morality, your recognition of the fact that you choose to live—that productive work is the process by which man's consciousness controls his existence, a constant process of acquiring knowledge and shaping matter to fit one's purpose, of translating an idea into physical form, of remaking the earth in the image of one's values—that all work is creative work if done by a thinking mind, and no work is creative if done by a blank who repeats in uncritical stupor a routine he has learned from others—that your work is yours to choose, and the choice is as wide as your mind, that nothing more is possible to you and nothing less is human—that to cheat your way into a job bigger than your mind can handle is to become a fear-corroded ape on borrowed motions and borrowed time, and to settle down into a job that requires less than your mind's full capacity is to cut your motor and sentence yourself to another kind of motion: decay—that your work is the process of achieving your values, and to lose your ambition for values is to lose your ambition to live—that your body is a machine, but your mind is its driver, and you must drive as far as your mind will take you, with achievement as the goal of your road—that the man who has no purpose is a machine that coasts downhill at the mercy of any boulder to crash in the first chance ditch, that the man who stifles his mind is a stalled machine slowly going to rust, that the man who lets a leader prescribe his course is a wreck being towed to the scrap heap, and the man who makes another man his goal is a hitchhiker no driver should ever pick up—that your work is the purpose of your life, and you must speed past any killer who assumes the right to stop you, that any value you might find outside your work, any other loyalty or love, can be only travelers you choose to share your journey and must be travelers going on their own power in the same direction.
Pride is the recognition of the fact that your are your own highest value and, like all of man's values, it has to be earned—that of any achievements open to you, the one that makes all others possible is the creation of your own character—that your character, your actions, your desires, your emotions are the products of the premises held by your mind—that as man must produce the physical values he needs to sustain his life, so he must acquire the values of character that make his life worth sustaining—that as man is a being of self-made wealth, so he is a being of self-made soul—that to live requires a sense of self-value, but man, who has no automatic values, has no automatic sense of self-esteem and must earn it by shaping his soul in the image of his moral ideal, in the image of Man, the rational being he is born able to create, but must create by choice—that the first precondition of self-esteem is that radiant selfishness of soul which desires the best in all things, in values of matter and spirit, a soul that seeks above all else to achieve its own moral perfection, valuing nothing higher than itself—and that the proof of an achieved self-esteem is your soul's shudder of contempt and rebellion against the role of a sacrificial animal, the irreplaceable value which is your consciousness and the incomparable glory which is your existence to the blind evasions and the stagnant decay of others. (16)
Put that in your intellectual pipe and smoke it.
A deafening silence echoes around Ayn Rand and her work. The reasons for this are complex. For one, she has never been in fashion with the intellectual elite. Most of them haven’t read her work, and those who do usually won’t admit it:
But [Atlas Shrugged] attracted a coterie of fans, some of them top corporate executives who dared not speak of its impact except in private. (17)
Anytime her name is publicly mentioned, it is always with a knowing sneer:
The most famous review of Atlas Shrugged from a conservative author was written by Whittaker Chambers and appeared in National Review in 1957. It was unrelentingly scathing. Chambers called the book “sophomoric”; and “remarkably silly,” and said it “can be called a novel only by devaluing the term.” The tone of the book was described as “shrillness without reprieve”. Chambers accused Rand, a refugee from totalitarianism, as supporting the same godless system as the Soviets, stating that “From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: ‘To the gas chambers—go!’” (18)
This is an amazingly inaccurate characterization of the novel, and the last line incredible, given that Rand is the foremost spokesperson of individual liberty in the modern age. But it does illustrate the tone in which her novels and her philosophy have been generally received by the intellectual community.
She is openly ridiculed by those who haven’t read, or do not understand, her ideas. For instance, one of the unsympathetic characters in the movie Dirty Dancing aggressively displays a copy of The Fountainhead in order to justify his unscrupulous behavior.
Rand’s views are consistently misrepresented in the popular press, even in pieces intended to be fair. Greg Barnhisel begins his 2007 Mental Floss article on Atlas Shrugged in the following way:
It’s a novel! It’s a philosophy! It’s the instruction manual for a crazy cult! Atlas Shrugged could be all of those things. Then again, maybe it’s just about a little Russian girl who really hated growing up around Bolsheviks. (19)
Again, this is typical of the tone taken when Rand is the subject of discussion. She is ridiculed, and then misrepresented. Barnhisel writes that characters in the novel, after withdrawing from general society, have “created their own society based on pure selfishness and greed.” The word ‘greed’ is utterly misleading, inappropriate and insulting (yet common in references to her thought):
Her book [Atlas Shrugged] was dismissed as an homage to greed. (20)
‘Arrogant,’ ‘competent’, ‘demanding’, ‘unforgiving,’ ‘intelligent,’ ‘cold,’ ‘disrespectful,’ ‘discourteous,’ perhaps. As Dirda put it: “determined and indefatigable.” (21) But greedy? No. While ‘greed’ is a word commonly associated with Rand’s philosophy, the use of it can only be ascribed to ignorance or crass maliciousness. The dictionary defines greed as
Excessive or rapacious desire, esp. for wealth or possessions.
The principle characters in Rand’s novels do not desire wealth for the sake of wealth. Only the ‘second-handers’, the ‘looters’, those who want something for nothing exhibit such an ‘excessive’ desire, particularly as they are unwilling, or unable, to earn it for themselves. Consider the people that Barnhisel describes as driven by ‘greed’. Every person living in Galt’s Gulch gave up significant wealth, money and possessions to live a simple, primitive life, for an uncertain number of years, perhaps for the rest of their lives. Greedy people would never make such material sacrifices. Additional examples in Rand’s work abound, but we will limit ourselves to two:
Material wealth, money, ‘gold,’ obtained or earned honestly in a free society represents achievement, success, discovery, invention, creation, production, and is in part a reward for these things. In and of itself, however, the money is worth nothing. Unearned wealth, wealth that is seized, stolen, or extorted, is worse than worthless, as it represents evil acts done by some person or agency against someone else.
Concerning the tag of ‘pure selfishness,’ Ayn Rand wrote a book titled The Virtue of Selfishness where she makes an argument in favor of rational self-interest. Therefore, the word selfishness, even with its negative connotations, is appropriate to apply to her philosophy. The ‘pure’ however, is derogatory, as it indicates an attitude devoid of virtue.
Barnhisel ends the article optimistically. After noting the difference in the social/political environment between the 50’s when Rand’s wrote the novel and today, he suggests that “perhaps Ayn Rand’s ideas are starting to have the widespread impact she’d hoped for.” (22) If so, it will be despite articles such as his.
Ayn Rand is not a difficult writer. She clearly expresses herself with deliberate care and goes to significant lengths to avoid spiritual fog or linguistic ambiguity, ensuring she won’t be misunderstood. As a result, she may be the easiest significant thinker in intellectual history to understand. Why, then, the general failure to comprehend her ideas, along with the inability or unwillingness to characterize them accurately?
