Book Review: Ayn Rand, For the New Intellectual

Several months ago I had a nice email back-and-forth with two folks who I really respect about the merits of Ayn Rand and her philosophy of Objectivism. It all started when I got a trackback ping from somebody who said that I was a bit “subjectivist” and, not knowing what that meant, the learning process began. One guy was telling me, “She’s an idiotic theoretician who believes self-interest should come above all us.” The other guy was telling me, “Her thinking has emerged into a legit philosophy over the last 30 years and her novels are extraordinary.”

At some point I want to tackle her most famous novels – Atlas Shrugged and Fountainhead – but for now I just read For the New Intellectual, a book by Rand that breaks down the philosophies presented in her famous novels. (I also read Shermer’s Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time which contained a thorough debunking of Rand the person.)

My key lesson learned is this: there is a big difference between being a fan of her novels and being a fan of her philosophy. I get the sense that her novels have strong characters, a compelling plot, etc. But you can like her novels and not embrace the philosophy. There are many things, in my early research, that I find quite appealing. Its emphasis on knowledge/intellectualism – one of core values – is awesome. Its emphasis on not feeling guilty when acting in self-interest I also can sympathize with. My chief complaint, though, is how it seems to operate on extremes. If you are selfless or the least bit philanthropic then by default you put aside all self-interest and pleasure in the name of others. There IS a grey area, but this doesn’t seem to be sufficiently promoted in the philosophy.

My exploration continues….

One Response to Book Review: Ayn Rand, For the New Intellectual

  1. Josh Kaufman says:

    Ben,

    I’m glad to hear this, and I think reading Rand’s work will be a very productive use of your time. I read Atlas almost two years ago, and spent the better part of the following year learning everything I could about her philosophy. I think your first impressions are right on the mark.

    1. About positive/negative reviews. In my experience, most of Rand’s detractors have little idea what she actually advocates; they tend to react to what they *think* she advocates, which is usually not anywhere near the mark. Similarly, some of her proponents accept her word as law and fail to think for themselves, leading to the charges of “cult-ism” Shermer and many others discuss. Rand has many ideas that have extraordinary value, but you must always think and judge their merits for yourself.

    2. On her perceived extremism. Rand’s fiction tends to be highly-stylized romanticism – her characters (particularly in Atlas) tend to represent a key idea or concept, and are not intended to represent “real” human beings in the day-to-day, descriptive sense. Later in her life, she did tend to conceptualize in extremes, with the argument that it is often necessary to do so to avoid compromising on a principle in which compromise is not actually possible, like the virtues of reason, justice, and integrity. (“In any compromise between food and poison, it is only death that can win. In any compromise between good and evil, it is only evil that can profit.”)

    3. On the virtue of benevolence. Rand doesn’t give benevolent acts nearly enough discussion, in my opinion, but such acts are entirely compatible with her philosophy. Basically, if you want to help other people out, Rand would say that’s great – if and only if you’re doing it because you desire to help and not because you think you have some kind of moral duty to spend your life and resources in the service of others. (David Kelley wrote an entire book on this: “Unrugged Individualism: The Selfish Basis for Benevolence”) It’s often quite satisfying to know you’ve really made a difference in someone’s life, so benevolence and philanthropy are not out of the question in her view.

    In terms of where to go from here, I’d recommend you start with The Fountainhead. It’s probably the better novel of the two, and will give you a good idea of what she has to say and why it’s important. Atlas is much more developed in a philosophical sense, and has a lot of worldview-challenging ideas, but the first part of the novel is very dark and depressing (by design and by necessity), and takes a little more emotional fortitude to get through. I highly recommend reading both – it’s not an exaggeration to say these books rocked my world.

    Here are a couple of articles to help you with your research:
    * link to capmag.com
    * link to mises.org

    Also, if you’re interested in philosophy, I strongly recommend “Aristotle: The Desire to Understand” by Jonathan Lear. It’s a great introduction to many of the basic ideas that heavily influenced Rand’s work, particularly with regard to epistemology and the possibility of a naturalistic ethics.

    Wow, this turned out to be a long comment! Best of luck with your exploration. :-)

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