Who was Ayn Rand? She was a Russian Jewish woman born in 1905. She immigrated to the United States in 1925 and took up a career as a writer. Her first works during the 30’s met with mixed success. In 1943 she published her first big hit, a novel called ‘The Fountainhead’, which revealed the philosophy of life that she was in the middle of constructing. This philosophy, eventually called by the difficult term ‘Objectivism’, became one of the most important and controversial philosophical trends of the 20th century. The philosophy reached its complete form in 1957 in her magnum opus, a massive work called ‘Atlas Shrugged’. Over 1,000 pages long, Atlas Shrugged is nothing less than monumental. In it, Rand’s Objectivism is exposed in all its brilliance and all its notoriety.
It was received with mixed reviews. It was hated as much as it was loved, and generally it was either one or the other. Intellectuals and literary critics almost invariably detested it, frequently deeming it beneath their criticism. She was not a recognized academic, so who was she to philosophize? She conformed to neither current liberal or conservative outlooks, so she was a nobody. But somehow, what she wrote and the way she wrote it hit home with the average reader. One poll had it voted second only to the Bible as the book that made the most difference in personal life. Another had it the best novel of the 20th century. What was she advocating that effected people in such radically different ways?
She clarified her beliefs in the essays and books she wrote over the remainder of her life. In essence, Atlas Shrugged and all the rest promoted the idea that human beings were meant to look out for their own good only, and that certain people were better at this than others. These people should run the world and everybody else should follow for their own good. If it sounds startlingly selfish, it is. One of her later books was called ‘The Virtue of Selfishness’. If anything, this should clarify why so many people were highly offended by her philosophy. But she defined selfishness as ‘concern with one’s own interests’. It may be objectionable but it’s not necessarily wrong. In addition to her controversial outlook on life, she was highly critical of anybody who disagreed with her and not all that kind to many who agreed with her. She seemed to go through life looking for a fight.
Some editions of Atlas Shrugged have an appendix in which Rand expressed her philosophy in a nutshell. The following quote is found there: ‘My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.’ This is Ayn Rand in her own words.
What is Objectivism? In a word, it is the belief that reality is real, definite, and independent of what we think of it. Before dismissing it as one more nonsensical philosophical rant that is either totally obvious or totally ridiculous, and that maybe these idiots who think this stuff up ought to get a real job for a change, it should be noted that there is something quite important here. Objectivism goes against the ‘all in the mind’ approaches that crept up during the enlightenment and became popular during the 20th century. The first thing is that the world out there is real and nothing can change that. It is all that is real and anything ‘beyond reality’ is not real at all. Thus, objectivism rejects any notion of a deity.
The second thing is that we are conscious movers of that world while simultaneously being an intrinsic part of it. We can use our will however we choose, whether in a rational or irrational manner. It is our task as human beings to use it in the most rational manner possible. Our faculties of conscience and rationality set us apart from everything else and give us a power that is akin to the powers of the gods of old. We can use the world however we want. We can change it. We, and not some non-existent god, control our own fate.
The third thing is identity. This can be summed up by a famous Ayn Rand quote: ‘A is A’. If you are wondering what that is supposed to mean, she meant just what it said – things are exactly what they are and nothing else. There is no sense in trying to believe that they are something else other than what they are. She even went further and claimed that ‘all the secret evil you dread to face within you and all the pain you have ever endured, came from your own attempt to evade the fact that A is A. The purpose of those who taught you to evade it, was to make you forget that Man is Man.’ Thus, the importance of this seemingly obvious and meaningless axiom is to underscore that the basic nature of a thing, such as a human being, is what it is and cannot be otherwise. To pretend that it is otherwise is evil and destructive.
The bottom line of all of this is that there is an objective and absolute truth that cannot be altered no matter how much it doesn’t fit into the way we would like things to be. At the foundation of that truth is that life is the most precious thing in existence and that we human beings should do anything we can to preserve it. But our first, and really our only concern, is to preserve our own life. Everybody else is responsible for themselves. That certain people get this point and others don’t does not make it any less true. The path towards preserving one’s life is through the greatest tool that we possess - our ability to think rationally, to reason. It is through reason, and only through reason, that man can persevere in the battle and come out victorious.
