Last night at Denver Liberty On the Rocks, Stephen Bailey and Anders Ingemarson delivered talks on two of Ayn Rand’s novels, Anthem and Atlas Shrugged.
These talks were part of a series I agreed to help organize in connection with a Fall fundraiser for the Ayn Rand Institute’s books for teachers program. Here I embed not only last night’s talks, but previous talks by Hannah Krening and Kirk Barbera on Rand’s other two novels.
Historian John David Lewis passed away early Tuesday morning after fighting cancer. Lewis, who specialized in classical Greece, delivered several lectures in Colorado over the last few years for Front Range Objectivism, a group that shares Lewis’s appreciation for the philosophy of Ayn Rand.
Rand once said, “Those who fight for the future live in it today.” Lewis, a man who studied the past, applied the lessons of his scholarship to the matter of creating a better future. To me, he was a profoundly insightful scholar, a modern champion of liberty, and a friend.
Following are several photos from John’s various trips to Colorado. Two of these photos show John talking with his former student, Joe Collins, now a teacher in Fort Collins. The photo of John and his wife Casey was taken by Kelly Valenzuela at the couple’s Fifteenth Anniversary celebration in Las Vegas. I’ve put these photos in a Picasa folder.
Following are some memories of John from his friends in Colorado. (Others in Colorado who knew John are welcome to send me their comments as well.)
Kelly and Santiago Valenzuala:
John was one of the people in this world that we admired most and his loss is a great one to mankind. Fortunately, he left many of us with wonderful ideas to not only live by, but share and pass along in our efforts to improve the culture. On a personal level, John and Casey, their love and the way they lived their lives together, during good times and bad, was an inspiration to us. I will never forget their 15th wedding anniversary in Las Vegas and the wonderful pictures I took of them that week. Santiago and I have decided that should our baby be a boy (which is what we’re hoping for), his middle name will be Lewis, in honor of John.
I remember many things about John Lewis.
I remember his excellent lectures on ancient Greece at the OCON summer conferences. I remember a wonderful impromptu jazz piano performance he gave one evening at the Seaport Hotel in Boston. I remember when he was our house guest in Colorado raking horse manure, while telling fascinating tales about the battle tactics of the mounted Mongol archers.
But what I remember most about John was how he helped me regain my will to fight for my values back in 2009. At that time, the battle over ObamaCare health legislation was in full swing and I had become deeply discouraged. It seemed that despite all my blogging and letter writing, I wasn’t getting anywhere. My efforts seemed futile and pointless, like someone trying to fight a raging forest fire armed only with a tiny squirt gun. I was on the verge of quitting health care activism altogether.
But then one of John’s articles on ObamaCare got picked up by Rush Limbaugh.
Rush quoted extensively from John’s piece on his radio show, sending John’s words to millions of Americans. John’s example showed me that a single man, armed with the right ideas — and willing to articulate them with clarity and conviction — can indeed make a difference.
Fans of Ayn Rand’s book “The Fountainhead” may remember the scene when a young man is struggling to find his purpose in life after graduating from college. He finally finds his inspiration after seeing the recently completed Monadnock resort built by architect Howard Roark. For that young man, seeing another man’s achievement gave him “the courage to face a lifetime”.
John did the same for me. Seeing John’s ideas reach millions of eager Americans helped rekindle my enthusiasm to continue my own personal activism. His success gave me a spiritually vital “shot in the arm” at a time I needed it the most. John helped me understand that one is most alive when one is working to make one’s values real. In other words, John helped me understand what Ayn Rand meant when she said, “Anyone who fights for the future, lives in it today.”
Thank you, John, for helping me find my courage for my lifetime.
The world will be a less vibrant and exciting place without John Lewis. I was very privileged to know John and be the recipient of his knowledge and friendship. He was the best teacher that I ever had. I attended most of his lectures at Objectivist Conferences and had the pleasure to hear him in Denver and facilitate some of his Denver talks. I have always been envious of students who got to spend a whole semester with him, what a treat to spend that much time with him and learn so much. John had a true love of life and joy that was infectious. John was a fearless person who would tackle any battle and accept ‘Nothing Less than Victory.’ Unfortunately his last battle ended too quickly. I thank John for his knowledge, friendship and courage. He will be missed by me and many, many others but will be remembered often.
It’s inspiring to see what a human being can be capable of. John was a high achiever. He used his mind and his time very well. He was honest, sincere, diligent, courageous.
I don’t think John set any limit on how hard he would try. I think his first consideration was how important a thing was, not how much effort it would take. I think within the limits of whatever he had to work with, including however much energy he could generate, John considered only the value of one option vs. another.
He was also a friend of humanity, in the real way. He worked to make a better world, for himself and for Man. He did everything possible to him, toward this end, in large ways and in small. And he was quite generous. Though very busy, when asked for information or advice he would take a moment to help others to understand an issue or a needed course of action, the best he could. I think he did this for anyone he thought might have an honest, decent interest in trying to understand, as his time and priorities allowed.
