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Feb 04 2012

Gore Vidal on Ayn Rand

I made the mistake of reading Ayn Rand’s book The Fountainhead before her more celebrated work Atlas Shrugged that supposedly provides the clearest articulation of her philosophy of objectivism. After a promising start, The Fountainhead degenerated into a dreary polemic, with two-dimensional stereotypical characters behaving in utterly predictable ways, the whole thing written in melodramatic style. Although I completed it, it was such a bad novel that I simply could not bear the thought of reading another 1000 pages by the same writer and so never read Atlas Shrugged.

It is not that I am averse to long novels. After all, I read Tolstoy’s War and Peace and was then inspired to immediately read Anna Karenina by the same novelist. But I am highly allergic to bad novelists.

Ayn Rand is currently enjoying a resurgence amongst the members of the Tea Party Christian right. While many of them happily carry the Bible in one hand while holding Atlas Shrugged in the other, they seem either unaware of Rand’s outspoken atheism or dismiss it as a mere quirk in their idol’s otherwise impeccable ideology.

Gore Vidal wrote an essay in 1961 where he expressed his own puzzlement with the popularity of Rand, “who writes novels I have never been able to read.” But more importantly, he points out why her philosophy that selfishness is good required her to reject both Marx and Jesus, resulting in her brand of right-wing atheism. He writes:

This odd little woman is attempting to give a moral sanction to greed and self interest, and to pull it off she must at times indulge in purest Orwellian newspeak of the “freedom is slavery” sort. What interests me most about her is not the absurdity of her “philosophy,” but the size of her audience (in my campaign for the House she was the one writer people knew and talked about). She has a great attraction for simple people who are puzzled by organized society, who object to paying taxes, who dislike the “welfare” state, who feel guilt at the thought of the suffering of others but who would like to harden their hearts. For them, she has an enticing prescription: altruism is the root of all evil, self-interest is the only good, and if you’re dumb or incompetent that’s your lookout.

She is fighting two battles: the first, against the idea of the State being anything more than a police force and a judiciary to restrain people from stealing each other’s money openly. She is in legitimate company here. There is a reactionary position which has many valid attractions, among them lean, sinewy, regular-guy Barry Goldwater. But it is Miss Rand’s second battle that is the moral one. She has declared war not only on Marx but on Christ. Now, although my own enthusiasm for the various systems evolved in the names of those two figures is limited, I doubt if even the most anti-Christian free-thinker would want to deny the ethical value of Christ in the Gospels. To reject that Christ is to embark on dangerous waters indeed. For to justify and extol human greed and egotism is to my mind not only immoral, but evil. For one thing, it is gratuitous to advise any human being to look out for himself. You can be sure that he will. It is far more difficult to persuade him to help his neighbor to build a dam or to defend a town or to give food he has accumulated to the victims of a famine. But since we must live together, dependent upon one another for many things and services, altruism is necessary to survival. To get people to do needed things is the perennial hard task of government, not to mention of religion and philosophy. That it is right to help someone less fortunate is an idea which ahs figured in most systems of conduct since the beginning of the race.

Miss Rand now tells us that what we have thought was right is really wrong. The lesson should have read: One for one and none for all.

You cannot be a fan of Rand’s philosophy without rejecting the main ethical principles of Jesus and of almost all the major religious leaders. At least Rand was consistent on this score and rejected religion altogether. Many of her followers try to have it both ways.

13 comments

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  1. 1
    slc1

    Shorter Ayn Rand: Every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost.

  2. 2
    starskeptic

    There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.

    —-Paul Krugman

  3. 3
    Mano Singham

    That is a great quote but the original source is Rogers at Kung Fu Monkey.

  4. 4
    starskeptic

    You’re right – I missed the attribution…

    here’s another:

    Here’s the thing: learning macroeconomics from reading Atlas Shrugged is like learning psychology from Battlefield Earth.

    —Jim Wright

  5. 5
    'Tis Himself

    she has an enticing prescription: altruism is the root of all evil, self-interest is the only good, and if you’re dumb or incompetent that’s your lookout.

