Rationalistic Solipsism: The Life and
Thought of Ayn Rand
To develop and preach her philosophy, Ayn Rand (1905-1982) wrote her best-selling novels We the Living, Anthem, The Fountainhead, and her lengthy masterpiece Atlas Shrugged. We the Living is set in Soviet Russia after 1917, where Rand herself lived until she emigrated to the United States in 1925. Anthem is a utopia in which individuals exist wholly for the collective, bear numbers rather than names and have lost the knowledge of the word "I" until one heroic young rebel rediscovers it. The Fountainhead pits individualism against collectivism in America through the struggle of Howard Roark, a brilliant architect, against the forces of parasitic evil personified in the newspaper columnist Ellsworth Toobey and the "second-bander" Peter Keating. It also features a stagey heroine, Dominique Francon, who seeks to destroy hoth her lover Roark and herself because she cannot bear the thought that they must live in a world which does not recognize and appreciate their true worth. Finally, Atlas Shrugged is the story of John Galt, an inventor who leads a strike of brilliant industrialists practicing "the morality of rational self-interest"1 against socialism-collectivism.
The theme of the individual versus the collective runs through all Rand's work and seems at first sight congruent with biblical Christianity. Rand champions untrammeled laissez-faire private enterprise with due public esteem and material rewards for men of creative genius, whom she considers the fountainhead of man's progress and prosperity Undergirding these concerns, however, is not belief in the free exercise of man's dominion mandate under God His Creator and Lord (Genesis 1:26, 28), but rather Rand's fanatical rationalistic utopianism, even solipsism, based upon her passionate atheism and anarchistic rootlessness.
Rand's elitist egotism won her a dedicated following. It appeals especially to highly intelligent young people who feel rejected by their less intelligent peers. Beginning in the 1960s Rand's followers coalesced into a movement preaching the virtues of absolute selfishness under the label of "objectivism." Some of them came to bold influential positions in government, free market publications and seminars, investment counseling, and the ubiquitous "self-esteem" school of psychological counseling partly pioneered by Rand's young lieutenant Nathaniel Branden.
The first comprehensive biography of Rand, Barbara Branden's The Passion of Ayn Rand, appeared in 1986. Branden, an intelligent and thoughtful professional psychologist, credits Rand for her own intellectual awakening and is still fascinated by Rand's personal charisma. The former wife of Nathaniel Branden, Barbara knew Rand intimately for years, and she combines her recollections with extensive research on Rand's youth and career. Perhaps most importantly she and Rand's husband Frank O'Connor comforted each other while both suffered through Rand's affair with Nathaniel Branden, Rand's junior by twenty-five years.
Rand grew up as Alice Rosenbaum in an agnostic Jewish home in St. Petersburg. Because she was Jewish, she had no affinities or roots among the Russian people, then often anti-Semitic. Because she was agnostic, she had no real relations to Judaism either She was happiest when alone, and she characteristically felt this ought to be true for everyone else as well: "To the end of her life, for Alice to say of someone that he or she had a deep need for the company of other people was to dismiss that person as essentially without value."2 Already as a child Alice decided that she would never have children as they would only hinder her writing career. She remained true to her resolution even though her husband would have liked to have children. Significantly, none of the major characters in her novels have children or real dependents, a most unrealistic feature.
Alice loved light American and German music which spoke to her of carefree joy As with her love of solitude, she became very angry when others rejected her musical preferences and would not concede them theirs. This was true for her artistic and literary tastes as well. She claimed in all seriousness that if people were only perfectly rational as she herself always was, they would inevitably share all her convictions and tastes to the minutest degree, and if they did not it was due to their inferiority or depravity.