Perhaps her clarity works against her, and contributes to her lack of respect in the intellectual community. She fails where Maistre succeeds:
Without [Joseph de Maistre’s] contradictions, without the misunderstandings that he—either by instinct or by design—created about himself, his case would have been dismissed long since, his career been closed, and his work suffered the misfortune of being understood, the worst fate that can befall an author. (23)
There is no mystery in Rand’s writing, no esoteric content. More cannot be made of what she leaves on the page. She cannot be creatively interpreted, and you won’t find anything there that she didn’t intend. This, according to Cioran, is a critical mistake:
If the work would avoid the humiliation of being understood, it must, by a certain dosage of the unimpeachable and the obscure, by attention to the equivocal, provoke divergent interpretations and perplexed fervors, those symptoms of vitality, those guarantees of lasting. (24)
This explains, perhaps, the popularity of such difficult writers as Derrida and Heidegger, thinkers who, with their complex prose and ambiguous terms stir up so much mud in their intellectual puddle it’s difficult to tell how deep it really is. As an example, Derrida writes:
…either there is only the same, which can no longer even appear and be said, nor even exercise violence (pure infinity or finitude); or indeed there is the same and the other, and then the other cannot be the other—of the same—except by being the same (as itself: ego), and the same cannot be the same (as itself: ego) except by being the other’s other: alter ego. (all italics original) (25)
What does this mean? Even Derrida commentators, thinkers presumably familiar with his writing and his philosophical intention, are careful to avoid specific, finite, or definite meaning to his words:
But I think it can be safely argued that this is not what Derrida meant. As to what he did mean one must of course and always only conjecture. (26)
But let’s take a look at the concept closely associated with Derrida, deconstruction. While it is impossible in a few words to fully capture the kingdom of ambiguity associated with this term, the following from Deconstructions: a User’s Guide, will provide some idea of what it’s all about:
Deconstruction has to do with the unforeseeable, the incalculable, indeed the impossible. As Timothy Clark stresses: “Since deconstruction cannot be anticipated or programmed it is indeed impossible, in the strict sense of not falling within the realm of the possible or calculable.” This in turn calls to mind what Derrida himself has described as “the least bad definition” of “deconstruction”, namely “the experience of the impossible.” (italics in original ) (27)
Here is another attempt at definition:
Definition of deconstruction: not what you think: the experience of the impossible: what remains to be thought:…what is happening today in what is called society, politics, diplomacy, economics, historical reality, and so on: the opening of the future itself. (28)
Apparently the words used by such writers and thinkers, like some modern art objects, can mean whatever you want them to mean. This seems typical of an approach Ayn Rand characterizes in the following way:
Kant originated the technique required to sell irrational notions to the men of a skeptical, cynical age who have formally rejected mysticism without grasping the rudiments of rationality. The technique is as follows: if you want to propagate an outrageously evil idea (based on traditionally accepted doctrines), your conclusion must be brazenly clear, but your proof unintelligible. Your proof must be so tangled a mess that it will paralyze a reader’s critical faculty—a mess of evasions, equivocations, obfuscations, circumlocutions, non sequiturs, endless sentences leading nowhere, irrelevant side issues, clauses, sub-clauses and sub-sub-clauses, a meticulously lengthy proving of the obvious, and big chunks of the arbitrary thrown in as self-evident, erudite references to sciences, to pseudo-sciences, to the never-to-be-sciences, to the untraceable and the improvable—all of it resting on a zero: the absence of definitions. I offer in evidence the Critique of Pure Reason. (29)
Those who succeed in this technique are very popular among intellectuals, perhaps because these intellectuals can impress others by claiming to understand such esoteric views. But there is ultimately nothing to it:
[Derrida’s philosophy] is more often than not construed as a license for arbitrary free play in flagrant disregard of all established rules of argumentation, traditional requirements of thought, and ethical standards binding upon the interpretative community….[deconstruction is] licentious free-play, nihilistic canceling out of opposites, abolition of hierarchies. (30)
George Steiner pulls out the critical/philosophical stops when he turns his attention to the subject:
I do not propose to expound deconstruction (this has been done lucidly by others), nor to waste time on polemics, often internecine. Let me refer here, once and for all, to the often repulsive jargon, to the contrived obscurantism and specious pretensions to technicality which make the bulk of post-structuralist and deconstructive theory and practice, particularly among its academic epigones, unreadable. This abuse of philosophic-literary discourse, this brutalization of style, are symptomatic. (31)
Rand, on the other hand, leaves no doubt in her thought, no gaps in her philosophical system (known as Objectivism). No ambiguity, no muddied water. She says exactly what she means in the most demandingly exact language (is there anything unclear in her excerpt above?). Perhaps Cioran is correct when he asserts that “A distinct idea is an idea without a future.” (32) If so, Rand won’t be thought about for long, as her ideas are ruthlessly distinct.
In Objectivism, Rand created a closed system, one that claims to answer every epistemological, ethical, metaphysical, political or aesthetic question, an intellectual stance, incidentally, that Cioran claims to be necessary for an ideology to last:
A faith that acknowledges other faiths, that does not believe itself to possess a monopoly on truth, is doomed to ruin, abandoning the absolute that legitimates it, resigning itself to being no more than a phenomenon of civilization, an episode, an accident. (33)
In their paper titled Critical Neglect of Ayn Rand’s Theory of Art, Kamhi and Torres trace Rand’s critical reception in the intellectual community. “The only writer to consider Rand’s theory of art in any detail before our own efforts…was William F. O’Neill, who published the first comprehensive examination of Objectivism, entitled With Charity Toward None. Although he was extremely critical of…Rand’s ideas, O’Neill characterized her as a courageous and significant thinker, who is worthy of serious consideration.” (34) They go on to quote O’Neill in what seems to me a fair summary of Rand’s thought:
[Rand] had succeeded in presenting a philosophy which is simple, original, clearly defined and (at least implicitly) systematic. Within its own established context of assumptions, it is also surprisingly comprehensive, coherent and consistent. It addresses itself to the solution of significant problems, and it culminates in a practical plan of action. If it were true, it would be a masterpiece. (35)
There is nothing formally ‘true’ about objectivism, but even so, despite O’Neill’s caveat, he is correct to consider Rand’s system of ideas a ‘masterpiece.’ As such, Rand represents the end of philosophy, the final word. What can professional thinkers do with this? One of four things:
I have taken the latter course, and my second novel, Sol, is in many respects a dialectical response to Rand and her work. She wouldn’t like anything about it: she would vehemently denounce its theme, deplore the ‘sense of life’ that emanates from it, and may even be offended. Should it ever be published, it will be severely criticized by orthodox Objectivists. But that doesn’t diminish my respect for her. I suspect that all original thinkers, or those who simply wish to think for themselves, will find it necessary at some point to overcome their teachers, and move beyond their doctrine.
