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ayn rand

(Part I link)

What finally made me question Rand, though, was an essay she wrote on why an Objectivist would be pro-choice on the abortion issue. For whatever reason, this hit me as absurd and hypocritical on her part. It seemed (and still does) to contradict the best of what she believed and promoted. Again, I was an atheist/agnostic, but I was a free market, pro-life atheist/agnostic/libertarian. . . . Well, let just say “I existed” as a bundle of contradictions. But, I existed. Regardless, even as a whatever, I knew that Rand had contradicted herself on this issue.

As I enter my mid forties, having spent most of my adult life studying the great Christian Humanists of the last two centuries, I’ve come to believe that Rand is as “modern” as it gets. She just seems to embody right-wing modernism rather than radical or progressive modernism. Not in terms of her understanding of government, of course, but in her understanding of the human person and the Church, she strikes me as intensely fascistic. The memoirs of Nathaniel and Barbara Branden, her closest associates in the 1950s and early 1960s, bear this out.

Here’s one example from her book Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. “Observe that it [Pope Paul VI’s encyclical, “On the Development of Peoples”] is not aimed at destroying man’s mind, but at a slower, more agonizing equivalent: at enslaving it.” [Rand, Capitalism, pg. 305]

Really? For centuries, the oldest institution in the West defining and defending the rights of the human person, the church that inspired St. John, St. Paul, St. Augustine, St. Bede, St. Gregory the Great, John of Salisbury, St. Thomas á Becket, St. Thomas Aquinas, Petrarch, Erasmus, St. Robert Bellermine, St. Thomas More, John Henry Newman, and St. Maximilian Kolbe finds its culmination in the dismissal, “at enslaving” man. Strange, the Catholic Church always held enslavement as illegal, unethical, and immoral. Did it always follow this belief in practice, no. But, it’s the language of the Church that ended such evil in the western world.

Rand, of course, seemed unconvinced. And, to be fair to her, she attempts to deal with just such an objection.

The Catholic Church has never given up the hope to re-establish the medieval union of church and state, with a global state and a global theocracy as its ultimate goal. . . . The Catholic Church is deserting Western civilization and culling upon the barbarian hordes to devour the achievements of man’s mind. There is an element of sadness in this spectacle. Catholicism has long been the most philosophical of all religion. Its long, illustrious philosophical history was illuminated by a giant: Thomas Aquinas. . . . Now, we are witnessing the end of the Aquinas line—with the Church turning again to his primordial antagonist, who fits it better, to the mind-hating, life-hating St. Augustine. [Rand, Capitalism, pp. 315-316.]

Obviously, she didn’t deal with it very well, but she did deal with it. But, really, St. Augustine—arguably the most exemplary figure in western civilization? The nexus of the ancient and medieval world? Mind hating? Life hating? Is this the same Augustine who explained the state without justice was a gang of robbers, the same Augustine who called all men to love one another, the same Augustine who knew his Cicero better than almost any other figure of his age, the same Augustine who called for the end of slavery, claiming the practice anathema to Catholic teachings? That Augustine? Rand must’ve read a different Augustine, for we can’t possibly be writing about the same person.

And, praise for Aquinas? Would the Dumb Ox recognize a single thing in the writings of Rand as promoting the good, true, or beautiful?

The modern Church, Rand feared, had taken the wrong path, perhaps bringing about the end of man.

There is no place for the mind in the world proposed by the encyclical, and no place for man. The entities populating it are insentient robots geared to perform prescribed tasks in a gigantic tribal machine, robots deprived of choice, judgment, values, convictions and self esteem—above all, of self-esteem. [Rand, Capitalism, pg. 306]

In an earlier version of Atlas Shrugged, Rand had hoped to introduce a Roman Catholic priest into the story. Named “Father Amadeus,” he would’ve eventually realized that John Galt, not Jesus Christ, was “the end of his endeavors, the man of virtue, the perfect man—and that his means do not fit this end (and that he is destroying this, his ideal for the sake of those who are evil.)” [Rand’s personal notes, quoted in Peikoff, “Introduction,” Atlas Shrugged (Dutton, 1992, pg. Xiii]

One should not take this merely as rantings against the Catholic Church. Rand doesn’t seem to have liked Protestants either. In her marginalia of C.S. Lewis’s Abolition of Man, she wrote [Parents, please note: the following is “R” rated] “abysmal bastard,” “bastard,” “incredible, medieval monstrosity,” “lousy bastard,” “cheap, drivelling [sic] non-entity,” “This monstrosity,” “G-d-damn, beaten mystic,” “abysmal caricature,” and “abysmal scum!”

Phew. Poor Jack. And, while teaching at Oxford and Cambridge, he probably never even gave Ayn Rand a second thought. Or even a first thought for that matter.

I must admit, I would rather have ten copies of That Hideous Strength than a single copy of Atlas Shrugged. Though dealing with many of the same themes, That Hideous Strength is actually well written and well argued.

