One-sided thinker: Ayn Rand


I’ve been meaning for a while to respond to Jacob’s nomination of Ayn Rand as the greatest thinker ever. You notice that Rand did not make it into my roster of great thinkers, and I want to explain why.

First, you have to understand where I’m coming from. In my twenties, I had an extreme Objectivist phase. For me, as for many of her fans, her radical and uncompromising individualism had as much romance–yes, romance–as the diametrical opposite ethic, socialism, had for other young people. And that is what young people need above all in a philosophy: romance. The time for nuance is old age; the time for bold clarity is youth.

So there we were, the young’uns. Some had Che Guevara posters on their walls (sexy, romantic, idealistic). Others were curled up with Atlas Shrugged and pictured John Galt (sexy, romantic, idealistic). Oh, and yes, they stood for opposite ways of looking at the world. But we were all revolutionaries in our ways, and happily so.

My type went on to become libertarians (properly called liberals), which I am. We reveled in our individualism, as I did and do. It was a great party.

Later in life, when I got to Silicon Valley, I had flash-backs of nostalgia. A lot of the geeks there still call themselves Objectivists. I remember a fun conversation I had with Jimmy Wales, the co-founder of Wikipedia and a Rand enthusiast. Indeed, some of us are still at it.

So what’s the problem?

The problem is that Rand’s philosophy and, worse, her characters do not age. They are caricatures. Howard Roark, the über-architect in The Fountainhead, John Galt, the über-entrepreneur in Atlas Shrugged, are sketches of square-jawed action heroes as a girl who had escaped from Soviet Russia (ie, Rand) would draw them. They have no complexity, no nuance, no contradictions; they are, in short, not human. As you get older and put more life behind you, you lose interest.

Unfair? Not at all. Because Rand chose to deliver her philosophy through these characters, through narrative, through stories. And, as someone fascinated by storytelling, I think she got that part right. But her stories do not cut it.

I am still an invidualist today. But what Rand offered us was not individualism but atomism, the misguided and rather naive view that individuals exist discretely of one another and their surroundings and do not interact in patterns that reflect back on them.

She wrote at a time when Objectivism (the notion that there is one objective and observable reality) should already have been seen as untenable, given that Heisenberg had given us his uncertainty principle. Everything we have learned since should make us even more humble about our ability to observe reality. If I see red and the dog sees grey, thanks to the way photons form different patterns in his neurons and mine, what is the objective part?

Regarding individualism, it was always a distortion to deny collective patterns. Ask E.O. Wilson about his ants! Just as our cells do not run around bragging about their individualism but (usually) work together in our bodies, insects form colonies that come close to having their own consciousness.

If I were to nominate an individualist and libertarian for great thinker, it would not be Ayn Rand but Friedrich von Hayek, who thought about freedom and individuals holistically.

Finally, I cannot forgive Rand for making no allowance for humor. And don’t any of you Galtians pretend that there was any. Here, remind yourself:

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18 thoughts on “One-sided thinker: Ayn Rand

  1. I pitched my tent in the Ayn Rand camp also. I think we have on our bookshelf everything written by Ayn Rand – with the exception of her periodicals. People such as you who have high self-esteem can ‘move on.’ Learn, but move on. Other people (having low self esteem and a large ego, like me) blame themselves for being unable to attain the ideal.

    Nathaniel Brandon, formerly the intellectual heir of Ayn Rand, moved on and made a bunch of money writing about how to reconcile Rand’s ideal and the reality that the rest of us live in. He was kicked out of bed and relieved of his title.

    Shortly after 9/11 when I saw a full page article in the College Newspaper (paid for by the Rand Institute and written by the present heir (Leonard Pekov?)) saying (paraphrasing) that we should immediately relieve Iraq and Iran of their stupidity (i.e., invade and conquer) because all the valuable oil is wasted on their fundamentalism. I remember thinking, Iraq? Why should we invade Iraq? Silly me.

    Your Economist likes to remind us that Alan Greenspan is a fan of Ayn Rand.

  2. The problem is that Rand’s philosophy and, worse, her characters do not age. They are caricatures. Howard Roark, the über-architect in The Fountainhead, John Galt, the über-entrepreneur in Atlas Shrugged, are sketches of square-jawed action heroes as a girl who had escaped from Soviet Russia (ie, Rand) would draw them. They have no complexity, no nuance, no contradictions; they are, in short, not human.

    Courtesy of Google, I gleaned that “………Rand stated in a 1963 essay, titled ‘The Goal of My Writing’, that her fiction was intentionally different in that its goal was to project a vision of an ideal man: not man as he is, but man as he might be and ought to be.

