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Apr 1, 2016

Some Personal Reflections on Ayn Rand

Smith discusses some good and bad influences that Ayn Rand’s ideas had on his own intellectual development.

In several previous essays I noted, with obvious disdain, Ayn Rand’s comment that Immanuel Kant was “the most evil man in mankind’s history” (The Objectivist, Sept. 1971). I also attempted to explain the basic reason for Rand’s outrageous assessment, namely, her belief that over time a philosopher’s epistemology, if widely accepted, will exert enormous influence on the subsequent development of philosophy; so a deeply flawed theory of knowledge will prove more harmful than, say, an evil political theory. Therefore, since Rand believed that Kant’s influential theory of knowledge undercuts the possibility of objective knowledge, she held him largely responsible for later irrationalist trends in philosophy, as found in fascism and in other statist ideologies. Kant was more evil than even a Stalin or a Hitler because he made them possible, philosophically speaking.

In my last essay I also quoted Rand’s allegation, “Kant’s purpose was to corrupt and paralyze man’s mind.” I was frankly reluctant to quote this line, given my genuine admiration for Rand’s philosophic achievements, because it is so off-the-wall that it makes her look like a crank, and I have no desire to provide ammunition for her many critics who insist that Rand should not be taken seriously as a philosopher. But, to be fair, many great philosophers and scientists have defended crankish notions from time to time, so I am neither surprised nor offended by Rand’s occasional descent into crankdom. Indeed, I would label a few of her essays—very few, fortunately—as crankish, most notably “About a Woman President” (reprinted in The Voice of Reason, ed. Leonard Peikoff, 1990) and “An Open Letter to Boris Spassky” (reprinted in Philosophy: Who Needs It, ed, Leonard Peikoff, 1982).

I have a theory, which may or may not interest my readers, about Rand’s occasionally bizarre statements. Ayn Rand, in my judgment, was an intellectual of the highest rank; in fact, I regard her as a genius—a label that I do not use frequently or casually. A genius does not follow the beaten path; rather, she blazes her own trails, typically with little or no regard of what others may think of her ideas. Genius, in the final analysis, is a type of intellectual eccentricity, but this is no ordinary disregard for conventions. An authentic genius has the ability to back up her nonconformity with original and worthwhile ideas. Unlike run-of the-mill eccentrics (of the sort one frequently encounters in Internet discussions), who pride themselves on their nonconformity but have nothing valuable to contribute, a genius has no interest in nonconformity for its own sake. A genius (in the field of philosophy) exercises her creative abilities to develop theories in her own way, according to her own lights, with little if any regard for conventional wisdom. A genius is not motivated by a desire to be unconventional; rather, her primary motive is to develop and justify her own philosophy, and the theories she develops are what make her unconventional.

The eccentric behaviors of many geniuses—whether in philosophy, science, art, or in some other discipline—are well known, even legendary. We—and by “we” I mean those of us who have not been blessed with genius—sometimes view the behavior of a genius as exceedingly peculiar, inexplicable, and, at times, even as self-destructive. A genius, in short, will sometimes do and say weird and silly things. Such is the nature of the intellectual eccentricity called “genius”; and this, I believe, is what we sometimes find in the life and writings of Ayn Rand. This is why I am not outraged or even surprised by Rand’s occasionally crankish ideas, as we find in her assessments of Kant and in a few of her articles. If Rand had been a “normal” person in the conventional sense, I doubt if she could have written any of her books, whether fiction or nonfiction. Her considerable accomplishments were made possible not only by her talent and labor but also by her eccentricities.

As expected, my recent criticisms of Rand on Libertarianism.org incurred the wrath of a number of Rand’s disciples—those ardent Objectivists who believe that Rand never defended an incorrect philosophical doctrine and that virtually all of her philosophical ideas were wholly original. For this group, the notion of a friendly or sympathetic critic of Rand is almost inconceivable, and this attitude has generated a rather pointless debate over whether Objectivism is a “closed” or “open” philosophy. (For my extended thoughts on these and other controversies about Rand, see my articles “Ayn Rand: Philosophy and Controversy” and “Objectivism as a Religion,” in Atheism, Ayn Rand, and Other Heresies, Prometheus Books, 1991). Although I never subscribed to this orthodox branch of Objectivism, honesty compels me to confess, with some embarrassment, that I was an overly enthusiastic defender of Rand during my high school and early college years in the late 1960s. Here is how I put it in my autobiographical sketch, “My Path to Atheism,” in Atheism, Ayn Rand, and Other Heresies.

I eagerly devoured Rand’s ideas and, like many of her followers, spat them up undigested. I memorized passages and definitions from her writing, blamed altruism and Immanuel Kant for all that is wrong in the world, and adamantly proclaimed the existence of a world external to consciousness. (It was difficult to find anyone who would argue this last point with me.)

