Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Who is Ayn Rand?


There's been a lot of talk about Ayn Rand since Paul Ryan was tapped by Romney for the Vice President's slot on the GOP ticket.  

People are asking "Who's Rand"?  What's Ryan talking about her for?  How come I haven't heard about her before?

I'm not one of those people.  I know who she is.

When I was young, I read a lot of Ayn Rand.  

Her books AnthemAltas Shrugged, and Fountainhead were among the books that really inspired me, made me think about who I was.  I especially liked what she said about individualism, the importance of the self against the dominance of the "Other."  

Like most young guys back then in the 60s, I felt pretty much overwhelmed by government, the draft, my parents, school, the future with its responsibilities to a possible wife and possible kids.  

Rand seemed the ticket.  Here's what she told me:  It's you against everybody else and if you can't throw off the shackles and chains of those others you will never be free.  An attractive lesson to give to a 19 year old.  

But while trying to throw off the dominance of everybody else and to maintain the integrity of my self, I realized that I couldn't exist without other people.  There was an essential part of me that was the "Other."  What the other person did and said in part affected who I was.  It didn't control me but it was a part of me, and I felt that denying that fact was certainly a denial of my whole self.  

But what finally convinced me to turn away from Rand was her lack of charity for other people. In her world, the best thing you can do is strive to succeed for yourself.  The other person didn't need to figure into that equation.  You didn't have to care for another or concern yourself with another.  

In fact, someplace she said that if civilization is to survive, people have to reject the morality of altruism.  In other words, to hell with other people.

I couldn't accept that.  

There's a fundamental part of my self that reaches out to other people, wants to help other people.  Maybe it comes to me from people reaching out to me and my family when we first came to America.  Maybe it comes to me because my parents were victims of the kind of rejection of the humanity of others that the Nazis found comfortable.  I don't know, but what I do know is that I go emotional when I see people who need help.

Rand says, you're messing up society if you do.

21 comments:

Halina said...

Dear John,
My son was also intrigued by her writing when he was 19 even wanted to take an engineering course in college) and I loved her books. It is nice to read about the society that rewards engineers. We all take their work for granted. I think she is a great writer.
Halina

Christina said...

Wonderful. Would like to share.

towboatcookie said...

I loved her wonderfully, outrageous characters.
I didn't buy her philosophy. It seems to be true of many artists. Their art is the truest part of them. If I had read G.B.Shaw's philosophy before reading his plays I wouldn't have read any of them. I've read most of his plays over and over again.

Bruce K said...

Thanks for the thoughts on Ayn Rand, and for the fetching photograph.
The recent tendency to wield Rand's name in the name of conservatism demonstrates about as much similarity to her actual ideas as her visage has to that of Helen Mirren ("The Passion of Ayn Rand" - 1999).
See today's NYT OpEd piece "Atlas Spurned" by Jennifer Burns for a cogent account of this ideological misrepresentation.

oriana said...

One of the striking features of her fiction is that no one has children. That's one obvious place where the "virtue of selfishness" would be exposed as idiocy (provided the humankind has a desire to survive).

For all her brilliance, which I admit, Rand failed to notice that humanity owes its astonishing feats to cooperation. Science, for instance, is a totally cooperative endeavor. Genius, yes, but others have to replicate and verify, so ultimately the genius is collective. Rand's extreme individualism is like all extremes -- ultimately crazily wrong and even demonic.

John Guzlowski said...

Christina, feel free to share. (If I were still under the sway of Rand, I would probably ask you to buy the essay first.)

Anonymous said...

I was drawn to Rand, too, in early college in the 1960's, but then found her philosophy bordering on the dangerous. Gary Cooper is great in that movie, though, which I can't recall exactly now. He plays the architect.

Christina Pacosz

John Guzlowski said...

Oriana--yes, the absence of children. I think that it's the family that teaches us about cooperation and connection. I know that a lot of my own sense of individualism floundered when I started to think of myself in relationship to my wife and daughter and my aging parents.

John Guzlowski said...

Bruce, that photo of Rand. I worked hard to find one of her that was menacing. Mostly she's smiling in her photos.

Sword of Apollo said...

