Introducing Jennifer Burns on Ayn Rand

Jennifer Burns, a history professor with the University of Virginia, has a new book out called Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right. I don’t have time to review the entire book at this time, so for now I’ll merely make a few notes about Burns’s introduction.

The first thing to note about Burns’s book is that it is a thoroughly researched, scholarly book. It was published by Oxford University Press, among the most respected academic publishers in the world. Burns includes an eight-page “Essay on Sources” (pp. 291-298). Her notes consume another 45 pages, and her bibliography takes another fifteen pages. Clearly she’s worked hard on it.

Unfortunately, Burns seems to have a superficial understanding of some of Rand’s main ideas. However exhaustive her historical research, Burns is not likely to shed as much light on Rand as she might with a better understanding of what Rand was about. I’ll address a few quotations from Burns’s introduction in the order they appear. Please note that my purpose here is to point out some of Burns’s missteps, so I don’t review the great lines from the introduction. And of course I readily acknowledge that Burns may fill in some of the needed context further in her book. Again, this is only a first and limited take.

“Ideas were the only thing that truly mattered, [Rand] believed, both in a person’s life and in the course of history,” Burns writes (p. 1).

Rand certainly believed that one’s explicit and implicit ideas basically set the course of one’s life, and that similarly the dominant ideas of a culture basically set the course of a society. Yet Burns overstates the point. One’s friends, one’s romantic love, one’s career — these are not ideas, they are values. And they are of central importance to a person’s life. Ultimately, for Rand, the entire point of developing sound ideas is to help us achieve the values we need to live successfully. Burns’s comment on the point is not wildly misleading, but neither is it a careful summary of Rand’s beliefs.

On the second page, Burns writes:

Along with her most avid fans, she saw herself as a genius who transcended time. Like her creation Howard Roark, Rand believed, “I inherit nothing. I stand at the end of no tradition. I may, perhaps, stand at the beginning of one.” … The only philosopher she acknowledged as an influence was Aristotle. Beyond his works, Rand insisted that she was unaffected by external influences or ideas. According to Rand and her latter-day followers, Objectivism sprang, Athena-like, fully formed from the brow of its creator.

While again Burns’s comments reveal grains of truth, on the whole they mislead. Rand correctly thought that she made important and original contributions to philosophy. But the notion that she thought she “transcended time” in the sense intended is silliness. She thought no such thing. All Burns is doing here is parroting unfounded smears she’s heard others make.

Now, there is a sense in which Rand saw any authentic, consistent creator as timeless. Steven Mallory says of The Fountainhead’s Howard Roark:

I often think that he’s the only one of us who’s achieved immortality. I don’t mean in the sense of fame and I don’t mean that he won’t die some day. But he’s living it. I think he’s what the conception really means. You know how people long to be eternal. But they die with every day that passes. When you meet them, they’re not what you met last. In any given hour, they kill some part of themselves. They change, they deny, they contradict – and they call it growth. At the end there’s nothing left, nothing unreversed or unbetrayed; as if there had never been an entity, only a succession of adjectives fading in and out on an unformed mass. How do they expect a permanence which they have never held for a single moment? But Howard -– one can imagine him existing forever. (page 452 of the small paperback)

However, we should also remember here that Roark purposefully entered the tutelage of architect Henry Cameron, and Rand herself found inspiration for the novel in the work of Frank Lloyd Wright.

Rand makes a similar comment regarding her own literary timelessness in her introduction to The Fountainhead. She quotes Victor Hugo: “If a writer wrote merely for his time, I would have to break my pen and throw it away.” She writes that Romantic art “deals, not with the random trivia of the day, but with the timeless, fundamental, universal problems and values of human existence.” Rand then paraphrases Aristotle that art properly concerns itself “not with things as they are, but with things as they might be and ought to be.” Notice here that, in a single page, Rand acknowledges three of her influences, Aristotle, Hugo, and the Romantic school generally.

What of Roark’s comment that he inherited nothing? It is useful here to consider the context of that quote. Roark has just been kicked out of architecture school. The dean of the school is trying to talk (what he regards as) sense into Roark. The dean says (page 24), “Nothing has ever been invented by one man in architecture. The proper creative process is a slow, gradual, anonymous, collective one, in which each man collaborates with all the others and subordinates himself to the standards of the majority.”

To this, Roark replies, “But the best is a matter of standards — and I set my own standards. I inherit nothing. I stand at the end of no tradition. I may, perhaps, stand at the beginning of a new one.”

Here Roark is saying that, rather than subordinate one’s judgment to the standards of the majority, one should develop and stand on one’s own judgment. He is further saying that, in architecture, he does not wish to follow in any established architectural tradition, but rather create buildings of his own, unique and fitted to their site. Notably, by this time, Roark has already found inspiration in the work of Cameron, who holds similar views on the importance of independent judgment.

If we wish to adapt Roark’s insight to the realm of philosophy, we can say that one should not just blindly follow in some philosophical tradition just for the sake of belonging to that school. But, if by one’s own judgment, one finds value in the insight of some school, then obviously one should integrate that insight into one’s body of knowledge. Roark happily learned from the engineering tradition and adapted that knowledge to his own work.

