Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Atlas at Fifty

Fifty years after the publication of Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand’s controversial philosophy continues to inspire its readers. Alan Greenspan, a long-term admirer, gives an accurate summary of her philosophy in his recently published autobiography. No summary, however, can do justice to Rand’s original ideas and her grand synthesis; but I’d like to give an indication of her original approach for those not acquainted with her ideas by selecting a few aspects of her philosophy.

Rand was a system builder who seamlessly integrated metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, politics and aesthetics. But she was also a public intellectual, engaged in debate with her fellow citizens. Like Socrates who sought to do both – fundamental philosophy and civic debate – she challenged her readers to examine their most fundamental assumptions. In content, however, Rand is an antipode to Socrates/Plato’s otherworldly mysticism and this-worldly collectivism. Rand’s philosophic hero, as Greenspan explains, is Aristotle but augmented by Locke’s political philosophy.

What Rand did for many was present capitalism not as a necessary evil but as a glorious and righteous social system based on human dignity and designed for human flourishing. Greenspan noted how he, as an economist, understood how capitalism “worked” but Rand’s galvanizing moral message was fuel for a passionate commitment to this noble institution. She influenced many in this manner even those who don't completely agree with her total synthesis.

Rand is often misunderstood or worse deliberately distorted. Politics was for her a derivative outcome of deeper and more important concerns. It’s when we move beyond politics that her ideas are hard to grasp for most readers including some of her fans. In ethics, Rand advocated rational self-interest but this gives little clue of what she holds as rational and what is in one’s interest. Her key concept of “reason as man’s tool of survival” can’t convey her original epistemological work on human conceptual reasoning nor can it convey her rich concept of human life.

Her style of non-fiction writing requires some re-orientation to appreciate her main points. Rand was a feisty intellectual warrior. She was “in your face” before the phrase was coined. One of her rhetorical ploys was to seize a word meant as a pejorative and defiantly embrace it. It’s a bold combative style reminiscent of Patrick Henry’s “if this be treason make the most of it.”

When Rand was accused of advocating ‘selfishness,’ for example, she’d title her book of essays on ethics: “The Virtue of Selfishness – a New Concept of Egoism.” She knew that words like egoism and altruism are commonly used in another manner. But more than being provocative, she rightfully argued that current usage obliterates an important distinction. She would take these words and given them a rigorous meaning – actually closer to the original meaning – to re-establish a clear and powerful ethical dichotomy.

The common notion of a self-interested man is a narrowly-focused rights-violating schemer who exploits his fellow man in the pursuit of mindless indulgence. Altruism (a word coined by the 19th century socialist Auguste Comte) meant selfless service to others regardless of any return or self benefit. Conventional morality defines ethics as altruism. Any concern for one’s advancement and well-being is seen as practical but not ethical. Ethics, in this modern view, comes into play when one is concerned with others’ well being. Any practical advancement must be justified by the benefit to others; it is dedication to the welfare of others that is the ultimate criteria of virtue.

If one reads the classical ethical treatises, Aristotle’s and Cicero’s, one finds a very different view of ethics. This is true also for Rand. Her ethics has its root in the very notion and fact of human life. Ethics isn’t merely social but embodies actualizing one’s potential in all dimensions of human endeavors that further life enhancing values. There is no denigration of personal self-actualization as mere practical or amoral selfishness. This notion may not seem as surprising today as it was in the 1950s and 1960s. To the extent that this is true, it is in large part because of Rand’s influence.

The social dimension is never ignored by Rand. Her detractors create a straw man by claiming that Rand has no use for other human beings, that Rand sees others as objects to be used, or by claiming that Rand is anti-social. This is bizarre. Rand is passionate about the moral importance of every social interaction from trade (which is done for mutual benefit) to the deepest personal romantic relationships where the person’s very being is one of the greatest joys of one's life.

Rand is opposed to the service to others as a blind duty. She opposes the slave-mentality either imposed by the state or chosen by the individual. The dutiful altruist, if consistent, believes that other's happiness comes before one’s own and that of one’s loved ones. Few swallow this whole. Rarely would one take care of one’s neighbor’s children before one’s own. But altruism, strictly speaking, would find less moral credit in helping those whose well-being is of value to one’s self (such as one’s children) than helping faceless children on the other side of the earth who may even grow to be one’s enemies. An altruist doesn’t ask “how will this affect me?” He only submits to duty or the state.

