Ayn Rand and the World She Made

When Ayn Rand addressed a meeting of her publisher's sales staff shortly before the appearance of Atlas Shrugged in 1957, one of the salesmen asked her to summarise her philosophy while standing, as Rabbi Hillel had done to explain the Torah, on one leg. She did so: 'Metaphysics: objective reality. Epistemology: reason. Ethics: self-interest. Politics: capitalism.' Anne Heller tells us that the sales staff applauded, and so have many others since. Ayn Rand's books between them regularly sell half a million copies a year, and her influence has reached high places: egregious examples of her fans are Ronald Reagan and former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan. The latter belonged for many years to her inner circle, and wrote articles for her newsletter The Objectivist. Her influence continues; actress Charlize Theron is said to be planning a television mini-series of Atlas Shrugged, and there is an Ayn Rand Institute which promotes her ideas and books and offers courses on her philosophy.


On the Ayn Rand Institute's website there is a video of its heroine being interviewed. In it her emphatic, confident, heavily-accented phrases roll unhesitatingly off her tongue in perfect prose (few people, pace Moliere, speak in prose), and her interviewer appears too overwhelmed to challenge the misapprehensions that stud her remarks. In the interview she gives another encapsulation of her ideas: her philosophy, she said, is based on 'the concept of man as an heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.' She always used the word 'man' in speaking of the egoistic, self-assertive, independent hero who was her ideal -- Howard Roark in The Fountainhead, John Galt in Atlas Shrugged -- and correlatively held that it is women's work to worship the masterful hero, even to submit with pleasure (as in The Fountainhead) to being raped by him.


Many find attractive the idea of individualistic self-interest coupled with disdain for anyone who cannot assert himself likewise. Those who embrace such views find it easy to accept their corollaries, which are that the only morally acceptable social and political system is free-market capitalism, and that individual self-interest positively outlaws altruism. 'Do not confuse altruism with kindness, good will or respect for the rights of others,' Rand wrote. 'The issue is whether you do or do not have the right to exist without giving [a beggar] a dime.' She attacked those who located the basis of rights in need rather than achievement; for her this was to stand both reason and morality on their heads. She saw promotion of individualism and opposition to collectivism as the only legitimate morality, not only in politics 'but within a man's soul'. This, she wrote in her notebooks, defined the theme of The Fountainhead, the story of the morally autistic architect-hero Howard Roark's struggle with lesser human beings.


The close identification of these ideas with Ayn Rand's name shows how intimately her life and thought were one thing. A biography of Rand therefore has to consist largely in an exposition of her philosophy and an exploration of its effects on her personal life and those around her. Heller's Ayn Rand and the World She Made reports both with unblinking thoroughness. She confirms what one surmises from the novels and essays themselves: that Rand was a brilliant but repulsive person, who inveighed against tyranny but was a tyrant, and who demanded loyalty from the disciples of her philosophy of individualism and independence, oblivious to the stark paradox involved. The members of her inner circle called themselves 'the Collective' as a joke; some of them came to realise too late just how ironic the label was, for Rand in effect organised her devotees into a cult from whose teachings any deviation -- least of all into the individual independence she vaunted -- was regarded as an unforgivable crime.


Indeed the microcosm of the Randian cult was a reprise of every historical example of actual or would-be revolutions that have devoured their own, most notably in the case of her standard bearer in the high years of her fame, Nathaniel Branden. At first every bit as tough and tyrannical in the cause of Rand's ideas as Rand herself, and moreover Rand's lover though considerably younger than she, Branden was the activist and exponent who turned Rand from a novelist-prophet into a designer label, a phenomenon, and a force. He had been at her side for nineteen years, since he was a young college student. But he crashed from favour when he no longer wished to have sex with her after falling in love with a beautiful young woman who had, in Rand's view anyway, neither the intellect nor the spirit required to match Randian ideals. When Rand discovered Branden's 'betrayal' she exploded into a jealous fury, anathematizing him as completely and violently as any Congregation of the Inquisition equipped with bell, book and candle. In the Objectivist magazine Branden had started on her behalf she wrote that he (and his former wife Barbara) were no longer associated with the magazine, with her, or with her work and thought, and that she repudiated them 'totally and permanently as spokesmen for me or for Objectivism'.


