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“The Courage to Face a Lifetime”: On the Enduring Appeal of Ayn Rand’s Philosophy

Mocked by philosophers, adored by readers – what is the lasting allure of Ayn Rand?
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He was using his power to get sex. Photograph: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

 

Over thirty million copies of English-language editions of Ayn Rand’s books have been sold since the 1940s, with many more in dozens of other languages, and sales have not slowed down [1].  This article’s sub-title captures the heart of why her work—especially her fiction—has enduring appeal, despite academia and the popular press being generally hostile even to the mention of her name. The quotation appears in the last part of The Fountainhead, Rand’s 1943 novel that put her on the cultural map. A young man recently graduated from college rides his bicycle through the hills of Pennsylvania, wondering whether life is worth living and whether he should pursue his dream of being a composer.  He longs to see others’ achievements as tangible products of their quest for happiness, if only to see that it’s possible. Suddenly, he is confronted with a newly finished summer home community that seems to spring organically from the sides of the hills. He notices a man perched on a boulder who serenely gazes over the beautiful homes in the valley below. After finding out that the man—Howard Roark—is the architect responsible for the scene before them, he thanks Roark and confidently rides off into his future armed with “the courage to face a lifetime.”

 

Many readers have been inspired by these words, amazed at the story unfolding before their eyes. It’s unusual to encounter literature that embodies such benevolent, life-affirming values. This is an extraordinary kind of Hero’s Journey. Filled not only with heroes meeting challenges with the assistance of friends against one’s foes, it also contains the message that philosophy matters—for everyone. How well or poorly your life goes depends on whether you hold the right ideas or not. The Fountainhead—as well as Rand’s 1957 magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged—paints a world where happiness and joy are attainable through using one’s mind to pursue one’s passion with integrity and to face and overcome obstacles with reality-oriented determination.  It’s a universe where achievement is possible; self-esteem is earned through productive work; and voluntary interactions foster intensely rewarding personal, social, and professional relationships. And it’s a reality that any person can choose to help create every day of one’s life.

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"Rand's work contains the message that philosophy matters—for everyone. How well or poorly your life goes depends on whether you hold the right ideas or not."
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Journeying through the rest of Rand’s corpus—her fiction as well as her non-fiction philosophy, which she named Objectivism—is challenging and rewarding.  The essentials of Objectivism are: reality exists, we can know reality objectively through our senses and the use of reason, one’s own happiness is one’s highest moral purpose (egoism), limited government is justified only for the protection of individual rights, people should be free to trade the fruits of their work (capitalism), and the purpose of art is to project and experience in concrete form one’s vision of life. Many people have been engaged and inspired by these ideas, ideally using them as springboards for further thought about what’s true and how best to live. There are also many who reject Rand’s ideas, though few of those have bothered to read her work carefully (or at all) before passing judgment on it.


A small sample of vitriol hurled at Rand’s work in popular media includes: “complete lack of charity”; “execrable claptrap” and “a personality as compelling as a sledge hammer”; “crackpot . . . an historical anachronism and a wretched novelist”; “an absurd philosophy” and “a total crock.” [2]  Both supporters and detractors of her work have also noted the derision that many philosophers have for it, “dismissing her work contemptuously on the basis of hearsay” or “laugh[ing] out of the room” anyone bringing up her name [3].  Add to the vitriol some of the oft-repeated myths about Rand’s views:

(1) She is Conservative and “high priestess of the acute Right” on the American political spectrum. [4]

(2) She “takes Nietzschean individualism to an extreme.” [5]

(3) In upholding selfishness, individuals should never care about anyone else, even regarding them as totally expendable tools to be manipulated. At best, charity or benevolence is a “minor virtue.” [6]

(4) She was an “unabashed apologist for dog-eat-dog capitalism,” allowing the rich to cozy up to government in plutocratic fashion. [7]


The ad hominem attacks above are best brushed aside into the dustbin of history. Mischaracterizations can be dispelled by examining Rand’s work for what it says. First, Rand’s views don’t fit neatly into either the political Right or Left. She was a radical for individual rights who rejected the false dichotomy between personal and economic freedom, and rejected being labeled “Conservative” or “Libertarian.” A portion of the Right—namely, some Libertarians and Tea Party members—have supported parts of Rand’s theory. However, a staunch anti-religion naturalist, she angers many on the Right by defending rights to abortion, free speech, and drugs regardless of her own stance on the moral worth of those activities. She angers the Left even more by opposing welfare-state redistribution and defending rights to private property and keeping one’s income. [8] 