John had an ability to get to the bottom of things, to identify what is important, to sweep aside the garbage and clutter, and to really understand the basic issues and their consequences. And then he would work to help others to understand too. I would not understand Objectivism nor political issues as well as I do, without John’s words.
Along with John’s great ability to understand, he had a great capacity to value. He loved good ideas, human achievement and good people.
John Lewis was just awesome.
I remember John Lewis as I first knew him. He was a brilliant lecturer whose passion for history was wickedly contagious. I remember the first lecture I attended; it became obvious during the question and answer session that this was a man who had all of the history of western civilization integrated in his mind and accessible in an instant.
I remember John Lewis as I came to know him. He was a friend whose love of life was almost tangible. I remember his love of music. I remember his love for his dear wife. I remember his love of his two puppies. I remember his concern for me as I dealt with what turned out to be minor health issues.
I remember John Lewis in his battle with cancer. He was a warrior who would accept “Nothing Less Than Victory”. I will always remember the lesson he taught us in that battle; that it is possible to live life fully and flourish by relentlessly pursuing ones values, even in the face of death. He could not control the cards that he was dealt, but I remember the inspiration with which he played them.
I remember John Lewis victorious.
John Lewis shall be widely remembered, to each for his own reason. Scholarship and the field of history is at a loss, for Dr. Lewis’ reading and teaching history on principle was the oasis in an academic desert. Humanity too mourns at its loss, for Dr. Lewis, unlike so many intellectuals, never turned down an opportunity to discuss ideas and history with the up and coming. He treated his fellow students with dignity and made them feel visible.
What is generally unknown was that Dr. Lewis was a steadfast patron of our schools and education reform. He dedicated with tireless effort his time teaching summer institutes on classical history. His speeches and writings are and will be among education’s great sources for the classics. In fact, among those jewels in his works was a speech which I hope is out there somewhere, an address to a group of high school seniors on Martianus Capella’s The Seven Liberal Arts. His best? And to high school students? Whether walking with kings or with crowds, that was John Lewis.
On my first meeting Dr. Lewis, he invited me to walk with him, of all places, to the Post Office. It was our first walk of many, as he became my Socrates. On another of our walks he suddently broke into a shout and tossed me a sword, he taking another, and commenced to show me how a hoplite would thrust and slash. Onlookers were bewildered, a man in sandals swordfighting on campus.
I am deeply honored to have known this man, and am particularly indebted to C. Bradley Thompson for insisting over a decade ago that I go down the hall and meet a genuinely beautiful human being. And that was my friend. Teachers and intellectuals carry with them the DNA so to speak of the giants on whose shoulders they stand. For my own I shall carry his love for life, of ideas, of education, and of liberty into the field. In this way, as the Greeks said, Lewis has reached immortality. Reputation sufficeth. It’s all we have. Continue, he would say to us. Be brave. He would ask us to continue to contemplate, write, advocate, and fellowship. And we shall.
Joseph E. Collins
James Madison Fellow
Ridgeview Classical Schools
Fort Collins, Colorado
I thought I’d add a few additional notes of a more personal nature. I wish to recount two stories.
In 2007, John Lewis was in town, and Lin Zinser organized a breakfast at a Denver restaurant to discuss health policy. A surprising number of people showed up for this event, something like 25 or 30. This was when Lin and Paul Hsieh were beginning their work in health policy in Colorado. One idea was to start a new group dedicated to promoting the ideas of liberty, free markets, and individual rights in medicine. We had tossed around a few possible ideas for a name for this group, but nothing seemed to work. At one point John blurted out (paraphrasing), “How about Freedom and Individual Rights in Medicine, or FIRM? As in ‘We stand FIRM for freedom.'” And that’s the name that stuck.
More recently, when John was pretty sick and his energy was sometimes low, he joined several us again at a Denver restaurant. Though, due to his surgeries, his voice was not as strong as it had once been, he spoke passionately about living. He said that, better than ever before, he understood the concrete meaning of the abstract fact that “life is the process of self-generated and self-sustaining action.” He was self-consciously living even in dealing with his illness. I was awe-inspired by his courageous fight against the cancer that eventually overtook his body, but never his spirit. Most men never live as fully when they are healthy, as he lived when he was ill.
On a broader note, I cannot help but wonder whether, if the United States had gone in the direction of greater economic freedom over the past century and a half rather than in the direction of more stifling political controls, medical technology would have already advanced to such a state that John’s cancer might have been curable or at least manageable for much longer. We cannot change the past, but we can still change the future. And John has emboldened me to fight for a future of Freedom and Individual Rights, not just in medicine, but in every area of life.
Like so many who knew John, I will never forget his intensity, joy, and passion for everything he engaged in, and his brilliant mastery of all he took on.
But what I want to convey here is that John David Lewis was genuine to the core, and lived his last two years heroically. Though I knew him for years, I had a friendship with him that began in 2009 when he was first diagnosed with cancer. He knew I was a cancer survivor, and so he called me early one morning to share the news that “it is big and it is bad, but it is treatable.” I listened in shock. But it was immediately apparent that he was going to address this with the vigor he addressed everything else. And he did.