As the Branden affair shows, Rand's life was indeed exemplary of her thought. It was, in line with her avowed principles, an entirely selfish life, to which she sacrificed her family, her good-natured husband Frank O'Connor, her friends, and all but the last of her devoted followers, Leonard Peikoff. Whoever was not wholly with her was against her. This too was in line with her philosophy, only this time not with its principles but its character: it was black-and-white, without nuance or flexibility, harsh, angry and simplistic. Its appearance of unyielding logic was employed as a smokescreen for absence of compassion and kindness, for the inability or refusal to accept that most people cannot be Roarks and Galts through no fault of their own, and that therefore an educated generosity of sentiment can and should figure among the premises of our choices and the actions that flow from them. Such a thought would have seemed to her too disgusting to contemplate; which in the view of anyone with a shred of social conscience makes her thought too disgusting to contemplate in return.


Heller shows how Rand's beliefs emerged from her early experiences. Born Alissa Zinovievna Rosenbaum to middle-class parents in Saint Petersburg, Russia in 1905, she lived through the revolutions of 1917 (she supported Kerensky and the Mensheviks) and the subsequent eight years of Bolshevik hardship before getting a visa to visit America, where she had relatives. She never returned to Russia, but changed her name to Ayn (rhymes with 'wine') Rand, and began a career on the margins of the Hollywood movie industry. Ascending from wardrobe worker to bit-part screen writer to playwright to novelist she developed her very considerable talents to a pitch of genius, which resulted in her first major triumph, The Fountainhead, published in 1943. It was made into a film in 1949, based largely on her own screenplay for it, but she quickly became dissatisfied with it.


The reputation that the novel earned for her made her a significant enough figure to be called to testify before the House Un-American Activities committee in Washington concerning communism in Hollywood. It also initiated the gathering of supporters and admirers who became the slave army of her cult.


Rand's principal work is Atlas Shrugged, which tells the story of John Galt, a businessman who, irritated by regulations that impede getting rich, goes off in a huff to a secret valley, taking many of the business community with him. Without them the world collapses and its tiresome little lesser men, the collective-minded wishy-washy liberals, come running to ask them back. (This is scarcely a caricature.) Rand devoted many years to its composition, and her devotees believed, as she did, that it would revolutionise the world. But on publication it met with a storm of critical abuse. One critic described it as a nightmare, another as the 'howl' of a harpy, a third as a 'display of grotesque eccentricity' that one could not find 'outside an insane asylum.' Heller, otherwise dispassionate to the point of coolness towards Rand throughout the book, here offers an at least partial defence of the novel's literary merits: the critics ignored, she says, its 'breadth of scope, jaw-dropping integration of unfamiliar ideas into a drumbeat plot, Dickensian keenness of eye…' As Rand's sales figures permanently testify, readers did not share the critics' views. But the almost uniformly hostile critical reception plunged Rand into a deep depression, and she never wrote fiction again.


Still, Rand's growing celebrity -- much abetted by Branden's indefatigable marketing of her and her ideas -- made her an iconic figure from the 1960s onwards. Students at universities gave her standing ovations, and some professors -- most of whom were dismissive of her -- rallied to her too. She was given an honorary doctorate, and appeared on prestigious television interview programmes. Decades later her books were still being cited in polls of American readers as among the most influential they had read, in one case placing Atlas Shrugged second only to the Bible in a list of the most important books of the twentieth century.


I can testify personally to her influence during the heady decade of the 60s. As a high school junior I had an affair with a woman some years older than myself, who was student at a local teachers' college. She and her peers were avid followers of Rand, and I count myself the happy beneficiary of a sentimental education that was, presumably, a by-product of the young lady's Randian self-interest. Despite her efforts at proselytizing me into Rand's tenets I did not succumb; I was, as all youth should be, on the Left, and too far so to find Rand's ideas other than appalling.


What is wrong with Rand's views is what is wrong with Gordon Gekko. The unregulated market coupled with unbridled individual self-interest adds up to something far from heroic in the would-be Roark/Galt mode; instead it adds up to the strong trampling the weak, to the callousness of the jungle -- and eventually to a mightily ironic paradox, which is that the weak have to rescue the strong because the latter's unrestricted rampaging has consumed their own hunting-grounds. Only look at the moneymen of autumn 2008, who because of their reckless gambling with other people's money, in a market deregulated by Rand's epigones, had to be bailed out by the sacrifice of this small guy losing his job and his home, and that small guy's tax dollars funding the gargantuan bail-out that rescued the oh-so-heroic Galts of the financial markets.


Life is Rand's refutation. Unless you are prepared to embrace the brutal view that you care nothing about the inequalities and injustices which make the many start their race far behind the few, you cannot see the world as a place where the individual must stand alone or starve to death. The impulse that makes a woman comfort her crying infant generalises into the impulse most people have to help someone who trips and falls, or is stricken by grief, or is starving. And that impulse is educable into one that sees the need for food aid to starving populations, and human rights campaigns on behalf of prisoners in secret policemen's cellars in tyrannous countries. It is not one jot admirable that Rand did not grasp this, or refused to.


