Ayn Rand Revisited: Some Observations

The book jacket of Atlas Shrugged has this quote from Ayn Rand: “To all the readers who discovered The Fountainhead and asked me many questions about the wider application of its ideas, I want to say that I am answering these questions in the present novel, and that The Fountainhead was only an overture to Atlas Shrugged.  I trust that no one will tell me that men such as I write about don’t exist.  That this book has been written-and published-is my proof that they do.”

A less objective defense of a philosophy would be hard to find, and for a philosophy she called “Objectivism,” it is a ludicrous statement.  I don’t claim to present anything objective here; just my own – subjective – views of her ideas as described in these two books.  That I write, and that I publish a blog, is no proof of anything, except that I can.

I first read The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged years ago.  Like Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World, Rand’s Atlas Shrugged offered a chillingly prophetic view of the future, but I didn’t really like her characters.  I just dismissed her books from mind until her name started popping up frequently within the last year, so I decided to read the books again. Living today in a society which has succumbed to a great extent to the laziness, mediocrity, and cronyism she described made me appreciate the accuracy of her depiction of such a society.  However, I believe that the basic assumptions she makes are not accurate, and I still find her characters to be two-dimensional.

Everyone looks for a hero to worship.  In Ayn Rand’s books, the heroes are like Nazi Germany’s Ubermenschen; they see themselves as so far above the common man that they become their own justification for their actions.  Not content with actions, however, even though they claim that these actions are more important than words,  philosophical speeches abound…..I had to skip over much of John Galt’s message to the populace because it went on… and on… and on.  The idea is that these few people really live up to their potential as human beings, while everyone else just exists or is a parasite.  These people are the dreamers who work to make their dreams reality, usually with little help from any one else, the artists and architects whose vision of the future shakes off the clinging tendrils of the outmoded past, the inventors, producers, engineers, and manufacturers who create, produce, manufacture, and run those material things that underpin a technological society and lead it to higher levels of growth and productivity.  Yes, they are hard workers, singleminded, driven workers.  They are brilliant overachievers who accomplish great things.  They believe that they should enjoy the fruits of their labor and not be required to share it.  They are happy to be considered selfish, because they believe that their self-interest produces good.

The philosophy teacher and mentor of the hero in Atlas Shrugged tells Dagny:

“All work is an act of philosophy.  And when men will learn to consider productive work – and that which is its source – as the standard of their moral values, they will reach that state of perfection which is the birthright they lost…The source of work?  Man’s mind, Miss Taggart, man’s reasoning mind.” (p 738)

John Galt, the hero, takes up the subject, expounding on it:

“…the man of the mind….was the man of extravagant energy – and reckless generosity – who knew that stagnation is not man’s fate, that impotence is not his nature, that the ingenuity of his mine is his noblest and most joyous power – and in service to that love of existence he was alone to feel, he went on working, working at any price, working for his despoilers, for his jailers, for his torturers, paying with his life for the privilege of saving theirs…..The tragic joke of human history is that on any of the altars men erected, it was always man whom they immolated and the animal whom they enshrined.  It was always the animal’s attributes, not man’s, that humanity worshipped:  the idol of instinct and the idol of force – the mystics and the kings…” (p 739)

He goes on to add that the mystics’ claim that feelings were superior to reason enabled them to enslave people to blind obedience, while the kings, desiring power to control men’s bodies, ruled by conquest.  Both, he says, were united against the mind.

Touting reason as the highest of human abilities and exalting the singleminded work ethic to the level of a god, Rand, against all reason, denies that only the greatest reason of all, exhibiting the most creative acts of work, could produce people capable of reasoning and working.  Only the greatest intelligence could produce man, a being whose “state of perfection” is a lost “birthright.”  Only one whose own “extravagant energy” and “reckless generosity” was in existence first could have created man in his own image to possess these qualities.  How is it reasonable to believe that man, Ayn Rand’s god, so infinitely complex and beautiful, could be the product of mindless evolution?  Rand wants to claim the high place man occupies in creation without acknowledging the creator who made him and put him there.  Neither does she understand that it was man’s own selfishness, his worship of himself, that led him to take the steps away from the only one to whom rightful obedience is due, steps leading to the debased condition of humanity that she observes so well.