In our wide ranging conversations his focus was, to the last conversation, laser sharp. It is a huge accomplishment that he lived beyond all expectations, both in time and in productiveness. Despite the best medicine available, he lived with profound, life altering consequences of the treatment, and eventually the disease. It had an effect on his spirit; the reality of this disease is ugly. But a life force and commitment to reason that he had cultivated long before I knew him made him victorious over it until the very end.
John would sparkle when he spoke of Casey, and for good reasons. It was a delight for Doug and me to get to know them as a couple. We loved the time we spent with them and we treasure Casey’s friendship.
I am independently promoting funding for the Ayn Rand Institute’s “Books for Teachers” program for Colorado.
If you are a teacher, I encourage you to check out the program.
If you are interested in Rand’s works, I encourage you to donate funds to ARI specially marked to support Colorado’s “Books for Teachers” program.
If you donate to ARI for this purpose, please let me know as well. The total target for the campaign is $19,000. Coloradans have already contributed $1,100 to the campaign, and an anonymous donor has pledged $5,000 in matching funds for new donations. Please let me know whether you want me to use your name or remain anonymous. I’ll keep a running tally going below. Note that you can DOUBLE your donations with the matching funds.
Previous donations: $1,100 (includes $500 from Mike and Jennifer Rivers)
Matching funds from an anonymous donor: $5,000
“Galt’s Gulch” auction leader: David Weatherell for $3,100
The following contributions all qualify for matching funds:
Ari and Jennifer: $80
Doug and Hannah Krening: $500
Martin L. Buchanan: $100
Mike Williams and Cara: $35
Brian S.: $35
Howard and Susan: $160
Betty Evans: $500
Donovan Schafer: $320
Linn and Sharon Armstrong: $50
David Weatherell: $900
Patricia Tolleson: $100
Mike Spalding: $20
Bill Faulkner: $400
JL: $2,000 (fulfills matching funds)
Richard Watts: $1,000
The Kempes: $160
Recently a local reading group I attend reviewed Ayn Rand’s dystopian novelette Anthem. That book served as my introduction to Rand many years ago, and rereading it proved rewarding.
In our discussion, we explored a variety of topics:
* The romance between the two lead characters, Equality and Liberty, develops as Equality becomes an independent thinker and scientist. This anticipates Howard Roark’s comment in Fountainhead, “To say ‘I love you’ one must first know how to say the ‘I’.”
* The way Equality values his scientific work anticipates the relationship between the heroes and their work in Atlas Shrugged. It illustrates Rand’s view that material objects are not valuable in themselves, but only in relation to individual values and consciousness.
* For Rand, totalitarianism necessarily results, ultimately, in total economic collapse. The central reason for this is that political controls prevent individuals from acting on their own reasoned judgment, ultimately chilling reasoned thought as such. In the long run capitalism and technological progress cannot survive totalitarian controls. Contrast the primitive society of Anthem with the (in some ways) highly technical societies of other dystopias, such as Brave New World and, more recently,Hunger Games.
I delivered a twenty-minute talk August 27 at Skepticamp in Colorado Springs titled, “Ayn Rand As Atheist.” I open with the American Values Network attack on Ayn Rand for her atheism, then I describe what her atheism actually entails.
Somebody pointed out that I may not set up an early quote about duty well enough; it comes from Rand’s Red Pawn (in Early Ayn Rand) and it comes from a character whose views Rand criticizes as typically Communist.
September 12 Update: Following is a write-up based on the same material.
That the left attacks Ayn Rand for her capitalist politics comes as no surprise. Today’s left, though, attacks Rand not only for her political conclusions, but specifically for her atheism. Decades ago, usually only the religious right employed that line of attack (and did so with a vengeance). Today’s left, far from consistently defending secular values and the separation of church and state, increasingly joins the religious right in bringing religion into politics.
Rand, on the other hand, consistently defended the separation of church and state. While she eloquently defended freedom of religion and freedom of conscience more broadly, she rejected religion throughout her career and defended reason based on the evidence of the natural world and objective values based on the life and happiness of the individual.
The leftist organization American Values Network prominently attacks Rand’s atheism in a web page and related video, touting residual media ranging from Time to USA Today to Fox News. The organization argues:
GOP leaders and conservative pundits have brought upon themselves a crisis of values. Many who for years have been the loudest voices invoking the language of faith and moral values are now praising the atheist philosopher Ayn Rand whose teachings stand in direct contradiction to the Bible. Rand advocates a law of selfishness over love and commands her followers to think only of themselves, not others. She said her followers had to choose between Jesus and her teachings.
GOP leaders want to argue that they are defending Christian principles. …As conservative evangelical icon Chuck Colson recently stated, Christians can not support Rand’s philosophy and Christ’s teachings. The choice is simple: Ayn Rand or Jesus Christ. We must choose one and forsake the other.
In fact American Values Network grossly distorts Rand’s views — she advocated appropriate loving relationships and thoughtfulness of others — but the organization’s deeper error lies in attacking Rand’s atheism while explicitly advocating a religious basis for politics (specifically a Christian basis rooted in Biblical texts). Note the enormous difference between logically or factually questioning Rand’s conclusions in politics and ethics (controversies beyond the scope of this article), and rejecting Rand’s ideas because she does not ground them in religion. The latter sort of attack should concern everyone who values the separation of church and state.
