Objectivism: Looking Out for No. 1

Ayn Rand (1905–1982) was an American novelist and philosopher. She is famous for the novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, and her philosophy is called objectivism. She put reason before emotion and individualism over groupthink and thought egotism was a good thing and altruism was a negative character trait. Needless to say, she was no stranger to controversy.

Perhaps the reason Rand developed her philosophy was the circumstances of her youth. She was a child in Russia in the tumultuous days of the Communist Revolution of 1917. She came to the United States in 1926 to seek her fortune and to be able to express her thoughts and beliefs freely and without fear of persecution. Such freedoms that we take for granted were not to be found in the former Soviet Union.

In fact, her first novels, Anthem and We the Living, are cautionary tales set in what are called dystopias. Just as the word utopia means a perfect paradise, a dystopia is the reverse, a repressive totalitarian state. George Orwell's 1984 is the most famous example of this literary device.

Objectivism is Ayn Rand's philosophy that values and extols the virtues of rugged individualism and the free market economy. Ruthlessness, though not cruelty, is accepted as a means to achieve your fullest human potential. The four pillars of objectivism are the belief in objective reality, reason, self-interest, and capitalism.

Rand believed in the ultimate heroism of man, and that mankind's goal is to achieve great success, fulfill his and her human potential to the max, and that self-interest supercedes the needs of the needy collective. Individual accomplishment is what makes society great. Food stamps and the welfare state are not in the Objectivist playbook.

Mankind is the ultimate in the cosmos, so say the Objectivists. No gods, angels, or demons. There is no Prime Mover in the Aristotelian tradition. Man is the Prime Mover and is the end, not the means to anything or anyone else.

The Four Pillars

The four pillars of objectivism are the beliefs in objective reality, reason, self-interest, and capitalism. Objective reality simply means that reality is reality, and it exists whether you are there or not. No philosophical speculations on the questionability of the senses apply here. We do not create our own reality, and reality is not an illusion. There is no spiritual realm for the Objectivists. It is atheistic, and they believe that when you're dead, you're dead. Case closed.

Objectivism states that we can perceive the world through reason alone. No psychic hotlines, no women's intuition. Reason rules. You do not have a soul. That is merely your conscious mind. People are not victims of forces beyond their control. If you are an Objectivist, you cannot blame your parents, your teachers, your congressman, improper toilet training, or anything else.

One of the reasons why Ayn Rand may have developed such an extreme philosophy is because her childhood was spent in Russia during the Communist revolution. Having seen her world come crashing down around her courtesy of the Communists, it is no surprise that her philosophy has a strong anti-totalitarian bent.

Reason, purpose, and self-esteem are the three prime values of mankind. The main ethical standard is simply this: survival. Survival and success for your own sake, not to enrich the world or to serve others less fortunate. Your own self-interest and your own happiness are the purest pursuits. The Objectivist ignores the bell-ringing Santas on wintry city streets. They do not believe in “giving something back.”

If this sounds pretty harsh, Objectivists do not take it to the militaristic degree. No one has the right to impose his or her beliefs on others through force or violence. Force is only to be used in self-defense. Men and nations should interact as free market traders and entrepreneurs. The ideal political expression of objectivism is capitalism. Individual rights and property rights are what it's all about. Government interference is anathema to the Objectivist.

The Romantic Realist

Can such a philosophy celebrate art? Yes. Ayn Rand called herself a Romantic Realist. Her Romantic streak creates characters that are her Ideal and puts them in then-contemporary situations. She claimed her novels were not intended to be didactic, but rather artistic. Her success on this score is debatable.

The Fountainhead is the story of Howard Roark, an uncompromising architect who will not budge one iota in his artistic vision. He does not sacrifice his integrity or make any accommodations for anyone or anything. He suffers much for his art, but does so stoically with the endurance of Prometheus. He blows up the building he designed because other people have meddled with it and are corrupting his vision.

He goes to trial, defends himself, and delivers a summation speech to the jury that, a little too melodramatically, acquits him. This speech is a distillation of the Objectivist viewpoint. One can appreciate the rugged individualism in The Fountainhead and the pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps approach of objectivism. It may go a little too far, however, in a speech by one of the major characters, who bombastically intones that some may see a mountain and appreciate its beauty, but he only sees stone to be forged and fashioned into a skyscraper.

Some may see a lush forest and be awestruck by nature's majesty, while he sees lumber to build things and turn into newspaper. This is delivered as the right and proper way to view the Grand Tetons, Yellowstone National Park, or the rainforests. There are no contributors to the Sierra Club among the Objectivists.

Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged is her bestselling novel that presents, through the vehicle of a fictional story, a complete exposition of the Objectivist philosophy. But be forewarned: The book is weighty in more way, than one. It is over 1,000 pages long. You will need a mega amount of sunscreen if you make this your “beach book.”

Atlas Shrugged is Ayn Rand's other major work of fiction. Its female protagonist struggles to run a railroad in a man's world. She encounters all manner of mealy-mouthed politically correct types who are out to thwart her capitalist ambitions. Throughout the novel, many characters ask the cryptic question, “Who is John Galt?” for no apparent reason. It is kind of used the way a singsong “Whatever” is today. Dagny Taggart learns the meaning when she ends up in Galt's Gulch, an Objectivist commune where the ideals of Rand are put into practical application.

Both novels were bestsellers and are still widely read today. As works of literature, they leave something to be desired. Subtlety is not Rand's strong suit, and the narrative and dialogue is on the stilted side. Nevertheless their impact on twentieth-century philosophy is not diminished by their purple prose. Fans of the free market economy, capitalism, libertarianism, individualism, self-responsibility, laissez-faire government, and the American dream will continue to savor these weighty tomes.

Ayn Rand never wrote another novel after Atlas Shrugged, but she continued to philosophize. She published a newsletter and wrote nonfiction works, including The Virtue of Selfishness: A Concept of NewEgoism and Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology.

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