John Galt states that he hates Robin Hood and everything he stands for.  He sees him as one who robs from the deserving, productive rich to give to the undeserving, parasitic poor.  In the stories I read, Robin took from the parasitic, corrupt rich to return to the helpless poor that which had been unjustly taken from them.  Obviously we have different interpretations of the Robin Hood legends.  Yet one of Galt’s best friends becomes a pirate to use violence for his own idea of income redistribution. It is not the violence that is a problem for Galt; it is the way it is used, and that, it seems to me, is not objective at all.  Furthermore, when a train wreck kills many people due to negligence and mismanagement, the glimpses of some of the people on the train before the crash make it seem like Rand deems them deserving of death, as a punishment, not just a consequence, of unproductive behavior.

Speaking of violence, the relationships between the heroes and heroines is often a violent one.  In The Fountainhead,  Howard Roark rapes Dominique.  In most of the sexual relationships – and each heroine has three separate involvements – sex is a means by which the hero demonstrates his conquest of the heroine; it is often violent and a means to humiliate a woman who is seen as a strong and worthy opponent.  Yet each of her heroines, Dominique and Dagny, must suffer and grow before they can come up to the level of their men.  All of this makes me wonder what exactly Ayn Rand thought about women.  I found this description telling:

“On the slopes around them, the tall, dark pyramids of firs stood immovably straight, in masculine simplicity, like sculpture reduced to an essential form, and they clashed with the complex, feminine, over detailed lace-work of the birch leaves trembling in the sun.” (p 704)

It seems to me that she perceives the feminine as something of less value than the masculine.
Her heroines, like her heroes, are tall and thin, almost masculine.  They engage in battles of wills and resources, competing against men.  The mothers of the characters are either dead or interferingly obnoxious.  There is only one mother portrayed positively, as are her children, who are growing up free from the constraints of a corrupted society.  The most important creative act of life, the birthing and raising of children, is not a part of any of the main characters’ lives.  They want to make their mark on the world producing material things, but don’t seem to realize that even those will fade and be destroyed.  The only lasting legacy humans can have on this earth is their children and their children’s children…..souls that will live on when the material is gone.  Children are the supreme production of the human race.  It is interesting to me that children, and a healthy family unit, are largely missing from these books.  I suspect because, in that family unit, the theories of objectivism break down.  Parenting is impossible without the willingness to make and accept sacrifices.  A healthy family unit, the basis of a healthy society, cannot exist on the basis of these philosophical statements:

“Productiveness is your acceptance of morality, your recognition of the fact that you choose to live-”

“Pride is the recognition that you are your own highest value,” and

the “symbol of all relationships among such men [“men who neither make sacrifices nor accept them”], the moral symbol of respect for human beings, is the trader.” (pp 1020-1022)

Ayn Rand had some very accurate descriptions of the political situation in the world today, but her basic understanding of humanity and creation was, I believe, flawed.

“To force a man to drop his own mind and to accept your will as a substitute, with a gun in place of a syllogism, with terror in place of proof, and death as the final argument – is to attempt to exist in defiance of reality.” (p 1023)

This situation IS a reality for many in this world, as radical Islam and terrorists are forcing people to make this choice.  Yet what gives people the courage to stand up for the truth, to retain control of their minds, and accept death rather than give in, in most cases is not the objectivist philosophy, but rather their faith.  Faith in the God who created us and gave us value, faith in the moral universe he gave to us, and faith in the one Man who sacrificed all for those willing to accept that sacrifice.  I’m sorry that Ayn Rand did not have this faith; she might have attained to the happiness she sought had she worshipped God rather than man.

Note:  Quotations are taken from the 35th Anniversary Edition, hardback, of Atlas Shrugged, Dutton, 1992.