As a silver lining, the American Values Network campaign raises awareness of Rand’s criticisms of religion and faith-based politics, provoking thoughtful observers to discover the nature of Rand’s actual views. Thankfully, Rand eloquently explained and defended her views on religion. Considered on their merits, rather than filtered and stripped out of context by partisan character assassins, Rand’s positions constitute an important alternative to religion and a powerful defense of the separation of church and state. Those positions richly deserve a deeper look.
To set the context for Rand’s atheism, consider that she was born in pre-Soviet Russia in 1905 into a Jewish family. Thus, she never grew up with strong Christian (or even religiously Jewish) beliefs. (See Objectively Speaking, edited by Marlene Podritske and Peter Schwartz, page 226.) Marxism dominated many intellectual circles in Russia, with its emphasis on collectivism and antagonism toward religion. Rand moved to the United States in 1926 where, understandably, her antipathy toward Communism dominated much of her early thinking. Not until many decades later, in the mid-1970s as Rand approached the end of her life, did the religious right make serious attempts to ground politics on religious beliefs.
Yet, as Rand developed her philosophy over time and emphasized different aspects of it as the culture around her changed, she constantly advocated the same worldview of using reason to achieve life-based values in the natural world. This was true of her first professional writing in 1932 until her final public appearances in the early 1980s. By any sensible measure, Rand must be counted among the greatest atheist intellectuals of the 20th Century.
Many of the basic elements of Rand’s atheism appear in the first writing she sold, a 1932 screen treatment called Red Pawn. As the name suggests, the treatment largely deals with the evils of Soviet dictatorship, yet it also criticizes religion.
Rand criticizes the notion of duty that contradicts or stands beyond reason. The Communist character Commandant Karayev describes the duty-based view: “When it’s duty, you don’t ask why and to whom. You don’t ask any questions. When you come up against a thing about which you can’t ask any questions — then you know you’re facing your duty.” (The Early Ayn Rand, edited by Leonard Peikoff, page 120.) Rand rejected any attempt to act outside of reason, whether from a religious or collectivist motivation.
Rand’s description of Karayev reveals much about her views of religion as well as Communism:
He stood at the door. At one side of him was a painting of a saint burning at the stake…renouncing the pleasures and tortures of the flesh for the glory of his heaven; at the other side — a poster of a huge machine with little ant-sized men, sweating at its gigantic levers, and the inscription: “Our duty is our sacrifice to the red collective of the Communistic State!” (The Early Ayn Rand page 136.)
For Rand, Communism does not fundamentally stand opposed to religion; instead, the Communists substituted the authority of the state (with its Commisars) for the authority of a religion (with its priests and sacred texts). While the religious authorities demand individual sacrifices for God or his works, the collectivist authorities demand sacrifices for the state or some collective end. As Leonard Peikoff summarizes in his introduction to the work, “Ayn Rand saw clearly that Communism, contrary to its propaganda, is not the alternative to religion, but only a secularized version of it, with the state assuming the prerogatives once reserved to the supernatural” (The Early Ayn Rand page 108).
For Rand, then, atheism is not enough. Atheism merely states a negative, an absence or rejection of theism and its supernatural realm. People can reject God and yet advocate irrational and even evil ideas. What matters is one’s positive philosophy, and Rand’s philosophy of reason grounded in natural evidence and earthly values consequently precludes theism. While American Christians reacted strongly against the atheism of Communism, particularly during the Cold War, Rand saw the similarities between the two camps as more substantial than the differences.
Rand’s 1936 novel We the Living, again set in Soviet Russia, addresses (at its periphery) the ethics and psychology of religion. Consider a telling exchange between two of the characters, Kira and Andrei:
“Do you believe in God, Andrei?”
“Neither do I. But that’s a favorite question of mine. An upside-down question, you know.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, if I asked people whether they believed in life, they’d never understand what I meant. It’s a bad question. It can mean so much that it really means nothing. So I ask them if they believe in God. And if they say they do — then, I know they don’t believe in life.”
“Because, you see, God — whatever anyone chooses to call God — is one’s highest conception of the highest possible. And whoever places his highest conception above his own possibility thinks very little of himself and his life. It’s a rare gift, you know, to feel reverence for your own life and to want the best, the greatest, the highest possible, here, now, for your very own. To imagine a heaven and then not to dream of it, but to demand it.” (We the Living, by Ayn Rand, page 97-98 in the 1959 Random House edition.)
Here Rand suggests that religion tends to stand in the way of worldly values by encouraging people to place their hopes of achieving values in some afterlife. One chooses this life and the values of this life, or one neglects or denigrates this life in favor of an imagined world beyond death. (That many people in fact act on contradictory ideas and commitments would not surprise Rand.) Rand presents a highly idealistic vision of values in the sense that they are achievable in this life.
Religion drops even further to the background in Rand’s 1940 novel The Fountainhead, but that book too makes some criticisms of religion. Consider an exchange between the main character Howard Roark and his early mentor:
“Why did you decide to be an architect?”