John,
It sounds like you, like many others, have read Rand, but have not fully comprehended what she really had to say about morality and about altruism. She did not say that others can be of no value and so "to hell with other people". They can be of tremendous psychological value to you as friends, lovers, children, etc.
Rand had nothing against this; what she opposed was self-sacrifice for others (properly understood.) She opposed giving up something more important to your happiness for something less important. Why do you have a moral duty to suffer for others, by the sheer fact that they are not you?
Your valuing of others is properly proportionate to how positively they impact your long-term happiness.
Reading Rand's novels is not enough to deeply understand her ideas. If one is to really understand, a few years of serious study is typically needed.
This post on Rand's morality is from a blog dedicated to generating a proper, deeper understanding of Rand's philosophy: The Morality of Rational Egoism: Short Notes

John Guzlowski said...

Sword of Apollo, I think I understand Rand. She doesn't believe that charity is a "moral imperative." She also doesn't think it's really a big deal. Of course, she's got a right to feel this way. And the thing I admire about her is that she is so honest about her feelings. Here's a statement by her from the Ayn Rand website:

My views on charity are very simple. I do not consider it a major virtue and, above all, I do not consider it a moral duty. There is nothing wrong in helping other people, if and when they are worthy of the help and you can afford to help them. I regard charity as a marginal issue. What I am fighting is the idea that charity is a moral duty and a primary virtue.

[From “Playboy’s 1964 interview with Ayn Rand”]

Steve said...

Hmm, sounds like the Sword of Apollo needs a swig of Dionysius' wine.

Urkat said...

Excellent piece John. I think many of us are torn between the opposing impulses of altruism vs. egotism.

Michael Meyerhofer said...

Well said, John! Obviously, there's a time and place for selfishness (artists, for instance, have to have a big dose of both selfishness and selflessness to get by). I also agree that developing one's individuality and self-sufficiency are of great importance.

What doesn't get enough discussion, though, is the human invention of compassion. I think that compassion is the main thing that distinguishes us from animals because caring about another living thing, especially when it isn't necessarily in your own best interest, is THE triumph of morality and higher order thinking over raw (but obviously necessary and valuable) instinct.

Charles A. Swanson said...

Hi John,

This is Charles Swanson. I appreciate this blog. I remember reading Rand in high school. I think we read it as a class because it provoked discussion. The more I read into her long work The Fountainhead, the more I thought she was reversing the meaning of the terms selflessness and selfishness. In order for one to embrace true "selflessness," one had to be willing to be selfish. I thought the argument interesting, but somewhat straining at the bit. My memory on all this is fuzzy now, but I have little desire to delve back into Rand because of that worldview, which did fascinate me, but which I ultimately rejected.

Charles A. Swanson said...

Hi John,

This is Charles Swanson. I appreciate this blog. I remember reading Rand in high school. I think we read it as a class because it provoked discussion. The more I read into her long work The Fountainhead, the more I thought she was reversing the meaning of the terms selflessness and selfishness. In order for one to embrace true "selflessness," one had to be willing to be selfish. I thought the argument interesting, but somewhat straining at the bit. My memory on all this is fuzzy now, but I have little desire to delve back into Rand because of that worldview, which did fascinate me, but which I ultimately rejected.

off kilter said...

I liked The Fountainhead, as well, when I was a college student, but even then it left me with a vague uneasiness. What if I was not the perfect specimen, physically and mentally, she wanted us to aspire to? What if I just couldn't do it? What worth as a human being would I have then?
Today, I read in the NY Times that she had a 6 foot dollar sign next to her coffin at her wake. That, for me, says it all about her philosophy.

Daniel said...

Your insightful post has a great deal of affinity with the writings of Emmanuel Levinas. I am new to your blog so may I ask, are you familiar with Levinas? obliged.

John Guzlowski said...

Daniel, I don't know Levinas but I will definitely look him up.

John Guzlowski said...

Daniel, I took a look at the Wikipedia site on Levinas. Interesting. My sense of the relationship between the self and the other comes from my reading of R. D. Laing. I did my dissertation on his sense of self and other in contemporary American fiction. Have you read Laing?

Danusha V. Goska said...

It's absurd for Ryan to claim to be both Catholic and a follower of Ayn Rand. Something is rotten in Denmark.

One of the most unintentionally funny films of all time "The Foutainhead" with Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal, a movie that can only be taken as some sort of leaden parody.

Ayn Rand followers are the mirror image of those they are a backlash against -- liberals. A plague on both their houses.