Posted on April 18, 2023
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” Today, even as the clocks are striking thirteen for free societies all over the world, we still recognize this as the first line of 1984, George Orwell’s enduring dystopian novel. In contrast to Orwell, the reputation of Ayn Rand, even among the pro-freedom crowd, has not been nearly as fortunate. Perhaps this is because it is easier to ridicule utopias than dystopias, and unlike Orwell, who was simply a disgruntled leftist, Rand was trying to sketch out a system of positive ideals, a so-called “philosophy.” It is the usual fate of utopian writers to have their readership dwindle into small sects, while suffering the ridicule of mainstream opinion. None the less, even as a non-Randian, I feel there is something indispensable about Rand’s witness to the human spirit, and that her works should be assured a permanent place in the cannon of liberal (or at least conservative) arts. I can think of numerous reasons why this should be so, even for those of us who don’t go all the way with the so-called “Objectivist” philosophy. Some of these reasons you may find quite surprising, or even amusing…what follows are a bakers dozen of them.
The First Reason
Ayn Rand was an atheist. Now the excellent thing about atheists is that they cannot blaspheme God by using slanderous assertions predicated of an existent. Recently atheism has become more popular among young people in America. The reason for this is not that atheism has suddenly found better reasons, but because the religious world is in disarray and by and large has become a disgrace to its Creator. Those religious organizations which have not become fronts for left-wing or globalist agendas are blindly sectarian and more interested in scoring debating points than honoring the Author of Being. The ontological salience of Rand’s works (her novels and essays) consists in showing an ordered cosmos which human beings can improve or degrade depending on whether their actions are ordered in accord with a subsisting Reality or not. Such atheism is in fundamental agreement with genuine piety, and especially with apophatic or “negative” ways of thinking about the Divine. Yes, she says lots which is critical of religion, most of which is true. Yes, she never refers to God as a positive existent. Neither does the book of Esther. To get a theology out of such a book one has to triangulate back from the explicit to the tacit. In some ways this is easier to do with Rand than with Esther.
The Second Reason
Ayn Rand was not an individualist. That is, not by today’s standards. Today’s individualists think that they can alter reality through the power of sovereign and arbitrary choice. Rand’s fictional heroes are singular in their embodiment of ideals to which they offer total devotion. These ideals, in turn, must conform to the overarching realities of existence. If the ideals are true to reality and the character is true to the ideal, there is ultimate success. Granted this is fiction, but it is edifying fiction in so far as it encourages intelligence and creativity. Much of the so-called individualism of today reflects magical thinking, which differs from any kind of creative thinking which follows the contours of reality. The mythological unicorn is a thing of beauty, but only a fool actually wants to become a unicorn. Even if science were capable of granting such a wish the likely outcome would be a beast, not a beauty.
The Third Reason
Ayn Rand believed in the human soul. Her soul was not the ghostly soul postulated by the hylomorphic and supernaturalist schools of opinion. Such souls may, or may not, exist. Yet beyond all doubt, the soul predicated by Ayn Rand exists, although the understanding of its import is threatened by the nihilistic naturalism of post-modern thinking. If Rand was loath to invoke the “s-word” with any regularity, it was due to her aversion to religious jargon, but she followed Aristotle in his premise that the sum of human action and thought was greater than the total of its organic parts. The attainment of human ends through action in time cannot simply be reduced to instinct and motion. This may seem to many a very minimalist view of the soul, but it is sufficient to secure the greatest significance of the concept, i.e., the notion of human dignity. One famous psychologist contemporary with Rand actually wrote a screed entitled Beyond Freedom and Dignity. Rand understood that there was nothing beyond freedom and dignity except for slavery. Today’s technologically empowered social engineers understand that as well, which is why they are eager to limit the idea of humanity to a small bandwidth on the continuum of organic life.
The Fourth Reason
Ayn Rand did not believe in progress. She certainly believed in the desirability of improvement in the arts and sciences, and in the enrichment and refinement of human life. However she did not think that improvement was inevitable, or that civilization carried any guarantee that it was on some predetermined track towards utopia. Not believing in progress, still less could she be described as a progressive. She was not what Eric Voegelin would have described as a “gnostic” harboring a grudge against the present in hopes of a brighter tomorrow…indeed, any sort of eschatological thinking was completely alien to her. Perhaps this is why a genuine man of faith like Whittaker Chambers could misunderstand her so badly. Knowing that she rejected the left-wing Hegelian utopia of ever-increasing equality, he may have guessed wrongly that she endorsed a right-wing Hegelian utopia of ever-increasing inequality. Rand believed in an open future, the prospect of which contains both promise and peril, and where the burden of the outcome rests on human shoulders, not an inscrutable destiny.
