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Holiday Reprise - Symposium 1: A Woman for All Seasons
Submitted by James S. Valliant on Mon, 2010-01-18 22:08
Since her death in 1982, Ayn Rand’s ideas have enjoyed nothing short of a Renaissance. Serious analyses of her philosophical insights and system of thought have now appeared in numerous academic journals, a growing list of important books, and conferences of university professors.
Then, of course, there are the double-take-worthy sales figures for Rand’s own books. Half a century after its original publication, a quarter century after its author’s death, Atlas Shrugged is selling faster than ever—and is being invoked by a new generation of activists.
However, as Jennifer Burns accurately notes in her new biography of Rand, Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right, the life of this unique figure has not enjoyed similar attention. Apart from Jeff Britting’s short work, Ayn Rand, previous biographies were written by those who had fallen out with Rand, and are subject to distortion through the biases one must expect from such witnesses. The need for a more accurate picture of Rand, an individual considerably more interesting than either a goddess or a monster, is urgently needed. As Burns observes:
"Work in Rand's personal papers has enabled me to sift through the many biased and contradictory accounts of her life and create a more balanced picture of Rand as a thinker and human being." (GOM, “Introduction,” p. 4)
Since this was the conclusion of my own analysis of these biographies and Rand’s papers, The Passion of Ayn Rand’s Critics, I am obviously in gratified agreement with Burns on this point: previous biographies were indeed, “biased and contradictory.”
Rand's "critics," Burns also writes, "were often unfairly harsh and personal in their attacks." (GOM, “Introduction,” p. 5)
Again, Burns has stated an important truth that is often missed: Rand, especially during her lifetime, was the victim of ad hominem arguments—often hysterical ones—which have helped to shroud her life in mythology.
Burns’s research should also be appreciated for bringing to light a number of previously unpublished details of Ayn Rand’s life. For example, Rand’s crush on actor Hans Gudegast, in her seventies, reveals that she never stopped longing and looking for the sight, at least, of her Ideal Man. (I had previously heard the story of her effort to acquire a clean-shaven photograph of the actor only from Leonard Peikoff, Rand’s heir.) More than this, Burns can display a sensitivity to Rand’s personal context that is sorely missing from previous efforts.
Most importantly, however, Goddess provides—for the first time in detail—an account of Rand’s relationship to what has been called the “right wing intellectual movement of the 20th Century.” Before The National Review, before Human Events, a small group of writers was emerging after World War II that was critical of the New Deal and which urged a strong opposition to Soviet Communism. Ayn Rand was one of these writers, and she personally knew many of the rest. To a largely unacknowledged degree, Rand exerted significant, if limited influence on this nascent movement, both in Hollywood and on journalists and other writers such as John Chamberlain.
By the 1930s, free market liberalism was scarcely to be found among American writers and, for a time, could only be seen in the self-imposed exile of Albert J. Nock or the against-the-grain iconoclasm of H. L. Mencken. Communism and socialism were then the standard text among intellectuals, if not the American public. In the 1940s, with the work of three women, Rand, Isabel Paterson and Rose Wilder Lane, the American concept of liberty was to find passionate new champions. Future Nobel Prize-winning F. A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom would shortly follow. And from this point forward, although still a diverse minority, a new era for intellectuals on the right had commenced.
By the 1960s, William F. Buckley had mostly succeeded in equating the American Right with religious conservatism, however, and, as Burns observes, one of his principal tools for doing this was through his magazine The National Review’s infamous smearing of Rand and Atlas Shrugged. Still, the 1964 Barry Goldwater Presidential campaign bore traces of Rand’s influence, an influence privately acknowledged by Senator Goldwater himself.
In that decade as beatniks devolved into hippies a new kind of “capitalist” emerged, one uncomfortable in Buckley’s Religion-and-Tradition straightjacket, claiming Rand as their foremost ideological inspiration. A small but influential group of these, led by economist Murray Rothbard, advocated a new kind of anarchism or “anarcho-capitalism.” Before long, many of these new activists would also become uncomfortable with Rand’s secular ethics. These would soon form a new sect and a new Party: contemporary libertarians.
By the 1970s, students of Ayn Rand had even begun migrating to Washington and played an instrumental though previously a largely uncredited role in ending the Draft, to which Rand was vehemently opposed. One of Rand’s students would become a principal advisor to President Ronald Reagan; another went on to become a long-serving Federal Reserve Chairman.
Through all of this history that is meticulously unearthed in Goddess of the Market, Rand’s influence went unheralded in most circles, although her public differences with conservatives and libertarians were quite well known. For this reason, the history of her positive influence has never been told in much detail—from any political perspective. Burns takes on the challenge and has produced a comprehensive treatment of how Rand’s life intersected and affected these people and events, and how Rand steered an independent course through it all. And a dry intellectual account it is not, thanks to Burns’s engaging prose, occasional humor—and her fascinating subject.