Most people, in light of such an explicit or implicit notion of ethics, recoil not by rejecting this monstrous idea but by retreating into a more banal posture of mixing “ethics” and “practicality.” Conservatives, in Rand’s day, would concede the ethical high ground to the socialists and retreat behind the slogan that you can’t expect utopia here on earth; humans are too base and evil to be so good. “Don’t immanentize the eschaton” as Buckley would say echoing Voegelin. Rand rejected this weak-kneed apologetics and cynicism by adopting a proud moral vision of a society based on individual rights and human prosperity. While this energized many on the right it frightened others, particularly many ex-communists whose embrace of conservatism was a rejection of reason, abstract theory, and political ideology.

Yet, Rand isn’t a mere libertarian, if one uses that term generically. Individual rights define the realm of allowable action but don't insure the moral requirements for successful action. Rights, for some libertarians, define a "do your own thing" realm of hedonism. In Rand’s novel, the Fountainhead, the hero withholds immediate gratification as other quickly achieve a hollowed success by pandering. Rand’s hero preservers until he can succeed by producing something of pride. Indeed, the novel has little to say about politics but much to say about character. The notion that Rand is concern with mere material gain is absurd. She presents a very demanding ethical code but with a more fulfilling and profound success as its reward.

Hopefully the above is an indication of her ethical underpinning of a just political order. It doesn’t even hint at her distinctive epistemology and metaphysics. Rand is an engaging writer who will challenge the most thoughtful reader. Her work brings to light ideas seldom found in other quarters. Agree or not, she is indispensable for a vigorous debate on the underpinning of a free society. Those seeking to advocate individual liberty would do well to consider her ideas.

Update: MM McQ TH CT TB

Update2: Fox review, Wash Times review, Sun-Times review,


Blogger Mark said...


So is Greenspan an Objectivist then?

10/11/07, 3:13 PM  
Blogger Jason Pappas said...

Rand and her ideas have had a major influence on his thinking.

10/11/07, 3:22 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

That's very interesting. But am I right in concluding that he isn't a convert to Objectivism, though?

10/12/07, 7:03 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

I have just finished viewing that video of Greenspan on your link. Fascinating! When I have got throught he pile of books I have here to read, I shall have to think about reading his. I feel sure I'll enjoy it.

10/12/07, 7:21 AM  
Blogger Jason Pappas said...

In philosophy it is more of a question of agreement than conversion. Greenspan is clearly sympathetic to Rand’s core ideas. His terse description in his autobiography suggests a generally favorable view of Rand’s thought and their personal relationship.

Justin Martin’s biography of Greenspan is worth reading but is probably superseded by the autobiography.

In the Update I linked to individuals who were influenced by Rand whether their agreement is great or slight. Many find aspects of Rand’s approach useful even if they don’t completely agree. I mentioned her principled defense of capitalism – the liberal market economy – in the original post. It’s worth noting her rejection of relativism, rejection of skepticism, and strong condemnation of any compromise of principle.

Rand is the antithesis of political correctness. When I describe the danger of Islam (I’m sure Rand would use the word ‘evil’) I do so in black-and-white terms. I resist the hemming and hawing of compromisers. By temperament, I’m not a fighter. But when an intellectual battle has to be fought, Rand’s example – one that doesn’t concede an inch to evil – is extremely helpful. Of course, Mark, you seem to have no problem maintaining a firm and uncompromising fighting spirit.

I believe many people have absorbed Rand’s moral certainty and uncompromising confidence is the West’s core contribution to civilization: human reason and individual liberty. She's definitely a spiritually uplifting person.

10/12/07, 8:31 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

Of course, Mark, you seem to have no problem maintaining a firm and uncompromising fighting spirit.

Like you, Jason, I, too, am not a fighter. Only when it comes to ideas and principles. Then, as you say, I can be quite uncompromising.