Heller quotes the philosopher Sidney Hook's review of Rand's non-fiction account of her Objectivist philosophy, For the New Intellectual, which Gore Vidal in another review described as 'nearly perfect in its immorality': 'I am confident that even at some danger to herself,' wrote Hook, 'Miss Rand would not rush out of a burning building and leave a helpless child behind.' He argued that she was wrong to think free minds could not exist without free markets, and that it had to be ignorance or willfulness not to recognise that capitalism had created many evils, such as (or just one of a million examples) child labour in Victorian Britain.


Hook also pointed out that Rand misunderstood a philosopher she claimed to admire, namely, Aristotle; and one should add that she also grossly misunderstood a philosopher she claimed to despise, namely Kant. These are illustrations of what Hook meant when he remarked (as Heller reports him) that 'although a writer need not be a professional philosopher to write an interesting book about philosophy, substituting indignation for analysis was not the way to do it.'


Contemporary followers of Rand, of whom there are undoubtedly many, will conclude that Heller's cool and sharp-eyed portrait of Rand puts her into the Branden camp -- that is, into the camp of her enemies. The Randian principle of 'who is not with us is against us' will apply. But that would do Heller's deeply absorbing book an injustice. Rand could be and most often was a harpy, but Heller shows that she had her vulnerabilities and insecurities, and is scrupulously fair to her, especially in connection with her battles with critics. And there are affectionate portraits of some of the supporting cast in this tumultuous story, of Frank O'Connor and Barbara Branden especially, and of the eager young who flocked to hear about Objectivism and self-assertion, and filled the lecture halls where Rand and Branden spoke.


Rand's novels are melodramatic -- they are somewhat like circumstantial film treatments with long speeches inserted -- and the ideas in them are simplistic, but (as I rediscovered on re-reading the two major works for this review) they are powerful page-turners, with much that is striking in them. One should regret the overweening sense of importance Rand encouraged some architects to acquire, to the detriment of too many urban landscapes, and the deformed morality of greed and selfishness she extolled, of the type that resulted in millions losing their jobs in the current financier-induced recession; but it ought to be possible to recognise the merits of her novels while disagreeing with the line they seek to sell. She had enormous talents, great charisma, courage and dedication -- all as apparent in her work as in her life, and all acknowledged by Heller -- and not all of her ideas were wrong: her secularism merits applause, as does her opposition to the use of force in world affairs, and as does her championing of liberty -- or rather, this latter might merit applause if it were not in fact a coarse and callous libertarianism merely, which means liberty only for the few strong enough to trample on the heads of the rest.


Ayn Rand wore a gold dollar sign as a brooch on her lapel. At her funeral in 1982 -- she died aged 77 -- a six-foot high floral dollar sign was placed by her open coffin. Alan Greenspan stood nearby. She once said that death would not be the end of her but of the world. She was right that it was not the end of her; she lives on in her legacy and influence, and in her book sales, and now in the pages of Heller's uncompromising, lucid, excoriating story of her life But Rand was wrong about the end of the world; it endures too, more than ever in need of something more humane and constructive than the crude brass egoism of her philosophy.

by mtnrunner2 on ‎10-25-2009 08:39 PM

I am an Objectivist, and I plan to read Heller's biography. Although I anticipate having differences with her on certain matters, at the very least it will be interesting.


What I don't understand is how a philosophy professor -- of all people -- could be so far off in understanding the philosophy of the famous author in question. After all, Atlas Shrugged was published in 1957 and The Virtue of Selfishness in 1964. What's the delay?


To take one example (and the essay is filled with them), your conception of her view of selfishness is the exact opposite of what she advocated. Rand defined self-interest as that which is in our interest as rational beings, over our entire life span. Since you apparently equate her view with stomping on others to get what you want, you obviously don't understand her views. Reshaping the definition of that term was practically the entire point of The Virtue of Selfishness. You may be giving us your view of that term, but certainly not Rand's.


Regarding her life, her family was trapped in Russia. Do you blame her for that? If she chose to dissociate herself from certain people, and surround herself with like-minded individuals, are you claiming that you know better than she did what was best for her? Those are simply cheap shots.


I'm afraid Barnes & Noble should have chosen someone more knowledgeable on the subject at hand for this essay.


Jeff Montgomery


by MarkDaCunha on ‎10-25-2009 11:04 PM

After reading A.C. Grayling’s diatribe against Ayn Rand, I can only conclude that he is jealous of her -- both as a novelist and a philosopher.


