Objectivism, Thy Name is Ayn Rand
by Nathan Cobb
A few Thoughts on Atlas Shrugged
Here I am, Aisle 43, seat F, closing the cover on Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged for the last time. As this plane glides over West Texas on its way home, it seems fitting that the conclusion of this book coincides with the end of a trip to Hawaii, just as it began two months ago in Madrid, sitting on the grass in Buen Retiro Park. These physical journeys seem to have been paralleled by a intellectual journey that took me — painstakingly, at times — through the 1069 pages of Ayn Rand’s great novel.
If I had to give an official relationship status to this book and me, it would be “It’s Complicated.” I find myself entranced by Objectivism, Rand’s all-encompassing philosophy, much as Adam must have been entranced by the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil: surely a philosophy which affirms rationality as its foundational premise should be trusted? Surely a rational, just God would never require us to perceive the world in any way other than Objectively?
Being a life-long Christian, I’ve grown accoustomed to perceiving the world as a creation that reflects the orderliness of its Creator. I believe that my senses can be trusted when I see a beautiful Texas sunrise or when I see a person passed out, drunk in the street at 2pm. Good and Bad coexist in shocking proximity in our world and I believe that our minds are not only capable of perceiving this, but can synthesize and logically intuit reliable information from their perceptions. Ayn Rand puts it this way:
“Contradictions do not exist. Whenever you think you are facing a contradiction, check your premises. You will find that one of them is wrong.”
Rand has adapted this from Aristotle, whose philosophical works are perhaps the greatest influences on her own philosphy. I believe that she is correct.
Rather than embark on a tedious analysis of Rand’s philosophy, I will allow the author to explain Objectivism in her own, concise words:
1. Metaphysics: Objective Reality
2. Epistemology: Reason
3. Ethics: Self-Interest
4. Politics: Capitalism
Or, if you rather,
1. “Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed.”
2. “You can’t eat your cake and have it too.”
3. “Man is an end in himself.”
4. “Give me liberty or give me death.”
Now, if you’re like me (or even if you’re not), you’re probably saying to yourself: “Well, Ayn, this sounds fine, but what’s the catch?” Let me save you some time by disclosing the first of two major flaws in Objectivism: it is, at its core, a utopian philosophy — and thus, unliveable in a complex, inconsistent world.
Rand believes that the mind is infallible, and thus, a power reliable enough to base an entire socio-political infrastructure on. This is, quite simply, erroneous. While the mind is certainly a veritable force and absolute logic can be trusted, reality is, we often are unable to correctly derive our premises. We misread, mistake, misinform, and misjudge things every day; in fact, the process of correcting our errors is one of the most instructive processes that we can undertake. Further, Rand assumes an essential goodness of man’s character which is, regrettably, not present. She assumes that a capitalist society would result in respectful competition and not violence, should the interests of two men come into conflict. Her entire philosophy is reliant upon a man whose perfect character is simply nonexistent, much less widespread enough to be the basis of a social structure.
The greater error of Objectivism, though perhaps the more controversial, lies in its system of ethics. I was about six weeks into this novel, deeply entrenched in Rand’s mode of thinking, when I encounted a passage in Romans that reads:
“We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up.” Romans 15:1–2
You know those road spikes that let you drive one way, but will pop your tires if you try to drive the other direction? That’s what this verse was like to my mental trajectory. I had been absorbing *Atlas Shrugged* and all of its self-serving, neo-darwinian, capitalist propaganda for so long that this verse brought me to a screaming, skidding, crashing-into-a-wall, bursting-into-flames, halt. I read for context, I read between the lines, I read commentaries, I asked my wife, I asked my friends, I asked the guy down the street, and try as I might, I could not explain away this verse…So, I checked my premises and, as it turns out, Ayn Rand was wrong.
Objectivism holds man’s own life as the standard of morality — as an end in itself. It raises Descartes a philosophic wager by saying “I think, therefore I am *Good*,” or, in Rand’s words, “I am, therefore I think.” Rand equates reason to goodness, saying that “Man — every man — is an end in himself, not a means to the ends of others; he must live for his own sake, neither sarificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself; he must work for his rational self-interest, with the achievement of his own happiness as the highest moral purpose of his life.”
Again, as I discovered with Romans 15, this is simply false. Objectivism clearly states that man’s life should be spent building and aquiring property for his own enjoyment, the Bible clearly states that man must uplift his neighbor, putting his neighbor’s good before his own. This contradiction is caused by the way in which Ayn Rand and Christianity understand life on this earth.
Rand believes that when a man dies he passes on into the vast nothingness. Christianity, however, turns this on its head; life — eternal life — is the only thing of which Christians can be certain. Morality, then, is how best to live in a world where others value their own temporal life above the eternal weight of glory that is promised to believers. Mark 8:35 says that “whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” Objectivism, when compared to the Christian gospel, is fatally short-sighted. I said earlier that this point is the more controversial and I’m sure that the reason for its controversy has become evident: not everyone believes that the Christian philosophy is true and right.
Let me appeal to you in a different way: even if Objectivism is accurate and the only way to achieve happiness is through self-interest, what value does this happiness have? Rand says that “a doctrine that gives you, as an ideal, the role of a sacrificial animal seeking slaughter on the altars of others, is giving you death as your standard [of happiness].”
As a counter-proposal, she says that “happiness is that state of consciousness which proceeds from the achievement of one’s values,” which she defines, quite simply, as living — it is by reason and self-preservation that a state of happiness can be achieved. And then what? Death comes, as it does for all, and wipes whatever meagre happiness has been achieved into the trash heap of the past. Happiness in the form of material wealth, intellectual growth, innovation, or even the company of other like-minded, happy individuals dissipates into the wind like dust.
In a sense, Objectivism means that every man who invents, creates, or achieves “happiness” is only serving to improve the lives of everyone who must invent, create, or achieve after him. He is merely a sacrificial animal on the altar of the future. Whether he enjoys his eighty years on earth is of no consequence to anyone but himself. Would it not be preferable to go to the alter willinging — seeing the joyful faces of the people whom he helps — rather than being dragged, heavy and lifeless, by the unforgiving hands of time?
I apologize for the nihilistic tone, but when discussing physical, temporal happiness, only physical, temporal terms may be used. Contrast this to the Christian perspective which, with eternity in its sights, permits the individual to serve others with joy, knowing that their selflessness will be rewarded by eternal glory as well as the temporal joy of their beneficiaries.
Atlas Shrugged is a difficult novel. It challenged my philosophy of ethics more than any other work I have encountered, not permitting me to dismiss it as “socialist propaganda” or “post-modern jargon,” but creating a philosophy so very similar to mine that I was forced to draw fine distinctions, coming to a greater understanding of my own self. And so, this intellectual journey comes to a close as I simultaneously return to my physical home — grateful for the experience, enlarged and enriched, and kind of wishing that Houston winters weren’t so humid.
Nathan Cobb is a resident of Seattle, WA. He is currently pursuing masters studies in music theory, and enjoys spending time traveling with his wife, reading compelling books, and sharing good wine with his friends.