In Defense of Ayn Rand
WARNING: Do not read the footnotes if have not read Atlas Shrugged, they contain primarily quotes from the book. They don't reveal much in terms of plot (except for #6) so read them if you feel daring.
Preface: This is NOT a defense of objectivism nor is it a defense of the cultish nature of followers of objectivism. This is a defense of Ayn Rand the woman and a response to her portrayal in the essay The Guardians of Ayn Rand. I realize that the essay was making a point about cults and not primarily a criticism of Ayn Rand, but since she was the focal point of the ideas and the piece is a part of the Sequences, I felt it necessary to write this. There are enough people who criticize Ayn Rand, and the literature of her critics is vast - but to spit on her contributions with little reference to any factual details and with a huge emphasis on her personal life just did not seem to fit with the spirit of this website. If Rand really was as poor of a thinker as she is being portrayed, some evidence would be very much appreciated. It was originally a comment, but it became way too long. I am NOT an expert on objectivism whatsoever. Please correct me on any inaccuracies.
Note: I am using the word rationality as Rand uses it.
"And yet Ayn Rand acknowledged no superior, in the past, or in the future yet to come. Rand, who began in admiring reason and individuality, ended by ostracizing anyone who dared contradict her. Shermer: "[Barbara] Branden recalled an evening when a friend of Rand's remarked that he enjoyed the music of Richard Strauss. 'When he left at the end of the evening, Ayn said, in a reaction becoming increasingly typical, 'Now I understand why he and I can never be real soulmates. The distance in our sense of life is too great.' Often she did not wait until a friend had left to make such remarks.""
Rand's choice of companions was governed by her life philosophy, which with respect to relationships was akin to a business deal, selfishly trading her willingness to interact with an individual for that person's virtue1. If she did not find another's virtue a sufficient payment for her companionship, she would not interact with them.
The part about Rand's professed superiority just seems like a blatant falsehood. All of her writings are based (it says so on the back of the books) on the existence of heroes in humanity. How can she acknowledge no superior ever and still feel comfortable with her ideas? Even further, her whole philosophy is based on seeing reality exactly as it is 2.
Her excommunication of Branden is a fine example of her irrationality in her private life. It is all that was needed in The Guardians of Ayn Rand to make the point. Clearly, it shows Rand's inability to match her actions with her words, and shows an irrational example of her tendency to ostracize people (I think there are justifications of her actions, and I believe her journal writings shed a different light on the situation, but I will agree with the analysis on this point unless some very strong evidence to the contrary appears).
But she rationally ostracized people who disagreed with her because she herself has said that she completely and fully embodies her philosophy - if you disagree with her, you disagree with her philosophy. Since her philosophy is so entrenched in the actions of an individual, it is no wonder why she would choose to ostracize those who disagree with her from her personal circle of companions! The core of her philosophy rests on the assertion that no man should live for another and that no man should take steps to fake reality on account of another person3.
One's rational perception of the world is of the utmost importance; Rand's conclusion that one person will not become her soulmate is the result of her rational perception of his actions. Her knowledge of music might not be the same knowledge held by a composer, but that is of no consequence in determining the reality of a situation4. One's choice of musical preference seems to be, in Rand's eyes, reflective of the values they uphold. This is her rational view of reality which she has arrived at through conscious perception and thought; someone else might think it is the right perception while another might not. If confronted with this, she would most likely (from my readings of her philosophy) seek to justify her assertion through proof based on her own rational perception of the world. Refusing to do so would be an example of an irrational action on her part5.
Eliezer presented proof of his assertion that her actions are not justifiable with only a couple of anecdotes that reveal no context. The description of her actions are taken from a biography written by the wife of Nathaniel Branden, who had a significant personal conflict with Rand. This may or may not be important, but I think it is worth mentioning.
The observation that she chose to crush those of whom she disapproves only refers to her influence in her own personal circle of companions (and of course she has done it elsewhere, though I have not seen event where such an action has contradicted her philosophy besides the Branden affair). Her right to do so is implicit in her philosophy and is encouraged, yet her actions are portrayed as a failure to recognize a cognitive bias rather than a factual failure in her philosophy. Many aspects2 of Rand's philosophy are consequent with the ideas in the sequences too (though the similarities stop with respect to Aristotle).