Rand became an atheist, reasoning that the concept of God was degrading to men because a perfect God would be above man and a reproach to him. As she put it in We the Living, "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."3 About atheism, as about any part of her thought, she "would 'allow' disagreement until a philosophical opponent had heard her case; after that, if agreement were not forthcoming, she was faced with 'vicious dishonesty."'4
Rand always wanted to be in full control of her life. Her idea that any sickness or danger happening to her was her own fault was part of this obsession with mastery of her world. She also rejected any family ties as they would have intruded upon her autonomy, and even merely because "One is simply born into a family. Therefore it's of no real significance."5 Nevertheless she did marry a "shotgun wedding - with Uncle Sam holding the shotgun" as she herself jokingly put it," because otherwise she might have been deported back to Soviet Russia. Her husband was physically her type of man, tall, slender and handsome, and she often spoke of him in extravagant terms as the person who most deeply shared her values (for example, on the dedication page and in the preface of Atlas Shrugged). Yet everyone who knew them both, and Frank O'Connor himself as well, saw that the real Frank was quite different from the image she made up of him in her mind.
Frank sank further and further into insignificance. Rand's affair with Nathaniel Branden, which she asked her husband to accept and which she carried on in their bedroom while Frank sought solace in the neighborhood bar completed his destruction as a man. Eventually he died of senility (apparently Alzheimer's Disease), and probably alcoholism as well. To the end Rand insisted he could function and reason if he only tried, subjecting him to mind training as though by the sheer force of her own reason she could halt and reverse his illness and approaching death. Not surprisingly Frank became bitterly hostile towards her and only her as his life ebbed away.7 That their marriage lasted fifty years was due entirely to his loss of independent manhood. In fact they did not share the same values, and she could not speak to him about the only subject that really interested her, her philosophy; she turned to others, usually young students, for that purpose. Branden correctly surmises that had Rand married a man who was really like the masterful heroes of her novels, the marriage would never have lasted: "One of the tragedies of Ayn's life was her painful, lifelong yearning for what she could never have endured."8
Rand's obsession with the infallibility of her own reason persisted even in the face of life-threatening illness. After being operated on for lung cancer (doubtless related to her lifelong smoking of two packs of cigarettes a day), she had received a heavy dose of pain medication and told a visiting friend that she could see the branches of a tree through her hospital window. How was this possible as her room was on the ninth floor? Her friend realized that what Rand saw was the reflection of a pole holding intravenous equipment. Rand would not believe it. Several months later she took her friend severely to task for attempting to "make her doubt her mind" and "to undermine her rationality." As Branden comments, "It was inconceivable to Ayn that anything - illness, medication, stress - could affect her mind. It was axiomatic that the functioning and rationality of her intellect was in her control, even when her body was not. Her free choices ran her mind, nothing else."9
Bertha Krantz, Rand's copy editor on Atlas Shrugged, remembered that Rand was such a brilliant woman, and to listen to her, one could be convinced that she had no fears, no contradictions. But we live every day, we live with the little things of life ... she almost boiled the dishes when she washed them; and she admitted that she was deathly afraid of germs. And, of course, she scoffed at 'superstition,' but ... when I commented on a little gold watch she always wore, she said ... that it was her good luck watch...By the time Atlas Shrugged was being written and published, Rand's dogmatic rationalism had become her straitjacket.
In the end, I began to feel somewhat sorry for her. ... laughter did not come easily to her, and she seemed to have no capacity for simple enjoyment. Everything had to be carefully considered, analyzed - again, had to be rational. And her view of things was so limited. We'd be walking along somewhere, and she never 'saw' the sky or the trees or even any of the people; her attention seemed to be given only to the stone and glass buildings.10
Rand believed and taught that emotions are the result of one's reasoning and that man's freedom of the will consists in choosing to think, or not, in the first place. For her this choice was equivalent to wanting to live, or not. She therefore counseled her followers that all their problems were due to faulty reasoning and could be solved by rethinking them and coming up with the correct rational conclusions. Rationalism became the new "objectivist" morality. This could be harmful, led to repression and, Branden rightly states, is simply false: "We are not omniscient, not about the world outside us, and not about the vast complexity of our own mental content and processes."1 The Bible, God's infallible revelation about the world and man, emphatically says the same.
