That Perennial Western Malady, the Revolt of the Individual Against the Species

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Thursday, February 10, 2005

Attention Randroids:

I'm a few days overdue for the obligatory "libertarian-blogger's-Rand-centennial-post" post. Actually, I'm a few days overdue for any kind of post. So, without any further ado...

First, I have some email to share from some guy named David Gulbraa:

Dear Admirer of Ayn Rand,

Peter Schwartz, chairman of the board of directors of the Ayn Rand Institute, is scheduled to appear on C-SPAN 2 this coming Saturday, February 12, 2005 at 11:30 a.m. Eastern Time. Mr. Schwartz was taped by C-SPAN giving a speech and answering questions on "The Virtue of Selfishness" at the recent Ayn Rand Centenary celebration. This program is two hours long. Please check your local listings for program times in your area.

I suppose I'll watch this, or at least record it and mean to watch it for a few weeks. And I'll write about it, too.


Also, I finally got around to reading Ayn Rand at 100 by Cathy Young in the latest Reason Magazine. Here are a few comments and highlights.

Reading Rand's philosophy can be an exhilarating, head-turning experience... Rand's rejection of the moral code that condemns selfishness as the ultimate evil and holds up self-sacrifice as the ultimate good is a radical challenge to received wisdom, an invitation to a startlingly new way to see the world... In Rand's hands, the "virtue of selfishness" was not a dry, abstract rationalist construct with a bloodless "economic man" at its center. It became a bold, ardent vision of defiance, struggle, creative achievement, joy, and romantic love.

"Exhilarating" certainly is a good description. I might go so far as to use "emotional." Even a large portion of her nonfiction writing is exciting to read, most notably the essays in For the New Intellectual, The Virtue of Selfishness, and Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. While reading, she seems to anticipate your own thought process and complete your ideas for you, mid-thought. And it's certainly rousing when she reminds you insistantly that you've really been right all along, even if you didn't know it. "Whatever we are, it's we who move the world, and it's we who'll pull it through." I read Atlas Shrugged the summer before my sophomore year, and lines like that one still stick in my mind.

Perhaps Rand's biggest error was the totalism of her philosophy. Having rightly concluded that the values of the free market were moral, she went on to make the sweeping assertion that those values were the only moral ones, and that all human relations must be based on the principles of "trade."

I always get lost everytime she uses a phrase such as "morality of death" or the like when describing non-Objectivists. Couldn't a utilitarian call Objectivism a "morality of suffering," just because it doesn't hold humanity's net happiness as its highest goal? Whatever.

Politically, too, Rand's insistence on de-emphasizing, or even denigrating, family, community, and private charity is not a particularly clever tactic for capitalism's defenders. These are the very institutions that can be expected, in the absence of a massive welfare state, to meet those human needs that people prove unable to satisfy through the market.

Amen, preach it sister! Listen up, Randroids.

Rand's unshakable belief in the power of the human mind led her to refuse to recognize the mental deterioration of her husband, Frank O'Connor, and she tormented him with exercises in "psycho-epistemology." When she herself was diadnosed with cancer, she refused to disclose her illness publicly, evidently because she believed, according to Barbara Branden, that cancer was the result of philosophical and psychological errors.

Rand was definitely an extremist, attempting to apply her philosophy unilaterally to every conceivable aspect of human life. This is most clearly seen, in my opinion, in her essays concerning emotion and art in The Romantic Manifesto. She was absolutely positive of the perfection and completeness of her work, even to the point of refusing to stand behind it in debate if she viewed it to be beneath her. Among her close followers in New York City, a strict dogma was adhered to. Many were ostracized for mundane differences of opinion or reading the work of a frowned-upon author. Reading a non-Objectivist's book, even for the purpose of rebutting the author's ideas, gave that author's work the reader's "moral sanction," Rand asserted.

For all her flaws, Rand remains a towering figure on the last century’s cultural landscape. She arose in an era of competing totalitarian ideologies and declared that communism and Nazism were not opposites but evil twins, and that their true opposite was freedom. In an era when collectivism was seen as the way of the future, she unapologetically asserted the worth of the individual and his right to exist for himself, and declared the spiritual dimension of material achievement. In an age of existential doubt, she offered a celebration of creativity, of the human mind, of the joy of life on this earth.

This, I think, summarizes the whole of Rand's work. Life and happiness were her moral goals. That joy is a moral virtue, that man's nature is to be beautiful and great, that is quite an uplifting message indeed.

"I need no warrant for being, and no word of sanction upon my being. I am the warrant and the sanction."
--Anthem

"Show me your achievement, and the knowledge will give me courage for mine."
--The Fountainhead

"The world you desired can be won, it exists, it is real, it is possible, it's yours. But to win it requires total dedication and a total break with the world of your past, with the doctrine that man is sacrificial animal who exists for the pleasure of others. Fight for the value of your person. Fight for the virtue of your pride. Fight for the essence, which is man, for his sovereign rational mind. Fight with the radiant certainty and the absolute rectitude of knowing that yours is the morality of life and yours is the battle for any achievement, any value, any grandeur, any goodness, any joy that has ever existed on this earth."
--Atlas Shrugged

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