Jealous as a novelist, because Ayn Rand’s novels are a #1 classic; and the works of A.C. Grayling-- let us use the more accurate term A. "Cockroach" Grayling – are something less than zero according to the general public (e.g. compare book sales).


Jealous as a philosopher, because the cockroach is such an imbecile that he cannot even present her philosophy correctly, except for paraphrasing a few quotes out of context that she wrote on “one foot.”


Pretend to be philosopher A. "Cockroach" Grayling has failed to do his homework. What cockroach is missing is Ayn Rand’s philosophy -- specifically her epistemology: Ayn Rand's theory of concepts and her view that concepts are the "algebra of cognition." Oh – my frickin' God – this is one of the greatest achievements in the history of philosophy!!!


And this is not only my view but the view of Dr. Alan Gotthelf – one of the supreme recognized Aristotle scholars (a real philosopher who has made some actual contributions to philosophy unlike cockroach).


Perhaps if “cockroach” had actually read -– and understood -- some of Ayn Rand’s philosophical works (he should pick up a copy of AR’s “Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology”) he would know this.


Yes, I am an Ayn Rand fan, and I disagree with some of what she says. But the work I disagree with is actually her work! Not a second handed misrepresentation spit out by a London cockroach.


So here is *my* review: do yourself a favor -- read Ayn Rand’s ATLAS SHURGGED, read Ayn Rand’s FOUNTAINHEAD, read Ayn Rand’s CAPITALISM: THE UNKNOWN IDEAL, read her VIRTUE OF SELFISHNESS -- before the government bans it (they have in some areas of the world with large cockroach populations).


Read her novels and non-fiction works -- and then read Leonard Peikoff's OBJECTIVISM (my favorite) -- and make your ***own*** decision. Whether you agree or disagree with Ayn Rand's views -- you will actually be disagreeing with her opinion as opposed to a straw man raised by a cockroach who pretends to be playwright charlatan posing as a philosopher.


This way you will actually be making your own opinion rather than having it dished out to you by a cockroach.


We all agree that Ayn Rand is one of the most important and influential writers of the 20th century – for good or bad depending on your point of view. I am not arguing this point here. What I am arguing is that one needs to read her works to determine whether she is good or bad.


One needs to read HER WORKS, as opposed to poor reflections written by broken mirrors and then regurgitated by the cockroaches who crawl around the broken glass pieces. For those who wish to understand Ayn Rand's actual views read Leonard Peikoff's OBJECTIVISM: THE PHILOSOPHY OF AYN RAND -- available at any BN store; for those who wish to understand the views of Lord Cockroach don’t read her works and stick your head in a toilet and push the flush button.

by Michael_Caution on ‎10-28-2009 02:46 AM - last edited on ‎11-18-2010 06:47 AM by Bill_Tipper


Prof. Grayling's quick drive-by attempt at an evaluation of Ayn Rand's philosophy, Objectivism, would warrant respectability had it not been for one thing: he doesn't know his ass from a hole in the ground.


Although Grayling tells of having read Rand's two most well known works, “The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged”, it's evident that he hasn't read too closely. Case in point, John Galt, the main character of ‘Atlas’ is an engineer who invents a revolutionary motor based upon static electricity. He is not a businessman as Grayling rationalistically seems to think - that somehow Rand worshipped businessmen and therefore all her characters had to be in business. A precursory search on, of all places, Wikipedia would even tell you this was not true!


This is just one of many, many things that Prof. Grayling gets wrong when it comes to Ayn Rand. But just as the fact that Galt is an engineer in the novel is simple to catch (if you have read it) so too is it simple to understand why Grayling fails on every count of his criticism against Rand. He fails because he isn’t arguing against Ayn Rand at all. He would have you believe he was and he makes a valiant effort in his attempt, but to no avail.


Of all the mistakes that Grayling makes, it is one that unites them all. Throughout his review Grayling insists upon the idea that Rand held to a certain kind of moral code. After assaulting her on numerous points of contention he arrives at what he views to be the essence of Rand’s ethical theory, rational egoism: “unbridled individual self-interest…adds up to the strong trampling the weak, to the callousness of the jungle.” In Grayling’s view Attila is the archetype of egoism – beating men into submission with brute physical force he attains power by sacrificing others to himself.