The book is deeply flawed in two important respects, however, the first being a common problem with those attempting to write about Ayn Rand: a failure to understand or appreciate Rand’s thought. The second major weakness of the book, also sadly common, stems from the author’s willingness to uncritically accept primary accounts that are themselves deeply flawed. Even so, Burns’s biography is superior to previous efforts, and Burns’s recognition of “bias and contradiction” in previous biographies raises the standard of Rand scholarship higher in several important ways.
Unlike Barbara Branden’s impressionistic portrait in The Passion of Ayn Rand, Burns does not paint a humorless, joyless Rand, or one alienated from the physical world itself. Much of the psychological speculation about Rand from the Brandens is simply and properly disregarded and makes no appearance in Burns’s text. Rand’s self-praise is quoted along with Rand’s unusual modesty. No mention whatever of the post-Atlas surprise party, made infamous by the Brandens, is to be found. Burns never doubts the importance of Rand’s husband, Frank O’Connor, to the author’s work and happiness, or that he actually saved The Fountainhead, and she gives us a more sympathetic treatment of O’Connor himself than had either of the Brandens. Burns discusses Rand’s use of Benzedrine, but she fails to associate it with any alleged “paranoia.” The prescribed amphetamine may have helped power her inhuman bursts of energy—as well as her “crashes” afterwards—although even this is somewhat speculative. From the available evidence, however, minus the obvious ax grinding of the Brandens, this much makes coherent sense at least. And there are other interesting omissions of Branden-sourced speculations, as well.
One of the noteworthy improvements over previous biographies is Burns’s account of Rand’s break with her business partner and one-time lover, Nathaniel Branden, in 1968. Explaining why Rand would never forgive Mr. Branden, Burns states:
"More than the fury of a woman scorned, it was the fury of a woman betrayed. For nearly five years, Nathan had lied to Rand about his feelings for her and his relationship with Patrecia. Their hours of intense conversation and counseling, so painful and taxing to Rand, had been a pretense and a ruse to distract her from his deceptions. In the meantime, NBI had grown from a small lecture series to a national institution. Nathan had become famous and wealthy speaking in Rand's name." (GOM, pp. 241-242)
Burns appreciates the layers of complexity within Branden’s dishonesty to Rand, and she acknowledges the most exploitative aspect of Branden’s fraud. Since the publication of my own analysis, The Passion of Ayn Rand’s Critics (PARC), many defenders of the Brandens have been unwilling to admit this with equal clarity, despite the evidence.
Some critics of PARC have gone through especially Byzantine contortions in order to evade another simple observation made by Burns regarding Branden's 1968 public statement about the break:
"Sent out in tandem with Barbara's statement, his letter suggested that it was Rand alone who had acted inappropriately." (GOM, p. 243)
Thus, they blamed Rand for everything while simultaneously hiding Rand’s real motive in the break. In short: they misled their readers.
Again, scholar Chris Sciabarra, along with other critics of PARC, have refused to admit this dishonesty with the directness Burns has now offered, understanding the implication that Burns herself does not reach and may not have seen: if Nathan and Barbara lied not just to Rand but to their readers and continue to stand by those statements to this day, then their credibility on the subject of Rand is profoundly undermined. Under these circumstances, trusting them as sources about Rand, whether they are criticizing, remembering or even praising her, is impossible unless their accounts are corroborated by reliable sources.
In that “Open Letter” about the break, published on both of the Brandens’ personal websites to this day, Branden had denied Rand’s accusation that their relationship had become either therapeutically or (in any way) professionally exploitative. Burns recognizes the opposite to have been the case, acknowledging that the Rand-Branden relationship had indeed become "therapeutic,” despite Branden's 1968 denials. Burns also quotes from the rather unctuous letter to Rand that Patrecia, then Branden’s lover, wrote to her while participating in deceiving her. Burns also reports that the supposedly jealousy-crazed Rand suggested to him that an affair with someone else might be good for Branden during the course of their own relationship. She also notes that Rand had suggested a "partial" break to preserve their business relationship prior to learning the scope of Branden’s deceptions—and that Rand had soured on any continued romance with Branden many months before their break came. All of this confirms what PARC first revealed about Branden’s elaborately fraudulent accounts.
Burns notes PARC’s "vigorous" argument against Frank O’Connor's alleged alcoholism. (GOM, p. 322, note 54) Interestingly, Burns cautions that “[f]irm diagnoses of the dead are always tenuous,” but concludes that it is "not unreasonable" to believe that his drinking was "at the very least unhealthy." However, she also acknowledges that this conclusion hinges on the credibility of witnesses (who, it must be added, are very few indeed.) Curiously, while no new witnesses are offered, Burns makes it seem as if Frank's ability to paint vanished over night, which it did not.