Reason dictates that we should think of ourselves first and only think of others as a means to foster our own survival. Thus, cooperation and human progress are really selfish goals, and there is no reason to call them anything else. Each person has to strive in whatever way they can to ensure their own survival and to increase their own happiness. If that requires cooperation with others, so that together they can facilitate this goal, then so be it. But it is means to an end. Looked at in this sense, each person is their own hero, the main character in the book they are writing or the movie they are making. Everybody else is a supporting actor. The goal of everybody is the same, but it is applied by each person to their own self. If all people thought this way, Rand believed, the world would be a perfect place with no problems. Everyone’s goal would be to lead a productive life that would further their chances for survival and happiness.
In ‘The Virtue of Selfishness’ she wrote:
‘The three cardinal values of the Objectivist ethics - the three values which, together, are the means to and the realization of one’s ultimate value, one’s own life - are: Reason, Purpose, Self-Esteem, with their three corresponding virtues: Rationality, Productiveness, Pride. Productive work is the central purpose of a rational man’s life, the central value that integrates and determines the hierarchy of all his other values. Reason is the source, the precondition of his productive work - pride is the result.’
Thus, happiness is the ‘moral purpose of his life’, while productive work is the ‘central purpose of a rational man’s life’. Are they one and the same thing, or are they flip sides of the same coin? It seems like the second is the case – that the ultimate goal is happiness, but the means to get there is through productive work. Reason is the guide to productivity, and feeling good about oneself, or self esteem, is the reward. She called this scheme ‘rational self interest’, a cruel sounding phrase that does indeed seem to be part of human nature. Ayn Rand was not trying to win any popularity contests. She certainly wasn’t looking to be politically correct. As far as she was concerned, she was simply telling it like it is.
As far as where God fits into all this - it doesn’t. God was not part of existence, and therefore did not exist. Was there a substitute for God in her world, something that gave ultimate value to life? Indeed there was, though it is rather surprising. In an early work, a 1938 novel called ‘Anthem’ (11:20-22), she revealed her version of god: ‘And now I see the face of god, and I raise this god over the earth, this god whom men have sought since men came into being, this god who will grant them joy and peace and pride. This god, this one word: I.’ This ‘I’ was Rand’s god in all its glory. Is it selfish? You bet. Is it heartless and cruel? It sure is. But is it true? That is a question for all of us: to decide what kind of world we want to live in and what kind of human being we want to be.
Ayn Rand’s philosophy has attracted a considerable following. It’s not hard to see why. It does push self interest quite heavily, and everyone, to varying degrees, has that as a high item on their agenda. But it has its problems also. For instance, when reading Atlas Shrugged, the almost unavoidable temptation is to imagine oneself as one of the few gifted individuals around whom the world revolves. It is quite difficult to see oneself as one of the poor saps who really should just serve these gifted few. A second difficulty is that it isn’t clear why one should help out a dying relative, or someone who just got severely injured in a car crash, or even a friend who periodically goes through depression. These, and a million other ‘basket cases’ don’t really hold much promise for ‘rational self-interest. So what can we walk away with from her philosophy?
For starters, that reward of self esteem is nothing to scoff at. Genuine self esteem is a precious commodity in our automated, instant gratification world. There just aren’t all that many opportunities for real solid ‘I feel proud of myself for improving my own life’ moments of celebration. In a sense, this is what she was really after – that the only way to genuinely feel good about ourselves is to lead productive lives. The only true happiness, ‘the moral purpose of life’, is through productivity. Ironically, she is saying the same idea as her mortal enemies - Karl Marx and his communist lunatics. But perhaps this really is the ultimate meaning that can be found in a godless world – happiness and self esteem through productivity. Whether one agrees or disagrees with Ayn Rand, it seems that genuine and well-earned self esteem is a highly worthwhile goal in life.
A second practical element of all this is recognizing that catering to one’s own needs is nothing to ashamed of. The ‘I’ is the only thing that we have direct awareness of. Everything else may be real, but it comes to us through a filter. Perhaps it isn’t so strange to put that ‘I’ before everything else. When the dust clears, it is the only thing we really can call our own.
Food for Thought
Ayn Rand’s system, when thoroughly studied, is both fascinating and moving. Some people consider it akin to Biblical revelation. Yet it is unabashedly selfish. How could it be that after all we have learned about the meaning a purpose of life, the best a leading 20th century thinker can come up with is a philosophy in which ‘I’ is god?
Aren't confident enough to comment? Send an email to the author about any question pertaining to the essay
- Please keep comments and questions short and to the point.
- Try to keep things civil and overall try to keep the conversations respectful.
- No four letter words.
- No missionizing.
- Site moderators reserve the right to delete your comments if they do not follow the guidlines or are off-topic.
There are no Topics to show. Add a Topic to start a specefic discussion
There are no Comments to show. Comment and start the discussion.