Thursday, April 4, 2013

Ayn Rand


Ayn Rand (1905-1982) garnered extensive admiration and contempt even through death. Her dream was to be a writer, but more than that, a revolutionary. She realized her dream of becoming a writer, but it is controversial as to whether or not to call her a philosopher . Rand was born Alice Rosenbaum on 2 February 1905 in St. Petersburg, Russia to a chemist father and a domineering mother. From a young age, she was a bright child who learned to read before beginning school and early on saw problems with Communism. Rand believed living with the state and for the state were troubling and wrong. Rand stated that her method of thinking changed at the age of 12 to “thinking in principles.” It was noted that Ayn Rand could break down complex ideas into easily comprehensible parts. She discovered Victor Hugo’s works at this time and became fascinated with his sense of life. During her last two years of high school, Rand took classes about the American government and the Declaration of Independence. Attending the University of Petrograd, Rand obtained a degree in history and was introduced to the philosophy of Nietzsche. She admired his reverence of the heroic man, individualism, and contempt of altruism, but she was bothered with his defense of psychological determinism, ambiguous use of the issue of power, and position of anti-reason.
After her studies in university, the Rosenbaum family immigrated to America in 1926. In America, Rand changed her name from Alice to Ayn (rhyming with “mine”) after a Finnish writer whom she had not read. (She liked the name.) Interestingly enough, Rand set off to Hollywood for a career in screenwriting in mid 1926. In 1929, she married Frank O’Connor who shared the same values. When they had only $700 to their names, Rand decided to work on the presidential campaign of Wendell Wilkie, whom she saw as a candidate who embraced her philosophy. During these political activities, Rand met many conservatives, including Isabel “Pat” Paterson, with whom she came to form her first and last important friendship with a contemporary. Paterson and Rand shared a teacher/student relationship despite their many differences such as opposing views on religion; Paterson used an element of religion in her writings while Rand saw religion as the first enemy to the ability to think. At this time, Rand’s individualistic thought became apparent in her personality traits of self-responsibility, contempt at humor and reliance on others, and ego.

In 1950, a young man named Nathan Blumenthal wrote a letter to Ayn Rand with questions about her novel, The Fountainhead. He was to be responsible for the dispersion of her philosophy. Blumenthal influenced her writing and introduced Rand to Barbara Weidman, who will become her closest confidante. Blumenthal, Weidman, and other young intellectuals would become known as “The Collective,” chosen for their antithetical nature to Rand’s philosophy and whom Ayn Rand herself affectionately called “the children” or “ the class of ’43.” The group would popularize Rand’s Objectivist philosophy. Like with most relationships between men and women, attraction occurs, so it was not unlikely for Rand and Blumenthal (who was known as Branden), to conduct an affair with each other. When they both confronted their spouses for consent to the affair, Rand argued that given her own nature and that of Branden, logically they had to love each other; rationality and logic made it acceptable for Frank and Barbara to accept the relationship and not be shocked. Blumenthal was the epitome of her heroic characters in looks, epistemology, and ethics. The relationship however, did not last; when Blumenthal refused to continue their sexual relationship, Rand cut all ties with him. Rand gave the position of her intellectual heir to Leonard Peikoff, further driving the separation between Blumenthal and herself.

Rand’s final public talk was held in 1981 at the convention of the National Committee for Monetary Reform in New Orleans. The following year in March, Rand died after never recovering from a respiratory illness she contracted in New Orleans during her last public talk.

Ayn Rand wrote literary works that were immersed with her philosophy. Some of her earlier works had literary themes that foreshadowed her philosophy, such as the intelligent woman worshipping the man who brings out the best in her, or the individual who does not look back. Her later works, including The Fountainhead (1943), We The Living (1936), Atlas Shrugged (1957), The Virtue of Selfishness (1964), For the New Intellectual: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (1961), and countless others, would bring forth her Objectivist philosophy. Atlas Shrugged (1957) was seen by Rand’s followers and Rand herself as her true masterpiece. It was dubbed the Objectivist “bible.” The book was philosophy and literature, the culmination of Rand’s philosophical theory. The heroes are men of self-interest while the villains are enemies of individualism and free enterprise. The world destroys itself of its socialist society in order to rebuild itself. In her philosophy, Rand sees man as a heroic being whose own happiness is the moral purpose of his life. Productive achievements are man’s noblest activities and reason is his only absolute. She credited Aristotle for his logic and development of metaphysics of objective reality. Yet, she condemned Kant for the return of mysticism and physical force and indicts Descartes for denying the existence of an objective reality.