In her “Essay on Sources” at the end, she writes, "Though it often goes overboard in its attacks on the Brandens, James Valliant's The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics subjects both books to intense scrutiny and offers an alternative account of Rand's break with Nathaniel Branden." (GOM, p. 296) Yet, in Burns’s own account of the Brandens’ conduct, a negative evaluation is amply proven, if not directly leveled.
Far more important is that a new era in the scholarship of Rand’s life and work has begun with the opening of her papers to independent scholars. These papers have been available to scholars for some time, and as more volumes utilizing the material are released, all of it will be available for use in published work. However, Goddess represents the first use of this material by a non-Objectivist scholar. Indeed, the praise Burns gives Jeff Britting and the Ayn Rand Archive for their openness to a non-Objectivist, even an Objectivism-critical, scholar stands in sharp contradiction to many assertions by critics of the Ayn Rand Institute, such as Professor Robert Campbell of The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, who routinely accuses that organization of harboring the most nefarious motives. On page 287, Burns writes that Britting was "unfailingly professional, endlessly informative, and always willing to go the extra mile."
While she severely criticizes David Harriman and Michael Berliner for their editing of the Rand material in The Journals of Ayn Rand and Letters of Ayn Rand, PARC, which had made clear even the smallest omission or addition from Rand’s original text, pointedly avoids this. It is obvious that as historical documents the usefulness of these other volumes is limited, as Burns is right to point out. However, there are other purposes these works serve for the student of Rand’s philosophy seeking a deeper understanding of Objectivism and the rest of the author’s mature thought. Burns does not seem to appreciate the value of this. (It could be added that, in comparison to the efficiency with which the papers of Albert Einstein and Walt Disney—both of whom died years earlier than Rand—have been made available to scholars, the Ayn Rand Archive has been moving at light speed.)
Significantly, and despite the concept’s dismissal in some quarters, Burns recognizes a valid and on-going Objectivist "oral tradition” making known the many unpublished philosophical insights of Rand, especially through the work of Dr. Leonard Peikoff. While it is not clear that the Archive material serves as her evidence for this, there is copious evidence there to demonstrate it. For example, Peikoff’s development of “rationalism” and “empiricism” as psycho-epistemological syndromes in his 1983 course Understanding Objectivism is thoroughly rooted in Rand’s own thought, as her diagnosis of Mr. Branden published in PARC confirms.
However, as previously mentioned, Burns’s most important errors lie in her poor understanding of Rand as a philosopher. She does caution that her focus is political, but failing to understand Rand’s system of thought leads her into some very bad misstatements.
Strikingly, she has no appreciation for Rand's psychological insights, or even the dimmest awareness of the cognitive theory of emotions Rand was exploring as early as her private philosophical musings in 1934. For Burns, Rand was simply hostile to emotion, and her refusal to use emotions as a means of cognition is proof. For Burns, emotions are autonomous (GOM, p. 225) or what Rand would have called “irreducible primaries.” For Burns, “scorn” for emotions is shown when Rand describes a character who “does not suffer, because he does not believe in suffering” (GOM, p. 62) Rand’s conviction that emotions have a cognitive component is entirely unexplored and undefined by Burns—and as a result Rand’s closely-related and intensely passionate celebration of emotion is missed and unmentioned, along with its philosophical significance.
This might not have been a vital omission in a political biography, except that, for Burns, the great contradiction, paradox and even tragedy of Rand’s life was the unresolved tension between her emotions and her mind, between her romantic art and her quest to live by logic, between her deep passions and her sharp thinking. (GOM, p. 6 and 159)
Following the Brandens’ lead, Burns maintains that Rand and Branden were “trapped” by what she thinks are Objectivist “theories of love” (GOM, p.224), but, then, she does not broach the actual details of these alleged theories. Since that would have required, among other things, a consideration of the previously mentioned Understanding Objectivism, and the full scope of Rand’s nuanced views, it would have taken her far away from politics and beyond her intended scope. Under such circumstances, then, it would have been best to avoid a topic the author was not prepared to consider fully and fairly.
From Burns’s account, the reader does not know that Rand had an original and systematic answer to the alleged dichotomies between reason and emotion, mind and body, fact and value, theory and practice, abstract thought and actual survival. Rand’s detailed reasoning on these fundamental matters goes unmentioned. Though this last is the very theme of Atlas Shrugged, though such insights power The Fountainhead, though these ideas are implicitly present in a hundred ways in We the Living, though their outline was present in the first pages of Rand’s first philosophical notes—and although these matters directly bear upon Burns’s own theme—she ignores these aspects of Rand’s thought, to the detriment of some of her central conclusions.
