Ayn Rand: recruiting sergeant 5

Of extraordinary interest, we think, is an essay by Anthony Daniels in The New Criterion, titled Ayn Rand: engineer of souls. (We cannot link to it, but it’s easy to find.)

We are admirers of Ayn Rand, but not uncritically. We believe, as she does, that capitalism is the only creator and sustainer of prosperity. We despise religion as she does. Like her we value reason. Her enormous novels Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead have probably won more believers in capitalism and devotees of personal liberty than any other book in any language, even surpassing Hayek’s essential text The Road to Serfdom; and for that she deserves lasting honor.

But her vision of humanity has a comic-book hyperbole about it which keeps her out of the rank of great writers. Her heroes are too big, too superior to us and everyone we’ll ever meet, to be likable. They inspire awe but not affection. We can be sure they’d look down on us if they knew us. We cannot emulate them, we can only wonder at them. They are like gods. They are intensely romantic, and romanticism is the enemy of reason.

Anthony Daniels lists her virtues and vices:

Rand’s virtues were as follows: she was highly intelligent; she was brave and uncompromising in defense of her ideas; she had a kind of iron integrity; and, though a fierce defender of capitalism, she was by no means avid for money herself. The propagation of truth as she saw it was far more important to her than her own material ease. Her vices, of course, were the mirror-image of her virtues, but, in my opinion, the mirror was a magnifying one. Her intelligence was narrow rather than broad. Though in theory a defender of freedom of thought and action, she was dogmatic, inflexible, and intolerant, not only in opinion but in behavior, and it led her to personal cruelty. In the name of her ideas, she was prepared to be deeply unpleasant. She hardened her ideas into ideology. Her integrity led to a lack of self-criticism; she frequently wrote twenty thousand words where one would do. …

A passionate hater of religion, Rand founded a cult around her own person, complete with rituals of excommunication; a passionate believer in rationality and logic, she was incapable of seeing the contradictions in her own work. She was a rationalist who was not entirely rational …

He goes on to paragraphs of stronger condemnation. He finds “horrible” cruelty in her. He perceives that though she was fanatically anti-collectivist, and though she had fled from Soviet Russia to the freedom of America, Stalin’s Russia remained within her.

Her unequivocal admiration bordering on worship of industrialization and the size of human construction as a mark of progress is profoundly Stalinist. Where Stalinist iconography would plant a giant chimney belching black smoke, Randian iconography would plant a skyscraper. (At the end of The Fountainhead, Roark receives a commission to build the tallest skyscraper in New York, its height being the guarantor of its moral grandeur. According to this scale of values, the Burj Dubai would be man’s crowning achievement so far.) Industrialists are to Rand what Stakhanovites were to Stalin: Both saw nature as an enemy, something to be beaten into submission. One doesn’t have to be an adherent of the Gaia hypothesis to know where this hatred of nature led.

Finally, Rand’s treasured theory of literature, what she called Romantic Realism, is virtually indistinguishable from Socialist Realism …

Rand’s heroes are not American but Soviet. The fact that they supposedly embody capitalist values makes no difference. Rand fulfilled Stalin’s criterion for the ideal writer: she tried to be an engineer of souls.

The analysis is not unjust.

But the recruiting sergeant to the Army of Light does not have to be the best exponent of the cause for which it fights.

While acknowledging and regretting all her faults, we keep, for her success as a dedicated recruiting sergeant, an abstract monument to Ayn Rand in our personal Hall of the Defenders of Individual Freedom.

Jillian Becker   June 19, 2010

  • modernAnachronism

    “Her intelligence was narrow rather than broad. Though in theory a defender of freedom of thought and action, she was dogmatic, inflexible, and intolerant, not only in opinion but in behavior, and it led her to personal cruelty. In the name of her ideas, she was prepared to be deeply unpleasant. She hardened her ideas into ideology. Her integrity led to a lack of self-criticism; she frequently wrote twenty thousand words where one would do.”

    “A passionate hater of religion, Rand founded a cult around her own person, complete with rituals of excommunication; a passionate believer in rationality and logic, she was incapable of seeing the contradictions in her own work. She was a rationalist who was not entirely rational …”

    I like Ayn Rand because above all, she was human. All of these flaws that Anthony Daniels pointed out are rather insignificant in the long run. Its as if he believes that in order to bring about change, you must unerringly embody the change which you wish to bring about. That is…you must be a paragon of good to bring about good. Which to me of course seems totally irrelevant. I believe its less about personal flaws (as well as personality flaws), and more about the general direction in which a person is working towards. Bruce Lee once said:

    “It's like a finger pointing away to the moon. Don't concentrate on the finger, or you will miss all the heavenly glory”

    That pretty much sums up my views.

  • Mv_92071

    Anthony Daniel's article in The New Criterion is systematically analyzed and completely refuted at the Objectivist Standard. http://www.theobjectivestandard.com/issues/2010

    Don't take my word for it; go read the article yourself.

    • Jillian Becker

      The spirited argument in the Objectivist Standard is well worth reading for the many good points it makes about Ayn Rand. For these, I too recommend it to our readers.

      However, it is completely wrong in what it says about Anthony Daniels himself. He holds none of the absurd views it ascribes to him. And they certainly cannot be deduced from his own article on Ayn Rand.

  • Bill

    I was waiting patiently for “The Atheist Conservative” to acknowledge Ayn Rand. I agree with what Ralfph said. For me I discovered Ayn Rand's philosophy about thirty years ago. I already considered myself an atheist. I was a conservative until the Moral Majority hijacked the Republican Party. I did not give up on being a capitalist in the Austrian Economics sense. I consider myself a Frederic Bastiat liberal. Actually all you athiest conservatives are liberals in the Frederic Bastiat sense, but you refuse to agree.
    Ayn Rand's weaknesses were many, like you said. She wrote once that she is against the concept of “open mindedness,” but she prefers “Active mindedness” I like having an active mind. She did not practice what she said, as we all know.

    I read about her “gross” affair with Nathaniel Branden while she was married to Frank O'Connor and I think while NB was married to Barbara. I got the idea that Frank O'Connor had alzheimer's disease or something. He did not have the intellect of Nathaniel Branden. I also read how she renounced all of what NB wrote.

    At that point when I discovered the schism, read about her inner circle, read her ridiculous “Romantic Manifesto,” and her wierd fixation with cancer sticks, I was upset to find out she was really a cultist.

    I stumbled on a post at some point in the 1990s where one claimed Objectivism is mainly Aristotelianism with a mean face. We'd be well off if we went back to the ancient Greek philosophers. For instance Ayn Rand's metaphysics ideas of the primacy of existence is really Grecian.

  • Ralph

    As you said this analysis is not unjust. However, Ayn Rand's writing lead me to atheism and conservatism more than forty years ago. Theists have not been able to control me with fear of hell and all their assorted demons. Liberals have never convinced me they are doing anything “for my on good”. Because she was human she had faults, but she changed my life for the better.