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"Rand’s defense of capitalism is grounded in her view of egoism.  We each need to create the material and spiritual values needed to live as humans. We gain immeasurably through exchanging values voluntarily with others."
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Regarding the second myth, Rand read some of Friedrich Nietzsche’s works when she was in college. She undeniably shares with him a polemical writing style and acknowledges that she admires his sense of man’s potential for greatness. This is stated at the same time, though, as Rand expresses her “profound disagreement” with what she sees as Nietzsche’s mysticism, irrationalism, subordination of reason to the will-to-power, and malevolent view of the world. [9] Her greatest intellectual debt is owed instead to Aristotle—metaphysical and epistemological realist and defender of reason and virtue ethics—who she regarded as the “greatest of all philosophers.” [10] 


The third myth vanishes when we examine Rand’s version of egoism. An egoist is one who regards oneself as the ultimate—not the only—beneficiary of one’s actions. Heroes in all of Rand’s novels risk their lives for the sake of values—including other people—they hold dear. She defends one’s choice to assist strangers in emergency and everyday contexts out of good will toward other living beings, so long as doing so is not a sacrificial duty that jeopardizes one’s well-being. Rand even dubs as “psychopaths” those who are “totally indifferent to anything living.” [11]  How does this square with egoism? It begins with a proper conception of the self. We are human beings—not animals—with a reasoning mind to be integrated with one’s emotions. Goals worth pursuing for one’s long-term survival can be achieved only in certain ways, namely, by exercising virtues such as rationality, productiveness, pride, independence, integrity, honesty, and justice. These virtues demand the best of our selves, precluding the initiation of force against other persons or attempts to gain benefits from them through deceit or fraud. [12]


The fourth myth has been the most persistent, for defending capitalism on moral grounds requires fighting against millennia of prejudice against money-making. Think, for example, of the Biblical proverb of how it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to gain entrance to Heaven or how Shylock is scorned for making money on loans in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Rand’s defense of capitalism is grounded in her view of egoism.  We each need to create the material and spiritual values needed to live as humans. We gain immeasurably through exchanging values voluntarily with others. Rand calls this the “trader principle.” Those who seek to gain resources through coercive means—the ones Rand depicts as villains in her novels—are either private criminals or political cronies who violate individual rights. Genuine businessmen don’t seek political favors or otherwise subvert the rule of law. When free to trade voluntarily, they innovate, produce job opportunities, and increase living standards. In short, they create wealth by applying their minds to the task of living, leading to win-win outcomes. [13]

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"President Donald Trump is an alleged “Ayn Rand acolyte", but being a fan of Rand’s work is not the same as understanding her views, applying them properly, or living up to them consistently in one’s own life."
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It should be apparent by now why so many people find Rand’s work appealing. Her views, though—like any others—can and should be scrutinized, critiqued, and developed where needed.  Philosophers who have taken her work seriously disagree about how to understand some of Rand’s key ideas. For example, there are rival interpretations of what she means by the claim that our ultimate aim is life, or survival as “man qua man,” and whether this is equivalent to eudaimonism, the view that flourishing (which centrally involves virtue) is our ultimate aim. [14] Some eudaimonists argue that virtue, not life, is the ultimate value and that it might conflict with egoism, which would create problems for Rand’s ethical theory. More than anything, though, Rand’s philosophical system is under-developed in some ways. She herself refers to her non-fiction collections as outlines, previews, and introductions to material that she had intended to write book-length treatments of (though she didn’t end up doing so). [15]

 

Having addressed some of the most significant misunderstandings of Objectivism, we can ask: What accounts for the persistent hostility and misrepresentation? The reasons are several. Some people might assume that such depictions accurately represent Rand’s views, and then they repeat those falsehoods. Such individuals can instead withhold comment until dispelling their ignorance of the source rather than rely on someone else’s judgments about it.


Others read Rand’s work and disagree partially or entirely with her views. This is unsurprising, given that she challenges many sacred cows, including religion, altruism, determinism, collectivism, and subjectivism. While a relative few in this category engage in fair and honest discussion about her ideas [16], many either misunderstand Rand and end up mischaracterizing her views or willfully misrepresent them to dissuade others from taking her seriously. It’s unfortunately easier to demonize one’s opponents than to argue with them.