I have never had much time for soft thinkers, and nor do I have much time for people who just let things happen, for better or for worse. Today, there are too many people of that persuasion.

Thank you for your explanation of Rand and her thoughts. Yes, I agree: I shouldn't have used the word 'conversion.' But I am sure you understood what I meant.

By the way, Jason, it's always a pleasure to read your blog. Even though I am not an Objectivist, I feel an affinity with your way of thinking.

10/12/07, 9:20 AM  
Blogger AmPowerBlog said...

"What Rand did for many was present capitalism not as a necessary evil but as a glorious and righteous social system based on human dignity and designed for human flourishing."

Well said!

I read Atlas Shrugged this year (it's a lengthy slog, but worth it). I read The Fountainhead back in 1988. They should really be read together, sequentially.

I love her books!

10/12/07, 9:28 AM  
Blogger Ducky's here said...

Nor has the author, apparently, brooded on the degree to which, in a wicked world, a materialism of the Right and a materialism of the Left first surprisingly resemble, then, in action, tend to blend each with each, because, while differing at the top in avowed purpose, and possibly in conflict there, at bottom they are much the same thing. The embarrassing similarities between Hitler's National Socialism and Stalin's brand of Communism are familiar. For the world, as seen in materialist view from the Right, scarcely differs from the same world seen in materialist view from the Left. The question becomes chiefly: who is to run that world in whose interests, or perhaps, at best, who can run it more efficiently?

We struggle to be just. For we cannot help feeling at least a sympathetic pain before the sheer labor, discipline, and patient craftsmanship that went to making this mountain of words. But the words keep shouting us down. In the end that tone dominates. But it should be its own antidote, warning us that anything it shouts is best taken with the usual reservations with which we might sip a patent medicine. Some may like the flavor. In any case, the brew is probably without lasting ill effects. But it is not a cure for anything. Nor would we, ordinarily, place much confidence in the diagnosis of a doctor who supposes that the Hippocratic Oath is a kind of curse.

It was such a brilliant review. Frankly I still wonder how Randoids fail to see our heroines proximity to Marxism. Just arguing about who constitutes the Politburo. Such a waste of time.

10/12/07, 1:27 PM  
Blogger Jason Pappas said...

I addressed the materialism charge in the article. It’s not surprising that you and Chambers would be kindred spirits. I’ve always said that you’d become a neo-conservative.

10/12/07, 1:57 PM  
Blogger Ronbo said...


Posted your excellent article on my blog

Cheers, Ronbo

10/13/07, 5:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jason has given an excellent treatment of Objectivism, and in "Whither Conservatism" similarly explained conservatism.

I have copied an article from yesterday's Wall Street Journal, that has virtually the same view on these matters as Jason, but from a somewhat different perspective. It is now presented, along with a letter that I have submitted to the WSJ.

Rand and the Right, By BRIAN DOHERTY
October 13, 2007; Page A11

Because of her opposition to New Deal government controls, novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand started off thinking of herself as a conservative. By the time her blockbuster novel, "Atlas Shrugged," was published 50 years ago this week, she'd changed her mind. She decided she was a radical -- a "radical for capitalism," that is.

Conservatives, she'd come to believe, were insufficiently principled in their defense of a free society and once the novel was out, the official conservative movement turned its back on her.

While "Atlas Shrugged" was a ferocious defense of certain values shared by many conservatives, then and now -- limited government, economic liberty and the primacy of individual rights over perceived collective needs -- National Review's editor and conservative movement leader William Buckley found the novel's intransigence and Godlessness, alarming. He assigned communist-turned-conservative Whittaker Chambers to review it.

After squinting at this sweeping, thousand page-plus epic, portraying America's collapse thanks to a rising tide of unlimited government, economic restrictions and the subordination of individual rights to perceived collective needs, Chambers pronounced his judgment. With a sighing, refined hostility, he found it "silly," "preposterous" and hateful. "From almost any page," he declared, in a bizarre and oft-cited passage, "a voice can be heard . . . commanding: 'To a gas chamber -- go!'"