The mere fact that Roark says he might “stand at the beginning of a new” tradition shows that Roark has nothing against tradition per se. In philosophy I can learn from Rand and other philosophers in the same way that in architecture Roark learned from Cameron and his engineering professors.

What about Burns’s claim that the “only philosopher she acknowledged as an influence was Aristotle?” This has better grounding: in her “About the Author” note for Atlas Shrugged, Rand writes, “The only philosophical debt I can acknowledge is to Aristotle.” Rand particularly praises Aristotle’s “definition of the laws of logic and of the means of human knowledge.” However, it is important to understand just how profoundly important Rand thought Aristotle was. Rand also appreciated and learned from thinkers like Aquinas, Locke, and Thomas Jefferson — whom she counted as essentially in the Aristotelean line. So, by acknowledging a debt to Aristotle, Rand is not cutting herself off from all subsequent thinkers; she is acknowledging Aristotle’s influence on those thinkers.

Notably, Burns here overlooks Rand’s further acknowledgment in the next paragraph to her husband, Frank O’Connor.

Beyond the realm of philosophy, Rand acknowledged the American movies of her childhood, the economist Ludwig von Mises, the authors Hugo and Dostoevsky, and many others. In her introduction to The Fountainhead, Rand blasts Nietzsche’s ideas but finds value in him “as a poet” who “projects at times (not consistently) a magnificent feeling for man’s greatness.”

Is Burns correct that Rand thought of herself as a genius? She denied it when her student and heir Leonard Peikoff called her a genius. Peikoff recounts her words on page 350 of The Voice of Reason: “My distinctive attribute is not genius, but intellectual honesty.” In answer to Peikoff’s persistence, Rand added, “One can’t look at oneself that way. No one can say: ‘Ah me! the genius of the ages.’ My perspective as a creator has to be not ‘How great I am’ but ‘How true this idea is and how clear, if only men were honest enough to face the truth.'”

Granting Rand’s penchant for dramatic statements, Burns’s talk about Rand thinking she was a genius who “transcended time” is, in the sense intended, untrue.

Next consider a strange paragraph from Burns on page 3:

[Rand’s] indictment of altruism, social welfare, and service to others sprang from her belief that these ideals underlay Communism [etc.] … Rand’s solution, characteristically, was extreme: to eliminate all virtues that could possibly be used in the service of totalitarianism. It was also simplistic. If Rand’s great strength as a thinker was to grasp interrelated underlying principles and weave them into an impenetrable logical edifice, it was also her greatest weakness. In her effort to find a unifying cause for all the trauma and bloodshed of the twentieth century, Rand was attempting the impossible.

But what is simplistic here is Burns’s reading of Rand. First simply notice Burns’s bias: she presumes at the outset that Rand’s entire approach is basically wrong (“extreme,” “simplistic,” “impossible”). But Burns doesn’t really illuminate Rand’s basic approach. To begin with, we must know what Rand meant by “altruism” — and what she thought about mutually beneficial human relationships — to get any idea of where Rand was headed.

The deeper point is that altruism is an ethical doctrine (growing from certain metaphysical premises), and as such it is much broader than any political system. For instance, the altruism that Roark fights in The Fountainhead lies outside of the political system. Similarly, the altruism enacted at the manufacturing plant in Starnesville in Atlas Shrugged arises outside of any political program. While certainly Rand saw altruism as a central driving force of any collectivist political system, she attacked altruism (which she saw as inherently self-sacrificial) broadly, not merely as it pertained to politics.

Certainly Rand was influenced by her childhood experiences in Russia. But Rand’s moral theories are not merely a product of her personal experiences or the historical era in which she lived, as Burns seems to suggest. Rand’s unique moral theory of ethical egoism must be evaluated on its own terms as philosophy, not blithely dismissed as some rationalistic coping mechanism for childhood trauma.

Next, on the same page, Burns writes, “… Rand advanced a deeply negative portrait of government action. In her work, the state is always a destroyer, acting to frustrate and inhibit the natural ingenuity and drive of individuals.”

Burns’s statement here is simply false. Rand advanced a deeply positive portrait of government action that protects individual rights. She loudly praised the Founding Fathers of the United States. She vociferously denounced the anarchism of Murray Rothbard. She wrote an essay titled “The Nature of Government” in which she passionately defended the need of a rights-protecting government.

True, of her three main novels, two are set in periods in which the government has become corrupt and thus antagonistic to the requirements of human life. Yet Atlas Shrugged also features Judge Naragansett, who justly oversees the courtroom and studies constitutional law. In the Fountainhead, Roark’s enemy is not a government bureaucrat but rather villains out to destroy his reputation and career. In the end Roark is vindicated by the government-run court.

On page 5, Burns writes, “Although [Rand] preached unfettered individualism, the story I tell is one of Rand in relationship…” This statement misrepresents Rand’s theory of individualism, which has nothing to do with being a loner or avoiding relationships. Indeed, Rand’s works are filled with deep friendships, passionate romances, and respectful business alliances. By individualism Rand means that the individual is the fundamental basis of moral value, not to be sacrificed to the collective. This sort of individualism incorporates healthy relationships with others.