Overcoming Ones’ Teachers
While I admire Rand’s philosophy, and argue that it should be taken seriously by students of philosophy, I am not an Objectivist. I do not accept Objectivist metaphysics, epistemology or aesthetics. Objectivism is a difficult system to live, not unlike living a truly Christian life: both make demands that most humans cannot meet. Even so, Ayn Rand sincerely believed that anyone properly exposed to her thinking not only could, but should, become a good Objectivist. But few, if any of us, are capable of performing as Randian heroes. Humans simply aren’t made that way. We are far more likely to resemble Eddie or Cheryl than John, Francisco, Ragner, Dagny, or Hank. Even the two men Rand claimed to be such living heroes—her husband, Frank O’Connor, and her associate Nathaniel Brandon—proved otherwise. She originally dedicated Atlas Shrugged to both men, but if you look at a copy printed after 1968 you find only Frank’s name.
From all accounts, Frank O’Connor was a good, kind man. But that’s it. He was a part-time actor who lived in the shadow of his famous wife, painting and gardening, and accomplished little of lasting interest, not unlike the ordinary multitude.
Rand also considered Brandon a true Randian hero, or at least potentially, as he led the Objectivist organization for several years with her full approval and support:
[Nathaniel Brandon] was an unusually intelligent man who had the potential to become a great man. (36)
She was to discover how common he actually was, and severed all personal and professional ties with him:
I have permanently broken all personal, professional and business association with [Nathaniel Brandon]. (37)
For the past three years, I have observed a disturbing change in Nathaniel Brandon’s intellectual attitude. It seemed to indicate his gradual departure from the principles of Objectivism, a tendency toward non-intellectual concerns, a lessening of interest in philosophical issues and in the Objectivist movement as such. (38)
There is far more to the story than this, but it doesn’t matter. If her closest intellectual disciple couldn’t stay the course, even with complete and intimate access to the master, how could the rest of us possibly fair?
There is nothing surprising in this. Ayn Rand was human, and acted accordingly, as did Nathaniel Brandon. All too human, all too common. But this has very little impact on her philosophy (other than to demonstrate how humanly unrealistic it is) and none at all on her art, as Ayn Rand is the consummate literary artist. She projects an ideal that can be enjoyed by her readers regardless of who they are or how they live. The possibility of making the imaginary real is not a necessary criteria for a successful work of art. We take it as fantasy, as play. None of us can be Achilles, or even Agamemnon, yet still we read Homer with pleasure. We can enjoy their presence and admire them from a distance in the same manner as any admirable literary character.
I first read Atlas Shrugged when I was twelve. It took decades to overcome this influence, to free myself from her ideology (from all ideology) but I am better for it. In a similar way, I believe Rand had to overcome Nietzsche (although she denies it, despite her early appreciation for the German philosopher and the obvious affinity between the two). Nietzsche eventually overcame Schopenhauer, but not before raving about the older philosopher and writing the wonderful essay Schopenhauer as Educator. Nietzsche actually changed his academic field from philology to philosophy after reading him. Later in his career, Nietzsche vehemently criticized Schopenhauer, and repudiated many of his principle positions. For Schopenhauer it was Kant. Before reading The World as Will and Representation, Schopenhauer urges one to read On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, as it serves as a critique and correction of Kant, and Schopenhauer’s starting point. A dialectic of sorts.
I don’t know who Kant had to overcome (Plato most likely), but interestingly enough, of all the philosophers in Western history, Ayn Rand despised him the most, and credited the German with undermining all that is good in the modern world:
For some two hundred years, under the influence of Immanuel Kant, the dominant trend of philosophy has been directed to a single goal: the destruction of man’s mind, of his confidence in the power of reason. (39)
She extends her critique of his philosophical influence into a broader cultural one:
Today’s mawkish concern with and compassion for the feeble, the flawed, the suffering, the guilty, is a cover for the profoundly Kantian hatred of the innocent, the strong, the able, the successful, the virtuous, the confident, the happy. (40)
I am not sure if Kant deserves the credit she gives him, despite the range of his influence. In my opinion, Nietzsche hits closer to the mark when he credits Christian ethics and the influence of the church with undermining human civilization and the potential inherent in humans. In any case, Rand despised the Kantian ethics illustrated in the following passages:
To be beneficent when we can is a duty; and besides this, there are many minds so sympathetically constituted that, without any other motive of vanity or self-interest, they find a pleasure in spreading joy around them and can take delight in the satisfaction of others so far as it is their own work. But I maintain that in such a case an action of this kind, however proper, however amiable it may be, has nevertheless no true moral worth, but is on a level with other inclinations, e.g., the inclination to honor, which, if it is happily directed to that which is in fact of public utility and accordant with duty and consequently honorable, deserves praise and encouragement, but not esteem. For the maxim lacks the moral import, namely, that such actions be done from duty, not from inclination…It is just in this that the moral worth of the character is brought out which is incomparably the highest of all, namely, that he is beneficent, not from inclination, but from duty. (41)
We are obligated, according to Kant, to do good things for other people from a sense of duty, and when we fulfill this duty, we must take no pleasure in it. In fact, if we ever take pleasure doing something good for another person, we have negated the moral worth of the action. That makes the most morally sound people in society, the ones we must esteem and honor, those who maintain a grim disposition—or at the very least, utterly neutral—and focus their entire effort on helping others. According to Kant, though, no matter how pure we believe our motivation, we never truly know if we have acted morally or not:
Sometimes it happens that with the sharpest self-examination we can find nothing beside the moral principle of duty which could have been powerful enough to move us to this or that action and to so great a sacrifice; yet we cannot from this infer with certainty that it was not really some secret impulse of self-love, under the false appearance of duty, that was the actual determining cause of the will. We like them to flatter ourselves by falsely taking credit for a more noble motive; whereas in fact we can never, even by the strictest examination, get completely behind the secret springs of action; since, when the question is of moral worth, it is not with the actions which we see that we are concerned, but with those inward principles of them which we do not see. (42)
So one never knows if they acted strictly according to duty, and therefore deserve esteem, or if they secretly gained some pleasure in the act, or satisfaction from anticipated esteem from their peers.
None of this matters to me, because I am, according to this doctrine, deliberately immoral: I don’t help anyone out of a sense of duty, and when I do help someone, particularly when they are obviously in need and I am in a position to help, either due to the specific circumstances or my particular capabilities, I enjoy making the effort, and am happy if my action results in fulfilling their need, and thereby makes them happy.
Kant does provide some good news: “To secure one's own happiness is a duty,” he writes, “at least indirectly; for discontent with one's condition, under a pressure of many anxieties and amidst unsatisfied wants, might easily become a great temptation to transgression of duty. (43) (italics in original)
“Transgression of duty.” Those are very heavy words, especially when italicized. The dictionary defines ‘duty’ as
Something that one is expected or required to do by moral or legal obligation.