“I didn’t know it then. But it’s because I’ve never believed in God.”
“Come on, talk sense.”
“Because I love this earth. That’s all I love. I don’t like the shape of things on this earth. I want to change them.” (The Fountainhead, by Ayn Rand, page 39 in the 1994 Plume edition.)
The dialogue again emphasizes Rand’s focus on this-worldly values, as opposed to the supernatural realm.
In his famous courtroom speech, Roark adds:
That man [the creator] the unsubmissive and first, stands in the opening chapter of every legend mankind has recorded about its beginning. Prometheus was chained to a rock and torn by vultures — because he had stolen the fire of the gods. Adam was condemned to suffer — because he had eaten the fruit of the tree of knowledge. (The Fountainheadpage 710.)
Here Rand presents religion as backwards mysticism that stands in the way of this-wordly values.
Rand’s criticisms of religion become more pronounced and developed withAtlas Shrugged in 1957.
John Galt makes a number of pointed criticisms of religion (and collectivism) in his detailed radio address, including the following:
The good, say the mystics of spirit, is God, a being whose only definition is that he is beyond man’s power to conceive — a definition that invalidates man’s consciousness and nullifies his concepts of existence. The good, say the mystics of muscle, is Society — a thing which they define as an organism that possesses no physical form, a superbeing embodied in no one in particular and everyone in general except yourself. (Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand, page 1027 in the 1992 Dutton edition.)
The mystics of both schools… are germs that attack you through a single sore: your fear of relying on your mind. They tell you that they possess a means of knowledge higher than the mind, a mode of consciousness superior to reason… (Atlas Shrugged page 1034.)
Here Rand emphasizes the irrationality of supernatural religious presumptions or their collectivist counterparts. Whereas, in Red Pawn, Rand revealed the psychology of turning to religion in rejection of worldly values, in Atlas Shrugged she sees as a source of mysticism the fear of relying on one’s reasoning mind as the sole means of knowledge.
Following the publication of Atlas Shrugged, Rand turned more to nonfiction writing and speaking, when she continued to attack the mysticism and self-sacrifice of religion and its subversion of reason in politics.
In 1960, Rand delivered an address at Yale titled, “Faith and Force: Destroyers of the Modern World.” In this talk, she again explicitly defends reason against the mysticism of religion: “Reason is the faculty which perceives, identifies and integrates the material provided by man’s senses.Mysticism is the claim to a non-sensory means of knowledge.” (Philosophy: Who Needs It, by Ayn Rand, page 63 in the 1984 Signet edition.) Moreover, Rand argues that rejecting reason in favor of religious faith in politics leads inexorably to conflict, violence, and rule by brute force:
[F]aith and force are corellaries, and… mysticism will always lead to the rule of brutality. The cause of it is contained in the very nature of mysticism. Reason is the onlyobjective means of communication and of understanding among men… But when men claim to possess supernatural means of knowledge, no persuasion, communication or understanding [is possible]. (Philosophy: Who Needs It page 70. Note that a typographical error appears in some printings of this book, corrected here with the bracketed text.)
In another talk later in 1960, Rand blasted conservatives for attempting to ground their politics in religious faith: “Politically, such a claim contradicts the fundamental principles of the United States: in America, religion is a private matter which cannot and must not be brought into political issues” (Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, by Ayn Rand, page 197 of the 1967 Signet edition).
Rand’s warning about the inevitable strife of faith-based politics, and her resounding endorsement of the separation of church and state, should serve to jolt the rising Religious Left to its senses. Those who believe they can defeat Rand’s political positions using logic and reason are free to try it. But rejecting Rand’s ideas specifically because they are atheistic, and calling instead on a politics grounded on religious faith and sacred texts, invites long-term disaster in America, logically tending toward theocracy.
Over the course of her career, Rand fought for naturalism, a focus on this world, as opposed to supernaturalism. She advocated reason grounded in the evidence of the senses, not faith or mystical intuition. She advocated a morality based on the lives and well-being of real individuals, rather than some allegedly transcendent realm. She fought for a politics grounded in reason and individual rights. Rand presented these ideas in riveting novels that continue to sell hundreds of thousands of copies every year to readers hungry for Rand’s idealized, value-based, story-driven “Romantic realism.” Through essays, lectures, and public appearances throughout the rest of her life, Rand continued to advocate her positive philosophy as well as the rightful separation of church and state.
Despite Rand’s decades of intellectual achievements, today more than any other literary figure she becomes the target of nasty and fact-challenged smears by both the left and the right. The left hates her for her capitalism, while the right hates her for her atheism — though the left increasingly joins the right in this, as the American Values Network illustrates.
Those who reject Rand’s moral and political theories would do well to take a second look at what she actually advocated and why, as her views suffer continual distortions in the popular media. Yet even those who disagree with Rand’s specific conclusions should recognize her achievements and her status as a preeminent 20th Century atheist intellectual and, more fundamentally, a champion of reason and liberty.