An analysis of Rand’s more abstract ideas, whether Burns agrees with them or not, is necessary before one can draw many of the other broad conclusions about those ideas or Rand’s philosophical originality that Burns permits herself. Indeed, it might have been a corrective had she engaged in such an analysis.
This philosophy-vacuum results in Burns’s failure to identify even Rand’s principal motivation as a philosopher, although it is one Rand explicitly spells out in her first philosophical journals, which Burns quotes extensively.
For Burns, Objectivism employs deductive logic exclusively, and that it is only “syllogistically derived.” (GOM, p. 237) It is no excuse that others have shared Burns’s error here, including apparently Isabel Paterson (GOM, p.127), for Rand’s writing was clear and consistent about this. If that was not enough to convince, then surely the growing secondary literature on Objectivism would have set her straight on this score, such as Peikoff’s masterful, Objectivism: the Philosophy of Ayn Rand.
Thus, with little appreciation of the role and function of deduction itself, she necessarily misses the bulk of Rand’s argumentation, as so many before her have missed it. Yet, the first lines from those earliest philosophical notes show Rand seeking to “gather the facts” which would “illuminate” her dualism-busting hypotheses, and, further down, her stated desire to study subjects like physics and psychology as adjuncts to her understanding of politics of all things. (Journals, p. 66 and p. 72) Rand’s unique brand of empiricism is not recognized. Therefore, the expansive and open-ended dimensions of Rand’s thought are missed by Burns altogether. Again, this might not have been a serious problem if Burns did not also claim that Rand had a “narrow idea of how reason should be used.” (GOM, p. 234)
While it is true that the lectures on Objectivism which Branden, and later Peikoff, gave under Rand’s supervision did not employ Socratic debate or dialogue, they were not ipso facto mind-closing recitals of catechism, either. They were designed to help students get straight what Rand was actually saying—a prerequisite to any criticism and something that her critics kept (and keep) getting wrong. This lack of “university” methodology was not an opposition to such methods, either. As Burns recognizes, these lectures filled an important gap left by contemporary higher education in the humanities. While this approach also contributed to the unfortunate aspects of Branden’s school, a simple understanding of Rand’s ideas for what they are is often still badly missing, ironically, a tradition that Burns’s own misunderstandings unfortunately continues.
On the topic of ethics, Burns is equally misguided. By using “altruism” in Auguste Comte’s sense, according to Burns, Rand “seemed to be attacking kindness itself“ (GOM, p.193) and was claiming the “natural human sympathy for the downtrodden [to be] unacceptable.” (GOM, p.173)
Rand had an answer to this, of course, in her explanation for using the term “selfish”—even though it usually means something very different from Rand’s intention—in her “Introduction” to The Virtue of Selfishness (and throughout that volume). It is the essence of such terms that has to be reclaimed, according to Rand, or the truth will be left unnamed, undefined and undefended. True self-regard is the opposite of the savagery meant by the only definition we are otherwise permitted. True self-sacrifice is the opposite of genuine goodwill, despite the usual meaning given to “altruism.” Bearing so closely on Burns’s point, Rand’s own argument should at least have been mentioned.
At times, Burns’s misunderstandings of Rand’s ethics are, sadly, inexcusable. She writes that, according to Rand, “[i[t is immoral to ask anything from others,” (GOM, p.167) and that Rand was simply “untroubled by the idea of economic wants going unsatisfied.” (GOM, p.220) For Burns, Rand is the Levite in the Parable of the Good Samaritan.
At other times, her assertions are simply free-floating assumptions, like this one: “After all, by renouncing charity as a moral obligation [Rand] had voluntarily opted out of any traditional expectations of politeness or courtesy.” (GOM, p.173) Rand’s careful arguments—and the benevolent implications on page after page of her art—not to mention Rand’s practice of and repeated calls for good manners, are entirely ignored.
Given her misunderstanding of the fundamentals of Rand’s philosophy, it is not surprising that Burns’s account of Rand’s political thought is also sometimes inexcusably erroneous. It is in the interplay between ethics and politics that Rand’s social thought is so strikingly original. For Rand, unlike so many defenders of capitalism, there is no “Invisible Hand” magically coordinating human interests, and there is no “paradox” to private selfishness resulting in common welfare. Rand’s case for selfishness is both a forthright defense of the absolute right of an individual to pursue his own happiness—the profit motive itself—and a defense of capitalism as the most productive and prosperous system precisely because it alone is consistent with a morality of reason and individual rights.