Kant goes on to insist (again, in italics) that “Duty is the necessity of acting from respect for the law.” (44) This duty extends to frightening levels:
It is the duty to the people to bear any abuse of the supreme power, even then though it should be considered to be unbearable. And the reason is that any resistance of the highest legislative authority can never but be contrary to the law, and must even be regarded as tending to destroy the whole legal constitution. (45)
The only natural duty, in my view, is to one’s children; the only unnatural one is to art (making the childless non-artists completely free, as they are beholden to nobody for anything). “For from the depths,” Nietzsche writes in Zarathustra, “one loves only one’s child and work.” (46)
Ayn Rand’s critique of Kant notwithstanding, I believe the primary reason for her intellectual isolation is related to her political philosophy, one that stems from the following basic principle: no one has the right to initiate, or threaten to initiate, violent force against anyone else:
Whatever may be open to disagreement, there is one act of evil that may not, the act that no man may commit against others and no man may sanction or forgive. So long as men desire to live together, no man may initiate—do you hear me? no man may start—the use of physical force against others. (47)
Violence can only be used in self-defense, and only against those who initiate it:
It is only as retaliation that force may be used and only against the man who starts its use. No, I do not share his evil or sink to his concept of morality: I merely grant him his choice, destruction, the only destruction he had the right to choose: his own. He uses force to seize a value; I use it only to destroy destruction. A holdup man seeks to gain wealth by killing me; I do not grow richer by killing a holdup man. I seek no values by means of evil, nor do I surrender my values to evil. (48)
This principle applies not only to an armed robber, an angry neighbor, or a drunken bully; it applies equally to the State, and those who represent it: the police, the military, and the courts. Musil points out, however, that this is historically not so:
The naïve moral demands that one not break contracts, not lie, not covet one’s neighbor’s goods, and not kill, do not yet prevail in relations among states; their place is taken by the single principle of pursuing one’s own advantage, which is realized through force, cunning, and businessmen’s tactics in applying pressure. As a result, every state is naturally recognized as criminal by the inhabitants of other states, but thanks to relationships that would merit sociological analysis, it appears to its own inhabitants as the embodiment of their honor and moral maturity. (49)
Kant, among many others, provides philosophical support for the state’s disregard of humanity’s most basic moral principles:
By the fundamental principle of the state, the government is justified and entitled to compel [i.e. initiate the use of violent force, or the threat of violent force against] those who are able, to furnish the means necessary to preserve those who are not themselves capable of providing for the most necessary wants of nature. (50)
There comes a time when, instead of ‘bearing’ an abusive supreme power, one that compels individual citizens through violence or the threat of violence, the citizen has the right, if not the obligation, to resist in whatever way possible:
That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it…(51)
…when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government…(52)
Unfortunately, anyone who advocates a society based on Rand’s principles—that is, principles that would result in a truly free society—threatens virtually every citizen in it, as we all benefit in some way from the structured protection racket known as the US Government, and to a lesser extent, state and local governments.
We organize governments to protect our lives and property, and to protect us from other governments. In doing so, we grant them the monopolistic use of force so that we, as individual citizens, do not have to use violent force to protect our family and property. The alternative is anarchy, a brutal state of nature, the one that Hobbes characterized as follows (and it is worth quoting at length as the final words of the paragraph are frequently used inappropriately and out of context)*:
Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of war, where every man is enemy to every man, the same is consequent of the time wherein men live without other security than what their own strength and their own invention shall furnish them withal. In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. (53)
*Here is an example of how Hobbes words are so commonly used out of context:
Hobbes saw man in the state of nature as an aggressor; man is a wolf to man. Unless controlled, he and his fellows live a life that is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” From these premises reason concludes that government must be strong, its laws emphatic and rigorously enforced to prevent outbreaks of wolfish nature against other men. (54)
Barzun leaps beyond Hobbes in his summary, and extrapolates inappropriately. Regardless of what Hobbes ultimately advocated, his recognition of the limitations imposed upon humanity in a state of anarchy, and the significance of those challenges, gets passed over with each gloss.
The opposite of anarchy is totalitarian communism, where the state owns everything and controls everything, including all thought, behavior, living arrangements, resources, commercial activities, finances, social organizations, and professional activities, and enforces their rule with brutal oppressive violence and fear. A truly free society stands between these two extremes. The larger a government grows with its corresponding consumption of wealth, and the more intrusive it becomes, the farther along the continuum it moves away from that golden mean.
The US government has grown drastically since its inception in 1776, particularly during the Roosevelt administration in the thirties and since. Many people carry the mistaken notion that government activities benefit society, when in fact they are wasteful (they cost more than the benefit they provide), and some are out and out societal disasters, like the welfare program, the Vietnam War, and anti-drug policies.
Terry Eagleton provides an excellent example of an intelligent and well-informed thinker who favors increasing the role of government. As a critic of ‘capitalism’ (a Marxist term), he acknowledges, as did Marx, the incredible productiveness of a free market:
As the greatest accumulation of productive forces which history has ever witnessed, it is capitalism which for the first time makes feasible the dream of a social order free of want and toil. As the first truly global mode of production, it uproots all parochial obstacles to human communication and lays down the conditions for international community. Its political ideals—freedom, justice, self-determination, equality of opportunity—outshine, in principle at least, almost all previous ideologies in the depth of their humanism and the universality of their scope. (55)
But somehow, according to Eagleton, “All of this,” (the accumulation of productive forces, along with the admirable principles of freedom, equality, etc.) “is bought at the most terrible cost. This dynamic, exuberant release of potential is also one long unspeakable human tragedy, in which powers are crippled and squandered, lives crushed and blighted, and the great majority of men and women condemned to fruitless labor for the profit of a few.” (56) This assessment is empirically incorrect. While there is much to critique about modern commercial society, the fact is that everything that has improved human life over the past few hundred years—reduced suffering and pain, expanded boundaries of human fulfillment—has been brought about by the ‘accumulation of productive forces,’ along with the principles of individual freedom that go with a free market, the same freedom that Eagleton laments. And conditions would be even better had not the organized and legal use of violent force (government action) constrained human behavior as much as it did.
Regardless of this historical experience, Eagleton comes to the following paradoxical conclusion:
Might this…have to do with the fact that the realization of individual freedom in the economic sphere then ends up undermining freedom (along with justice and equality) in society as a whole? Might not the anarchy of the marketplace necessarily breed an authoritarian state? Might not the forms of instrumental reason needed to control a hostile environment also be used to shackle and suppress human beings themselves?
If all this is true…(57)
Fortunately, it’s not. Expanding freedom in the commercial realm, ceteris paribus, expands freedom. While it’s true that economic freedom (free market, right to work, limited regulation, low taxes) doesn’t require political freedom (note China), it certainly doesn’t hurt. Unless we bend the word ‘freedom’ into something it’s not, increasing freedom increases freedom. As far as the ‘anarchy’ of the marketplace breeding an authoritarian state, this has never happened in history, other than the cases where the state constricted or eliminated the marketplace altogether.
Ironically, it is the socialism that Eagleton propounds that risks leading to such a state, as a socialist system requires the significant expansion of organized government, and the corresponding increase in power and influence necessary to plan and manage a large, sophisticated economy. The state must coerce individuals and institutions to do what they would otherwise not do (this, by definition, is a reduction of freedom). People will flee this state, if they can, or resist it and be oppressed, silenced or imprisoned. Those who do neither will live a limited, cowering existence in such a state. The recent German movie, The Lives of Others, provides an excellent depiction of such a state.