"It's noteworthy, I think, that Ayn Rand's fictional heroes were architects and engineers; John Galt, her ultimate, was a physicist; and yet Ayn Rand herself wasn't a great scientist. As far as I know, she wasn't particularly good at math. She could not aspire to rival her own heroes. Maybe that's why she began to lose track of Tsuyoku Naritai".
Rand's fictional heroes were not just architects and engineers, and the point about her not being a great scientist is irrelevant with regard to the nature and purpose of her philosophy. The top comment also sheds light on the facts:
Eliezer: "As far as I know, [Rand] wasn't particularly good at math."
A relevant passage from Barbara Branden's biography of Rand:
"The subject [Rand] most enjoyed during her high school years, the one subject of which she never tired, was mathematics. 'My mathematics teacher was delighted with me. When I graduated, he said, "It will be a crime if you don't go into mathematics." I said only, "That's not enough of a career." I felt that it was too abstract, it had nothing to do with real life. I loved it, but I didn't intend to be an engineer or to go into any applied profession, and to study mathematics as such seemed too ivory tower, too purposeless—and I would say so today.' Mathematics, she thought, was a method. Like logic, it was an invaluable tool, but it was a means to an end, not an end in itself. She wanted an activity that, while drawing on her theoretical capacity, would unite theory and its practical application. That desire was an essential element in the continuing appeal that fiction held for her: fiction made possible the integration of wide abstract principles and their direct expression in and application to man's life." (Barbara Branden, The Passion of Ayn Rand, page 35 of my edition)
– Z.M Davis
And she did tell her followers (and even people who weren't her followers) to study science. She even gave a speech at MIT in the 60's entitled "To Young Scientists" (You can find the transcript somewhere, though you may have to pay for it). She also wrote an eyewitness account of the Apollo 11 launch that vehemently shows her appreciation and awe of the products of science. If that isn't an encouragement to study science, I don't know what is6.
This analysis is not fair. There is nothing fair about representing a figure in an incredibly poor light in order to emphasize a point about cults. Using her very public affair and the cultish nature of her followers would have been sufficient, but attacking her actions without mention of the underlying philosophy guiding them was unnecessary and, at many points (more evidence in the comments of the essay), factually incorrect. The tone of the essay was also incredibly arrogant, portraying Rand as some delusional crackpot and downplaying her accomplishments:
"Ayn Rand fled the Soviet Union, wrote a book about individualism that a lot of people liked, got plenty of compliments, and formed a coterie of admirers. Her admirers found nicer and nicer things to say about her (happy death spiral), and she enjoyed it too much to tell them to shut up. She found herself with the power to crush those of whom she disapproved, and she didn't resist the temptation of power"
I mean, come on! For someone who consistently encourages a charitable reading of his writing, this usage of Rand as an example of irrationality and poor judgement is disheartening. At the very least, some semblance of respect for her accomplishments would not be out of place.
Afterthought: It is my opinion that the treatment of Ayn Rand's personal life was not in the spirit of rational discussion. However, as is most often the case with Eliezer's writings, the ideas in the essay for which Rand was supposed to be a foil to were incredibly thought provoking. In particular, the philosophical implications of closed vs open systems. Here is an excerpt of an essay I found on the Ayn Rand Institute's website, defending objectivism as a closed system, that gives some much needed context absent from the previous discussion:
IN HIS LAST PARAGRAPH, Kelley states that Ayn Rand’s philosophy, though magnificent, “is not a closed system.” Yes, it is. Philosophy, as Ayn Rand often observed, deals only with the kinds of issues available to men in any era; it does not change with the growth of human knowledge, since it is the base and precondition of that growth. Every philosophy, by the nature of the subject, is immutable. New implications, applications, integrations can always be discovered; but the essence of the system—its fundamental principles and their consequences in every branch—is laid down once and for all by the philosophy’s author. If this applies to any philosophy, think how much more obviously it applies to Objectivism. Objectivism holds that every truth is an absolute, and that a proper philosophy is an integrated whole, any change in any element of which would destroy the entire system.
