RE-EVALUATING AYN RAND
[Readers will notice some connection between this essay and my piece " A Requiem for Ayn Rand?" I recommend you read the other first. I anticipate, however, eventually merging the two.]
Lately my thoughts have been evolving about the life and philosophy of Ayn Rand (1905-1982), the Russian-American novelist-philosopher.
For decades I have been defending her importance as a philosopher, while simultaneously trying to understand what is wrong about the parts of her philosophy which seem mistaken. As a young Student of Objectivism (Rand's name for her loyal followers), I did not question the truth of her ideas until 1970, when she gave her infamous interview to Cosmopolitan magazine.
In the Cosmopolitan interview Rand mentioned that she thought no woman should ever be president of the United States. She said that the natural psychological reaction of (right-thinking) women is to worship men, and that the psychological burden of having to command and direct men would therefore be crushing for a woman president.
Well, even in the sexist context of the time that seemed a deeply odd line of thought.
The interview must have triggered some of my unconscious reservations about Rand. Over the next six or eight months I began to think more deeply about Rand's philosophy. Gradually I no longer felt comfortable thinking of myself as a Student of Objectivism. I wasn't convinced enough. I announced in May 1971 that I was no longer a believer in all of Rand's philosophy. (I believe I became a Libertarian or laissez-faire anarchist.)
A few years later I realized I was no longer convinced even in the absolute rightness of Libertarianism. I had thought myself out of that position as well as Objectivism. I now had no comfortable intellectual home.
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We Students of Objectivism had been trained to be suspicious of our feelings -- by which Rand seems to have meant our intuitions, our instincts. According to Rand, emotions are not tools of cognition. Only reason could be one's guide to truth.
It was strongly implied in this that one had to think consciously; only consciously held beliefs that had been tested by reason could be trusted.
So for several decades more I continued to think -- about Rand's ideas, Libertarianism, and the philosophies I had earlier rejected in favor of Randism: for example, pragmatism and utilitarianism. Without consciously-held, consciously-defendable beliefs I did not feel intellectually safe or comfortable. Still I gradually found a measure of comfort in my still-vague but intuitively held beliefs.
But it was not until 1997 that I felt reasonably comfortable with my rejection of strict Randism. I began to write out my own incomplete alternative ideas. I began to write for the Web, but did not publish a Web site until August 1999.
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As I see it now, the problem with Rand is not only her philosophy but her life and personality. Rand really was something of a crank. The problem was not only her intellectual arrogance; that hardly matters. Nor was the problem her occasional contempt for the mass of unthinking people, though that was part of the problem.
Rand's chief error, I think, was that her devotion to novel-writing led her to slight academic philosophy. She failed to take academic philosophy seriously enough. Perhaps this was the result of her largely having been an autodidact. While Rand studied at the University of St. Petersburg, she did not conceive her major ideas there. She arrived at her ideas on her own, in the United States. She grew to despise her academic rivals, those who had had to spend many years in university.
But Rand did not only tend to dismiss the academic philosophers of her own time, but even the most important philosophers of history. She despised nearly all of them as barely worthy of her notice. She seldom quoted philosophers in her essays. She barely alluded to them. She acknowledged no philosopher's influence on her thought but Aristotle (though it has been pointed out that Nietzsche was also vital). Nor did she identify quotations or footnote her work. She seldom quoted even the few philosophers of whom she approved.
I have lately realized that this was rude and deeply inappropriate behaviour.
Rand's philosophy had flaws, deep flaws. Her life shows the danger of becoming an isolated figure, especially one surrounded by a quasi-cult of insiders. In seeking like vibrant minds Rand gathered her Collective, and then was overbearing to it. Some were expelled. A few had the guts to leave. But most did not.
One of the most craven was Nathaniel Branden, as Nathan Blumenthal of Brampton, Ontario, had reinvented himself. As Rand's designated "intellectual heir", Branden seems genuinely to have tried to do good. But his desire to be the big-cheese successor in Rand's growing movement led him to a pattern of cowardly evasions that lasted until 1968. Then he was forced to reveal the truth to Rand about his affair with his wife-to-be Patrecia, and his sexual "unfaithfulness" to his wife and to, more importantly (in Rand's opinion) his mistress Rand.
A pathetic mess. A comic mess, the more one looks at it.
I still believe that Rand was a great philosopher. But I am shifting toward the position that her greatness is as an unhappy example of inadvertent folly. Much of Rand's philosophy now seems to be correct in outline, but deeply flawed in the details. She is still the most interesting of 20th century philosophers to me.
To use Nietzsche's words: Human, All Too Human.
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Last modified: 2:08 PM 12/2/2001