Who’s afraid of Ayn Rand?
If you’ve heard of Ayn Rand, whose centennial birthday was Wednesday, it is probably because you’ve read her novels The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged. But back when the greatest female thinker in history was alive, the above question was quite revealing. It still is.
Rand, a novelist and philosopher, came to America all alone in her early twenties after escaping Soviet Russia and before being castigated by everyone from Granville Hicks to Whittaker Chambers. Her first novel, We The Living, a semi-autobiographical depiction of life under communism, was panned by leftist critics for “failing to understand the Soviet experiment.” The rigorous philosophy she later developed—which she called Objectivism and which can be summarized by the axis of reason-individualism-capitalism—unnerved intellectual nippleweights from both left and right. And mutual hatred with Women’s Lib was established from the get-go, because she liked men.
Mike Wallace reflected that Rand’s most vehement critics tended not to actually read her. So challenged were their basic assumptions by the ideas of this little big-eyed immigrant that they were too afraid to deal with them. Their fear of being challenged was a harbinger of an intellectual culture today in which monocle-dropping offense comes much easier than rational thought.
And so, since her death, Ayn Rand has merely been dismissed and ignored by her elite adversaries. When I asked the chairs of the Women’s Studies and Political Science departments at my school what they thought of her, they both gave the kind of bashful, blushing smile that I normally give when reminded of my childhood crush on Oscar the Grouch. Read her in high school, grew up, moved on, haven’t thought of her since. Great sex scenes though. May we talk Hegel?
Rand’s philosophy of rational egoism and individual rights certainly has its flaws, which mainly have to do with an overextension of her moral absolutism into inappropriate areas. (Although, viewed in the context of her Russian background, it is certainly not surprising that she was so fond of absolutes.) But those flaws are more than clouded by achievements that were remarkable both for her time and in themselves.
She blasted long-perceived conflicts between self-interest and benevolence, profit and ethics, reason and passion, is and ought, theory and reality. With unparalleled clarity, she proved these to be false dichotomies—which, in the case of the last one, she was tragically unable to overcome in her own personal life.
From the 1930s to the 1970s, the American founding principles had been widely considered dead as their founders. She brought them to life. Capitalism had forever been the province of grids and graphs. She provided a moral defense of it with unequaled passion. Philosophy had for centuries been synonymous with “zzzzzzzzzzzz.” She made it fun and interesting. Which is why, despite her shunning from academe, she continues to influence the people who matter most: people.
Her books have sold over 22 million copies and continue to sell at a rate of half a million a year. Given their deeply intellectual content, those numbers are bowtie-spinning. In a national poll, Atlas Shrugged was voted second to the Bible as having the most influence on the lives of Americans. Those Americans include such varied icons as Alan Greenspan, the rock-band Rush, and (I swear) a gay-porn star named Jon Galt.
Ayn Rand’s ideas fueled the free-market movement that has advanced so much in—and of—the world since the 1980s. Her intellectual eloquence in emphasizing the meaning of the American founding preceded Ronald Reagan’s political eloquence in glorifying it. Take this passage, from her book The New Intellectual:
“If a drought strikes them, animals perish—man builds irrigation canals; if a flood strikes them, animals perish—man builds dams; if a carnivorous pack attacks them animals perish—man writes the Constitution of the United States.”
Why? Because, as she explained in a different essay, “there are two potential violators of man’s rights: the criminals and the government. The great achievement of the United States was to draw a distinction between these two—by forbidding to the second the legalized version of the activities of the first.”
The day that intellectual principles are restored in academe will be the day when Ayn Rand is treated by professors as more than just an adolescent indulgence. It will be the day when she is treated as the brilliant thinker that she was: a woman who made history by espousing unique ideas that brought it a great deal closer to its end.
Alec Mouhibian is a student at UC Santa Barbara and a columnist for its newspaper, The Daily Nexus.