Rand proclaimed that each individual must live by his own reason and judgment, but one could not be her follower, think of oneself as rational, and also approve of Shakespeare, of the paintings of Vincent Van Gogh or Rembrandt with his "grim, unfocused malevolence," or of the music of Beethoven with his "tragic sense of doom."12 Yet Rand's own philosophy of art is sketchy and a mere derivative of her ideas about the creativity of industrial entrepreneurs rather than an evaluation of artistic creativity per se.13 It could not be otherwise, for Rand did not write anything, and in particular not her fiction, without the explicit propagandistic motive of persuading her readers to adopt her philosophy of rationalistic utopianism.
For Rand who longed for carefree, simple joy it was self-defeating to derive everything including joy wholly from the effort and analysis of her own mind. This tortuous road is evident in her fiction as well. In the early We the Living Kira Argounova, the heroine, can still ask why she cannot study engineering simply because she likes it. 14 In Rand's later work "liking" can no longer stand on its own. It must be based upon each person's character, which in turn is "self-made" by previous rational choice alone. This is why We the Living is still comparatively full of real life and real people. The characters of the later novels are artificial constructs to personify Rand's ideas.
Rand proclaims that man's life itself is man's standard of rational choice. However, without the begetting of children, which Rand "rationally chose" to forego, Rand herself could not have existed, nor could anyone. The raising of children requires parental care and commitment. Rand grew up in a stable home, much as she despised it, and her family sacrificed for her good education, and later for her emigration to America, not through "rational choice" but simply out of family solidarity and selfless love. On the other hand, it is the genius of tyranny to make the survival of one's loved ones dependent upon one's submission. Mothers and fathers will then be torn between loyalty to their beliefs and love for their children, and it is precisely the horror and pain of this dilemma that either choice could be "rational" by Rand's standard. Rand has a solution for this quandary - suicide. John Galt himself, the hero of Atlas Shrugged, says at one point that he would have killed himself had his sweetheart Dagny Taggart been tortured.15 But suicide for one who sees man's physical life here on earth as his highest value is not so much "rational" as ultimate self-defeat.
Rand's contempt for the family is related to her solipsist view of sex as an extension of one's own self. For Rand, "sex is not the cause, but an effect and an expression of a man's sense of his own value. ... He will always he attracted to the woman who reflects his deepest vision of himself, the woman whose surrender permits him to experience - or to fake - a sense of self-esteem."16 As we saw, Rand had to fake an image of her husband in her own mind in order to preserve her own sense of self-esteem.
Rand's concept of sex shows that others rarely did not exist for her but were mere solipsist extensions of her self. Because she excluded the true reality of others even in sexual intimacy, her real life relationships with her husband and Nathaniel Branden were fundamentally perverse. This perversity erupts in brutal shape in her fiction. There is a notorious rape scene in The Fountainhead where Roark takes Dominique for the first time "as an act of scorn. Not as love, but as defilement." As for Dominique, "the act of a master taking shameful, contemptuous possession of her was the kind of rapture she had wanted."1 An identical beginning initiates the relationship between Ejorn Faulkner and Karen Andre in Rand's still popular play Night of January 16th. In this play's introduction Rand also asserts that a criminal, outcast, or "noble crook" (like Faulkner) represents individual rebellion against society; as such he can be a symbol of most people's latent self-esteem, and hence good!18
A key point in Rand's thought is that logical reasoning lies at the root of all great inventions of technology and the arts. However, in reality great inventions are often the result of sudden intuition totally disassociated from preceding chains of logical thought. Examples are Galileo, Newton, Archimedes, Henri Poincare, and others.'' In Rand's own Atlas Shrugged Henry Rearden, one of her heroes, stumbles by intuition upon anew principle of building a bridge span.
