The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged are often cited by people as seminal works in the development of their personal world view. What is this philosophy expounded by Rand called objectivism? Also known as “enlightened self-interest,” it has become the basis for much of libertarian politics. Rand has rarely been viewed neutrally: she is either seen as a prophet of reason or the destroyer of traditional values; the promoter of personal happiness and self-worth or advocate of mindless greed.
Her childhood, she would have argued, was, irrelevant to the person she became. Later writings revealed a contempt for the “intellectual hostess” indifferent to the world of ideas. This stemmed, perhaps, from her early environment, her father completely indifferent to her, and her mother’s active social life. She was a precocious child and valued intelligence above everything else; intelligence was to become inextricably linked in her world to virtue. She was bored by school; it was entirely too easy, and she began writing stories as a form of self-entertainment. A recurring theme even in the early stories was the battle between good and evil. Reason became the overarching element in her life. One day she simply decided to become an atheist. “I had decided that the concept of God is degrading to men. Since they say God is perfect, and man can never be that perfect, then man is low and imperfect and there is something above him-- which is wrong, [and since there was:] no proof of the existence of God; the concept is an untenable invention.”
She wanted to define a moral ideal and to “project through fiction, the living reality of that ideal.” She had a brief interest in Nietzsche, but after discovering his anti-reason stance, discarded him. Clearly the trauma of growing up during the turmoil and privations of the Bolshevik revolution made a deep impression.
By age eighteen she had already fully defined her philosophy and never deviated from it: “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.”
In her first novel, We the Living appeared a Nietzschean statement that implied she supported the use of force. She had it removed from later editions and stressed repeatedly that, "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 to forgive. So long as men desire to live together, no man may initiate. . . .no man may start. . . the use of force against others.” Many of Rand's detractors have misinterpreted her use of the word selfish. Rand despised the typical interpretation because it meant defining one's values and thoughts based on making an impression on others. What she meant by the use of the words selfish and ego was an individual objectively (hence Objectivism) defining for oneself self-sufficiently what those convictions, values, and judgments would be independent of what others thought. Altruism was destructive because it meant that people operated and made decisions for the group. This led to a group-think mentality that disvalued the individual.
This conflict is exemplified in The Fountainhead between Howard Roark and Peter Keating who represent the two extremes: the individualist versus the collectivist, and that evolved into a political philosophy. This raises another point as to why conservatives view her as such an icon. Corporations, it seems to me, are basically very hierarchical, tyrannical, and autocratic in their structure (despite protestations to the contrary) and they function for the benefit of their stockholders. That, I suggest, is a collectivist and not an individualist function. They function in the interest of a group. Individualists within such an organization, those with the selfish ego proclaimed as an ideal by Rand, would not be tolerated because they would behave in a non-collectivist manner. Her first interest in politics was sparked by the Roosevelt campaign, and she voted for him in the first election because he seemed the most tied to free enterprise, but by the end of his first term had decided he was too collectivist-oriented and went to work for Wilkie, but became disillusioned with him quite quickly. When later it was suggested that by working for the Wilkie campaign she was making a sacrifice in violation of her "selfish" principles, she replied somewhat ingenuously, I think, that it was really an act of supreme selfishness, fighting for a world in which she would be able to freely write her ideas.
All her life she opposed religion and faith-based beliefs, arguing that "Religion. . . is the first enemy of the ability to think. . . .Faith is the worst curse of mankind [her italics:], as the exact antithesis of thought." Religion was the embodiment of evil, an "explicit and implicit rejection of reason." Her attitude with regard to emotion was interesting as well. She argued that all emotion was the result of cognition. "If a small baby sees someone pointing a gun at him, he will not react with fear; he may smile, thinking he is being giving a new toy. If an adult sees someone pointing a gun at him--he will feel fear: he knows the gun is dangerous and may kill him." This means that emotions and the subconscious should be available to the conscious mind and that behavior and emotion should and can result from conscious thought and that "free will consists of the choice to think or not to think. Even psychologists who have admired her work regard this as a dangerous simplification.
The filming of The Fountainhead became a struggle for her to maintain the integrity of the script she had written. Frank Lloyd Wright was asked to design the set buildings representing Howard Roark's designs, but he demanded a huge fee and complete set and script control, something that would have effectively made him the director. It was refused. Ultimately the studio's set designer did the buildings and simply patterned them after ugly modern buildings. Ayn was not happy. The movie also came under attack from the Johnson Office, Hollywood's self-censorship body, which was effectively controlled by the Catholic Church. It was not the "rape" scene they objected to, but rather Roark's speech to the jury, the priest who challenged it claiming it was too "materialistic." The Johnson Office was not supposed to pass judgment on a film's philosophy, so Ayn called him on it and he was forced to back down. Atlas Shrugged continued the expression of her philosophy in fictional form. I'll say little about the content because a review will follow in a later issue, but one important concept, according to Brandon, is her view of the "impotence of evil." Evil is irrational and to be fought but not to be taken seriously. "Evil is to be despised, not hated or feared." The moral issues are fought between the good and the good (shades of Rushworth Kidder?). Ayn said, "the alleged victories of evil are made possible only by the flaws or the errors of those who are essentially good. Evil, left to its own devices, is impotent and self-defeating. . . [taking:] the burden of sin upon yourself --as God does-- it amounts to the sanction of evil. The power of religion consists of the power of morality--that's what holds people to religion--and I wanted to show that religion's monopoly on values does not belong to religion but to philosophy."
By this time she had become disillusioned with political conservatives: they did not know how to fight an intellectual battle. "What was needed was a moral justification for freedom that would be the antithesis of faith, altruism and collectivism. Rand gave America a moral sanction: "the philosophical demonstration that to live for one's own rational self-interest, to pursue one's own selfish, personal goals, to use one's mind in the service of one's own life and happiness, is the noblest, the highest, the most moral of human activities." Conservatives would write about economic and political issues, but they did so from a religious and altruistic morality that was an anti-capitalist morality. Brandon and her future husband became acolytes of Rand, enamored of her ideas. But Brandon also was not a little dismayed by Rand's attitudes to "irrational" art: Beethoven was too filled with a tragic sense of doom; Rembrandt had a "grim, unfocused malevolence" and Shakespeare tragically failed to portray human beings with free will. Brandon remarks that those artists who became Rand's followers and adopted a completely rational approach to art lost their sense of originality and their art became "thin and tight."
Barbara Brandon is an unlikely biographer as she writes at length about the affair that her husband Nathaniel had with Ayn Rand, an affair that was to be very destructive to them all. Ultimately, in her affair with Nathaniel Brandon, Ayn surrendered to an emotion that she tried to categorize as a rational response to a situation, but it was to have enormous negative effects on her and those around her. "Ayn was a strikingly unsophisticated woman. . .she had lived an oddly sheltered life, locked within the confines of her special view of reality." When Nathaniel fell in love with another woman and refused to rekindle the affair that Ayn had suspended, she became enraged, cut him off from all the Objectivist activities and began a campaign against him to get revenge. Brandon herself suggests this might not have been a bad thing because Ayn had become such a “cult” figure that the movement needed to be eliminated.
This is a fascinating biography of an intriguing and influential personality.