As a socialist, Eagleton describes the society he desires in the following way:
The goal of socialism is to fashion a society in which we would no longer have to justify our activities at the tribunal of utility—in which the realization of our powers and capacities would become a self-delighting end in itself. (58)
This is almost funny. Biological reality dictates that humans must eat, sleep, and remain safe. An entire hierarchy of needs extends from this base. After this hierarchy has been addressed, a myriad of other desires surface, including the desire to spend one’s time ‘self-delighting.’ Eagleton writes as if all this simply happens in any given society, without effort, sweat, hard work, creativity or tedium on someone’s part:
If the liberal state is fearful that socialism would limit the plurality of goods available to individuals, I think this fear can be shown to be baseless. First of all, socialism, which like widespread virtue is only feasible if you are reasonably well-heeled as a society, would considerably augment the primary goods available to each individual for her pursuit of happiness, by seeking to eliminate want. Moreover, not only would it construct the institutions of community without any necessary detriment to other, more personally selected goods; it would actually expand that area of personal choice, by (for example) shortening the working day and so increasing leisure time. (59)
Someone sewed the clothes Eagleton wears; a farmer plowed, planted, and harvested before his food ended up on his plate; hardy men cut down trees and milled them into the lumber that went to build the house he calls home; above this basic industrial level, scientists and engineers created the technology that informs, entertains, and contributes to his health. A complex financial infrastructure enabled much of this. In a free market, all this activity, all the back-breaking labor and the intellectual contribution, and the benefits that come with it, are exchanged value for value between free people. The economy is so complicated, any effort to centrally plan it will decrease productivity, limit production, reduce efficiency, increase costs, misuse labor, waste existing expertise, smother innovation, and kill dreams. This has been demonstrated over and over again in the real world, and has been well understood theoretically for a dozen decades.
“One of the best reasons for being a socialist,” Eagleton summarizes, “is that one is averse to doing too much work.” (60) Unfortunately, socialism does not lead to the kind of society Eagleton envisions. People work just as hard for far less; they have no more leisure time than those in a free society, and far fewer options for spending the free time they have.
Regardless of how much greater wealth, opportunity and individual independence would be realized if the current level of government restraints were systematically removed, the societal infrastructure, and those dependent upon it, will always effectively resist its dismantling. Consider the following changes that might take place if Objectivist (Libertarian) principles were actually applied, and the different interest groups that would be threatened by them (these are my interpretations, and not based on actual Objectivist policy statements, or the Libertarian political platform):
Updated: 6:39 p.m. ET Sept 24, 2007
WASHINGTON - The Bush administration said in a new report Monday that Social Security is facing a $13.6 trillion shortfall and that delaying needed reforms is not fair to younger workers.
A report issued by the Treasury Department said that some combination of benefit cuts and tax increases will need to be considered to permanently fix the funding shortfall.
These possibilities sound radical today, but the United States was founded upon very similar ideas. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men were created equal, and that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” (61)
With perhaps one exception (#2 – the government owned postal system has deep cultural roots that pre-date the existence of this country), the founding fathers would likely support everything on the list, while most people today wouldn’t support any of them. But then, it has been demonstrated that the Bill of Rights wouldn’t be passed today if it came to a popular vote.
Cynics support big government because it provides positions of power and influence, and the opportunity to exploit others. Those in positions of power and influence do what is necessary to get the naïve and/or ignorant to believe that the government benefits society so that they in turn will support big government. While the naïve and/or ignorant sincerely believe big government benefits society, they are mistaken, as there is always a net cost to government activity, as Ludwig von Mises explains:
At the bottom of the interventionist argument there is always the idea that the government or the state is an entity outside and above the social process of production, that it owns something which is not derived from taxing its subjects, and that it can spend this mythical something for definite purposes. This is the Santa Claus fable raised by Lord Keynes to the dignity of an economic doctrine and enthusiastically endorsed by all those who expect personal advantage from government spending. (62)
While someone always benefits from government activity (the bureaucrats, if no one else), the cost is always greater, in that more people are hurt than helped. This is because
The effect of [the state’s] interference is that people are prevented from using their knowledge and abilities, their labor and their material means of production in the way in which they would earn the highest returns and satisfy their needs as much as possible. Such interference makes people poorer and less satisfied. (63)
In some instances this cost is warranted, in particular when the use—or the threat of the use—of violent force is necessary to protect citizens from criminals or foreign aggressors. The government is also necessary to maintain the legal infrastructure, including the courts and basic regulations dealing with externalities. For most other societal activities (general commerce, medicine and medical services, insurance, communication, retirement, space exploration, research, investment, education, transportation, technology, standards, the arts, social relationships, marriage, charity), private institutions are far better suited to satisfy individual (and by extension societal) needs than government bureaucracies. Perhaps more importantly, private institutions that fail to effectively provide desired products and services, fail. That is, they eventually cease to exist as independent organizations (AT&T, for example. While the brand name remains alive, the original company was consumed by the offspring of one of its children. Southwestern Bell was one of the original seven regional Bell companies created after divesture in 1984. It later morphed into the monster SBC in the years following the Telecom Act of 1996, purchasing AT&T some ten years later). Government organizations, on the other hand, continue to exist despite their obsolescence, societal harm, and utter inefficiency (the US Postal Service, for instance).
The Austrian school of economics best exemplifies this economic approach, specifically the work of Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Von Hayak, whose economics is generally known as laissez-faire capitalism. In fact, the Ludwig von Mises Institute says that “it was largely as a result of Ayn’s efforts that the work of von Mises began to reach its potential audience.” (64) His book Human Action may be the best general book on economics ever written. Ayn Rand attempted to get von Mises’s explicit support for her cause, but he shied away from her and her followers, and refused to acknowledge or embrace Objectivism.
Ayn Rand severely criticized one of the most prominent Austrians, Friedrich von Hayak, famous for his book The Road to Serfdom. Published near the end of WWII, he made a powerful case for limited government, but, according to Ayn Rand, for the wrong reasons. What follows is a demonstration of Hayak’s perspective that Rand despises:
The point which is so important is the basic fact that it is impossible for any man to survey more than a limited field, to be aware of the urgency of more than a limited number of needs. Whether his interests center round his own physical needs, or whether he takes a warm interest in the welfare of every human being he knows, the ends about which he can be concerned will always be only an infinitesimal fraction of the needs of all men.
This is the fundamental fact on which the whole philosophy of individualism is based. It does not assume, as is often asserted, that man is egoistic or selfish or ought to be. It merely starts from the indisputable fact that the limits of our powers of imagination make it impossible to include in our scale of values more than a sector of the needs of the whole society, and that, since, strictly speaking, scales of value can exist only in individual minds, nothing but partial scales of values exist—scales which are inevitably different and often inconsistent with each other. (65)
As can be seen, von Hayak favored limited government for essentially utilitarian reasons (‘The greatest good for the greatest number.’) As soon as you grant such collectivist criteria, Ayn Rand argues, the essential argument is lost, and the individual pays.