However, the problem with this view is that it is not egoism; it is not the egoism defended by Rand. Rand was well aware of this view of ethics and went so far as to demonstrate her repudiation of this stand vis-à-vis Gail Wynand in “The Fountainhead”. The distinction between Attila and Rand’s non-sacrificial ethics is best illustrated by the following conversation between Howard Roark and Gail Wynand. Explaining how he came to believe that it is rule or be ruled, kill or be killed, Wynand asks of Roark:


“Did you want to scream when you were a child, seeing nothing but fat ineptitude around you, knowing how many things could be done and done so well, but having no power to do them? Having no power to blast the empty skulls around you? Having to take orders – and that’s bad enough – but to take orders from your inferiors! Have you felt that?”




“Did you drive the anger back inside of you, and store it, and decide to let yourself be torn to pieces if necessary, but reach the day when you’d rule those people and all people and everything around you?”




“You didn’t? You let yourself forget?”


“No. I hate incompetence. I think it’s probably the only thing I do hate. But it didn’t make me want to rule people. Nor to teach them anything. It made me want to do my own work in my own way and let myself be torn to pieces if necessary.” (529)


In contrast to Wynand, Rand’s hero holds to a non-sacrificial viewpoint. He isn’t out to crush other people or rule over them. Instead, in his excellent critical essay, “The Basic Motivation of the Creators and the Masses in, ‘The Fountainhead’”, Onkar Ghate explains that, “individual greatness is not identified with ruling others, but with the absence of the desire to rule or be ruled; the great man is motivated by the desire to create.” (Essays on Ayn Rand’s ‘The Fountainhead’ 244) Does this still mean that some men are destined to be superior to others even if they don’t manifest this elitism through physical force? No, as Ghate goes on to explain, “the man of average ability is not viewed as intellectually or morally corrupt, though the ‘masses’ remain so. There is potential dignity in any man, in man the individual, even if he possesses only average ability. The sole question…is whether the average man is motivated by a desire to realize his ability and practice the virtue demanded of him.” (244)


We even hear echoes of this sentiment in Rand’s later novel, Atlas Shrugged, when John Galt proclaims his maxim, “I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.”


Just from this one example we can see that Rand thoroughly blasts away the idea that you must sacrifice others to obtain your goals. In truth, Rand holds that man’s relation to others is that of a trader, trading value for value. Or as Andrew Bernstein states, “The rational valuer, [i.e., trader] by his nature and within the scale of his concerns, is a man of the mind. A physicalistic brute who rains destruction on equally-mindless foes in a conflict that involves no recognizably-human values…is not a hero because his life embodies the repudiation of the mind.” (The Philosophical Foundations of Heroism, CapMag.com)


Having made this fundamental error in his interpretation of Rand’s egoism Grayling’s whole criticism of her philosophy falls flat on its face. Without the necessary support to back up their claims all the numerous, minor arguments Grayling marshals to attack Rand fall by the wayside. Because she was not a social Darwinist, a Nietzschean, or an Attila Grayling’s whole review is the intellectual poor man’s, straw-man.


For those who wish to discover what Ayn Rand’s philosophy, Objectivism, upholds I suggest starting with her own words – her novels and to more specific areas such as her ethics in The Virtue of Selfishness. Also, since I highly recommend them, you should pick up a copy of all four critical ‘Essays’ on Ayn Rand’s fiction edited by Robert Mayhew, “Essays on Ayn Rand’s ‘We The Living’”, “Essays on Ayn Rand’s ‘Anthem’”“Essays on Ayn Rand’s ‘The Fountainhead’”, and “Essays on Ayn Rand’s ‘Atlas Shrugged’”.


by AlexJ on ‎10-29-2009 10:17 AM

While reading this essay, I had to recheck the author's bio just to make sure they were a 'professional'. Sure enough, they are a professor of philosophy at a very big university. How very strange then that this essay would be written as though ad hominem and anecdote were good tools of argument.


Either the author chose to be dishonorable in their critique of Ayn Rand and her philosophy, or they aren't intelligent enough to have understood the fool they'd be making out of themselves. Either way, they don't deserve the prestige their title bestows upon them.

by MikeZemack on ‎10-30-2009 05:51 PM
I must begin by pointing out that Professor A. C. Grayling seemingly establishes his Marxist credentials early on, with this apparent criticism of Ayn Rand:

“She attacked those who located the basis of rights in need rather than achievement; for her this was to stand both reason and morality on their heads.”

“From each according to his ability, to each according to his need”, said Karl Marx. Indeed, she did attack that insidious principle, dramatized in the saga of a large industrial concern portrayed in Atlas Shrugged. (I must point out, though, that achievement – i.e., productive work - is recognized by Rand as the source of property rights. The fundamental source of individual rights is to be found in man’s nature as a reasoning being and the consequent social requirements for his mode of survival. This is but one of a myriad of examples of intellectual sloppiness in this piece.) Though he doesn’t specifically endorse Marx’s view, the flow of the entire essay validates the assumption that he agrees with “those” that “she attacked”. The above quote is the tip-off, I believe. This points to a possible hidden agenda. More on that later.