When Normal Becomes the Ideal

These thoughts are the result of a FaceBook discussion started by a friend of mine.  She was disturbed by the public acclaim surrounding a young woman’s decision to commit suicide because of the diagnosis of terminal brain cancer.  Not much of a news reader, I hadn’t known about the story until she mentioned it.  I can empathize with the anguish, the pain, and the fear that this young woman has experienced since she received her diagnosis, all of which no doubt led to her decision to end her own life.  I do not believe she should be ostracized nor condemned, like the suicides of other times who were not accorded burial in holy ground.  I am concerned, however, by the publicization of her story, in an attempt, it seems, to make suicide seem to be a laudable and therefore eventually a normal response to the overwhelming difficulties one may face in life.

When I studied Experimental Psychology as an undergraduate and again in graduate school, I became familiar with terms such as “average,” “mean,” “mode,” “median,” “norm.”  These are all different ways of assessing frequencies in populations.  These measurements impact our lives in many ways.  For example, if you are a parent, you may have had your infant’s growth marked on a chart that shows curves of “normal” growth.  The general developmental milestones of children are also laid out in terms of what is “normal.”  I don’t deny that these tools can be useful in understanding development and in determining causes for concern.  However, in reality, there is no such thing as “normal.”  “Normal” is just another way of saying “average”; it is a concept, a statistical construct whose purpose is to make it easier to assess and to categorize groups of people or things.  I wonder if the concept of a normal human body temperature, for example, is calculated from the average of a variety of inputs or from the most commonly occurring one.  Instead of just being used as a relative measuring tool, however, “normal” has come to mean “ideal.”  It has become a measuring stick against which many of us find we fall short.

The use of the concept of normal is particularly egregious in the public education system.  The whole system – philosophy, methodology, and materials – is geared toward a fictional normal child instead of the actual flesh and blood individuals who populate our schools.  It is more than frustrating for teachers, parents, and students to be hampered in the learning process by a bureaucratic system based upon holding up an average as an ideal; it is wrong.  It is wrong not only because it is largely inefficient but also because it labels children, categorizes them, and declares some of them to be less than “normal.”  The “normal” child does not have autism, Down’s Syndrome, or a learning disability.  To be normal, a child may not be gifted intellectually but also be socially awkward; he is not ahead of his peers in one subject and behind in another.  The “normal” child, who is on the designated grade level in all areas and fits exactly where he should on the pediatric growth charts, does not exist.  In an attempt to gear our pedagogy toward an ideal of normal, we have achieved a norm of mediocrity.

But the educational system is just a piece, albeit a large one, of the effect of the concept of normal on our society.  We have allowed the present culture to define what constitutes the normal life to which we are all, by assumption, entitled and therefore encouraged to achieve.  If you have read Lois Lowry’s The Giver or Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, you have read  descriptions of the logical devolution of societies in which all pain is to be avoided, the lives of children are a commodity, and the desire for security builds a prison of regulations that ensure the normal life will have no surprises.  However, what is considered to be normal is not always what is right.  When we lose the compass that points us to God, when we have no way of determining what is right or wrong, then actions that are wrong become acceptable and then “normal.”  Abortion and suicide are just two examples.  The giving and the taking of life is in God’s hands, not ours.  Our job as people made in His image is to come alongside those suffering enough to consider either of these actions, to offer help and love, but not to accept the actions themselves as a normal part of life in our time.

Life is full of pain; to avoid pain at all costs is to become like a rat in a Pavlovian experiment.  To seek out pain is to be mentally unstable.  But to accept pain as it comes and seek the lesson it brings, that is to be fully human.

Life is full of surprises, some good and some not.  To regulate one’s life so carefully so as to avoid surprises is to become a robot, an automaton, not a human being.

Life is full of grief, but to try to avoid the sadness that is part of all human relationships would mean closing off the vulnerability that enables those relationships to exist and to have meaning beyond the surface of polite interaction.

Life is full of fear and anxiety.  We may fear bad things that we know are going to happen and also those that are even more frightening because they are unknown and unpredictable. Courage is pushing through these fears so that they do not govern our actions.

