Ayn Rand not only advocated the concept of Objectivism in her book, “Atlas Shrugged,” she lived that philosophy with rare passion and audacity.
There are many things to admire about Ayn Rand’s accomplishments. She arrived alone in New York in 1925 as an impoverished immigrant. In time she became an admired author, rose to remarkable celebrity status, and went on to build a profitable intellectual empire. Her influence remains extraordinary to this day, and her books are still in print. One of her novels, “The Fountainhead,” became a popular movie. (Rand wrote the screenplay, at her insistence.) Her magnum opus, “Atlas Shrugged,” was released as a modern movie (Part 1), nearly thirty years after her death.
But it is her philosophy, Objectivism, which was (and remains) Rand’s most powerful influence upon society. Once again, there are things to admire about Objectivism. A partial but dedicated understanding of noble values was the basis of Rand’s thinking. Since Plato’s time, the familiar triad of timeless values has been generally recognized as truth, beauty, and goodness. Rand extolled truth, and lauded uncompromising integrity. And she lived by that code; she was true to her beliefs. Rand also embraced beauty, advocating challenging benchmarks of excellence … “The only sin is to do things badly.” Turning to the third classic principle, that of goodness or caring, Ayn Rand brushed this metavalue aside. She was a cruel and insensitive narcissist who damaged many lives. And here lies the soft spot in the Objectivist philosophy.
Shortly after Ayn Rand’s death in 1982 at the age of 77, one of her estranged associates, psychologist Nathaniel Branden, called Ayn’s publicist of thirty years. He asked her what she felt about the loss of Ayn Rand. The publicist replied: “I don’t feel much of anything. Whatever love I felt for Ayn vanished a long time ago. I can’t feel anything for her accomplishments anymore. I am too angry at her cruelty, and about the harm she caused to so many people who cared for her.”
Truth and beauty (or integrity and excellence) are critical to material success. Yet goodness is perhaps the most important metavalue of all. It is also the most challenging, because one cannot practice goodness in a vacuum. Goodness involves the development of caring and respectful relationships with other people. Goodness is vastly more than a technique for being nice and getting along with others. Goodness fosters the quality of caring in a Self-Actualizing personality. Goodness modifies the drive to excel, resulting in a wholesome tension between self-interest and service to others. Without caring and respect for all human beings, any political, industrial, or religious philosophy or movement eventually corrupts into a lethal danger to humankind. A dedicated Nazi or a terrorist could demonstrate fidelity toward his cause, or perceived truth, and establish excellence in his performance, and yet casually inflict incalculable evil on innocent people.
Ayn Rand was a devoted atheist, but this cannot excuse egotistic callousness. Abraham Maslow was also a professed atheist, yet he held the metavalues of truth, beauty and goodness to be inseparable. He went so far as to profess that these metavalues are realities, potential active agents, not just furniture for the mind. Maslow declared that metavalues are virtual living realities in the Self-Actualizing personality. He was an advocate for a science of values, refusing to concede the study of truth, beauty and goodness solely to religion and philosophy.
Even so, Objectivism is a philosophy that embraces the preeminence of the individual. This is to be lauded and respected. Another important tenant of Objectivism is the declaration that the human will is the determiner of the inner life experience. We cannot control what may happen to us in the situational fields in which we live, but we are totally responsible for our attitudes toward these situations. Although Ayn Rand lived the values of self-respect and personal responsibility, she stopped there. She believed that science has all the answers, and spiritual insight is a fantasy. But, as Viktor Frankl stated, “we cannot be a law unto ourselves.” Moreover, we cannot truly respect ourselves to a greater degree than we respect other people.
Ayn Rand is to be admired for her courage, but not her ruthlessness. I have conceded that Objectivism features some tenants of importance and power. However, as a philosophy, its power becomes perilous because it attempts to be a two-legged stool. We need all three metavalues: truth, beauty, and goodness. The eternal triad protects us from a narcissistic delusion of infallible power. Because, when power leads us toward arrogance, truth reminds us of our limitations. When power narrows our concerns and directs us toward selfishness, beauty reminds us that we need the rich and nourishing diversity of our human brothers and sisters. And, perhaps most important, when power corrupts and injures, goodness cleanses and heals. For it is truth, beauty, and goodness that are the touchstones that guide humankind toward love and service.
And love, the “desire to do good to others,” is the most powerful force in the universe.