For others, their rejection of Rand is based less on the content of her views than on her sense of life. It’s fashionable, especially among academics and public intellectuals, to be jaded, cynical, and ironic. Rand’s work—with its hallmarks of benevolence and heroism—thankfully exhibits none of these. It instead offers a spirit of youthful optimism that provides resilience needed to achieve a good life and endure with grace life’s unavoidable challenges. In addition, professional philosophers are put off by Rand’s dearth of footnotes and bibliographical apparatus as well as her non-analytic, polemical style that attacks others’ views with little exposition of them.

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"Whether one agrees with Rand’s provocative views or not, it’s valuable for philosophers to take them seriously and study them carefully. Her theory provides a systematic alternative to other schools of thought and challenges the academy’s conventional wisdom to keep us on our intellectual toes"
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Yet others, who claim to be fans or supporters of Rand’s work, accidentally contribute to perpetuating falsehoods about her views. One need only look to a list of some prominent politicians and entrepreneurs to see this phenomenon. For example, President Donald Trump is an alleged “Ayn Rand acolyte,” accused of “stack[ing] his cabinet with fellow Objectivists,” such as Rex Tillerson and Michael Pompeo. In addition, Travis Kalanick’s ignominious fall from the heights of Uber CEO-hood has been described as “the latest Icarus-like plunge of a prominent Rand follower,” and Andrew Pudzer, “an avid Ayn Rand reader,” withdrew from his nomination as Secretary of Labor due to allegations of worker mistreatment at his fast-food chains [17].  These individuals may have been inspired by reading Rand’s works to follow their life’s path. However, one is hard-pressed to call any of them Objectivists, since they either reject key tenets of Rand’s theory by being religious or have chosen to act in some ways antithetical to it by cutting crony deals or performing other vicious deeds. Being a fan of Rand’s work is not the same as understanding her views, applying them properly, or living up to them consistently in one’s own life. There are plenty of good people living their lives in a principled way—whether as CEOs, teachers, or mechanics—who have been inspired by Rand’s ideas. Their moral decency doesn’t make headline news, though.


Whether one agrees with Rand’s provocative views or not, it’s valuable for philosophers to take them seriously and study them carefully. Her theory provides a systematic alternative to other schools of thought and challenges the academy’s conventional wisdom to keep us on our intellectual toes. She reframes traditional philosophical questions in ways that cut through what she considers to be false dichotomies: mind/body, reason/emotion, moral/practical, duty/utility, intrinsic/subjective, nature/nurture. This leaves conceptual space to offer and defend a “third way” on a range of significant philosophical issues.


Rand offers Objectivism as a philosophy for living, not just contemplating, not just existing and getting by. We have minds equipped to deal with the world, a world where we can be efficacious. So long as there are individuals committed to their own happiness, voluntary cooperation, reaching for the best within themselves, and creating the social and political institutions needed for achieving these values in a free and responsible way, Rand’s work will continue to speak to countless numbers of people in all walks of life. But don’t take my—or anyone else’s—word for it. Exercise the virtue of independence and read Rand’s work for yourself. You’ll see firsthand what the enduring appeal is all about.

***

 

 


 

[1] Allan Gotthelf and Gregory Salmieri, eds., A Companion to Ayn Rand (Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell, 2016), p. 15 n. 1.   

[2] Bruce Cook, “Ayn Rand: A Voice in the Wilderness,” Catholic World, vol. 201 (May 1965), p. 121; John Kobler, “The Curious Cult of Ayn Rand,” The Saturday Evening Post (November 11, 1961), p. 99; Dora Jane Hamblin, “The Cult of Angry Ayn Rand,” Life (April 7, 1967), p. 92; Geoffrey James, “Top 10 Reasons Ayn Rand Was Dead Wrong,” CBS News Moneywatch (September 16, 2010), accessed online at: http://www.cbsnews.com/news/top-10-reasons-ayn-rand-was-dead-wrong/.

[3] Neera Badhwar and Roderick Long, “Ayn Rand,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (September 19, 2016), accessed online at: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ayn-rand/; James Stewart, “As a Guru, Ayn Rand May Have Limits. Ask Travis Kalanick,” The New York Times (July 13, 2017), accessed online at: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/13/business/ayn-rand-business-politics-uber-kalanick.html.