All this, perhaps, can be forgiven a high-school student smitten with heroine worship. Rand’s lasting influence was to convince me (and thousands of other young people) that ideas matter. She had an astonishing ability to make philosophy seem important and exciting—something that most philosophy professors never manage to approach. That was the true legacy of Ayn Rand.

Upon entering college, Greg [Morris] and I formed a “Students of Objectivism” club [at the University of Arizona]. A little later, there occurred the famous (now infamous) split between Ayn Rand and psychologist Nathaniel Branden, her “intellectual heir.” That split, a lovers’ quarrel, was a tonic for many of Rand’s admirers who might otherwise have succumbed to cultish devotion, for Rand was now seen as “human, all too human.” (After Branden moved to Los Angeles, we joked about the schism in the Objectivist Church: Eastern Orthodox versus Western Reformed.)

As my intellectual horizons expanded by reading more philosophy and intellectual history, my admiration for Rand remained, but I came to view her as I would any other fallible philosopher, not as a privileged thinker with immunity to honest criticism. That attitude, which continues to this day, put me in a crossfire between two sides: those Objectivists who cannot abide any serious criticisms of Rand and those academic philosophers who think that only a dunce would take Rand’s philosophy seriously. At least I never became a reformed sinner, as we find with those ex-Objectivists who, having become more “mature,” now believe that an appreciation for Rand’s ideas was merely a “phase” that they fortunately outgrew. I briefly described this group in “Ayn Rand: Philosophy and Controversy” (cited above).

[S]ome of the disdain for Rand has been caused by her more dogmatic and abrasive disciples. Ironically, some of these disciples, having praised Rand as the savior of western civilization, later turn against her with a vengeance—thereby exhibiting a kind of true-believer/heretic syndrome. As true believers, these persons praised Rand as the greatest philosopher in history; then, as heretics, they assail Objectivism as worthless and even harmful. Ayn Rand is transformed from the Pope to the Antichrist—two sides of the same dogmatist coin. The true believer turned heretic has accomplished nothing more than to reverse direction in a sea of ignorance.

My intellectual relationship with Ayn Rand (I never met her in person) has been lengthy and complex. On occasion I have felt acute embarrassment when reading one of her screwball assertions, such as her over-the-top condemnation of Kant, wondering how I could ever admire or defend a person who could write such things. At other times, when rereading an essay that I have read many times before, her ideas seem so reasonable that I find it difficult to understand why she has provoked so much hostility. On the whole, however, I am astonished at Rand’s ability to develop complex ideas and express them clearly and succinctly in relatively brief essays, but without dumbing down those ideas for the supposed benefit of readers with an aversion to serious thinking. Rand was a true master of the essay style—a skill that is too often unappreciated.   

I should note an unfortunate consequence of my interest in Rand. In my early years I took her extremely negative assessments of various philosophers, such as Kant and Hume, at face value, so when I got around to reading those philosophers first-hand, I found it extremely difficult to read them with any degree of objectivity. Instead, I was the philosophical equivalent of a medieval witch-hunter, always looking in condemned texts for signs of evil that would confirm Rand’s evaluations. Thus if I located a passage (often taken out of context) in Hume or Kant that appeared to corroborate Rand’s condemnation, I would think, in effect, “Aha! This guy was truly evil, just as Rand said.” Even after I became skeptical of Rand’s reading of the history of philosophy, it still took several years to shed my juvenile prejudices. Mental habits can be difficult to break, including the tendency to regard honest errors in reasoning as moral defects in a philosopher. Of course, I in no way hold Rand responsible for my own failing in this area. The responsibility was entirely my own.

Other than Aristotle, Aquinas, and Locke, I don’t recall that Rand ever had a word of praise for any of the “great” philosophers. This is one area in which I fundamentally disagree with Rand. Whereas she viewed the history of western philosophy as populated mainly by black hats, I see many more white hats in that tradition. Indeed, for anyone who admires, as Rand did, the brilliant intellectual achievements of western civilization, it is difficult to explain how those achievements could have arisen in a culture dominated by black-hatted villains—mystics, altruists, evil Kantians, and the like.

I shall conclude this essay with an important observation by the Catholic historian and philosopher Etienne Gilson. In The Unity of Philosophical Experience (Scribner’s, 1952, p. 7), Gilson wrote:

I wish I could make clear from the very beginning that in criticizing great men, as I shall do, I am very far from forgetting what made them truly great. No man can fall a victim to his own genius unless he has genius; but those who have none are fully justified in refusing to be victimized by the genius of others….There is more than one excuse for being a Descartes, but there is no excuse whatever for being a Cartesian.

Paraphrasing Gilson: There is more than one excuse for being an Ayn Rand, but there is no excuse whatever for being an uncritical disciple of Ayn Rand. Her admirers should heed the words of Aristotle: I love Plato, but I love the truth more.

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