As a long time admirer and student of Ayn Rand - and as an Objectivist husband, father, and grandfather who lives by that philosophy – I can most emphatically say that I do not recognize the portrayal of Ayn Rand’s ideas or of her philosophy of Objectivism presented here. But then, an accurate exploration of her philosophy is apparently not A. C. Grayling’s intention. He makes this plain early on with this escape clause:

“The close identification of these ideas with Ayn Rand's name shows how intimately her life and thought were one thing. A biography of Rand therefore has to consist largely in an exposition of her philosophy and an exploration of its effects on her personal life and those around her.”

In other words, he openly employs the fallacy of ad hominem. But no matter how one cuts it, a critique of a philosopher’s personal life is not a critique of his philosophy, regardless of how strictly he adheres to it (or not) in his own life. An examination of Rand's personal life is a valid undertaking, of course. But it does not and can not pinch-hit for a critique of Objectivism, which seems to be his primary motive. I am not in a position to discuss Rand’s personal life, which are outside the scope of my current knowledge. Objectivism, however, is not. Though it is Rand’s monumental intellectual achievement, Objectivism is not “about” Ayn Rand. Mr. Grayling apparently cherry-picks from Ms. Heller’s biographical study a host of Rand’s personal failings, real or imagined, and constructs from that an ethical straw man that is alien to the true Objectivist ethics.

Mr. Grayling’s assertion of an “intimate” linkage between “her life and thought” as a justification for his ad hominem tactics is nothing more than a clever rationalization for evasion. The inaccuracies and even irrelevancies evident here are too numerous to rebut in a single commentary. But there are a few that stand out.

Mr. Grayling’s portrayal of Rand’s ethical views closely resembles Nietzsche’s predatory individualism, not her concept of rational egoism. Rand defines individualism as follows:

“Individualism regards man—every man—as an independent, sovereign entity who possesses an inalienable right to his own life, a right derived from his nature as a rational being.

“Do not make the mistake of the ignorant who think that an individualist is a man who says: ‘I’ll do as I please at everybody else’s expense.’ An individualist is a man who recognizes the inalienable individual rights of man—his own and those of others.

“An individualist is a man who says: ‘I will not run anyone’s life—nor let anyone run mine. I will not rule nor be ruled. I will not be a master nor a slave. I will not sacrifice myself to anyone—nor sacrifice anyone to myself.’ ”
(From the Ayn Rand Lexicon. Though not a substitute for in-depth study, the Lexicon is a good shortcut to Ayn Rand’s thought on many subjects.)

The heroes in her novels, both male and female, are just such individuals. I question whether he ever actually read We the Living, The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged.

What is so repulsive about respecting and defending the moral right of each individual human being to his own life and the freedom to pursue his own goals, values, and happiness? How does that transmute into callous disregard for one’s fellow man? What long-term value does any rational person gain from that? What happens to the “small guy” in a rightless society? Just look at the results of the first nation, the United States of America, created on the premise that “the individual must stand alone or starve to death” … i.e., the premise of the unalienable and equal rights of the individual. The result was an unprecedented and unimaginable explosion of progress and prosperity and a stark demonstration of the fact that there are no “small guys” in a free society where rights are protected equally and at all times. Would the alternative be good? What are the results when the individual is forbidden to “stand alone”? Look to humanity’s bloody tribal history, and especially the collectivist hellholes of the 20th century, for the answer to that question. The “callousness of the jungle” is exactly what you get when need is a moral justification and license for human predation and exploitation, rather than a spur to productive achievement, trade, and self-improvement.

Mr. Grayling’s desperate and unjust attempt to frame the issue is clearly exposed with his quote that equates Ayn Rand’s concept of the rational egoist with someone who would “rush out of a burning building and leave a helpless child behind”, as if stepping up in a disaster is incompatible with one’s pursuit of happiness! This is a slap not only at Rand but also at the Founding Fathers of this great nation who, like Rand, saw their fellow men as individuals capable of self-determination under a rights-protecting government, rather than as helpless “small guys” in need of the “protection” and guidance of a benevolent authoritarian state. Mr. Grayling fears that the individual can’t “stand alone” without starving. (Or perhaps he fears that when the individual stands alone, he won’t starve. Then what will the philosopher-kings do with themselves?)