“Anonymous” left the following comment on September 11, 2011: Ari, not sure if this was the session where you talked about the left incorporating in more overt ways the religious (principally Christian) creed of self-sacrifice or not. But it got me thinking about an interview between the American play-write Arthur Miller and Jonathan Miller. In it, Arthur Miller touches on this idea, but levels an even greater warning: the combination of Christianity, Judaism, and nationalism – literally lethal in his view. It is a great interview, and is part of a collection of interviews with several atheists entitled The Atheism Tapes (BBC). Cheers! B Danielson
Given the existence of “flash mob” riots, the continued rise of the massive welfare state (which threatens to push our nation off the economic cliff), and snarling calls to further loot “the rich,” I was enormously saddened to read Ayn Rand’s comment from her 1971 essay, “Don’t Let It Go:”
“Americans admire achievement; they know what it takes. Europeans regard achievement with cynical suspicion and envy. Envy is not a widespread emotion in America (not yet); it is an overwhelmingly dominant emotion in Europe.”
In reading Ayn Rand’s essay “The Goal of My Writing” for a reading group, I was struck by the following passage:
There is no dichotomy, no necessary conflict between ends and means. The end does not justify the means — neither in ethics nor in esthetics. And neither do the means justify the end: there is no esthetic justification for the spectacle of Rembrandt’s great artistic skill employed to portray a side of beef. …
Misery, disease, disaster, evil, all the negatives of human existence, are proper subjects of study in life, for the purpose of understanding and correcting them — but are not proper subjects of contemplation for contemplation’s sake.(The Romantic Manifesto, pages 166-167)
This got me curious; if I’ve ever seen that work before, I didn’t remember it. Wikipedia features a vivid reproduction of the work.
My own reaction to the work is that it’s disturbing, a little gross and unsettling. And, oddly, it’s bathed in light. (It is a Rembrandt, after all.)
Interestingly, just a few paragraphs later Rand paraphrases Aristotle: “It was Aristotle who said that fiction is of greater philosophical importance than history, because history represents things only as they are, while fiction represents them ‘as they might be and ought to be.'”
But, in looking up the relevant passage in Aristotle’s “Poetics,” I found another quote equally relevant (see the fourth section, page 2318 of the second volume of the Revised Oxford.) The Philosopher writes:
It is clear that the general origin of poetry was due to two causes, each of them part of human nature. Imitation is natural to man from childhood… And it is natural for all to delight in works of imitation. The truth of this second point is shown by experience: though the objects themselves may be painful to see, we delight to view the most realistic representations of them in art, the forms for example of the lowest animals and of dead bodies. That explanation is to be found in a further fact: to be learning something is the greatest of pleasures not only to the philosopher but also to the rest of mankind…
To Aristotle, then, our appreciation of “still lifes” (or deaths) derives from our love of imitation and learning.
But that pertains only to “the general origin;” what about advanced art? A bit later (section nine, pages 2322-2323) Aristotle offers the discussion invoked by Rand:
From what we have said it will be seen that the poet’s function is to describe, not the thing that has happened, but a kind of think that might happen, i.e., what is possible as being probable or necessary. … Hence poetry is something more philosophic and of graver import than history, since its statements are of the nature rather of universals, whereas those of history are singulars. By a universal statement I mean one as to what such or such a kind of man will probably or necessarily say or do…
I think Aristotle must be right about imitative art; early cave art often features animals. And often budding artists develop their skills by painting scenes around them or even other great works of art. But I think there’s something more to a good still life beyond the artist showing his skill and the viewer reflecting on the imitation. Instead, a well-painted apple lets us think about apples in a new way. We see a “universal apple,” a presentation of how “such or such a kind of” apple “will probably or necessarily” appear. So good art seems to cross the barrier from sheer imitation to projection.
Does Rembrandt’s ox compel us to contemplate the misery of death? Even friendly critics seem to think so. I picked out a couple more or less at random:
Rembrandt van Rijn’s butchered “Carcass of Beef” (also known as the “Flayed Ox”), 37 x 27, hangs, skinned in a dark shed, dominating the center foreground of the painting. … Rembrandt has sumptuously developed the planes and forms of what, to most people of his day -– and ours –- would be merely a dead animal of utilitarian use, a source of physical nourishment… He sees in a dead beef — turns it into — a miracle of artistic beauty, and poetic and spiritual profundity. … Rembrandt has reached his highest artistic level in this work…
The artist paints this raw and drying thing with the reverence and respect with which he painted all things, including the crucifixion of Christ. [Compare.] For, this painting of a slaughtered ox or beef, hanging upside down in a darkened storeroom, can’t help but be likened to a crucifixion, with the spreading rear legs like arms affixed to a cross. …
He does not back away from death and the idea of dying. In a way, he embraces it here, as if a means of resolving its pain and fear. He has dealt with death in the loss of his first wife, Saskia, and at least two of his children.