Ayn Rand would readily say that White House Communications Director Anita Dunn got it right in June of last year in her speech to those students: Chairman Mao and Mother Theresa are connected under the skin. Dunn is only the most recent example of clarity on the relationship between Christian altruism and socialism. Rand herself would have coupled the two, and for the same reason. Burns may resist drawing this relationship herself, but understanding it is essential to understanding Rand’s case—the most direct defense of the profit motive ever made. Its radical insights are perforce rendered invisible to Burns.
Other errors are cringe-worthy. On Francisco d’Anconia’s famous money speech in Atlas Shrugged, we are told that he misquoted the Bible. (GOM, p.170) Since Rand does not quote the Bible there in the first place, the “misquoting” is all Burns’s. In fact, the speech addresses both of the commonly used forms of the “money is the root of all evil” or “the love of money is the root of all evil” adage. The second is true to St. Paul and it, too, is explicitly addressed by d’Anconia. Burns is just factually wrong on this criticism of the speech.
Burns writes that, for Rand, “competition [is] the meaning of life” and that her work ”appeared” to support “Darwinian capitalist competition.” (GOM, p.175) This is extraordinary, for Atlas Shrugged actually illustrates how it is the “weak” or less talented who are the ones most benefited by capitalism—and why they fared so poorly in previous ages.
Also according to Burns, the State is always a “destroyer” for Rand (GOM, p. 3), even though a judge made the cut into Galt’s Gulch, the novel’s “utopia of greed,” and from there proceeds to articulate the positive role of objective law. Rand’s praise for America’s Founding Fathers—and the tradition of West Point—among many other examples, also contradicts this notion.
Far worse, Burns alleges:
"Her vision of society was atomistic, not organic. Rand’s ideal society was made up of traders, offering value for value, whose relationships spanned only the length of any given transaction." (GOM, p. 209)
Quite the reverse is true: for Rand, relationships of significance span the entire length of a human lifetime—along with the plans, the values and the ambitions of all of her heroes. (“Once granted,” we are told in one memorable case, her hero Howard Roark never “withdrew” his love.) This long-range perspective was one of Rand’s consistent attributes, both as a novelist and as a moralist.
In Burns’s text, some terms are intentionally left vague, such as “conservative,” to little effect, while her use of terms such as "elitism," are so vague that they become truly meaningless. If it is “elitism” to believe that it takes a Michelangelo to paint a Sistine Chapel, then, yes, Rand was a lifelong and forthright “elitist.” (GOM, p. 93) The term connotes something else, of course, something dark, and it is the exact parameters of that something else which are vital to any fair account of Rand’s ideas. “Elitism,” in the sense that Burns seems to use it, could to refer to the act of valuing anyone who achieves more than anyone else—something everyone does all the time, whether by choosing a favorite artist, chef, hairdresser or grocery store.
However, the most repulsive of Burns’s open implications is her description of Rand’s heroes or heroines as being of “Aryan” features. (GOM, p. 147 and 227) Apart from being false—Dagny Taggart’s dark hair, the Latin Francisco d’Anconia, and the somewhat Irishy look (like Rand’s husband) of the red-haired Howard Roark, all spring to mind—Burns’s word-choice conjures something Nazi in Rand’s soul, an inexcusably gratuitous allusion. Burns text suggests that Rand’s early thought was little more than Nietzscheanism, leaving the implications of such a term still more ominously undefined. Burns will report the slanders of reviewers like Whittaker Chambers (“To the gas chambers—go!”), and even be critical of them. But this is one instance where she commits the same injustice, if in a subtler form.
Burns had complete access to Rand’s private journals, and has likely seen Rand’s opposition to Nazi censorship in her writing as early as 1935. (The Journals of Ayn Rand, p. 79)
Which brings us to what is by far the single most important error of Goddess: its treatment of Rand’s intellectual development. And, once more, the error directly flows from Burns’s shallow understanding of Rand’s philosophy.
Burns, perhaps too used to the template of right wing intellectual trajectory, mistakenly sees sharp elbows in the evolution of Rand's thought. For example, she says that her “contact with Paterson and others had helped [Rand] move beyond the narrow Nietzscheanism that defined her early work.” (GOM, p. 132) This is a doubly ironic error for such a brilliant scholar of 20th Century conservative thought to make, for the story of conservative intellectuals of the last century is nothing if not the story of sharp elbows in thinking—especially in comparison to the stalwart and straight line of Rand’s own intellectual career.
As the late Professor John Diggins suggested in his important work, Up From Communism, one needs only to look at the list of contributing editors to The National Review magazine in its first decade or two of operation with one thing in mind: who among them was not a former communist or socialist? John Chamberlain, James Burnham, John Dos Passos, Max Eastman and the notorious Whittaker Chambers whom Buckley assigned to review Atlas Shrugged for that magazine, were just some of the ex-Reds and ex-Pinks populating the American Right in those days. (Almost alone, Rand’s friend Henry Hazlitt must be excluded from that list.)