She scorned John Stuart Mill for the same reason, and characterized his famous essay On Liberty as “the most pernicious piece of collectivism ever adopted by suicidal defenders of liberty.” (66) Yet Mill makes unequivocal statements in favor of individual freedom. His overall principle sounds very Randian:
The object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle... That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. (67)
“Over himself,” he goes on the write, “over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.” This seems a valuable statement for those interested in individual freedom, and profoundly political in its implications. He goes on to map out “the appropriate region of human liberty”:
It comprises, first, the inward domain of consciousness; demanding liberty of conscience in the most comprehensive sense; liberty of thought and feeling; absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects, practical or speculative, scientific, moral, or theological.
Secondly, the principle requires liberty of tastes and pursuits; of framing the plan of our life to suit our own character; of doing as we like, subject to such consequences as may follow: without impediment from our fellow creatures, so long as what we do does not harm them, even though they should think our conduct foolish, perverse, or wrong. (68)
Yet all this becomes dangerous, according to Rand, once Mill makes the following statement:
In proportion to the development of his individuality, each person becomes more valuable to himself, and is therefore capable of being more valuable to others. (69)
First of all, this statement is empirically correct, regardless of whether it is used to justify individual liberty or not. Secondly, and most importantly, no matter why citizens choose to live freely and allow/support the freedom of others, and structure their government accordingly, the benefits are exactly the same. In other words, the only thing that requires agreement is the principle that both Rand and Mill explicated. Once this is accepted within society, all else follows. It doesn’t matter what anyone does with their liberty, whether they agree with a particular philosophy, worship Dionysius or Allah, or no god at all, advocate National Socialism, choose to live a simple or elaborate life, pursue dangerous activities or sit around all day watching TV, as long as they cannot gather the political power to force others to live in a similar manner, or force others to pay for activities and things they value. Free citizens can waste their life or make something of it; have children or remain alone; dedicate their life to helping the sick and poor or attempt to make scientific discoveries; they can be loud and stupid, quiet and ignorant, rude and unclean, healthy or indifferent. They can take drugs, pay for sex, get paid for sex, gamble, play with whips and chains, or take long walks along a sandy beach admiring the sunset (that would be on the West coast). They could travel or stay at home. Live in a condo, a mobile home, a cabin in the woods, or a mansion. Learn languages or play poker on-line.
Mill justified individual freedom by claiming that free people will better themselves, and in the process, help others. If you add Kant’s notion of duty here, it probably fits, and that’s probably why Rand objected. It turns out, to Rand’s point, that J. S. Mill actually favored communism over a free society:
Many, indeed, have a great dislike to it (that each is the only safe guardian of his own rights and interests) as a political doctrine, and are fond of holding it up to obloquy, as a doctrine of universal selfishness. To which we may answer, that whenever it ceases to be true that mankind, as a rule, prefer themselves to others, and those nearest to them to those more remote, from that moment Communism is not only practicable, but the only defensible form of society; and will, when that time arrives, be assuredly carried into effect. For my own part, not believing in universal selfishness, I have no difficulty in admitting that Communism would even now be practicable among the elite of mankind, and may become so among the rest. (70)
The challenge for communism, according to Mill, was that it required an advanced citizenry, and would only become practical once humankind matured and became able to fulfill their individual duty within a communistic society. As selfish cultural primitives, in other words, we are better off free and unshackled then slotted within a communistic role where we must perform in a highly specified, and spiritually advanced, manner. In our current primitive condition, we’re likely to resist, wrecking the well-intentioned system.
I suppose that if such philosophical nuance actually impacts political society (and Rand clearly thought it did) then it is important to get it right, and denounce those who don’t, particularly when they sound like allies of liberty (Hayak, Mill). Me, I wouldn’t care why we freed society from an overbearing government:
It doesn’t matter why people want to be free, or what they would do with that freedom. Freedom lovers should be happy to enlist the intellectual power and credibility of the Milton Friedman’s, Ludwig von Mises, Fredrick von Hayaks, J. S. Mills, Henry David Thoreau’s, and the Ayn Rand's to help bring a free society about.
But it’s never going to happen, because no one person, no one interest group benefits from a truly free society: no place for kings, powerful presidents, generals and wars for them to fight. No princely bureaucrats ruling over thousands of people with millions and millions to spend. No need for social engineers sponsoring legislation that forces people to live in a manner different from what they would otherwise choose. No more urban renewal, funded with taxes extorted from the productive class. No more protection for corporations threatened by competition and innovation.
It won’t change because those of us who desire such change are unwilling to join the machine, to be party to the current power structure, to contribute to its perpetuation. Those who believe they need to become the beast to kill it are fooling themselves:
Those following one party imagine they differ from those following another, whereas all, once they choose, join each other underneath, participate in one and the same nature, and very only in appearance, by the mask they assume. (71)
It won’t change because
All voting is a sort of gaming...a playing with right and wrong; its obligation never exceeds that of expediency. Even voting for the right thing is doing nothing for it. A wise man will not leave the right to the mercy of chance, nor wish it to prevail through the power of the majority. (72)
It won’t change because there is too much societal ossification, entrenched interests, lack of inertia. All those roads to hell paved with golden bricks of good intentions, because the majority of people are convinced that an intrusive government helps people, when it actually, on balance, harms them.
The irony is that the people who would benefit the most from a free society—the poor, the underprivileged, the poorly educated, the sick, the unemployed, the stupid—are the same people that are targeted for help that justifies government intervention. Ignorant/naïve good-hearted people support these programs intended to help the unfortunate when in fact they do more harm than help.
As a result, any intellectual that seriously proposes genuine individual liberty, especially one as acerbic as Ayn Rand, will sustain many personal attacks without the benefit of true intellectual engagement. They will be scorned and dismissed. They will remain deliberately unread and misunderstood. Their tarnished reputation will always precede them, and in most cases that is all people will know. It will never be politically correct to read, understand, or acknowledge their existence.
Ayn Rand did very little to build intellectual bridges. Quite the opposite: she was routinely uncompromising, arrogant, disdainful, and disrespectful towards anyone who did not share her views, and especially with those who she considered superficially in agreement—Hayak for instance. But this is common among brilliant thinkers: Wittgenstein and Schopenhauer come immediately to mind, as they were insufferably arrogant.
In many cases she interpreted disagreement as a form of deliberate evil, and often judged the person immoral. Instead of engaging respectfully with thinkers—both contemporary and historical—she dismissed them with broad generalizations, often without making it clear why, or granting them the effort necessary to fully understand the source of their differences, or determine if they had anything of value to offer.