[T]he weakness of life and possible death at any moment are linked to the idea of vanitas [emptiness or death]. This stands for ephemerality, and reminded the Dutch people in the seventeenth century of their short and meaningless lives. The motive encourages a morally correct life and shows people that earthly delights are only short lived. The time in heaven after death is all that counts and life should be lived as a preparation for that time. Rembrandt’s Slaughtered Ox could be such a vanitas symbol. His painting can clearly be placed in the tradition of paintings with dead oxes and other animals. These carcasses are often combined with the homo bulla motive or other Christian encouragements to live your life like a respectable Christian.
While I think the comparison to the crucifixion is strained, surely there’s something to the idea that Rembrandt painted the carcass to contemplate death.
I think we can look at the ox at the imitative and the universal level. At one level, it is a viscerally stunning and richly textured work; though the object is “painful to see, we delight to view” its representation in art (at least in the sense of being fascinated by it). At another level, we think, “Every living thing dies, just like this ox.”
While the “vanitas” could be taken in the Christian sense to mean the frailty and angst of a short life, it can also be taken in a more positive, this-worldly sense. As a friend put it succinctly on Facebook, “Always live like you only live once.” I think it is worth contemplating death sometimes, for it reminds us to live well.
If an artist painted nothing but works like the flayed ox, that would indicate the problem Rand describes. But a single artwork can take a narrow slice of life, and one that need not be cheery and positive. I recognize the general problem Rand is discussing, but her example doesn’t seem to illustrate it well.
A couple months ago I wrote about how Ayn Rand—nearly three decades after her death—has become the target of almost daily smear jobs from both the left and the right, and even some “friendly” commentaries greatly distort her ideas.
That phenomenon is remarkable: I cannot name any other 20th Century public intellectual subject to comparable mistreatment. The smears raise an interesting question: what is it about Rand’s ideas that make her opponents afraid of people reading them?
Most of the smears against Rand are so silly and petty that they do not merit responses; anyway, one could spend one’s life rebutting them, hardly a productive venture. But the latest smear job, by Al Lewis, inexplicably appears on the pages of the Wall Street Journal, among the largest and most respected papers in the world. So perhaps a few words of reply are in order.
Lewis begins with a handful of true claims. Rand opposed libertarianism, and she was right to do so. Rand also criticized Ronald Reagan, who presided over deficit spending, a Social Security tax increase, and higher trade barriers. Perhaps more significantly, he helped set the framework for the growth of the religious right. If Reagan looks rosy to many modern eyes, we need merely recap the names of the full-termers who preceded and followed him: Johnson, Nixon, Carter, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II, and Obama.
Lewis is also quite correct that Rand “was an atheist, an abortion supporter and a champion of the anti-Christian ideal that selfishness is a virtue.” And she “villifies communism [and] socialism,” as does any sensible person. But that marks the end of Lewis’s truthful summary.
It is not true that Rand villified unionism per se, as Lewis claims; she opposed “compulsory unionism,” just as she opposed compulsory corporatism and compulsion in general.
Lewis then writes, “Some of her ideas are central to the American Dream. But Ms. Rand did much of her writing while hopped up on amphetamines and nicotine. And like most people who abuse this combination, she went too far. She crafted philosophical arguments and wrote bizarre works of fiction to prove their premises.”
Let me begin with the smear about the quality of Rand’s fiction. Very often, a commentator’s hysteria against Rand the novelist roughly matches his ignorance of her works. What Lewis (without argument) regards as “bizarre,” I regard as unique and genius. As far as I know, no other novel ever published has exploded in sales a half century after its original publication. While often the popular strays from the good, there is something about Rand’s fiction that deeply touches millions of readers. While many of Rand’s critics wish to scare away potential readers of her novels by senselessly mocking the works, any honest individual will ignore all that and decide for himself.
Lewis’s claim that Rand’s ideas are wrong merely because she smoked and took amphetamines constitutes sheer anti-intellectualism. Even if Lewis’s claim were true — and it is not — still the ideas would have to be addressed on their own terms, apart from the personality of Ayn Rand.
It is true that Rand smoked and took amphetamines. But let us remember we’re talking about the 20th Century! Rand lived through the era when cigarette companies ran advertisements proclaiming the health benefits of their products. And Jacob Sullum reviews in Saying Yes (page 208): “For decades methamphetamine… was widely used in oral form, along with amphetamine… and dextroamphetamine… These drugs were given to soldiers during World War II, taken by students cramming for exams and truck drivers trying to stay awake on long hauls, and prescribed by doctors for weight loss, narcolepsy, depression, and hyperactivity. Until 1954, amphetamines were available in the United States without a prescription.”
Did Rand develop her ideas while she using drugs? No. Jennifer Burns (herself hardly consistently fair to Rand) notes in Goddess of the Marketthat, during the editing stage of The Fountainhead, Rand started using “Benzedrine… a widely prescribed amphetamine” (page 85).
By this time, Rand had already written We the Living, her scathing critique of Soviet Communism and statism more generally. She had already written Anthem, her dystopian novel about an independent man who fights the oppressive regime around him. And she had already written (but not finalized) The Fountainhead, the first of her two lengthy and highly ambitious novels. While Rand refined and developed some of her ideas between Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, all the kernels of her ideas were in the earlier works.
I join most moderns in thinking that regularly taking amphetamines is pretty bad for you, and moreover it can adversely affect your personality. But this notion that Rand’s ideas may be discarded merely because (after formulating most of those ideas) she took amphetamines is ridiculous and intellectually dishonest nonsense.
Let us continue. Lewis writes, “Ms. Rand mentored former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan,” who “poured gasoline on the free market until it exploded.” In fact, Rand advocated the gold standard. So did Greenspan in his younger years, which is a big reason why Rand liked him. The fact that Greenspan became a backstabbing sellout who undermined all the principles Rand believed in and advocated is hardly Rand’s fault.
Next Lewis claims that, while Rand attacked welfare recipients as “looters,” “[w]e now know corporations are the real ‘parasites’ in an economic crisis.” Lewis claims that Rand “did not imagine executives would loot their shareholders, cause an economic crisis and then beg for government help.” His comment reflects such basic ignorance of the story of Atlas Shrugged that I must wonder whether he’s ever even read this novel which he regards as “bizarre.”
Indeed, most of the major villains of Atlas Shrugged come from favor-seeking businesses! Wesley Mouch begins life as a corporate lobbyist. He joins the major villains James Taggart, a railroad executive, and Orren Boyle, a steel executive. The Starnes siblings run a motor company into the ground, inspiring the strike at the heart of the story.
So Lewis’s claim that Rand’s “brand of laissez-faire capitalism led to corporations growing bigger” until absorbing subsidies and “telling big government what to do” is nothing but a lie. What led to modern corporatism was not laissez-faire capitalism but its opposite: the protofascist policies of the big-government “progressives.” (For example, see Amity Shlaes’s book for a description of how FDR’s key advisors idolized Soviet-style “planning.”)
In fact, Rand argued for the complete separation of economy and state, leaving government the sole function of protecting individual rights. She opposed all subsidies and bailouts, all anticompetitive laws from wage controls to trade barriers, and all forms of economic compulsion. She championed economic liberty, property rights, and strictly voluntary relationships.
For Lewis to blame Rand for the errors and economic distortions of her ideological opposites is the height of dishonesty.
The silver lining is that all the grotesque smear jobs against Rand raise her profile and stir the interest of honest readers.
Ellis Weiner commented July 18, 2011 at 4:01 PM
Lewis’ article sounds eminently open to criticism, but it sounds as though you equate any criticism of Rand with a “smear.” Similarly, criticism of Rand’s fiction is (“very often”) equated with “hysteria,” while you seek to prove Rand’s “genius” by appealing to her works’ popularity.
“There is something about Rand’s fiction that deeply touches millions of readers,” you say. It’s true. There was also something about Jonathan Livingston Seagull that deeply touched millions of readers, as there is with regard to The Secret, The Bridges of Madison County, Action Comics, Interview With the Vampire, and so on. Like Atlas Shrugged, they, too, were and are unique.
It’s disingenuous at best to pretend to acknowledge that “often the popular strays from the good,” and then to attempt to legitimize “the popular” by talking about “deeply touching.”
What advocates of Atlas never acknowledge is how stacked a deck Rand dealt from: her heroes are all demi-gods and her villains are out of melodrama. The collectivization of the nations of Europe, which she uses to make her heroes seem even more fearless and embattled, add to a third-rate science fiction world (with its “lens” that conceals Gault’s Gulch, and the preposterous Rearden Metal, and the laughable motor invented by Galt, and the straight-from-the-fifties “Project X”) that she has the gall, or the simple obliviousness, to include in a novel ostensibly about “reality.”
Champions of Atlas write as though they had never actually read a decent novel. As Flannery O’Connor wrote to someone, Rand “makes Mickey Spillane seem like Dostoevsky.”
Admire “rationality” all you want. But defenses of Atlas Shrugged are at best exercises in wishful thinking and at words demonstrations of lousy taste in literature.
Or, to put it another way, read this: [link to ridiculous work “Atlas Slugged” omitted]
Ari commented July 18, 2011 at 4:27 PM
Ellis, I do not equate all criticisms of Rand with smears. Indeed, I have criticized Rand myself. I do not attempt to prove Rand’s genius by appealing to her popularity. Instead, I link to Diana Hsieh’s wonderful analysis of the novel. It is not true that all of Rand’s heroes are “demi-gods;” that’s just silly. Moreover, her heroes span the range of ability and interests. Rand never intended her novel to be “ostensibly about reality;” instead, she created a purely fictional world in which universal principles nevertheless operate. Obviously Galt’s motor is science fiction; as to whether Rearden Metal is “proposterous,” check out this link:
You seem to think you can prove Rand’s literature is bad by piling on the ad hominem attacks; obviously, that’s wrong. As for your own amateurish work that you use my web page to promote, you parody a straw man. -Ari
Neil Parille commented July 19, 2011 at 6:24 AM
It’s unfair that so many people blame Rand for Greenspan and the GEC.
That being said, why did Rand remain close to Greenspan until her death in 82? Harry Binswanger said that by the early 70s he realized Greenspan had departed from Objectivism. It’s interesting since Rand split with people.
According to Rand’s biographers, she admired Greenspan because he was older and more independent than many others in her circle.