Mr. Buckley and his National Review were trying to build a politically viable postwar right, including a border fence around respectable conservatism. Rand's ferocious and uncompromising opposition, not only to any government action beyond protecting individual rights, but also to religion and tradition for its own sake, put her outside that fence. She was too absolutist, too outrageous, too faithless.

After that Chambers review, Rand saw mainstream conservatism as her avowed enemy. Meanwhile, a distinctly libertarian political and intellectual movement was on the rise, one enormously influenced by Rand. Yet many conservatives still loved her, even if as a sometimes guilty pleasure, especially on college campuses

Her daring, root-and-branch assault on the postwar liberal welfare state consensus made her beloved even among a rising generation of young conservatives, without making them full-bore Objectivists (her name for her philosophy). For just one example, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in his new memoir that Rand's "vision of the world made more sense to me than that of my left-wing friends," although he "didn't fully accept its tenets."

And Rand was, despite her exile from the conservative movement, a fan of Barry Goldwater, the modern Right's first serious presidential candidate. She told him "I regard you as the only hope of the anti-collectivist side on today's political scene, and I have defended your position at every opportunity." For his part, Goldwater said that "I have enjoyed very few books in my life as much as . . . 'Atlas Shrugged.'"

Rand and a fair number of her closest followers were notorious for casting into outer darkness anyone who might agree with everything she advocated, but not for their reasons, properly deduced from the facts of reality. This perceived dogmatism helped make her seem a silly character to many, liberal or conservative. And yet, when it came to Goldwater, Rand wrote something wise that conservatives should contemplate, and return the favor: "If he advocates the right political principles for the wrong metaphysical reasons, the contradiction is his problem, not ours."

In other words, when it comes to politics, politics is more important than metaphysics. And Rand had plenty to offer conservatives about politics that is still salient.

Even when reinforcing her exile from respectable conservatism in a 1967 National Review feature story, M. Stanton Evans recognized that "there are a number of subjects on which Miss Rand is right . . . Foremost among these is that class of issues having to do with the secular conditions of freedom." He notes her "excellent grasp of the way capitalism is supposed to work" and her "powerful" critique of "bureaucrats, planners, and social engineers." Also, her "effective" satire of "the intellectual flux and slither in which modern relativism seeks to bury moral issues."

That's a great list of virtues, and exactly what modern conservatism needs, in the political and cultural wars of today. Rand's virtues as a political thinker and polemicist touch on the most important matters of modern politics.

She recognized, not merely that government shouldn't take as much from us as it does, but also that it can't justly and pragmatically do as much as it currently tries to do. As government spending, even under Republican rule, grows faster than ever before; as new plans to further bureaucratize American health care arise; as the benefits of free trade and free movement of capital and labor are under continued assault -- Rand's consistent, passionate and even heroic defense of American freedom is sorely needed.

Rand's insistence that all values be rationally chosen made her "bad," in modern conservative terms, on the family and on religion. But if the GOP can contemplate nominating twice-divorced Rudolph Giuliani (who agrees with Rand on abortion rights), conservatives should realize political movements can no longer demand agreement on matters of faith and family. They need to recognize -- as Rand was, ironically, mocked for failing to recognize -- that metaphysics and religion are extra-political.

Why does she matter to modern politics? It's not like she is around for conservatives to seek her endorsement. But it is worthwhile for political activists to remember that Ayn Rand was utterly uncompromising on how government needed to respect the inalienable right of Americans to live their own lives, and of American business to grow, thrive, innovate and improve our lives without niggling interference.

Her message of political freedom was enthusiastic, and optimistic, and immensely popular. No major American political party has embraced her message in full. But millions of Americans have voted for her with their pocket books, and hundreds of thousands continue to do so every year.

On the 50th anniversary of her greatest novel, her advocacy of the still "unknown ideal" of truly free market capitalism is something that America, and the conservative movement, needs to reconsider.

Mr. Doherty is a senior editor at Reason magazine and author of "Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement" (PublicAffairs, 2007).

Response by WEINGARTEN:

I appreciated Brian Doherty’s insights (“Rand and the Right”, 10/13) into the conservative mindset, that minimizes the importance of principle, is averse to theory, and is intolerant of antithetical views toward religion and tradition. I concur that Rand is correct in her view of the role of government. Surely, it is mandated to protect our inalienable rights, in contrast to the pursuits of our political parties, to use government to ‘improve the world’.