Life is also full of joy, but that joy is only fully realized in the context of a relationship with God.  That is the relationship that enables each of us to walk through the pains, the surprises, the griefs and the fears of life, accepting them with the knowledge that our God, the Giver of all good things, is bringing us through all of that to a life so much more than “normal.”


Conservation

Conservation – or going “green” – is the big thing now.  As Americans, we have been used to excess of every kind for so many years that simplifying, recycling, and saving are concepts still foreign to most of us.  I remember what we did with our trash when I was a child spending my summers in the mountains of New York:  we separated it into paper, that was burned; cans, bottles, which were each recycled, and food refuse, which was given to the farmer for his pigs.  Plastic was so rare then that recycling it was not an issue.

However, I did not finally sit down to write on this blog to discuss conservation in the larger sense; rather, since I have been on a self-imposed diet, I have been thinking about what that concept means to me personally, in terms of food, money, and time.  I started with an app, which gave me a general idea of how many calories in what proportion of nutrients I should be consuming each day, considering my age, current weight, goal weight, lifestyle, etc.  Given only 1370 calories to play with in a day was very sobering, especially on the first day, when I just continued my normal eating habits and ended up more than 800 calories over; it was no surprise, then, why I had been gaining weight!  Each day brought new discoveries.  One was that if I ate two hardboiled eggs, with just salt on them, I was still going over my cholesterol allowance, despite the fact that eggs are high in protein and low in calories.  I soon realized that I needed to drastically cut down portion size and quit my chronic nibbling.  A Starbucks soy vanilla latte is a lot of calories, but, once I opted out of the sugary vanilla syrup, I still couldn’t figure out why it still “cost” me so much.  My attitude has quickly become that of having a certain number of calories to “spend,” being careful not to waste them. Snacks like Tostitos, at 140 calories for 7 chips, are clearly not worth it to me; I’d rather eat half an avocado for 21 more.

Since I am eating less and eating more consciously, I find myself really enjoying my food, savoring each bite, wasting not a tidbit.  I evaluate food choices on whether they are worth the calories, and, if I determine they are, eating them becomes a gift I give myself – like the zucchini muffins and the hamantaschen I made.  I no longer have to eat lots of something to enjoy it; eight Ghirardelli chips are enough to satisfy my chocolate craving.

This attitude has carried over into my spending habits as well, not to the same degree yet, unfortunately, but I’m getting there.  When I began to make the connection between calorie counting and spending, I started seeing how much money I waste on things that may be nice, even good, but are still unnecessary and unprofitable.  If I spend less on these little things, I can start saving for the things that are really important to me: visiting my kids overseas, for example.  Our expenses here in North Carolina in the country are so minimal that I should be able to sock away quite a bit, if I am as careful with my money as I have become with my calories.

The  biggest issue for me, though, is time.  Wasting time is something I have become very good at.  It’s not that I am lazy, nor is it that I don’t have enough to do; I like to work hard and keep busy.  However, there are many moments during each day that go unclaimed, that are not profitably spent, not even as conscious times of rest.  In a class I took on prayer, we examined how much time we spend frustrated by waiting – in lines, on the highway, on the phone – when we could reclaim that time in active prayer. Even, and perhaps especially, my busyness can be a waste of time – time that God has allotted to me in this life that I need to be using in and for Him.  It is much harder for me to be intentional about my use of time.  One of the rationales for my purchase of this nice new Apple computer was so that I could more effectively blog and also finally start to write some stories.  The discipline it takes to actually sit down and do this, not just check my email, wander onto FaceBook, and watch Korean dramas, has been sorely lacking in me.  I could say that our life was at first so stressful after our car accident that I couldn’t write; lately I have felt that I have just been floating along with no apparent crises, so what is there, then, to write about?  If for no other reason, I need to write, whether or not anyone reads my reflections or agrees with them, because that is how I best process what is going on in my life and what lessons God is teaching me, if I would just take the time to stop, listen, and learn.