First published in Flourishing May 2011.
Ayn Rand, born Alisa Rosenbaum in St. Petersburg, Russia, on February 2nd, 1905, was one of the 20th century’s foremost voices for human freedom. Some of you, no doubt, have read some of her work. Recently, her most famous work, Atlas Shrugged, was adapted for the silver screen, and Atlas Shrugged, Part 1, was released to more than three hundred theaters in eighty U.S. cities on April 15. Rand was not just one of the 20th century’s most famous and articulate champions of freedom, she was also the most misunderstood and most slandered. Since I’m a great fan of her work, and having just seen the movie, I want to share with you a little of what I know about Ayn Rand.
After living through the Bolshevik Revolution, and the economic chaos and political repression that ensued, young Alisa fled the Soviet Union for the United Statesin 1926. Already conversant in French and able to get around in English, she began her career in the movie industry working for such notables as Cecil B. De Mille. She later became an accomplished playwright, most famously authoring The Night of January 16. (My sweetie played Magda Svenson in the Beloit High School Junior Class Play, c. 1963.)
In 1936, Ayn Rand’s first novel, We the Living, which she said was the nearest to an autobiography as she would ever write, was published by McMillan. It has since sold more than 3 million copies. Remarkably, in 1942 it was adapted for the movies inItaly. Though it was censored only a few weeks after its introduction, a digitized version is now available with English subtitles. I own the 2-DVD set and it is a beautiful film, which one would expect, since it stars Alido Valli and Rossano Brazzi, two ofItaly’s movie legends.
Ayn Rand’s first financially liberating success came in 1943 with the publication of The Fountainheadby Bobbs-Merrill. The book has now sold 6.5 million copies. Fourteen years later, Atlas Shrugged was published by Random House, championed by that firm’s Chief Executive, Bennett Cerf. Atlas Shrugged has sold over 7 million copies; more than 500,000 in the last year.
The success of her novels enabled Ayn Rand to devote the remainder of her life to building a system of thought – a philosophy – that she would call “Objectivism”. She wrote and edited several periodicals containing philosophical essays, and cultural and political commentaries. She played a critical role developing new advocates for laissez-faire capitalism, including, as you may have guessed, moi. Her influence on American culture has, likewise, been profound. A 1991 survey by the Library of Congress and The Book-of-the Month Club placed Atlas Shrugged second only to the Bible in influence among American readers; admittedly and appropriately, a distant second.
Ayn Rand owed much of her success to the power and directness of her writing style. She was a master of reducing an idea to its clearest and most effective formulation. For example, she wrote that, “If some men are entitled by right to the products of the work of others, it means that those others are deprived of rights and condemned to slave labor.” Or, when challenging the view that human perception is unreliable, because it’s limited by the nature of our sensory organs, she would write satirically, “Man is blind, because he has eyes — deaf, because he has ears.”
Ayn Rand called big business “America’s persecuted minority”, so she is often characterized as a naïve apologist for crony capitalism; but nothing could be further from the truth. She vehemently condemned the “type of businessmen who sought special advantages by government action.”
The most controversial aspect of Ayn Rand’s philosophy, ethical egoism (not to be confused with psychological egoism), is also one of the most misunderstood. The point of her egoism was not to advocate the pursuit of one’s own interests at the expense of other people. Rather, she rejected the model of conflicting interests. She rejected not only the subordination of one’s own interests to those of others, but also the subordination of others’ interests to one’s own. Though her ideas were original, in practice they were not a radical departure from what most of us regard as mere “common sense”. In everyday parlance, she was an advocate of “win, win”.
Ayn Rand identified the roots of the 18th century Age of Enlightenment—the philosophical movement that led to America’s founding—in the rediscovery of Aristotle by St. Thomas Aquinas. She always insisted that Aristotle was the greatest of all philosophers, and that St. Thomas Aquinas was the second greatest, her own atheism notwithstanding. For Ayn Rand, as for Thomas Jefferson and others among our founders, the Aristotelian recognition of the fact that rational human interests, however diverse, are naturally harmonious was (and is) the proper moral foundation of human relationships and a free society. Preserve that thought.
Human progress is often driven by creative and controversial people working outside of the so-called establishment, and Ayn Rand was certainly that. But, her philosophy is in many ways an extension, clarification, and moral defense of the principles that guided our founding fathers; and thanks to the popularity of her novels, her inspiring vision of the majesty of the human mind, and her defense of the ethical necessity of human liberty Ayn Rand has already affected and improved the lives of millions. I think it’s very likely that in fifty years her ideas will be the foundation of America’s predominant secular philosophy. Unfortunately, I won’t be there—well, I might not be there—to see how it all works out. mh