    Perhaps you had already implied this when you wrote “………..Rand chose to deliver her philosophy through these characters……….”?

  3. Whoops. I lost part of my sentence (an important verb) in the third paragraph. I’m trying to say that I decamped for good following the 9/11 article. By the way, I’ve designated my cat, Bertram (of Bertie Wooster fame), as my intellectual heir.

  4. Bertram is to bear a great weight, Atlas-like. Pray he does not Shrug.

    Thank god I never saw this Rand Institute article about Iran and Iraq. I do wonder how they made the logical journey from Objectivism to invasion. Bizarre. Frightening.

    Christopher: Yes, she made clear that she meant her characters to be idealized men. But she forgot to make them human, in my opinion. Look at their women, for instance, or their enemies, or anybody else in her books. Everybody is, not an archetype, but a cartoon character. That gets very flat, given that she goes for about 1,000 pages.

    Had she been a better story-teller, with nuanced characters that leave lasting impressions and touch the soul, who knows what her influence might be today.

    But again, keep in mind that I once lost myself in those pages. So I am speaking with the benefit of hindsight: the things in them don’t get better with age.

    Cheri: Clearly, your husband has good taste. In books, too. 😉

    (PS: Road to Serfdom is not an “economic” bible, but really a sociological and psychological and political one. In Germany, it’s usually named in sentences that also contain “Ludwig Erhard”….)

  5. Rand certainly did not have a nuanced view of the world in her fiction, and I often find myself disagreeing with her when I read her books.

    But in the above video clip, in which she condensed her ideas into a few sentences, she seemed to make sense. As you state in the preceding post, the fact that she wrote too much and too badly probably makes her less convincing and disguises the noteworthy aspects of her philosophy. Or perhaps that Russian-accented speech is too forbidding to dismiss 🙂

    (You may have noticed that I have used the phrase ‘the fact that’ although The Economist’s style guide sternly advises against its usage. I find, however, that in some cases it is unavoidable. Could there be any way to shun it entirely without having to shorten it to a ‘that’ (which sometimes destroys the rhythm of the sentence)?

    • Welcome to The Hannibal Blog, Susan. Actually, I chose that video clip only for what I allege to be its “humorlessness”. She does actually make sense (in that one-sided way that used to appeal to me once).

      OK, you made me open the style guide. Johnny (Grimond, its author) tells us: “The fact that can often be reduced to That.”

      That’s very Johnny, and very Economist: Note the “often”. It’s the get-out-of-jail fudger.

      Personally, I find myself yucked out only be “despite the fact that…”. Why not: “Although…”?

      If you had wanted to get rid of your “the fact that”, you might have said: “She wrote too much and too badly, which made her less convincing and disguised the noteworthy aspects of her philosophy.”

      Visit more often. 😉

  6. She was such a neat lady and gave lots of folks food for thought. She’s a big brand in the idea jungle. The natural order seems to “need” inflexible elements to maintain balance and so it produces them. Like, how didn’t MAD happen?! People who get deep into expressing their individuality are the best. I’ll bet Rand and Bill Evans would’ve gotten on really well. He wouldn’t play in Russia.

  7. Is Mr. Wallace cross interrogating? Is Ayn just taking away his traditional Christian free lunch theory? The one that states that fallibility is not a problem; you will get it anyway, He has picked up the bill. To have to earn it is a bucket of ice in your lap.

    To Christian America, then and now, very disturbing indeed. Fight it, fight it…

    As a young man Ayn inspired me to try to draw the coordinates of my destiny on my own terms. To wait for none and to well come all. I think I owe her for her part.

  8. Well if you want great thinkers what about mr.Gurdjieff,with his ideas mostly “great” “thinkers” now in humankind go down.

  9. You seem to have problems because you can not combine your politics and philosophy. Rand is philosophical and we all have our philosophy, but to think you can just go on with your life and change your thinking and be an objectivist is wrong. You have come to believe what you have and that’s fine… but you are not objective. You are more likely political now and think in political ways … not objectively or about philosophy. Well it is either that or you just view Objectivism as a childhood fantasy.

    As for the article…I do not like any agenda politically! The rand institute seems to have used her views to promote israel at any cost … too bad.


  10. Also.. everyone lives within Objectivism.. we all live objectively and selfish.
    The only difference is that those who understand and see reality can make the changes and help society.(and yes that is selfish)


  11. Once someone declares uncertainty as the only thing to be certain of then science itself is a dead art. What a bunch of quitters! I’m growing more fond of Feyerabend by the day. Some of you guys really need to wake up and realize that an indeterminate is not an ends, but rather a means to an end.

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