In addition, her writing is filled with vitriol. It didn’t take me long to find these two representative examples of her invective:
I am not willing to surrender the world to the jerky contortions of self-inducedly brainless bodies with empty eye sockets, who perform, in stinking basements, the immemorial rituals of staving off terror, which are a dime a dozen in any jungle—and to the quavering witch doctors who call it “art”. (73)
If you like modern art, or operate a gallery that displays it, or paint yourself, how would you react to this characterization? Probably with some emotion. But she’s not through with you:
The composite picture of man that emerges from the art of our time is the gigantic figure of an aborted embryo whose limbs suggest a vaguely anthropoid shape, who twists his upper extremity in a frantic quest for a light that cannot penetrate its empty sockets, who emits inarticulate sounds resembling snarls and moans, who crawls through a bloody muck, red froth dripping from his jaws, and struggles to throw the froth at his own non-existent face, who pauses periodically and, lifting the stumps of his arms, screams in abysmal terror at the universe at large. (74)
Establishment intellectuals encountering this kind of language are understandably put off. Given her wide-ranging criticism, virtually everyone finds himself or herself insulted at one point or another.
Rand the Novelist
Ayn Rand’s progression as a novelist is an excellent model for the literary artist. Despite her lifelong dedication to fiction, she wrote very few novels. Her principle works of fiction consist of three major novels and one novella (as opposed to the dozen or more written by John Updike, Maugham, Hemingway, Faulkner, Henry Miller, John Cowper Powys, James Michener, Stephen King, Henry James, Charles Dickens, Philip Roth, Balzac, Saul Bellow, Nora Roberts, etc.). Very few novelists are capable of writing more than one or two truly great and original works. Dostoevsky is the only exception that comes to mind (if you count In Search of Lost Time as one novel and not seven), as he wrote a great deal, some of it not very good (his novel The Adolescent, written just prior to The Brothers Karamazov, is rightly dismissed as a lesser achievement) has four full-length masterpieces to his credit, plus a great novella (Notes from Underground). Ralph Ellison had the right idea publishing nothing after Invisible Man if he didn’t think he could surpass it. Joseph Heller probably should have stopped after Catch-22.
Ayn Rand spent almost three decades to finish three novels. Each of them was progressively more complex in structure and theme, larger in scope and vision, and generally more accomplished. After publishing Atlas Shrugged in 1957, she no longer produced fiction, as she understandably considered it the culmination of her entire literary career. Instead, she wrote non-fiction, gave lectures, and supported various Objectivist groups and activities.
Ayn Rand wrote her first full-length novel in her late twenties, and published it in 1936, two years after completing it (she had difficulty finding a publisher). We the Living is the most personal of her novels, and as far as I can tell, thematically unique. Collectivist ideology was all the rage in the thirties among Western intellectuals, and her novel not only depicted the social and political conditions of early Soviet rule (she lived through the revolution of 1917 and experienced what took place in the following years) she depicted the philosophical implications of communist ideology and its effect on real people. The novel is prescient, and she gets little credit for how well she integrated complex issues and conditions into a coherent literary work.
In terms of structure and style, We the Living is the most typical (most like other novels) of her novels; the following three will be uniquely hers, and no one could mistake them for someone else’s work. Even so, she succeeds in We the Living to establish the beginning of her unique style and thematic intent, and it is all the more impressive that she wrote it originally in English, a language that she learned just a few years prior to writing it.
The novella Anthem was written shortly after We the Living was published, although it wasn’t published in the US for another decade. The following reflects the core of that unique work:
I am. I think. I will.
My hands . . . My spirit . . . My sky . . . My forest . . . This earth of mine. . . .
What must I say besides? These are the words. This is the answer.
I stand here on the summit of the mountain. I lift my head and I spread my arms. This, my body and spirit, this is the end of the quest. I wished to know the meaning of things. I am the meaning. I wished to find a warrant for being. I need no warrant for being, and no word of sanction upon my being. I am the warrant and the sanction.
It is my eyes which see, and the sight of my eyes grants beauty to the earth. It is my ears which hear, and the hearing of my ears gives its song to the world. It is my mind which thinks, and the judgment of my mind is the only searchlight that can find the truth. It is my will which chooses, and the choice of my will is the only edict I must respect.
Many words have been granted me, and some are wise, and some are false, but only three are holy: "I will it!"
Whatever road I take, the guiding star is within me; the guiding star and the loadstone which point the way. They point in but one direction. They point to me.
I know not if this earth on which I stand is the core of the universe or if it is but a speck of dust lost in eternity. I know not and I care not. For I know what happiness is possible to me on earth. And my happiness needs no higher aim to vindicate it. My happiness is not the means to any end. It is the end. It is its own goal. It is its own purpose.
Neither am I the means to any end others may wish to accomplish. I am not a tool for their use. I am not a servant of their needs. I am not a bandage for their wounds. I am not a sacrifice on their altars.
I am a man. This miracle of me is mine to own and keep, and mine to guard, and mine to use, and mine to kneel before!
I do not surrender my treasures, nor do I share them. The fortune of my spirit is not to be blown into coins of brass and flung to the winds as alms for the poor of the spirit. I guard my treasures: my thought, my will, my freedom. And the greatest of these is freedom.
I owe nothing to my brothers, nor do I gather debts from them. I ask none to live for me, nor do I live for any others. I covet no man's soul, nor is my soul theirs to covet. (75)
It is rewarding, and a bit surprising, to see this novella taught in High Schools. Perhaps the tide is turning after all.
Her next novel, The Fountainhead, was published in 1943, and is one of the world’s masterpieces, a book that would have made her reputation had she written nothing else. The Fountainhead features Howard Roark, an architect who refuses to compromise his work. As mentioned earlier, he struggles to make a living, and in the end destroys a project that was not built as designed. Ayn Rand described Dominique, the principle female character, as herself in a bad mood. The author gained financial independence after publishing this novel and selling the movie rights, allowing her to write full-time for the rest of her life.
Ayn Rand spent the next ten years writing Atlas Shrugged. It took two years to write Galt’s speech. The speech is sixty pages long, and there is nothing like it in imaginary literature.
But, as we discovered earlier, the perfect novel doesn’t exist, and Atlas Shrugged is no exception. Here are a few of its weaknesses:
This list isn’t comprehensive, and I imagine any serious reader could add to it. But, despite these flaws, is Atlas Shrugged a good novel? “A good novel,” Maugham reminds us, “should have a widely interesting theme, by which I mean a theme interesting not only to a clique, whether of critics, professors, highbrows, truck drivers or dish washers, but so broadly human that it is interesting to men and women of all sorts.” (76)
There is nothing broader, more relevant and wide ranging than Rand’s theme for Atlas Shrugged. It is, she tells us, “the role of the mind in man’s existence.” (italics in original) She adds the following corollary: “the presentation of a new code of ethics—the morality of rational self-interest.” (77) She goes on to write that
The story of Atlas Shrugged presents the conflict of two fundamental antagonists, two opposite schools of philosophy, or two opposite attitudes toward life. As a brief means of identification, I shall call them the “reason-individualism-capitalism axis” versus the “mysticism-altruism-collectivism axis.” (78)
This theme, and its implications, impacts (and therefore should interest) every literate reader. Many will disagree with the position she takes, others will not approve of how her characters behave or the implications of the plot, but everyone should be interested one way or another.