The Fifth Reason
Ayn Rand believed in language. It still seems a bit odd to endorse someone for “believing in language” even though it is becoming alarmingly clear that language is in danger of reduction to a sub-department of engineering. Not just engineering in the sense of computer languages and coding, but more ominously, social engineering. Rand had the old fashioned habit of interrupting an essay to give a standard English dictionary entry of some word, the definition of which pertained to the issue at hand. In an age of logic chopping language analysis it seemed a naive procedure, perhaps an artifact of her having acquired her English facility as an adult. Yet it showed her faith in the meaning and rationality of language and that terms could express the acquired wisdom of a civilization. Her belief that words could represent ideas and objects unequivocally, so uncharacteristic of 20th century ways of understanding language, was in accord with the basic Aristotelian premise of knowledge as a form of identification and participation, not self-constructed isolation. It must be admitted however that she did have her 21st century sounding “preferred address” as Miss Rand, which she continued to use throughout her married life.
The Sixth Reason
Ayn Rand was not pornographic. Nor were the love-scenes in her novels simply “romantic” in the usual sense. They were romantic in broad, technical sense that Rand and other romantics have used for their school of art in general. To put this in somewhat non-Randian terms, the people and situations in a truly romantic novel should represent archetypes, not concretes. Of course erotic art, not to mention pornography, seeks to represent the concrete. Indeed, the “love scenes” in Rand’s novels were intended to shock, but the shock was not erotic, rather the scenes used sexuality as a symbol for a hierarchy of values and persons in a world where egalitarianism was rapidly becoming the sole standard of acceptability in all things, including relationships. Understandably feminists were scandalized by scenes which portrayed male erotic dominance. However enlisting conservatives into an anti-Randian front on the basis of a feigned horror of pornography is hardly credible. After all, it was Simon de Beauvoir, not Rand, who helped normalize the writings of the Marquis DeSade. Rand couldn’t even stomach Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, which perhaps stands to her credit.
The Seventh Reason
Ayn Rand did not believe in capitalists. She believed in the free enterprise system, which she joyously dubbed capitalism. At the time “capitalism” was an endangered term which seemed to be going the way of “fascism” as a pejorative. Rand played a big part in restoring it to respectable use, at least among conservatives. As for capitalists in general, she had no illusions. Her novels featured them as their worst villains, creatures of conformity who either gladly or under duress were willing to betray and destroy the very system which had lifted them and their peers to prosperity. Her praise was reserved for those few entrepreneurs who struck out on their own and created novel things and ideas. If Rand could see the world of contemporary “woke” corporations and their cooperation with nefarious policies and ideologies, no doubt she would exclaim, “I told you so!”
The Eighth Reason
Ayn Rand was optimistic about human beings. She did not believe that the human race was damned at its inception. On the other hand neither did she go along with J.J. Rousseau and his followers in their belief in pristine human innocence. Along with vindicating words like “capitalism” and “selfish” she labored hard to get moral relativists to reinstate “evil” as term descriptive of aberrant and harmful human behavior. However in the world-view of Rand, good was primary, while evil was a usurping shadow of genuine existence. In this regard she stood shoulder to shoulder with the best traditions of Western religion and humanism. While Rousseau saw the origin of corruption in the arts, urbanization, technology, and economic exchange, Rand saw all these things as beneficial. For Rand the origin of evil was intellectual, namely the rejection of reason, and its ultimate result was political coercion. She thought the deepest evil occurred whenever coercive agents were claiming to control their victims “for their own good.” This view is rendered quite plausible by today’s ethos of politicized victimization. More controversial perhaps, is Rand’s claim that the propensity towards evil is more than balanced out by the human potential for virtue and heroism. This is easy to ridicule, but then at heart, most people prefer a happy ending.
The Ninth Reason
Ayn Rand was no philosopher. In the context of 20th century academic philosophy this redounds greatly to her credit. While her unequivocally negative portrayal of post-Kantian philosophy seems sketchy and refutable, her gut reaction (or as she would say “sense of life” judgement) on modern thought and academic practice has been thoroughly justified. Today anyone who isn’t a member of the “guild” recognizes that academia has degenerated into an oppressive aristocracy in league with all the other elite sectors of society. Granted there is always a “saving remnant”…and in the case of academia some isolated researchers, and even whole institutions, may still be looking for truth, not conformity to politicized standards. This much everyone knows, and the causes are usually depicted as sociological, i.e., the incorporation of educational institutions into a vast conspiracy of irresistible power. Rand would have disagreed. She believed that the ultimate causes of corruption were intellectual, not conspiratorial. While this may or may not be the case, the advantages of Rand’s viewpoint is that it allows one to map out the points in intellectual history where false cognitive moves were made. Richard Weaver put the idea more succinctly when he said “ideas have consequences.” Weaver’s bogyman was Occam, while Rand’s was Kant, and there are probably numerous other villains waiting in the wings. Such disagreements aside, the intellectualist theory of history preserves the classical understanding of human beings as definitionally spiritual beings. For this reason if for no other Rand is disqualified for consideration as a modern, let alone post-modern, philosopher, in so far as all academically respectable schools, including but by no means limited to those influenced by neo-Marxism and neo-Darwinism, are implicitly anti-intellectual in the technical sense described above.