Some, like Eastman, never found religion like Chambers did, and had difficulties in their relationship with Buckley as a result. Many went from hardcore Marxist to hardcore Conservative, although a Chamberlain or two moved from a milder Leftism to a semi-principled if also mild libertarianism.
Later, many Social Democrats who took grief for their anti-Stalinism as they remained on the Left began to find a comfortable home on the Right, including Irving Kristol, Sidney Hook, and a raft of neo-conservative opponents of communism, as has been well-documented. But for former Leftists, there would be precious few conservative intellectuals in the last century.
Now, these individuals had some serious “elbows” in the development of their thinking. Any comparison to them is entirely unfair to Rand. Whittaker Chambers swung all the way from atheist and Soviet spy to Christian with a reverence for tradition. Eastman remained an atheist, but he went from being an editor of The Masses to being an editor of Reader’s Digest, famous for its anti-communism. Many of these intellectual converts lost close friends, like Dos Passos. The stories of “conversion” in the wake of Stalin’s horrors, at least among honest intellectuals, are too numerous to list here.
To measure the radical dimensions of Rand’s thought, it is important to observe that, for Rand, a conversion such as Chambers’s—from committed Communist to pious Christian—is actually a relatively superficial one, since he remained both a mystic and altruist throughout.
One has to squint very hard to find any similar change in the values of Ayn Rand during her lifetime. Burns will speak of Rand’s “deepening interest in philosophy” in the 1960s (GOM, p. 227), when all that can be found is a new interest in writing about it. Burns will write about the “dawning importance” of reason to Rand in the 1940s (GOM, p. 84), her “turn to Aristotle” at this time (GOM, p.112), and allege that “Aristotelian rationality” had “captured her interest after she completed The Fountainhead.” (GOM, p. 147, emphasis added), when the evidence of her methodological commitment to Aristotle and to logic can be found in her first notes on philosophy written when she was still in her twenties.
Burns is right to observe that these early notes show Rand tentatively asking herself questions, and sometimes show her making a speculation later dropped from her mature thought. However, these journals are noteworthy for their dramatic foreshadowing of nearly the entire outline for the philosophy Rand would come to call “Objectivism.”
Burns implies that Isabel Paterson was the source of Rand’s desire for logical system-building, even though she quotes from those same sections of Rand’s early notes in which Rand explicitly calls for such a logical “system” of ethics, and which were written long before she knew of Paterson’s work. Paterson is even seemingly credited with Rand’s use of the formula “A is A” (GOM, p.112), although it can be found in the earliest version of We the Living, when Kira states in an ominously Aristotelian preview of Rand’s mature thought that “Numbers are numbers. Steel is steel.” This is why, as an engineer, Kira notes, she would not be forced to “lie” in the new Soviet world, unlike other professionals, directly tying her meaning to Aristotelian metaphysics.
Burns thinks of Rand as little more than a Nietzschean until her contact with Paterson and other conservatives. Along with Paterson’s biographer, Professor Stephen Cox, she exaggerates the importance of Isabel Paterson as an influence on Rand’s thought. None of Rand’s ideas seem to have changed at all during her relationship with Paterson, indeed, it was their agreement on so much about politics that drew them together, but the language Rand used is no longer mostly Nietzschean. This stems from a new confidence in her new language and in her own originality, and this last, indeed, may be associated with her relationship with Paterson.
However, in reality, Rand’s commitment to logical and systematic methodology, and to Aristotle, are not only seen to be important in her first philosophical musings, and as early as her twenties, they can be seen to trump Nietzsche’s influence altogether at that early age. At 29, Rand has rejected Nietzsche’s “genealogy” or “history” of ethics, in favor of logical system-building, has argued for a cognition-based kind of free will, and has rejected the idea that human beings are the determined slaves of their own passions and subjective perspectives. (The Journals of Ayn Rand, pp. 66-74) Burns herself quotes many of these highly anti-Nietzschean passages from Rand’s earliest notes.
Burns acknowledges that Rand had differences with Nietzsche, but, from the forest-perspective, as opposed to the tree-perspective, she opines, Rand’s entire career may be seen as one huge “Nietzschean Phase.” Unless she would be willing to lump all egoists into that same category—from Aristotle to Hobbes to Spinoza to Rand—this is egregious mental sloppiness. Differences as profound as the differences that separate Spinoza from Nietzsche also separate Rand from Nietzsche. It is as absurd as saying that Friedrich Nietzsche was going through one giant “Hobbesian Phase.”
And it is particularly unfair to Ayn Rand. Rand sensibly regarded metaphysical and epistemological questions to be far more fundamental issues that will inevitably condition and shape our thinking on all the others, and, therefore, she held them to be far more important than ethical or political questions. By Rand’s standard of importance, these were the most vital subjects, and it is with regard to just these matters that Rand’s radical differences with Nietzsche are to be found, even in her earliest notes.