Yet, even if one concurs with everything that Doherty wrote, there are further considerations. Conservatism suffers not because of its rejection of Objectivism, but due to its lack of an overarching theory, which would establish what it is that conservatives wish to conserve. Lacking a theory, a clear-cut set of principles, or even concepts to employ in the war of ideas, they forfeit the opportunity to provide a cohesive strategy for addressing the challenges facing our country.

Objectivism’s failures are similarly a consequence of its own limitations. Rand presents her ideal as ‘selfishness’ where it would be better understood as ‘self-enhancing’, (which is generally a cooperative venture). Her view of a tabula rasa provides an axiomatic basis for establishing certitude, but is, unfortunately, interpreted dogmatically, as though no other basis can exist for understanding. As such it discards much that is plausible from a-priori and a-posteriori foundations. Here, Rand not only leaves out God, but the summa bonum, our cultural heritage, and the variety of intangibles required for dealing with issues for which we lack certitude. Thus, while it establishes what is known, it cannot adequately deal with what is more important, namely what we must learn. Objectivism lacks strategy and tactics, because by treating each principle as absolute, it cannot take advantage of pragmatic necessities. In short, it operates as a religion, in the pejorative sense of being closed to the dictates of reality and reason.

Suffice it to say, that although there is much that Conservatives can learn from the Objectivists, and vice versa, the more pressing issue for both, is to ‘remove the mote from one’s own eye’.

10/14/07, 4:59 PM  
Blogger Jason Pappas said...

My main point is that many people on the right gain immeasurably from reading Rand even if they disagree with aspects of her total philosophy. I’m glad you posted Doherty’s article; he makes similar points.

Doherty notes that Rand and conservatives often agree on politics while disagreeing on metaphysics, specifically religion. The situation is more complex. There is a sizable agreement on metaphysics and epistemology implicitly. Conservatives couldn’t have been as consistent on economic liberalism and seduced by the classical liberal criticism of socialism if it weren’t for an implicit adherence to a rational approach to history and economics.

Rand was more conscious of foundational issues. She addressed epistemological questions concerning the nature of reason and conceptual knowledge. I didn’t go into this but she saw this as the most important part of philosophy, which it is. She rightly argued that this must be explicated and examined. Traditional conservatives held that knowledge is buried in the blood or hidden in the structural nature of long-standing institutions. They were critical of explication and abstraction (as you point out they are hostile to an “overarching theory”.) This goes back to Edmund Burke’s criticism of the French Revolution.

Personally, I think Rand gave-up too easily on conservatives; although it wasn't her choice alone. The differences should be noted and appreciated. However, most rank-and-file conservatives today don’t even know the philosophy of traditionalism as formulated by the post-war generation led by Russell Kirk. Even today most might find Rand “too radical” but their “guilty pleasure” suggests she resonates with their aspirations more than they are willing to admit.

There is some truth to the charge that Rand didn’t appreciate that the wisdom of tradition (although it can indeed be explicated and examined) can’t be replaced by philosophy. As an empirically-minded person, she explicitly puts history first (and says that’s why she chose to major in history in college) but it doesn’t always show in her rhetoric. She just doesn’t show her homework when discussing philosophic abstractions.

Now that we are faced with a threat of devout theocratic totalitarian jihadists, the old conservative critique of atheistic communism seems quaint, to be generous. Given that the new collectivist movement in the West, political environmentalism, has replaced socialism, Rand seems prescient; she was essentially the first to notice this trend (see the book of essays “Return of the Primitive.”) Now, even conservatives call environmentalism a new religion, a new faith.

It’s time to re-examine some of her ideas. Tradition has gotten us so far but without the anchor of explicit principles we are drifting towards new forms of socialism and are unable to face the danger of Islam. Those of us who do see the dangers wonder why the rest just don’t get it. I think she has much to offer in understanding the trends towards new forms of totalitarianism and our denial.

10/15/07, 8:58 AM  

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