Burns also writes, “For all her fealty to reason, Rand was a woman subject to powerful, even overwhelming emotions.” But “fealty to reason,” despite the common stereotypes of Star Trek, does not imply that one is cut off from emotion or experiences muted emotions. Indeed, Rand believed that only a devotion to reason as the means of cognition can give rise to a life of passion and joy. I think Burns’s point here is that Rand could sometimes let her emotions get the best of her. Having watched some of her interviews, I agree that Rand could have a fiery temper. (While I share that tendency, I’m trying to overcome it.) But that’s a different issue than whether “fealty to reason” conflicts with “powerful emotions.”

Burns writes onto page 6 about Rand’s system: “… Objectivism as a philosophy left no room for elaboration, extension, or interpetation…” Yet Burns’s own bibliography disproves her statement here.

Burns correctly suggests that the social group surrounding Rand, led by the vicious and deceitful Nathaniel Branden, grew strange, unfriendly, and stultifying. I suppose that Rand would acknowledge as her greatest mistake getting tanged up with that catastrophe. The tendency Burns describes was deeply unfortunate. But it did not define Rand’s broader social relations or her ideas. Thus, Burns is unfair to claim that Rand’s “system” was “oppressive to individual variety.” (And Rand did not advocate variety as such, but variety in the context of an individual’s rational goals.)

Burns reveals her fundamental misunderstanding of Rand in the closing sentence of her introduction, which posits a “clash between [Rand’s] romantic and rational sides.” If Burns had any serious understanding of Rand’s ideas, she would understand that no such clash is possible. Rand made some mistakes, but Burns doesn’t capture their nature here.

If the introduction to her book is any indicator, Burns may have captured many important details about Rand’s life, but she doesn’t capture Rand the woman or the thinker.

13 thoughts on “Introducing Jennifer Burns on Ayn Rand”

  1. I just got my copy of the book yesterday, I’ve read the intro, and I think you’re right on the mark.

    My suspicion is that the book will provide useful details of Rand’s life (some to be taken with a grain of salt), but that misinterpretations of her personality and ideas may blunt its effectiveness as an intellectual memoir.

    For example, Burns mentions Ayn’s independent mind, but at the same time talks about her desire to be an authority figure to The Collective (the group she mentored), a juxtaposition which frankly made me laugh. Based on first-hand accounts, I flat out don’t believe that Ayn played the tribal leader. I guarantee it’s a case of Objectivist rejects — once again — rewriting history and Ayn’s reputation for the worse.

    Rand and Objectivism are much more subtle and radical than many non-Objectivists realize. For example, how does one distinguish between Rand rejecting someone because she sees an entire world view in a single bad premise, and Rand rejecting someone because she allegedly wants to eliminate competition to her authority? You can’t, unless you realize how differently and precisely she thought; something I don’t think Burns fully understands.

    We will see, as the book unfolds.

  2. Ari:

    A very useful review. Thanks. I have not yet obtained the book, and I would be interested to hear your further thoughts after you have had a chance to read the entire thing.


    C. Jeffery Small

  3. I enjoyed your review and critique. I would like to see what you have to say about the rest of the book. I have not read it yet, but even in this brief portion you refute the large majority of Rand’s critics as a whole.


  4. Thank you for presenting the intellectual implications of J. Burns introductory remarks to “Goddess of the Market”.

    Your review confirms my worst suspicions. Those suspicions were based on the over-eager, painfully irrational, support that Burns work has received from anti-Rand bloggers

    I will never waste one cent to reward the author and publisher by buying “Goddess of the Market”. I also doubt I will waste ten minutes reading it. There are better things to do.

  5. Well, obviously I purchased the book, and I look forward to reading it thoroughly at some point. I suspect there’s a lot of value in it, even if it gets some major issues wrong.

  6. Ari,

    Thank you. You make a number of excellent points. I will read this (or any biography of Rand) very cautiously.

    –Phil Coates

  7. > Based on first-hand accounts, I flat out don’t believe that Ayn played the tribal leader.

    I encountered her a number of times and spoke to her (rarely) and didn’t see that at all. Often rather the opposite in private settings – bending over backwards not to try to intimidate, open to (polite) questioning of her views or analyses.

    — Phil Coates

  8. Phil said:
    >[Ayn Rand] bending over backwards not to try to intimidate, open to (polite) questioning of her views or analyses

    I’m glad to hear it, because I just can’t reconcile Rand’s commitment to independent judgment with some of the negative things I keep hearing about her (i.e. demanding conformity). It just doesn’t make sense.


  9. Coming attractions on the Mike Rosen Show, AM 850 KOA:
    Friday, October 30th- Guest: Anne C. Heller, author, “Ayn Rand and the World She Made.”

  10. Not sure if you’re aware but Neil Parille is taking a backhanded approach to criticizing your comments by posting on Burns’ blog. I try to give the benefit of the doubt in following his “arguments” but they are beginning to wear thin and he seems more of a troll trying to smear Rand just for the sake of it.

    I suggested he leave his criticism here directly, but I’m not sure you would want his ilk lurking around.

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