While he was no fan of socialism (or German nationalism or anti-Semitism), Nietzsche not only explicitly opposed observational “generalization” and logical system-building in ethics, he never seems to have observed anything he liked in democratic America, either. If it is difficult to give Nietzsche’s ideas a political definition beyond his admiration for ancient tyrants and Renaissance thugs, it would be utterly impossible to classify Nietzsche as a political liberal in the classical sense.
On the other hand, Rand seems to have always been the political liberal Nietzsche never was. As Burns notes herself, Rand’s first political affinities were influenced by her father, who was an admirer of Victorian British liberalism, and her early admiration for Alexander Kerensky, precisely because she saw him as the most liberal choice available to Russia. In her very first notes on philosophy in 1934, Rand mentions “liberal democracy,” as if that is the standard from which she will work to distinguish her own thought, writing of “the fault of liberal democracy,” (Journals, p.74) as if it is that which needed the tweaking. Rand cast her first vote for a U.S. President for Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932, believing from his opposition to Prohibition and from his campaign rhetoric that he was the candidate for liberty. Having betrayed that expectation, FDR lost her support quickly. In January of 1937, Rand wrote, in private correspondence:
"I am glad to know that there still are people and a mode of thinking that can be opposed to Communism in a true, sensible democratic spirit. I have met so many people who declared bluntly that anyone criticizing Soviet Russia is automatically a fascist and a capitalistic exploiter. And it was gratifying to read a voice in refutation of that preposterous nonsense." (Letters of Ayn Rand, p. 40)
Later, Rand actively campaigned for Wendell Wilkie, a chapter of her history first explored in detail in Burns’s book. It was through this activism that Rand came to know several prominent conservatives. All the while, Rand was never tempted into even the slightest flirtation with socialism, fascism, religion or nearly any other fashionable idea of the day.
Compared to most other thinkers, compared even to the most consistent of them, Rand was a rock of intellectual changelessness and consistency in a tumultuous sea. From her ideas about religion, to her taste in literature, to her love for America, it’s actually hard to find any sharp “elbows” in Rand’s thought of any kind beyond the stylistic adjustment to differing venues for her thought.
Of course, at first Rand’s terminology was overwhelmingly that of Nietzsche, but it did not and could not fit even her first musings on philosophy, nor her ambitions in the field. The process of Rand’s development was largely the process of finding the right words to express her original intention and the language to fit her unique vision with precise clarity. Thus, in her first novel, We the Living, in the main character Kira’s commitment to honesty and her passionate cry to be “left alone”—in Rand’s first notes calling for a “system of ethics” built on “logic”—and in her first political sympathies, one hears the same anti-Nietzschean philosopher of ethical principles and individual rights that we find in Atlas Shrugged.
Is it even possible to imagine a theory of natural rights emanating from a true Nietzschean?
In a number of other important instances Burns is quite unfair to Rand. In contrast to Burns’s assertion, Rand never “denigrated” the “profession of philosophy” (GOM, p. 185)—just the opposite—in the process of denigrating its current practitioners. One of her sources for this, Professor John Hospers, in fact, has related how Rand gave him a new appreciation for the critical importance of his own chosen field.
Burns’s conclusion that Alan Greenspan was of material assistance to Rand on the economics articulated in Atlas Shrugged is highly dubious—Rand had written more than two-thirds of the novel before she moved back to New York, where she met Greenspan—who, as Fed Chairman, seems not to have understood those economics, even after Rand’s death.
Rand’s attack on modern philosophy is not only implicit in the substance of her ideas, but also long predated her relationship with Leonard Peikoff, despite Burns’s contention (GOM, p.186). Paterson and Nietzsche must share at least some of the credit for this enmity, ironically enough.
How Burns can also claim that after their relationship had soured Paterson was no longer an “important thinker” to Rand (GOM, p. 132)—when Rand’s majestic public recommendation of her book actually put it back into print for many years¬—is also a mystery. (I suspect that I am not alone in having to credit Rand with “turning me on” to Paterson’s work in the first place.)
Readers of the first edition of Rand’s short work, Anthem, written in 1937, and prior to any relationship with Paterson, will note the fundamentality and stress, for example, Rand placed on reason and free will, and can even observe the subtle relationship between reason and volition that she would develop later in Atlas Shrugged. Even at this level of technicality, Rand’s ideas were unchanged, just enormously expanded with new insights, arguments and applications in her magnum opus.
