Machan's Musings - Cooper on Rand and Aristotle

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Submitted by removed on Wed, 2006-01-18 20:57

Cooper on Rand & Aristotle

Tibor R. Machan

At the December 2005 meeting of the Ayn Rand Society, the chair of the
session titled Ayn Rand as Aristotelian was the renowned Aristotle scholar
and philosopher John M. Cooper of Princeton University. In his closing
remarks he explained how Rand's attraction to Aristotle's thinking had a
curious origin, namely, in Albert Jay Nock's mistaken rendition of
Aristotle's view of the nature of fiction. Instead of thinking, as Nock
and later Rand did, that fiction is about what human beings might and
ought to be, Aristotle actually believed fiction is about the great
variety of ways human beings might be.

More interestingly and controversially, aside from this corrective
point, Professor Cooper went on to make another observation.

"It is another irony, well brought out by Fred Miller [in his contribution
to the session, 'Values and Happiness'], that though her understanding of
Aristotle's Ethics seems to have been quite superficial, and she was
roundly dismissive of its value, as well as that of the Politics, in fact
her own ethical outlook, grounded in her Objectivist principles, is, as
Miller argues, quite close to Aristotle's own. And this despite what the
grapevine at least reports is her own persistent praise of an egoistic,
materialistic, lifestyle—something, one would have thought, very far
removed from Aristotle's own firm and principled rejection of any egoism
of that type...."

Professor Cooper was wise to qualify the characterization he gave of
Rand's philosophy and ethics as "what the grapevine at least reports"
rather than what they actually are since the grapevine is of course even
more erroneous about Rand than Rand was about Aristotle.

First, Rand has never been a materialist—she not only argued but
righteously railed against materialism ( e.g., with her analogy between
materialists and Attila the Hun, who was the epitome of brute force for
Rand). Rand, instead, has always been a naturalist and one who sees nature
as containing a great variety of types and kinds of basically different
beings. This comes out clearly in Rand's support for free will and agent
causation based on the idea that causes are dependent on the identities of
the beings that are part of causal relationships. (A being like humans
are—namely, ones with "volitional consciousness"—is, then, unique in
nature and capable of partaking in fundamentally different types of causal
relations from beings without its unique attribute.)

Second, Randian "egoism" —which as she forthrightly telegraphs in the
subtitle to The Virtue of Selfishness (NAL, 1961), amounts to "a new
concept"—is nothing like the standard version of the position discussed in
contemporary philosophical ethics texts. Indeed, her egoism is of the
eudemonistic type, close to Aristotle's own, in which ethics itself is
egoistic because it is a system of guidelines required by human beings to
live their lives successfully, to flourish, to survive as "man qua man."
The only other ethical egoists in the history of philosophy somewhat akin
to Rand are Bishop Joseph Butler and, more recently, the late David L.
Norton, author of Personal Destinies, A Philosophy of Ethical
(Princeton, 1976).

I make these observations not in criticism of Professor Cooper—although
in his remarks he does offer some comments that do warrant critical
scrutiny ( e.g., when he rhetorically asks, "Might there be some
back-interpretation here, motivated by the desire to make Aristotle a
Randian avant la lettre —rather than our speakers just finding Rand to be
an Aristotelian?" concerning the thrust of the Ayn Rand Society session
topic)—but merely to make as sure as possible that this reference to "what
the grapevine at least reports" about Ayn Rand's philosophy is not left
unchallenged. If I knew the specifics of this grapevine, I would submit my
remarks to the forum where they were aired.

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Cooper on Ayn Rand

Glenn I Heppard's picture

John Cooper also said he has never read anything by Ayn Rand, which makes some of his comments odd.

As usual, good points

Peter Cresswell's picture

As usual, good points Tibor.

"Instead of thinking, as Nock and later Rand did, that fiction is about what human beings might and ought to be, Aristotle actually believed fiction is about the great variety of ways human beings might be."

This is a useful comment to highlight. However, it's my understanding that while Aristotle's position is as Cooper desribes, and Rand was wrong to characterise his position in the manner she did, she held that it is in fact specifically romantic fiction that is about what human beings might and ought to be, rather than fiction as such.

I thought that was worth pointing out for those who might be confused. Smiling

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