The Tenth Reason
Ayn Rand believed in karma. Indeed, she could have made a bigger success of herself among the trendy influencers of the 1960’s if she had marketed herself as a guru who taught a strict doctrine of karma. Mercifully, she did no such thing, but in refraining to do so, she forfeited instant intelligibility for terminological autonomy. By the middle of the 20th century the European philosophical tradition had become so corrupt that many people, young and old, could only discover a moral law of cause-and-effect by studying the religions of India. Of course the Western tradition had once embraced the universal doctrine that good actions must (ultimately) result in good effects, and conversely bad could only result in bad. Such notions were vaguely recalled in surviving idioms like “as you sow so shall you reap,” and “measure for measure” but a pervading materialism had subsequently spread the notion that only efficient causes, such as the interaction between billiard balls, were valid. Accordingly, the moral consequences of human acts were random and devoid of meaning, at least at the level of individuals. Hence the results of human actions were at best unfair, or worse, according to the stylish authors of the existentialist schools, they were absurd. Against this Rand articulated an old-fashioned doctrine of just deserts, and she did this without resorting to the face saving doctrines of the traditional schools such as reincarnation, paradise, purgatory and all the other extensions of human effects into unseen regions of the cosmos. It was basically the notion of virtue being its own reward, fortified with some fugitive, and largely unattributed, borrowings from depth psychology about the damages inflicted by guilt. Whether such a system of ethics, enforced by something which Rand simply called “reality” and balancing out according to purely immanent principles, is really adequate or believable, remains a good question. Yet it is a notable recursion to the doctrine of natural justice and individual moral responsibility, things which seem good in their own right.
The Eleventh Reason
Ayn Rand was better as a person than a scholar. At her best, i.e., when she was not challenged by tragedies, including those of her own making, she seems to have exhibited a buoyant love of life, people, and even animals. Some might accuse her of slander and misrepresentation of her ideological adversaries, however the record of history has born out the validity of her testimony against collectivist totalitarianism. Rather, her reliance on “sense-of-life” judgements (which she would have scorned to call “intuition”) tended to blind her in the opposite direction, giving more credit than was due to her select pantheon of heroes. Thus the American founders (creatures of the eclectic 18th century) she depicted as deep Aristotelian philosophers, while Victor Hugo, being a fellow romantic, was of course greater than Shakespeare. More important was her view of Nietzsche whom she seems to have viewed, not as a grim nihilist who drove himself mad, but as a romantic poet who promoted an ethic of self-esteem. These private misrepresentations in Rand’s mind in turn lead to the public misrepresentation of Rand as a kind of monster, facilitated by her blunt rhetoric and heavy Russian accent in histrionic interviews before American audiences. In actuality, the various elements of her knowledge, whether well-grounded or fanciful, combined into an original mozaic, a gestalt which some viewed as heroic and others as horrible. Principally however, it was the “sense-of-life” which was producing the mozaic, and the “sense-of-life” was fundamentally optimistic and well intended.
The Twelfth Reason
Ayn Rand was opposed to tribalism. Naturally, like everyone, she had her own ethnic background. After all, she was a Russian emigrant (accent and all!) from a Jewish family. Unsurprisingly, the people she associated with were frequently from the same or similar backgrounds. Yet she would certainly have plenty of sharp observations on today’s ubiquitous “identity politics.” As to her own identity, for Ayn Rand it was simply “American.” Although a severe critic of governmental and political pretensions, she assumed the existence of a nation state (based on territory, not blood) as an essential presupposition of political life. Factions, notably those based on “identities”(ethnic, racial, sexual, religious) were inimical both to national cohesion and to the autonomy of the individuals subsumed within the “identities.” However at a deeper level of analysis, she opposed “tribalism” in the sense of arbitrary conformity to collective opinions, vis-a-vis “reason” as an abstract and even-handed understanding of reality, an understanding independent of the subjectivity and identity of the thinker. For Rand there was no adjudication of the claims or opinions of the “tribes” short of war. Subsequent history has done nothing to cast doubt on her conclusion.
The Thirteenth Reason
Ayn Rand is dead. This is liberating. I refer not to Ayn’s liberation from this mortal coil, but to “we the living’s” liberation from any involvement with sectarian movements continuing to claim a Randian legacy. Her significant works are now all publicly available. It is a table spread and ready for critical digestion. It can be taken up, examined, and if found lacking discarded. There is no need for an orthodoxy, just read and think. Rand, and most members of her immediate circle, are now figures of intellectual history. The time is past when people needed to divide up into little incestuous, gossipy groups, arguing that “Ayn said…” or “Nathaniel said…” the time of sects and sub-sects. For a while that sort of thing did indeed turn Rand into a monster of the public imagination. Now we have real monsters to cope with, and just possibly Rand’s works will provide a tonic, a stimulus for that struggle, especially for young people just entering the fray.
Those are the reasons, take them or leave them. However it is hard to imagine a world reborn in freedom not honoring Ayn Rand, of all people, with a place in its literary cannon.