    One major problem with Rand’s philosophy is she starts with an incorrect definition of altruism:

    The basic principle of altruism is that man has no right to exist for his own sake, that service to others is the only justification of his existence, and that self -sacrifice is his highest moral duty, virtue and value.

    “Faith and Force: The Destroyers of the Modern World,” Philosophy: Who Needs It, p. 61

    Her philosophy of selfishness is based on negation of a strawman.

  6. 6
    Todd W.

    I doubt if even the most anti-Christian free-thinker would want to deny the ethical value of Christ in the Gospels

    I think this can only be said out of ignorance of Jesus’ message. Any free thinker should condemn the teachings unique to Jesus as both ignorant and immoral.

    Note that I am referring to those teachings unique to Jesus. He had good things to say–such as the Golden Rule–but these were around long before Jesus. When one judges Jesus by his more or less original teachings, there is nothing praiseworthy, only a great deal of ignorance and evil.

  7. 7
    Chris Campbell

    “a dreary polemic, with two-dimensional stereotypical characters behaving in utterly predictable ways, the whole thing written in melodramatic style.”

    That’s pretty much Atlas Shrugged too. You’re not missing anything.

  8. 8
    Robert B.

    I was a big fan of Ayn Rand as a teenager. I read Atlas, Fountainhead, Anthem, and We The Living. (And holy shit, if you thought Fountainhead was bad, We The Living will set your very brain on fire with horribleness.) Then I went on to the essays, read all of those I could get my hands on. (Not to mention Terry Goodkind, though I got fed up when the Ayn Rand ripoff got too blatant with Faith of the Fallen, or as I like to call it, “Howard Roark is a Wizard Now.”)

    Basically, I was a bright, introverted kid, good at school and picked on for it, given enough religious education to know what it was but not nearly enough to be convincing. Ayn Rand was the first person I’d ever seen say things straight out like “religion is both wrong and bad,” “figure out right and wrong by reason,” and “if you’re good at something, don’t apologize, be proud and get even better.” These are all things I still believe, beliefs that are very important to me, so even now I still have a soft spot for Rand, even though I know she was a bitter vicious bigoted hypocrite who admired sociopathy and treated her own followers with the same totalitarianism she despised in everyone else.

    Atlas Shrugged inspired me to study physics and philosophy in college. At which point I was reading Kant and Feyerabend and Russell and Sagan and Feynman and I noticed that the bad stuff in Rand was pretty damn bad and the good stuff was done better elsewhere. Still, it felt to me like I was using the ideas Rand had taught me to surpass her and learn better ones. If you’re already an atheist and a rationalist, I doubt she has much to offer, and maybe she’s hurt more minds that she’s helped. (Actually, scratch “maybe.” Almost certainly hurt more than helped.) But she sure helped me.

  9. 9
    Robert B.

    Hm. I’ve never thought of that as a strawman argument before, I’m trying to decide if that’s an accurate characterization. Ayn Rand certainly had a habit of taking other people’s beliefs to their “rational” (i.e., extreme) conclusion, and then viciously attacking them for this extreme position. I’m not seeing that here, but then, I know for a fact I have old biases tangled up in Rand’s writings.

    How would you define altruism, then?

  10. 10
    Marta

    That is a lovely essay, Robert B.

  11. 11
    Shplane, Spess Alium

    I was going to say this, but then Todd W. was the Gary Oak to my Ash Ketchum.

  12. 12
    M.Nieuweboer

    Yeah, I have similar feelings towards Michael Bakunin. He was in many respects a fool plus an antisemite, but was also the first one to predict that the Marxist revolution would end in totalitarianism, not in a classless society. For that he got kicked out of the First Communist International.

  13. 13
    Chris Cox

    Ayn Rand was and is a Sociopath

    If you think you know what a sociopath is, then think again

    Google ” sociopath ” , read up about it

    Visit a site like lovefraud.com

    Learn about the condition because the chances are you know at least one sociopath personally , probably without even being aware of it

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