Of course, “standing alone” is a straw man. Egoism does not mean isolationism. Human interaction is enormously beneficial. Romantic relationships, friendships, and trade in a free market are all life-enhancing values and fully consistent with rational selfishness, as is charitable compassion and voluntary assistance to people and causes one values. Objectivism is a philosophy for the individual which is geared to normative living – a moral guide to the achievement of a fulfilling life and to proper (i.e., mutually respectful and beneficial) relationships with others.

Throughout this essay, Mr. Grayling systematically constructs a picture that bears no resemblance to Rand’s strong and benevolent ethical theories. In fact, Ms. Heller’s book seems less the subject of a review than a polemical springboard for attacks on Ayn Rand and capitalism. Perhaps the connection of the two is a clue to Mr. Grayling’s motives.

He ignores the central theme of Rand’s principle work Atlas Shrugged - the role of reason in man’s existence and the freedom that the individual rational mind requires. Instead, he tries to define the novel by reference to a few non-essentials … and he doesn’t even get those right … so here’s some clarification. He refers to John Galt as “a businessman”, when in fact he is an innovative young engineer – and not even the head engineer – employed by a large industrial concern. Despite modest means, Galt quits to lead a principled fight against collectivist injustice. The independent “men of the mind”, as Galt calls them, are “taken along” from all walks of life, not just “the business community”. The heroes of the novel who join Galt in the “hidden valley” do represent the top talent in their respective fields. But more broadly, they symbolize the thinking human being of action and purpose on any level of ability. The rebellion is not merely against “regulations that impede getting rich” but against force that impedes the individual’s exercise of his means of survival, his rational faculty. The story dramatizes what happens to a society in which people are no longer free to think and act according to their own judgement in pursuit of self-betterment.

Similarly, Mr. Grayling rails against capitalism, employing the usual false smear tactics. For example, he ascribes to capitalism the creation of child labor, despite the historical fact that child labor was a left-over remnant of Feudalism which, over time, was eliminated thanks to the rising productivity enabled by capitalistic freedom. He also throws in the modern straw man of the anti-free market crowd, blaming the recent financial meltdown on capitalism rather than the real culprit, massive government economic intervention. These are “just two of a million examples” (to paraphrase Mr. Grayling) of capitalism being blamed for problems it didn’t create.

Mr. Grayling’s motives become clearer under cover of his praise for “her opposition to the use of force in world affairs” which “merits applause”. This is both misleading and incomplete and, perhaps, is intended to steer the reader away from the implications of a key principle of Rand’s thought. Rand was not a pacifist. She strongly upheld the right of any legitimate (predominantly free) nation to militarily defend itself against international aggressors. But more precisely, she opposed the initiation of force - not only by one nation against another - but also domestically, by government against its own citizens. She understood the connection between a nation that militarily violates the territorial integrity of other nations, and an authoritarian government that violates the rights of its own people - through, for example, systematic violations of property rights, non-objective law, political prosecutions, confiscatory taxation and economic controls, and censorship. Mr. Grayling doesn’t bother to address Rand’s true views regarding physical force in human relations, nor tell us why the use of force is bad in the international arena but apparently OK in the domestic one.

But this may be a clue to where Mr. Grayling is coming from.

Capitalism is the social system that abolishes force from human relationships by means of the recognition of individual rights and a government constitutionally limited to their protection – and made possible by America’s founding ideals and the consequent War for Independence. Ayn Rand gave us, through Atlas Shrugged and Objectivism, the philosophical foundation and validation that completes the political revolution of the Founding Fathers. Rand’s formidable moral defense of Capitalism, Americanism, and the rights of the individual entitles her, in my view, to the designation of America’s last Founding Father.

Many of those of the statist/socialist/collectivist persuasion, I think, understand this all to well, and so seek to discredit Ayn Rand in any way they can, but rarely by confronting her actual ideas. We’re seeing plenty of that these days, and the philosopher A. C. Grayling’s twin assaults on Ayn Rand and capitalism is perhaps an indication of his recognition of a key connection between the two - the long-term importance of Ayn Rand and Objectivism to the preservation of free market capitalism. With economics, logic, and history going against them, the Postmodern collectivists must be getting nervous that their last remaining socialist pillar of strength, the altruist trump card, is beginning to crumble. This is the fundamental meaning I draw from this piece (and others like it).

