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Unlearning Ayn Rand’s Relentless Individualism

Rand speaks to the young, to those who have not yet realized just how frail individual life is. In doing so, she tells an incomplete story. The human person is amazing, powerful, and wise, yet equally frail, weak, and foolish. It is in those times of weakness and folly that we most need others around us.

The books my high school students choose to read fascinate me. Dune is back in favor, Twilight has made a resurgence, and even Stephen King’s It appeared next to a student’s iPad for a few weeks. But most unexpectedly of all, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged have appeared in some students’ hands. Alas, Ayn Rand’s siren song continues to sing.

Seeing students reading these tomes recalls an earlier phase in life, when I thought that the precepts “greed is good” and “the individual is everything” answered foundational questions. Such ideas no longer ring true. My wife and I have recently experienced the blessings of being rooted in community, and our experience recalls a truth uniting Athens and Jerusalem: “Man is by nature a creature designed to live in a polis” and “It is not good for man to be alone.” Human life is best lived within strong communities.

While the majority of young people embrace an extreme view of community (leading in this case to 70 percent of millennials surveyed supporting socialism), there remains a minority of students who are persuaded by Rand’s radical individualism. Ideas surrounding Randian autonomy tend to draw young readers precisely because of their youth: physical youth can create a false sense of security. On the contrary, many phases of human life (infancy, infirmity, and old age) illustrate human beings’ natural dependence on one another, something Rand and her coterie fail to adequately address.

Individualism’s Trajectory in Modern Thought

Ayn Rand stands within a long trajectory of individualistic thought. John Donne wrote that “no man is an island unto himself” at a time when the relationship between community and individuals was being reevaluated. Were the village, the family, the church—those communities that defined so much of ancient, medieval, and early modern life—actually necessary for human flourishing?

The unintentional solipsism of Descartes’s Meditations and Hume’s skeptical epistemology lent themselves to promoting an intellectual isolation. Immanuel Kant contended that through reason alone one could discover the good; there is no need for the community to help discern the “categorical imperative.” In “Existentialism Is a Humanism,” Jean-Paul Sartre argued that the individual was radically free; any responsibility or duty one has to others is chosen and self-imposed rather than externally or ethically required.

In the twentieth century, as tension rose between individualist and collectivist philosophies, Ayn Rand developed a system of thought she called “Objectivism.” Premised on human freedom (defined in opposition to society’s tyranny), Rand’s novels portrayed self-discovery as an act of heroism. The protagonist invariably discovers, through reason, that he is free by nature, but society stifles his natural liberty. By exercising his or her freedom, the protagonist typically overcomes the bureaucratic forces holding him or her back from advancing a business empire.

Rand’s choice of genre, the novel, was clever: as a philosophical system, objectivism is too intellectually weak to fill a monograph; as a literary framework, it can be stretched into several novels. Rand’s philosophical libertarianism is aimed at those who find philosophy through their fiction. As a late-high-school, early-college-age teenager, I was such a person. For a time, I listened to the siren’s song.

 

Beyond Radical Individualism

Before, during, and after freshman year at Hillsdale College, I read Anthem, Atlas Shrugged, and The Fountainhead. The conflict between governmental bureaucracy on the one hand and individuals and small businesses on the other felt true. There was just enough reality in Rand’s depiction of mindless government drones in contrast with strong individuals to convince me. I remember trying to explain to my mother that “Greed is good.” Possessed of a deeper wisdom, she refused to see the light. No matter what rhetorical or philosophical manipulations I attempted, greed is a vice—and a dangerous one at that.

Rand appealed to the rugged individualist of my teenage imagination. The fierceness of John Galt and his few friends living completely independent lives on their mountain (somehow running a gold-based economy in isolation from other economic actors), the idea of the nameless protagonist in Anthem “discovering” first-person pronouns, and the triumph of business over governmental oppression all thrilled me. Through these plotlines, Rand invites readers to identify with the isolated hero whose life subsists entirely through his own efforts.

Rand speaks to the young, to those who have not yet realized just how frail individual life is. In doing so, she tells an incomplete story. The human person is amazing, powerful, and wise, yet equally frail, weak, and foolish. It is in those times of weakness and folly that we most need others around us.

As the semesters rolled on, I saw where I had gone wrong. Rand’s elevation of self-interest to an absolute good, her absurd caricature of bureaucrats, and her Nietzschean assertion that a vice could be a virtue were foundational and systematic flaws. Her philosophy was juvenile, and it appealed to the unserious life and mind of a teenager.

By the time I graduated from college, I developed different views: financial freedom is a means, not an end; the greatest hope for human happiness lies in being deeply rooted in a community of people; the ability of an individual to build wealth depends on social systems that undergird intentional actions, creating an obligation to steward those systems and pass them on to the next generation.

Rand depicted her thought not in philosophical treatises, but in novels. Responding to Rand with logical debate would elevate her ideas beyond their worth. Consider a true story instead.

 

A Truer Story

For the last decade, my wife, Jennifer, and I have lived in the Raleigh, North Carolina area. We are part of two overlapping communities: our church and our school. We have been members of Christ Covenant Church for the whole of our married life. For four years, we worked together as teachers at Thales Academy Rolesville JH/HS. A recent season showed us the importance of both communities.

Jennifer had a relatively major surgery, which involved about four weeks of recovery time. Our church’s custom for families in need is to e-mail the church secretary about that need; the need is then communicated with the church. Over the next several weeks, we experienced the tangible blessing of our communities’ caring for us in a time of weakness. The support most often came in the form of food: one retired couple brought us a Japanese chicken dish; another family brought us chili; one mom with two small children brought us shepherd’s pie. One family split the tasks: mom packaged the ingredients for a delicious salmon meal with pickled red onion and cucumber salad, dad drove the meal over, and their daughter handled texting for communication.

Our church’s support also went beyond food: prayer, cards, and visits filled our first few days home from the hospital. Our school community reacted with additional support. Students sent cards, parents sent meals, and coworkers checked in on Jenn’s recovery time. Friends called and bought us dinner from local restaurants. Parents came over. My mother-in-law cleaned our house; my mom and dad helped us complete a long-term house project.

When I contemplate those weeks, our story shows what is missing in Ayn Rand: the human person best exists in a series of overlapping communities.

Unlearning Rand’s Influence

When still recovering from the influence of Rand’s books, I went to my professor’s office hours to continue the conversation from history class that day: Is the human person an individual or a communal creature? My professor, Dr. Stewart, had outlined the changing views of human nature during the eighteenth century in Europe. He represented the two most prominent competing views at the time through an analogy. Modernity presents the individual as a banana: peel back the surface, and there is the essence. Alternatively, antiquity suggests the human person resembles an onion: remove the different communities, and you remove the substance of who that person is.

 

Life is more like Socrates dialoguing with Cephalus, Thrasymachus, Glaucon, Polemarchus, and Adeimantus than it is like Anthem striding the mountaintop to realize the “I” in “I exist.” Through dialogue and mutual sacrifice, we shape and encourage each other in what Edmund Burke called “little platoons.” In our communities, we, as Adam Smith might put it, divide the labor of life and multiply our ability to thrive. Throughout life’s difficulties, we develop sympathy for one another and discover that strength ebbs and flows over time. Our humanity requires awareness of inevitable frailties; living as though we will always have godlike strength is nothing but folly.

The wheel of time turns,” and the sirens of bad ideology continue to attract new listeners in the rising generation. I’m sure I’ll see more students over the years cart around the fat paperbacks of Objectivist fiction. I’m equally sure that as time rolls on, and my students continue seeking truth, goodness, and beauty, they will pierce through bad ideas and find the good.

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