But apparently not everyone is—particularly the “critics, professors, highbrows” who, as we have already indicated, either ignore or denigrate the novel, even though there is no mistaking its meaning, thematic conclusions, and authorial intent. Nothing vague or ambiguous. Which brings us to the next criteria of a good novel:
The story should be coherent and persuasive; it should have a beginning, a middle and an end, and the end should be the natural consequence of the beginning. (79)
Atlas Shrugged is a great story. It begins with a question: “Who is John Galt?” and ultimately ends with an intriguing answer, something I call a ‘predictable surprise that goes unpredicted.’ There is drama, mystery, disaster. The structure is virtually unique in its integration of character, plot and theme. Each follows from the other, and they synthesize holistically creating greater aesthetic synergies. We admire the principle characters, for their strength, nobility, sense of purpose. Which brings us to the next criteria:
The creatures of the novelist’s invention should be observed with individuality, and their actions should proceed from their characters. (80)
In this respect, Atlas Shrugged excels, as the characters are deliberately created to exist, think and act based on explicit characterization, including detailed personal philosophy, psychology and individual proclivities. In some cases characters demonstrate specific types with particular flaws or strengths, and thus appear two-dimensional. But the majority of major characters are significantly drawn into solid and consistent substance.
With exactly four exceptions, the hundreds of characters fall into one of two camps: the good guys or the bad guys. The good guys wear white hats, and the bad guys black. Cowboys and Indians. GIs and Germans. No ambiguity, no question which is which. While individually drawn, the reader is left with no doubt within which camp a particular character resides. The four exceptions include:
Even though Rand considers John Galt the hero of the novel, the central character is Dagny Taggert. Rand invests her with more strength of character than anyone else, the most powerful will, the greatest drive and determination. In some respects, she shames the rest of them with her unwillingness to quit. She is the novel’s true hero, and as mentioned earlier, one of the greatest literary characters ever written, certainly the most powerful female character. Antigone might be considered a rival. Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina are pathetic in comparison. Dorothea Brooke is intelligent and interesting, but of small stature, as is Proust’s Albertine. I like Pynchon’s Oedipa Maas, but she doesn’t really rank.
Maugham writes that in a good novel
The dialogue should neither be desultory nor should it be an occasion for the author to air his opinions; it should serve to characterize the speakers and to advance the story. (81)
The dialogue in Atlas Shrugged is certainly not desultory. On the other hand, a great many opinions get aired, and it’s obvious which of those the author owns. The dialogue is highly polemical, yet in a meaningful, aesthetic way. In other words, the actions of the characters, what they say, and what it means are fully integrated, as opposed to stand-alone sermons or dogmatic essays. Even Galt’s speech, a deliberate statement of Rand’s philosophy, is directly relevant to the plot, and reveals many things, both personal and intellectual. The speech is a culmination, a challenge, a response, a clarion call, an answer. One of the miracles of the novel is how well Rand incorporated the intellectual content into the body of the work, as opposed to such novels as Mann’s The Magic Mountain or Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, where the intellectual content is delivered in side conversations, while people sit on a porch wrapped in a blanket, or walk along a shaded avenue: what they say and think has no real bearing on what takes place. In Atlas Shrugged there is a reason why people say what they say, think what they think, and do what they do. It matters.
Even so, the polemics threaten the aesthetic, and while I believe Rand succeeds better than anyone to fuse the two, she remains open to Vidal’s criticism:
It is a poor period indeed which must assess its men of letters in terms of their opposition to their society. Opposition to life’s essential conditions perhaps, or to death’s implacable tyranny, is something else again, and universal; but novels, no matter how clever, which attempt to change statutes or moral attitudes are, though useful at the moment, not literature at all. (82)
Maugham indicates that “The writing,” in a good novel, “should be simple enough for anyone of ordinary education to read it with ease.” (83) There is nothing difficult in Rand’s prose. While she writes in style, and utilizes a full range of literary tools, there is nothing obscure or confusing in her work, nor particularly challenging. It is quite clear what people say, what they mean, and what takes place. The language is straightforward with no unnecessary convolutions.
“Finally,” Maugham writes, “a novel should be entertaining….it is the essential quality, without which no other quality is of any use.” (84) For millions of us, Atlas Shrugged is wonderfully entertaining. That’s why readers chose it as the best novel written in English in the 20th century, and why it remains a perennial bestseller. Academics, scholars, literary historians will put up with boring, unpleasant books, but we won’t. We, as common readers, must enjoy what we devote our reading attention to. “I think that the self,” Harold Bloom wrote, “in its quest to be free and solitary, ultimately reads with one aim only: to confront greatness.” (85) And that’s what we find in Rand’s novels—authentic greatness.
I first read Rand’s masterpiece when I was twelve, and have finished it four times since. Some of my other favorites novels, such as In Search of Lost Time, Islands in the Stream, and The Brothers Karamazov, I have only read twice.
Atlas Shrugged is not only a good novel, as it meets most of Maugham’s criteria quite well, but a truly great one. Even though she is from Russia, those who teach and promote American literature should be proud to include her work among the best this country has produced. Herman Melville, Mark Twain, Emily Dickenson, Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Ernest Hemingway, Ralph Ellison, Joseph Heller—and Ayn Rand. That’s the company she should keep.
It’s unfortunate that Rand insisted on actualizing her philosophy. As a thinker, as a writer, she, somewhat like Nietzsche, didn’t have to care. She didn’t need the organizations, political statements, newsletters, lectures, grandstanding (on one leg, no less). Had she remained indifferent, unengaged, she may have been far more influential than she is today. Her work speaks for itself. She could have let others carry the intellectual enthusiasm necessary to teach and instill the principles throughout society, if that’s what she really wanted.
And this brings to mind a deep irony in Ayn Rand’s life, work and philosophy. If she really believed in pure, malignant selfishness, and was motivated entirely by what suited her own narrow interests, but at the same time, believed she had developed a unique insight into ways to make the world a better place, and people happier, why did she write? As part of her ‘enlightened’ self-interest, what did publishing Atlas Shrugged do for her? Make money? Hell, she could have run a corporation or something, if she wanted to get rich. To show off her intellect? All she succeeded in doing was plunge herself into two years of depression after getting crushed by the terrible reception of her masterpiece. Did she write to help others? Did she spend the rest of her life publishing non-fiction and giving talks—to help others? Did she share her mind, her time, and her noble vision of Man’s potential to make herself feel better? What did she gain from such sharing? It seems to me she gave an awful lot more than she ever received from us, and for that we should be grateful.
In my opinion, Ayn Rand’s novels are her greatest and lasting achievement. They should grow ever more popular and well-known, and perhaps someday they will attract the critical attention they deserve, and be taken seriously as literature.
Art is the indispensable medium for the communication of a moral ideal.
Ayn Rand, The Romantic Manifesto
Notes for Chapter 8 – Ayn Rand
Humble Executive. Literary Artist. Altruistic Libertarian.