In yet another expression of his subjectivism in epistemology, Kelley decries, as intolerant, any Objectivist’s (or indeed anyone’s) “obsession with official or authorized doctrine,” which “obsession” he regards as appropriate only to dogmatic viewpoints. In other words, the alternative once again is whim or dogma: either anyone is free to rewrite Objectivism as he wishes or else, through the arbitrary fiat of some authority figure, his intellectual freedom is being stifled. My answer is: Objectivism does have an “official, authorized doctrine,” but it is not dogma. It is stated and validated objectively in Ayn Rand’s works.
“Objectivism” is the name of Ayn Rand’s achievement. Anyone else's interpretation or development of her ideas, my own work emphatically included, is precisely that: an interpretation or development, which may or may not be logically consistent with what she wrote. In regard to the consistency of any such derivative work, each man must reach his own verdict, by weighing all the relevant evidence. The “official, authorized doctrine,” however, remains unchanged and untouched in Ayn Rand’s books; it is not affected by any interpreters.
The Constitution and the Declaration of Independence state the “official” doctrine of the government of the United States, and no one, including the Supreme Court, can alter the meaning of this doctrine. What the Constitution and the Declaration are to the United States, Atlas Shrugged and Ayn Rand’s other works are to Objectivism. Objectivism, therefore, is “rigid,” “narrow,” “intolerant” and “closed-minded.” If anyone wants to reject Ayn Rand’s ideas and invent a new viewpoint, he is free to do so—but he cannot, as a matter of honesty, label his new ideas or himself “Objectivist.”
Objectivism is not just “common sense”; it is a revolutionary philosophy, which is a fact we do not always keep in mind. Ayn Rand challenges every fundamental that men have accepted for millennia. The essence of her revolution lies in her concept of “objectivity,” which applies to epistemology and to ethics, i.e., to cognition and to evaluation. At this early stage of history, a great many people, though bright and initially drawn to Ayn Rand, are still unable (or unwilling) fully to grasp this central concept. They accept various ideas from Ayn Rand out of context, without digesting them by penetrating to the foundation; thus they never uproot all the contradictory ideas they have accepted, the ones which guided the formation of their own souls and minds. Such people are torn by an impossible conflict: they have one foot (or toe) in the Objectivist world and the rest of themselves planted firmly in the conventional world. People like this do not mind being controversial so long as they are fashionable or “in”; i.e., so long as they can be popular in their subculture, or politically powerful or academically respectable; to attain which status, they will “tolerate” (or show “compassion” for) whatever they have to.
The real enemy of these men is not Ayn Rand; it is reality. But Ayn Rand is the messenger who brings them the hated message, which, somehow, they must escape or dilute (some of them, I think, never even get it). The message is that they must conform to reality 24 hours a day and all the way down.
Definitely a more apt example of the cultish nature of objectivism, though it has its merits; good fodder for discussion.
1 "A trader does not ask to be paid for his failures, nor does he ask to be loved for his flaws. A trader does not squander his body as fodder or his soul as alms. Just as he does not give his work except in trade for material values, so he does not give the values of his spirit-his love, his friendship, his esteem-except in payment and in trade for human virtues, in payment for his own selfish pleasure, which he receives from men he can respect." - John Galt
2 “Your mind is your only judge of truth–and if others dissent from your verdict, reality is the court of final appeal.” — John Galt
3 “People think that a liar gains a victory over his victim. What I've learned is that a lie is an act of self-abdication, because one surrenders one's reality to the person to whom one lies, making that person one's master, condemning oneself from then on to faking the sort of reality that person's view requires to be faked.” — Hank Rearden
4 "By refusing to say 'It is' you are refusing to say 'I am'. By suspending your judgment, you are negating your person. When a man declares: 'Who am I to know?' he is declaring: 'Who am I to live?'" - John Galt <\font>
5 “You don't have to see through the eyes of others, hold onto yours, stand on your own judgment, you know that what is, is–say it aloud, like the holiest of prayers, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise.” — Dagny Taggart
6 Also, the main character of Atlas Shrugged was a physicist, invented a motor that harnessed the power of static electricity, and then went on to save the damn country. That's not encouragement to study science?