Ayn Rand, Prophet or Lunatic?
OK, the title isn’t really fair, but thought I’d cover all the bases. This post comes with a number of caveats. The first and foremost one, I really don’t know anything about Ayn Rand. Philosophy isn’t my strong suit, I’ve only read one of her books (Atlas Shrugged,) and everything else I know about her comes from a few articles I’ve read lately, and some few hours of on line research for this post. So this post is going to touch upon a lot of generalities and tangential themes, without delving too much into the nuts and bolts of Objectivism, the philosophy created and espoused by Ayn Rand.
First Ayn Rand, her personality and her cult. Who cares? OK, not quite, but close. The message someone is trying to convey under most circumstances should be judged independent of the person. Most people have personal demons of one sort or another, using someone’s personal life to discredit their message is usually easy, and thus usually a cheap shot. Now in her case where she claimed to have developed a valid personal philosophy, it is fair to say that she’s clearly not the best example of living a good life, but that’s not reason to discredit her philosophy entirely. That’s as stupid as, well, using Al Gore to attempt to discredit global warming.
Moving right along, in the plus column, a huge number of people have been very inspired by her writings. And they didn’t run out and do bad things, as far as I know (and I know at least one) plenty of normal successful people have been inspired by Ayn Rand. Now the same applies here as to the prior paragraph, this doesn’t really have any probitive value either. It’s an indication that she is saying something a lot of people want to hear, and they value it. I try not to denigrate anything that huge numbers of people find value in, figuring maybe they see something I don’t. I don’t see that casting stones ever helps much either.
As far as literary value goes, while Atlas Shrugged is a labour of love, I don’t think any read it for the prose. Granted I read it decades ago, but it didn’t stick in my mind, and I certainly have no desire to read it again. I do recall that the characters seemed awfully unrealistic, almost cardboard, to me; but she was writing to illustrate her philosophy, not creating a character study. I only even mention this because as I understand it, Ayn Rand placed great stock in expressive creative endeavours like writing Atlas Shrugged. In that sense, she embodied her philosophy nicely.
Ah, her philosophy, what was it? Yes, here’s the meat:
“My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.“
OK then, that’s Objectivism in a nutshell, by the author herself. So what do I think of it? It’s shiny pebbles. Very simply put, I mean it has some nice parts. However, if one has a collection of nice parts, they are going to look good no matter how one arranges them. Objectivism is an expanded truism. I’m in favour of reason, who isn’t? Productive achievement is a great thing, cool enough. Who wouldn’t want to be happy and heroic? Who could fault either? Put it all together, what does it all mean? Not much that I can see. It’s a philosophy that could be used to justify any course of action. Arguments that can defend any action aren’t really arguments, no matter how well intended.
Maybe that’s superficial of me, maybe there are subtle aspects I am missing. The second thing that I find unconvincing about Objectivism, is that it apparently claims to be able to derive absolute moral laws through logic alone. This is where most mainstream philosophers nod quietly and back slowly away. No system of philosophy claims any sort of absolute authority, only cults do that. It’s also been claimed, at least by Ayn and her inner circle, that her system is infallible and if everyone used it, society would have no problems. Unfortunately, that claim can be made and has been made about many systems of ideology/religion, and is simply saying “If everyone agreed with me, we’d have no problems.” Unfortunately for all such claimants, that ain’t gonna happen in the real world, making the argument irrelevant at best.
So in conclusion, Objectivism sounds closer to a dime store version self help book than any sort of real school of philosophy, but I don’t see any harm in it, and some are positively inspired by it. So what’s the problem?
(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. It’s not being used for profit and is central to illustrating the post. It is a copyrighted image, the artist has reserved some rights. Credit and copyright: WayneandWax. The shiny pebbles analogy just came to me while I was writing this post. It seemed cogent at the time, but now I’m not so sure. That’s kinda the story of my life.)