Contra Rand

“The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.”  ∼ G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

What good will another hatchet job do? It’s easy, I’ve discovered, to invite criticisms ranging from the condescending (“Are you a bad writer, or just poorly educated?”) to the nakedly scornful (“You are a bad writer, and poorly educated”). The last thing I want to do is indulge in self-righteous snark. Which is one reason I feel compelled to elaborate on my recent intemperate remarks vis-à-vis that grim goddess of laissez-faire, Ayn Rand. Many people will know her as a novelist. I must confess at the outset that I have never read any of her novels, so my comments here won’t involve evaluating her merits as a storyteller or prose stylist. I once heard someone describe her prose as “beautiful.” I didn’t get the chance to draw them on this, but I can’t help but find it a baffling claim, judging from what I’ve read of her philosophy. I hope here to show why I felt (and still feel) that Rand deserved the kind of ferocious denunciation I offered of her in my piece on Christopher Hitchens. With Thoreau, and Solzhenitsyn, and John Updike sitting unread on my shelves, I can’t see myself picking up a copy of Atlas Shrugged any time soon. If you think my ignorance of her masterpiece disqualifies me from writing intelligibly on Rand, well, read no further.

I’ve encountered Rand’s philosophy in The Virtue of Selfishness, The Romantic Manifesto, and her published diaries. Opening her diaries at random, I find the following remarks:

Help to others can, at best, be only an incidental activity and then only on a “trader’s” basis—such as help to a loved one, where one has a specific, selfish, personal reason for wishing to help. Just as one cannot conduct one’s own life on the basis of trying to avoid pain and holding that to be a final goal, just as one must live for one’s happiness and fight one’s suffering as an incidental on the way, so one cannot live for the relief of the suffering of others, as a goal—only this last is infinitely more improper. And neither can one live for the happiness of others—because that involves one’s own suffering as an essential, since one’s happiness is not automatic, but has to be achieved by one’s own effort, and that effort is the chief duty of one’s life (essentially, the sole duty). [Emphasis in original.]

The first thing to note about this is that if one were trying to describe an ethic that was the exact opposite of Christ’s, you couldn’t do any better than this. Rand just about says as much at the bottom of the same page: “The Christian morality includes the most vicious evil as the most essential part of the happiness it advocates: self-sacrifice.” So Rand regards Christ’s message as a vicious evil (the most vicious evil) and the pursuit of personal happiness as the sole duty of life. And she seems to regard helping a loved one as laudable because it is motivated by “specific, selfish, personal reason[s].” Loving someone is like being a “trader,” investing something with the expectation of a return. I take it that “one’s happiness is not automatic” means you have to create it for yourself. For Rand it follows from this that you can’t get happiness from anyone else, and therefore that “one [can’t] live for the happiness of others.” And so the happiness of anyone other than yourself is purely incidental. Charity, she tells us, is “infinitely more improper” than living only to avoid pain. Her writing roils with these ugly sentiments.

But perhaps I’m being unfair. Extempore scribblings should hardly be taken as a comprehensive statement of a writer’s worldview. The Romantic Manifesto is Rand’s poetics. This seems the perfect work by which to gauge the merit of her philosophical project. Here Rand asks us to “consider two statues of man: one as a Greek god, the other as a deformed medieval monstrosity. Both are metaphysical estimates of man; both are projections of the artist’s view of man’s nature…” This is the way Rand treats all art, as a straightforward representation of the artist’s view of human nature, and as little or nothing else. You can guess which “statue of man” she prefers. It simply doesn’t occur to Rand that there is a way of seeing things that doesn’t commit you to delivering a “metaphysical estimate of man” in your every expression. Her philosophy consists of asking questions like “Would you rather be a Greek god or a medieval monster?” This is how Rand encounters everything in life; as an utterly stark and absolutely necessary choice between nobility and wretchedness.

In The Romantic Manifesto we also find Tolstoy’s vision of life described as “not merely mistaken, but evil,” and a little later on Rand’s suggestion that “every man … identify himself with James Bond.” I have not made that up. When looking for a great work of literature, Rand would pass by Anna Karenina (which she calls “the most evil book in serious literature”) in favor of From Russia with Love. Hers is a philosophy that allows James Bond (you know, the secret agent who jets from exotic location to exotic location bedding women and blowing things up) to be a model for every rational man. Because who’d want to be Ivan Ilych on his deathbed when you could be Bond on the beach with Honey Rider? Who’d want a powerful human encounter when you could just strut around in a tuxedo mastering every challenge that came your way?