She saw the return of the Witch Doctor and Attila as the moral bankruptcy of culture. The Witch Doctor, relying on faith, and Attila, relying on physical force, oppressed people’s ability to reason. An intellectual’s job, according to Rand, was to provide a rational morality for the businessmen. She repudiated collectivism, finding Russian communism disturbing and troubling for the individual, while she praised and looked to a radical idea of capitalism, the merging of the intellectual and the businessman as “a free man and a free market are corollaries.” She favored selfishness to altruism, the former being a virtue because it complies with the primary goal of an organism to maintain its life, its self-interest. Rand said a new intellectual needs to rise, one who is guided by reason alone, values “self” above all else, and refuses to give in to faith or to force.

In the literary academic world, Ayn Rand was seen as a philosopher but in academic philosophers rejected her Objectivist philosophy. In the end, there is no denying that she created great stir in the public world, but also among intellectuals and despite the reluctance of many to call her a philosopher.

Personal Response 

I first came across Ayn Rand when the principal of my high school said her favorite book, and the one she lives by, was The Fountainhead. Curious, I sought out the book and quickly became immersed in the life and works of Ayn Rand. Reading the whole book at least two times, I found it troubling that this was the book by which she lived her life . More troubling was trying to understand whether my principal saw the main character as the protagonist or antagonist because her way of thinking lent towards the altruistic thought Rand denied and put down. Rand makes it known that being selfless is a vice, something that will cause great harm to an individual. But if we were to only care for our own feelings, own wants, and own needs, and ourselves, how could we live in a social society? I could see where people are taken aback with Rand’s philosophy; they could not really exist in a world where people are social creatures and could not truly be individualistic. I do not entirely agree with her ethics about selfishness as a virtue because it makes humans devoid of connection and emotion. My worry is if every person were acting out of own personal self-interest, how would the world function, if at all? Things might become stagnant as people will not care about others and the world might fall apart as desires/wants grow tremendously. It is a very radical theory and the characters she created are so unbelievable so her philosophy seems unreasonable to people.
Whether she was a philosopher or not, Ayn Rand was a woman intellectual, strong, and unafraid to voice her thoughts to the public. However, her views on women were often questioned, as they did not really portray women as equal with men. For Rand, the ideal woman finds pleasure in surrendering to the heroic man she worshipped. I do not think that is a strong image of a woman; it’s submissive. If Rand places such emphasis on self-interest and the individual, why differentiate between male and female? Why could not a woman be heroic like the heroic man? I see how her views on women were questioned as they are not consistent with her other set of views. The woman’s surrender is submissive and it’s almost like she is on a lower level than the man. But is that Rand’s true thought? I am not sure because she does not have any extensive work on the role and status of women in society.

What is the most fascinating is the fact that despite Ayn Rand not really seen as a philosopher, there were many people who followed and believed in her Objectivist philosophy. She garnered extensive discussion, debate, and controversy with her thought that even if her philosophy was rejected, it was as influential as other philosophers. I had not seen her as a philosopher when I first read her work, but more of a literary writer. Yet, her philosophy was deeply embedded in her characters, plot, and the whole story. How can one area of academia see her as a philosopher while another denies that title? That bodes the question how are we defining philosophy? What, if there is one, a collective agreement to defining philosophers as Aristotle and Descartes were one?


Chapter 9. "Ayn Rand (1905-1982)" by Jenny A. Heyl in A History of Women Philosophers: Contemporary Women Philosophers, 1900-Today by Mary Ellen Waithe 

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