Anthem’s passionate cry against totalitarianism is that of Atlas Shrugged. Dictatorship squelches reason, an attribute of the individual, when it erases the word “I,” and civilization itself recedes into pre-technological barbarism. Discovering the Self comes with the rediscovery of the light bulb, according to this work by Rand, in a line of reasoning that led straight to Galt’s Motor—and one that is indistinguishable from her later, far more elaborate political theory. And this work is one that also preceded in time her relationship with most of the American conservatives she would come to know.
Also remarkable is the consistency of thought between Roark’s courtroom speech in The Fountainhead and Galt’s radio speech in Atlas, the latter merely expanding the scope of its consideration.
One might confidently conclude that Rand had a darker sense of life in her twenties, if the same hand, which had written “The Little Street," had not also penned O. Henry-inspired stories like “Good Copy” and “Escort” during roughly the same time period.
Burns will describe the “newfound appreciation for the average American” that is expressed in The Fountainhead (GOM, p. 82)—despite also acknowledging how, even in Russia, she “idealized America” (GOM, p. 63). Burns then later claims that in Atlas Shrugged Rand had “returned” to her earlier bitterness and disillusionment about “the mob.” Burns gleans this from Rand’s description of how the passengers aboard the doomed train speeding toward disaster in Atlas Shrugged had been complicit in the cultural and political degeneration that led to the disaster. Too conveniently, this is not the occasion for Burns to mention Rand’s account of how philosophy has vital, life-and-death consequences, whether one evades them or not, but for a discussion of Rand’s alleged return to “bitterness.”
However, the workers who cheer the first running of the John Galt Line, and the popular reaction to Hank Rearden’s defense at his show trial, among many other examples, serve precisely the same function in Atlas Shrugged that Roark’s jury verdict (and his friendship with Mike the construction worker) had in The Fountainhead, and these descriptions spring from the same appreciation for ordinary Americans and what Rand called “the American sense of life.” It was an affection that she continued to express until her last public appearance just months before her death in 1982.
Certainly, Rand went through periods of depression, but the light, benevolent spirit she had found in reading O. Henry in her twenties, the same spirit that loved her “tiddly-wink music” from the start, never really died in Rand and continued to resurface until the end.
Even the most sophisticated expressions of Objectivism, such as Peikoff’s Understanding Objectivism, are simply the drawn out implications of Rand’s original musings about the relationship between “thinking” and “living” that we find in the very first lines of those earliest philosophical notes.
In the 1960s, Rand was of course more eager than Buckley to draw the differences between her ideas and those of conservatives, just as by the 1970s Rand was equally eager to draw the differences between herself and Libertarians, but the substance of her opinions does not appear to have changed from period to period—just her emphasis, according to the contemporary context.
Burns observes that Rand’s earliest political manifesto does not proclaim her later criticisms of altruism and mysticism, but this is hardly surprising as it was designed to be a statement to which a broader range of intellectuals could also assent. Rand knew her ideas to be controversial. Again, Rand may not yet have had the confidence to publicly assert the more fundamental ideas that she had already been exploring in her private journals for some time, but even this early effort is still remarkably consistent with those ideas.
And, certainly, Rand’s purposes changed from writing project to writing project. A political manifesto is not an ethical treatise, and a novel is neither. Thus, one can see shifting emphases, but in Rand’s intellectual career it is hard to find any kind of conversion or fundamental epiphany that is otherwise a cliché among thinkers on the Intellectual Right. Instead, we can now see that very few writers have ever been so unchanged by the passage of time—from top to bottom—as was Rand. This should be one of the obvious take-away points from any fair biography of this unique American thinker.
An understanding of Rand’s development as a thinker is an important topic, for, as Objectivism itself implies, she was not born an Objectivist. Rand was moved to write about the ideas and events of her time, and it is absurd to believe that she was unaffected by those events and the wider culture. But Rand remained loyal all her life to certain fundamental ideas and values that endured to the end, retaining an almost childlike lack of guile about the profound questions she had posed to herself as a youth. This innocent courage and honesty, more than any other aspects of personality, help to explain her consistency—and why Rand’s thinking was so challenging, so revolutionary.
Perhaps it “goes without saying” that Rand’s philosophy was the product of independent thought, but, in providing only psychological explanations for Rand’s intellectual development—and in unjustifiably reducing her ideas to a hybrid of those of Nietzsche and Paterson—it is almost as if Burns, an intellectual historian, does not recognize an independent causal role for the human intellect.
Ayn Rand’s growing importance is marked by the publication of Burns’s serious treatment—in itself a step forward in Rand scholarship. In the face of academic headwinds of hostility, Burns’s massive undertaking must have taken equally massive courage, something also to be celebrated, and her sometimes brilliant use of previously unpublished material from the Archive makes this book necessary reading for the serious scholar. Unfortunately, however, a true rendering of Ayn Rand’s life and ideas, indeed, her very spirit, still awaits its muse.
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The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand
Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand