If you want to understand the ideas of Ayn Rand, it is not enough just to read her novels. Although her two major works, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, are great classics in their own right, and will be read and enjoyed for generations to come, they do not cover the full scope of her ideas — except perhaps by implication. In order to learn the explicit philosophy, you have to read her nonfiction as well as a selection of the best commentators on her thought. And to be truly “objective,” one should not neglect at least a few of her notable critics.
The Ideas of Ayn Rand, by Ron Merrill, is worthy of review not because it is the most comprehensive elaboration of her philosophy, either in scope or depth of understanding. Authors such as Leonard Peikoff, David Kelley, Tibor Machan, Douglas Rasmussen, and a few others have exceeded Merrill in these areas. The importance of Merrill’s book, and its salience, lies in its accessibility to the general reader, its thoroughness as an outline of Rand’s ideas, and its independence of thought.
Despite its lack of great depth, neither is it shallow. It is a competent survey of Rand’s ideas as expressed in both her fiction and non-fiction works. The book is also valuable for what it is not: It is not slavishly orthodox. At the same time it is not hostile to its subject; in fact the book is quite sympathetic. But occasionally, the author disagrees or “reformulates” Rand’s ideas as he deems necessary. One other thing this book is not: It is not a biography, and therefore is not overly concerned with the “grittier” aspects of Rand’s life — although it does contain a short biographical introduction.
Key Ideas from Her Fiction
Characteristic of the Randian style are techniques not often found in modern fiction, and which associate her most closely with nineteenth-century Romanticism (or the school of “Romantic Realism”). Chief among these is her use of moral and philosophical themes. These themes are anathema in the “genre fiction” of today, and considered as “didactic writing,” or “morality plays,” which, one might add, are strongly discouraged in writing classes and by mainstream publishers and editors. The above is true, “unless the ethics advocated are left-wing in sympathy,” (19) in which case they are considered as “literary fiction.”
Self-acknowledged influences on Rand’s writing in the Romantic school of literature were Victor Hugo, Dostoyevsky, Ibsen, and Rostand. As unusual as it was for Rand to adopt the style of an earlier era, she nevertheless perfected the technique and became a philosopher in the process. How great a novelist she was is already known; how important a philosopher is yet to be written by historians.
The Nietzschean Period:
When Merrill’s book first appeared in 1991, perhaps its single most original — and controversial — idea was his suggestion that Rand was profoundly influenced by the philosopher and poet Friedrich Nietzsche. This theory contradicted the “orthodox” view that she had only briefly flirted with his ideas; but judging from the evidence presented by Merrill, it is fairly obvious that he is correct. It is also clear that her thought evolved slowly into her final, mature philosophy, Objectivism; the process was completed with the writing of The Fountainhead. Merrill gives evidence demonstrating that this was a transitional work, and that her only major work of fiction completely free of the Nietzschean influence was Atlas Shrugged.
In contrast to the many similarities between the Nietzschean philosophy of the “superman,” and the Randian “man of ability,” was one major — and crucial — differentiating characteristic. According to Merrill, it took Rand many years to totally formulate this difference in her mind. It had to do with the attitude of such an individual toward others and toward society in general. The “superman” could freely sacrifice others to self, but the Randian hero could not. The man of ability did not need others at all in any fundamental way, and reason replaced power as his highest value. This was indeed a revolutionary idea. Rand’s classic depiction of the two archetypes, and which of the two is greater, is given in the relationship between Howard Roark and Gail Wynand.
Key Ideas from her Non-Fiction
How Do We Know?
Perhaps the single most important philosophical contribution by Rand was her theory of concepts. Standing against the whole tradition of modern philosophy was her theory that man’s knowledge, although certain, is contextual and does not require omniscience. This seminal idea was summarized recently at the Atlasphere by Tibor Machan, and thus will not be repeated here. Instead we will review briefly that which Merrill believes to be Rand’s most significant philosophical contribution, namely, her ethical theory.
Perhaps it is true, as Jack Wheeler has pointed out, that the Randian ethics is directly derived from and is very similar to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. The gist of that theory is that a “good” carpenter or “good” physician is by definition a “good” person. Merrill points out that this reasoning has often been criticized as being a non-sequitor because it confounds two different meanings of the word “good.” One means “skilled” and the other means “moral.” But, argues Merrill, this is just the point of Rand’s revolutionary new theory. Objectivist ethics or morality asks the question: “good, for what?” In other words, “the good” is either arbitrary (a god said so), or intrinsic (that’s just the way it is), or objective (good for something, and also good at something). Rand of course believed the last.
The same formulation can be made the realm of values. Rand asks the question familiar to many readers of this column: “of value to whom and for what?” From this she leads us through what has been called a “biocentric theory of value.” Life is a process of self-sustaining action, therefore only life can be an end in itself. Actions are of value to man because they further life for “man qua man.”
This line of thought is not without its difficulties, (many of which can be resolved though not all). But the significant thing for Merrill is the merging together of “Is” and “Ought,” and the logical connection between them. He writes: “‘Ought’ in the operational sense is normative ought. ‘Good’ in the sense of skillful and well-done is moral good. ‘Right’ in the sense of logically correct is morally right” (109).
Aristocrats of Ability:
Although Rand never quite lost her emotional affinity for the Nietzschean, “aristocratic bloodlines,” on a rational level she thoroughly rejected the idea. Thus Roark’s father was a steel puddler, and Galt hailed from the boondocks of Ohio; and while James Taggart came from a noble bloodline, he was a bug. These literary allusions stemmed from Rand’s belief that man was born as a blank slate, and hence the individual was a being of a self-made soul. Nevertheless, in order for these Randian heroes to thrive there had to exist the kind of society which made it possible.
Laissez Faire and Individualism:
“The starting point for Ayn Rand’s political journey,” writes Merrill, “was her fervent anti-Communism, born of personal experience” (127) in her native Russia. But sadly, when she came to America, the dominant ideologies among intellectuals were communism, socialism, and fascism. During the New Deal era, these ideologies became reified in the many new programs of FDR. To Rand, the prognosis for America was not good. It was against this backdrop that she wrote her novels and created her revolutionary pro-American, pro-capitalist, individualist philosophy.
Although early on she had several allies who were free market conservatives, such as Isabel Paterson, Albert J. Nock, and Ludwig von Mises, she soon opposed the Conservative movement because it accepted many of the tenets of socialism in its tendency toward “me-too-ism.” She also utterly rejected the religious justification for conservatism, and believed it had no chance against the ideology of the Left which was supposedly based on reason. One might have thought she would have embraced libertarianism, the newly emerging theory of laissez faire capitalism, but she did not. Her opposition centered mainly on the libertarian tendency toward anarcho-capitalism and the idea of competing governments, both of which she saw as irrational. Surely she was a profound thinker who would not compromise her principles.
Ayn Rand clearly falls into the classical liberal tradition. She accepted as self evident the Lockean ideas of consent of the governed, and that man is born tabula rasa, as well as Bacon’s dictum that “Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed.” She accepted, with her own unique modifications and proofs, the “natural rights” theory of the Enlightenment, including the belief in man’s (individual) rights. Thus she falls into the tradition of Locke, Voltaire, Jefferson, and Paine. But in the mid-twentieth century she stood alone to reverse the tidal wave of collectivism. History will one day recognize her for her contributions, many of which Merrill so effectively demonstrates.
Neil DeRosa is a manufacturing manager and master electrician living in upstate New York. He formerly lived and worked in both Israel and Saudi Arabia. His writings include a novel, Joseph's Seed, an action adventure set amidst the Middle East conflict, and Apocryphal Science, an iconoclastic look at contemporary science. The Atlasphere published a review of Joseph's Seed by Michelle Fram Cohen earlier this year.