A couple of parlor games, though, come to mind as I imagine a C.S. Lewis vs. Ayn Rand.

First game: pretend Ayn Rand showed up at an Inklings meeting.

Second game: pretend Ayn Rand is Sharkey, industrializing the Shire and smoking all of the Hobbit’s pipeweed.

Third game: pretend that the “heroes” of Atlas Shrugged invade Narnia.

***

Looking back over this essay, I see how dour I am on Rand. Let me end on a positive note. Without Rand and her influence on popular culture, we wouldn’t have three of its great manifestations:

The character of Star Trek’s Mr. Spock

The character of Star Trek’s Mr. Spock

The creepiest video game of all time, 2K’s Bioshock

The creepiest video game of all time, 2K’s Bioshock

Rush’s prog opus, “2112”

Rush’s prog opus, “2112”

“We’ve taken care of everything

The words you hear, the songs you sing

The pictures that give pleasure to your eyes

It’s one for all and all for one

We work together, common sons

Never need to wonder how or why

We are the Priests of the Temples of Syrinx

Our great computers fill the hallowed halls

We are the Priests, of the Temples of Syrinx

All the gifts of life are held within our walls”

—Neal Peart, “2112,” 1976.

Was it worth it?

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

All Ayn Rand quotes taken from:

Ayn Rand, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (New American Library, 1966)

Robert Mayhew, ed., Ayn Rand’s Marginalia (Second Renaissance Books, 1995)

Leonard Peikoff, “Introduction,” in Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged (Dutton,1992)

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6 replies to this post
  1. Rand's rather unhinged attacks on Catholicism seem aptly echoed in Hitchens' steadfast determination to see nothing but tyranny in Rome.

    I am reminded of one of my favorite moments from Flannery O'Connor's letters: "I hope you don't have friends who recommend Ayn Rand to you. The fiction of Ayn Rand is as low as you can get re fiction. I hope you picked it up off the floor of the subway and threw it in the nearest garbage pail. She makes Mickey Spillane look like Dostoevsky."

    A few months ago I was thinking about Mr. Spock and libertarians and the tendency in sci-fi to experiment with purely logical sentient beings–logicians who approach every moment and decision by weighing the arguments for or against and making a coldly rational decision. They live in a series of disconnected propositions and then choose for or against based on abstract and universal logic.

    These characters are stacked against humans who are portrayed as combining rational and emotional elements. But I think that this is something of a false dichotomy, or rather a dichotomy that leaves something out. We don't just bring either abstract feelings or reason, or a combination of the two, to our daily lives. Humans are rational and emotional, but our reasons and feelings and thoughts are grounded in our history.

    (caveat: I'm not saying our history determines us. We are free to react to our history how we will, but we aren't free from reacting to it.)

  2. Poor old Ayn Rand, whom the great Hillsdale English professor Robert v.v. Rice once dismissed as ‘a penny-whistle Nietzsche.’ He was right, too. She appeals to the same age groups and psychological types, full of zits and ‘the will to power.’ Most people grow out of it; in Rand’s case when they find her book title praising selfishness and then learn that the poor dear demanded to be laid out under a dollar-sign while mourners sang old campfire songs. Not exactly a Wagnerian exit.

    Ayn was a low-class operation from the git-go. Her novels are bodice-rippers crossed with the longer and more turgid ideological speeches in De Sade’s Jacobin-porno novels. As cult-leaders go, she couldn’t hold a candle to Gurdjieff or Sun Myung Moon. Her dinner conversation was supposed to be as dire as one might expect – Murray Rothbard wrote a funny one-act play about dinner with Rand, available on the Mises Institute website.

    Is Rand to be feared, even if one can stop laughing long enough? I doubt it. Any reader with even a room-temperature IQ will tire of it fast and move on to better things. Anyone stuck there is already in over his head. Some Randians even make the trek to Mecosta, and one I knew years ago is now a nun living under a vow of silence (the whirring sound you hear is Ayn spinning in her grave). Ultimately, Rand makes young people dislike Big Government and if they are incapable of anything more, so be it – if they remain besotted then they weren’t the sort you’d expect to find lugging stacks of CS Lewis and TS Eliot to the bookstore checkout counter now, would they?

    s. masty

  3. Daniel, these here inter webs aren't untrue. Though he's no longer a Randian, Peart was deeply influenced by Rand in the 1970s. Rush's last album, Snakes and Arrows, all but renouncerd any lingering Randian influences. I think Peart is still fairly on the right–at least in terms of government and the economy.

  4. Actually, Augustine defended slavery in his book The City of God. Some of the Church Fathers opposed it, like St. Patrick, himself a former slave. Others supported it. Slavery continued to exist in Christendom. To claim that Catholic teachings should be given credit for ending slavery (while acknowledging the Catholics who helped) is to ignore those who justified the practice, including Pope Nicholas V in Dum Diversus.

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