Rand to the contrary, human reason does not infallibly discern the true from the false, nor is it independent of the body, nor does it function apart from subjectivity-laden human language. Rand also virtually equated reason and will, as though rational evaluation of a choice guaranteed subsequent action in accordance with that evaluation. It is the old temptation in the Garden of Eden which Rand scornfully rejected as a myth,"' beckoning man to be his own god by exercising his own reason and will, and implying that he will then always consistently follow out his own discernment and resolutions. This is a crucial error. Man cannot help disobeying himself as god, either by weakness or, yes, by deliberate disregard of what be himself has determined by his own lights to be "good" for him. Man in fact does not live by reason alone as Rand falsely claims.
Finally, Rand took as her basis the law of identity (A = A, an axiom of Aristotle), which states that a thing is and remains itself.21 This law alone, as she correctly recognized, makes rational thought possible. But this law itself is not made by man, nor does man's recognition of it validate it. Rand's "objectivist" theory of knowledge does not go hack far enough, as it never inquires into the origin of the law of' identity. This law requires the eternally immutable and sovereign Creator of the Bible as its Given For if cosmic evolution were true, as it must be if this Creator did not exist, then the law of identity would in fact not be true. Things would then always be in a process of becoming something other than they are, and this would mean that A never equals A, and a thing is not and does not remain itself. It is one of the chief arguments against any form of evolution and in favor of biblical creation that biblical creation alone furnishes the epistemological foundation for the law of identity which alone makes rational human thought possible.
Man may deliberately idolize reason and set out to live by his reason alone. He may reject the transcendent, sovereign, immutable, personal Creator of the Bible Who alone can fully and surely know and determine reality which He brought into being and sustains moment by moment. But the penalty such rationalistic utopianism incurs is that it condemns man to prison in an imaginary truncated, and ultimately solipsist world of his own making. Rand's latter life is an example of this descent. As her husband was slowly dying, she "was bitterly lonely, and bitterly afraid ... Her only sense of the reality of her own universe was the hours she spent alone in her study; only there could she find the world of Howard Roark and John Galt; only there could she find peace."22 As her own death approached she often "quoted the saying: 'It is not I who will die, it is the world that will end.' Her world was coming to its end."23
Rand captured the essence of her life and thought in the world of the young hero of Anthem:
I am done with the monster of "We," the word of serfdom, of plunden of misery, falsehood and shame.In her imaginary world of rationalistic solipsism Rand could be her own god, her "I" receiving worship from itself in its own tiny cell of unreality. In Christian biblical terms such a world, if not exchanged for truth and freedom in Christ (John 8:32), is a foretaste of hell.
And now I see the face of god, and I raise this god over the earth, this god whom men have sought since men came into being, this god who will grant them joy and peace and price.
This god, this one word: I. 24
1 Ayn Rand, For the New Intellectual, New York: Random House, 1961),
2 Barbara Branden, The Passion of Ayn Rand (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc. 1986), p. 5.
3 Ayn Rand, We the Living, New York: Random House, 19) 16, 1959, p. 98.
4 Branden, The Passion of Ayn Rand, p. 36.
5 Ibid., p. 72.
6 Ibid p 93
7 Ibid p 384.
8 Ibid p 136.
9 Ibid p 383.
10 Ibid p 293-294.
11 Ibid p 195.
12 Ibid p 243.
13 Ayn Rand For the Neo-intellectual, pp. 139-141.
14 Rand We the Living, p. 53.
15 Ayn Rand Atlas Shrugged New York: Random House, 1957, p. 1091.
16 Rand, For the New Intellectual. p. 118
17 Ayn Rand, The Fot'ntainlteod Indianapolis, IN: The Bobbe-Merril Company, Inc., 1943, New American Library Signet Books edition, `Pwenry-Second Printing), p. 210.
18 Ayn Rand, Night of January 16th, New York: New American Library Signet Book, First Signet Printing, January, 1971, pp. 82-83 and p.2.
19 See Pilgrim A. Sorokin, The Crisis of Our Age, New York: F. P. Dutron & Co., 1941), pp. 106-110.
20 Rand, Atlas Shrugged, p. 1026.
21 Ibid., p. 1016.
22.Branden, The Passion of Ayn Rand, p. 389.
23 Ibid., p. 403.
24 Rand, For the New Inteltectual, p. 75.