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Ayn Rand: still adolescent after all these years

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What's on my mind

On March 6, Ayn Rand, the author of popular books like “The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged,” would have turned 100 years old. Despite the passage of time, it’s remarkable that her “philosophy” remains essentially adolescent. Like Nietzsche and Sartre, Rand captures that precious moment when youngsters step forward as themselves by globally consigning the values of their parents and culture to the rubbish heap. Adolescents do this, of course, in the name of nothing other than their need to be unique individuals. Having rejected the values they grew up with, they can value nothing — in their moment of rebellion — except their individual selves.

Rand captures this moment only to betray it, for she immediately plunges into new certainties, advanced not only without qualification or nuance, but without argument. The first of these certainties is the principle of identity, i.e. that reality consists, at its core, of objective states of affairs. A second given is our nature — reason itself — and the third is the idea that reason is selfish, or as Rand put it, “the most selfish of all things is the independent mind which recognizes no authority higher than itself.” The fourth certainty is that accepting or struggling against the innate selfishness of reason is your single basic choice, which, wrote Rand, “determines your life.” Finally, accepting it means never subordinating your own good to that of another person: “You are your own highest value.”

But what if reality were really a set of shadowy forces, which we can grasp only vaguely? What if nature were not a “firm predictable absolute,” but something that exhibited what physicists call “quantum weirdness,” such as events without causes? Rand never considers these possibilities, and so does not refute them. Further, what if thought properly takes place not in a single head, but in the way Plato believed: as a process of mutual dialogue and correction? In that case, Rand’s “selfish mind” would be a fantasy. And what if human nature were something malleable that we must often struggle to transform, even as we seek to fulfill it? If so, accepting our nature, whatever it might be, is not always wise or even possible.

Nietzsche and Sartre recognize what Rand does not: that true human freedom requires uncertainty. They do not assume that nature can be known; where Rand sees absolutes, they see mysteries. They do not seek to freeze our adolescent in her precious moment of global rejection, but teach her to continue her questioning and growth.

Rand’s thought is directed not against collectivism, but against all human community. The most elegant statement of her philosophy is contained in a speech — a tirade, to be precise — by John Galt, the hero of “Atlas Shrugged,” who calls his fellow humans “moral cannibals” and invites them to “perish with and in your own void.” Rand would have you value only “travelers you choose to share your journey, [who] must be travelers going on their own power to the same destination.” This rules out such things as caring for children, for an aging parent or for the unfortunate in general. But then, such things are of small concern to adolescents.

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