Mr. Grayling’s review essay is so biased, distortive, non-objective and philosophically agenda-driven that it behooves BarnesandNobleReview.com to run a rebuttal review of Ayn Rand and the World She Made as a matter of balance and fairness, perhaps by an Objectivist intellectual from the Ayn Rand Institute. I don’t know what Mr. Grayling’s analysis says about Ms. Heller’s book that he is reviewing here, since I have not read it myself. But I’d suggest that anyone interested in learning about Ayn Rand’s ideas should read and study her novels and non-fiction works and judge for himself (which requires independent thinking, a cardinal virtue in the Objectivist ethical system).
by RoRF on ‎11-01-2009 04:28 PM

The review states that Rand had an "inability or refusal to accept that most people cannot be Roarks and Galts through no fault of their own".  This is a fictitious statement made up in the authors head due to their pre-existing predjudices and hatred of her philosophy.  Just look up an interview with Rand on youtube and you'll see she is open and generous when taking questions from the audience, always taking their context to hand.

by shreddy on ‎11-18-2009 08:17 PM

Ms. Heller and Mr. Grayling are completely wrong about why we are experiencing the economic downfall and the bailout is something Rand would have advocated against not condone. She would have let the economy adjust and recover on it's own, by eradicating unworthy and undeserved, without the Government's intervention. Rand's definition of selfishness is grossly mis-understood and mis-interpreted. If I (a mere nobody) can clearly see that, then why can't these other so called experts? Have they actually read the books?

I have a problem with the sentence “Its appearance of unyielding logic was employed as a smokescreen for absence of compassion and kindness, for the inability or refusal to accept that most people cannot be Roarks and Galts through no fault of their own.........”

“Through no fault of their own”??? Unless we are talking about the disabled and sick (and a few other instances), I see no reason why people (not children) can't be held responsible for their own existence.


My comment may be one of those you might contemptuously call “repetitive populist babble that is only a small step removed from self-help literature”, but here it is anyway. All my life I looked for appreciation for the “virtues” talked about in "Atlas Shrugged", like reason, thought, actions and ability. People just expected things from me because I could do them and because I could do them faster and better than they could. They forfeited their right to thinking, reasoning, deciding and taking responsibility for anything, though they were ready to take credit for everything that went right. Most shockingly to me, they resented me for the same reasons. For a long time, I struggled and questioned myself and wondered if something was wrong with me for feeling alone and not belonging. When I read “Atlas Shrugged” at 17, I didn’t understand the Rand’s depth of perception of human nature to defeat itself. Now, as a regular person with no philosophy, economics, sociology or such degrees tailing my name, all I can do is appreciate Rand’s clear description of the above mentioned, while I may not agree with all of her ideas.

In my opinion, any book or work that promotes thinking, rationality, reasoning, appreciation of ability, and understanding of what makes one happy, within the general public, (not just in the so called intellectuals) is worthy of our appreciation. People are confused by things, ideas and doctrines that are thrown at them and wonder why they are not happy, even after acquiring the things (may they be objects, people, fame, power or money) that are supposed to make them happy, yet they are not. They try to acquire more of the same, thinking “more” is the answer. I truly believe man can only be happy when he knows that what he receives is something that he completely deserves and will not or can not allow him self to be happy until then. Meanwhile, he secretly entertains misery, self-loathing, and depression and spreads it all around him. That, in my view explains why some of the wealthiest in the world are searching for that feeling that is “right”. In order to find answers for that, one needs to search within oneself mercilessly. That takes enormous amount of courage and dedication to truth. Understanding and accepting truth as the ultimate result of thinking and reasoning is bypassed by so many as unnecessary waste of time. Thinking for these people is software that is literally a “plug-in”. I understand this as I lived with people like this all my life and I know that a whole lot of others are like that. If any book can make them stop for few minutes and question themselves, then, I say “thanks” to the writer. You can talk and profess and publish papers and works and even win awards for the same, but if you can not provoke a single concrete and positive thought in a “common man” to better his life and the lives around him, I ask you, why should I credit you for whatever you are? After all, wasn’t it a single human thought that has culminated to the culture, we as a human race advanced so far? Or should we keep the literacy to a small sect of intellectual society only to its amusement? I hope more people read “Atlas Shrugged” and other books like that. Oh hell! I hope more people read, just read, even if they have to keep a dictionary close by. All the books lead us to one thing and that is to think.

In my non-intellectual opinion, this book does provoke thought and that’s good enough for me. The author's personal life is completely irrelevant.



by Davis89 on ‎07-22-2012 09:10 AM

I think it is safe to say that since you are all unknown internet bloggers and A.C. Grayling is an oxford don of philosophy that he has a much better understanding of the philosophies surrounding Ayn Rand's work! He clearly has read both sides of the argument where you evidently fail to read anything other than your objectivist newsletter. Educate yourself. 

About the Columnist
A. C. Grayling is an author, playwright, reviewer, cultural journalist, and professor of philosophy at London University. The most recent of his many books are Towards the Light of Liberty and The Choice of Hercules. His play Grace was recently performed in New York City.

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