[4] Barbara Grizzuti Harrison, “Psyching Out Ayn Rand,” Ms. (September 1978), p. 24. See also, e.g., Jonathan Chait, “Wealthcare: Ayn Rand and the Invincible Cult of Selfishness on the American Right,” New Republic (September 14, 2009), accessed online at: https://newrepublic.com/article/69239/wealthcare-0; Jennifer Burns, Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), p. 4. 

[5] Stewart, “As a Guru, Ayn Rand May Have Limits.” See also, e.g., Gene Bell-Villada, On Nabakov, Ayn Rand, and the Libertarian Mind (Newcastle on Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars Press, 2013), chap. 5.

[6] See James, “Top 10 Reasons Ayn Rand Was Dead Wrong,”  Skikha Dalmia, “Where Ayn Rand Went Wrong,” Forbes (November 4, 2009), accessed online at: https://www.forbes.com/2009/11/03/where-ayn-rand-went-wrong-opinions-columnists-shikha-dalmia.html, and Michael Huemer, “Why I Am Not an Objectivist,” accessed online at: http://www.owl232.net/rand.htm, for the former view, and Badhwar and Long, “Ayn Rand,” for the latter.

[7] Gerald Jonas, “Reviewed This Week (four sci-fi novels),” The New York Times (August 30, 1998), accessed online at: http://www.nytimes.com/books/98/08/30/reviews/980830.30scifit.html. See also, e.g., James, “Top 10 Reasons Ayn Rand Was Dead Wrong” and James Hohmann, “The Daily 202: Ayn Rand Acolyte Donald Trump Stacks His Cabinet with Fellow Objectivists,” The Washington Post (December 13, 2016), accessed online at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/powerpost/paloma/daily-202/2016/12/13/daily-202-ayn-rand-acolyte-donald-trump-stacks-his-cabinet-with-fellow-objectivists/584f5cdfe9b69b36fcfeaf3b/?utm_term=.d56b46b8c78c

[8] Rand’s public policy views are scattered over dozens of essays, but a general synthesis can be found in John David Lewis and Gregory Salmieri, “A Philosopher on Her Times,” in Gotthelf and Salmieri, A Companion to Ayn Rand, pp. 351-402.

[9] Ayn Rand, “Introduction,” in her The Fountainhead, 25th anniversary ed. (New York: New American Library, 1968), p. x.

[10] Ayn Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” in her The Virtue of Selfishness (New York: Signet, 1964), p. 14.

[11] Ayn Rand, “The Ethics of Emergencies,” in Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness, pp. 43-44.

[12] Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” pp. 22-32.

[13] See Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” pp. 32-34, and Ayn Rand, “What Is Capitalism?” and “America’s Persecuted Minority: Big Business,” in her Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (New York: Signet, 1966), pp. 11-34 and 44-62.

[14] See, e.g., Allan Gotthelf, “The Morality of Life,” in Gotthelf and Salmieri, A Companion to Ayn Rand, pp. 73-104; Gregory Salmieri, “Egoism and Altruism,” in Gotthelf and Salmieri, A Companion to Ayn Rand, pp. 130-56; Neera Badhwar, Well-Being: Happiness in a Worthwhile Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014); Lester Hunt, “Flourishing Egoism,” Social Philosophy and Policy, vol. 16, no. 1 (1999), pp. 72-95; and Roderick Long, Reason and Value: Aristotle versus Ayn Rand (Poughkeepsie, NY: Objectivist Center, 2000).

[15] The task of developing Objectivist-inspired work that interprets and fleshes out lacunae in Rand’s system falls to others. See, e.g., Tara Smith, Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics: The Virtuous Egoist (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006); Tara Smith, Judicial Review in an Objective Legal System (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015); and Allan Gotthelf and James Lennox, eds., Concepts and Their Role in Knowledge: Reflections on Objectivist Epistemology (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013). All of these works engage with the wider philosophical literature in ways that Rand did not.

[16] One such exception is an excellent piece by John Piper; see his “The Ethics of Ayn Rand: Appreciation and Critique,” Desiring God (June 1, 1979; revised October 9, 2007), accessed online at: http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/the-ethics-of-ayn-rand.  A Christian who thinks that Rand is mistaken about rejecting theism, Piper nonetheless offers a careful, nuanced articulation of her ethical egoism. Would that all critics were to take such care with the views of their interlocutors.

[17] Hohmann, “The Daily 202: Ayn Rand Acolyte Donald Trump Stacks His Cabinet with Fellow Objectivists”; Stewart, “As A Guru, Ayn Rand May Have Limits.”

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