In making such comparisons I barely reach beyond Rand’s own simplistic method. But there is something to be said (and here I risk making an analogy as glib as Rand’s “trader”) for the “wine taster’s” approach to art, and to morality. We each have a moral palette, distinctive modes of response which are continually shaped by our experiences, and an education in love involves drinking life in, being attentive to the particular flavor and body of all of our experiences. Taste, the faculty by which we distinguish the gaudy from the graceful, the preposterous from the profound, is as central to our moral lives as it is to our reception of art. Living morally requires not simply the application of a rule, but discernment, and (though it may not always be drawn with a steady hand or in a bold color) a line can be drawn between moral discernment and aesthetic discernment. Because the best art expands the moral dimensions of our world. It makes our own responses part of its artistry, and it throws into relief some marvelous feature of life that was always there in plain view but that we hadn’t the wisdom to notice. Art makes truth available where it otherwise would not be. These are the kind of truths for which we can’t offer evidence, or even argument. But the choice is not always between argument and mere assertion. There is a space between argument and assertion, and art resides in that space.

The task of recognizing what is authentic and what is counterfeit can’t be met by the man armed only with his reason. And in a sense, one feels one hasn’t understood this task until one has encountered Hamlet laboring at it. Hamlet, with his morbidity, his paralyzed will, his sickened psyche, must be contemptible to Randians. This says a great deal about their desperately limited world. There is more in one scene of Hamlet, let alone heaven and earth, than is dreamt of in their philosophy.

To my mind the most important commentary on Rand is the noted libertarian theorist Murray Rothbard’s “The Sociology of the Ayn Rand Cult.” As a radical libertarian, you would expect Rothbard to be broadly sympathetic to Rand’s philosophy. His study reveals how truly sinister Rand’s following became at the height of her influence. Rothbard’s overview of the Randian’s narrow and unfeelingly solemn approach to all of life’s pleasures, and of the link between this attitude and Rand’s rabid breed of totalizing rationalism, is worth quoting at length:

Wit and humor … were verboten in the Randian movement. The philosophical rationale was that humor demonstrates that one “is not serious about one’s values.” The actual reason, of course, is that no cult can withstand the piercing and sobering effect, the sane perspective, provided by humor. One was permitted to sneer at one’s enemies, but that was the only humor allowed, if humor that be.

Personal enjoyment, indeed, was also frowned upon in the movement and denounced as hedonistic “whim-worship.” In particular, nothing could be enjoyed for its own sake—every activity had to serve some indirect, “rational” function. Thus, food was not to be savored, but only eaten joylessly as a necessary means of one’s survival; sex was not to be enjoyed for its own sake, but only to be engaged in grimly as a reflection and reaffirmation of one’s “highest values”; painting or movies were only to be enjoyed if one could find “rational values” in doing so. All of these values were not simply to be discovered quietly by each person—the heresy of “subjectivism”—but had to be proven to the rest of the cult. In practice … the only safe aesthetic or romantic “values” or objects for the member were those explicitly sanctioned by Ayn Rand or other top disciples.

… [W]hile the Randians would discourse at length on “happiness,” and on the alleged fact of their perpetual state of being happy, it became clear on closer examination that they were happy only by definition. That in short, in Randian theory, happiness refers not at all to the ordinary language meaning of subjective states of contentment or joy, but to the alleged fact of using one’s mind to the fullest (i.e., in agreement with Randian precepts).

In practice, however, the dominant subjective emotions of the Randian cultist were fear and even terror: fear of displeasing Rand or her leading disciples; fear of using an incorrect word or nuance that would get the member into trouble; fear of being found out in the “irrationality” of some ideological or personal deviation; fear, even, of smiling at an unworthy (i.e., non-Randian) person.

I don’t know if today’s Randians are quite so effectively imprisoned. They undoubtedly reside in the same carceral moral universe, willing inmates of a thought-system that touts freedom as the highest value.

Rand saw humanity as divided between the noble and the wretched, the heroic individuals and the “parasites.” And she saw compassion as “spiritual cannibalism.” If that is not evil then I don’t know what is. It’s hard to think about Rand’s philosophy without feeling insulted on behalf of human decency. Her ideas are a pitiless assault on pity. I can’t help but feel a little outraged that intelligent people would approve of a writer whose writings are effectively a slander against all that is most precious in human beings.

But the example of Rand should temper my outrage. Because she is what you become when you turn your back on pity, when you renounce compassion and live for no one but yourself. She is a modern monster, and, as such, ultimately a sad figure. It should be painful to contemplate those people who were hypnotized by her charisma, who idolized her for her unshakeable conviction. It should remind us (not triumphantly, but somberly) of Kierkegaard’s reflection that justice is perfect. The wicked must suffer their own wickedness. Rand’s disciples believed hateful things. And they suffered for it. They were afraid to smile.

Sean Haylock

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Sean Haylock is a Ph.D. candidate in Philosophy at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia.

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