Ayn Rand’s Onion

Ayn Rand’s Onion January 16, 2015

“I cannot like you or want to help you without reason,” Ayn Rand wrote her niece, who had asked to borrow money for a graduation dress. Rand sets out the conditions on which she will loan her niece the money and explains that she is testing her and trying to teach her something about life.

So there is, in Rand’s harsh response, apparent altruism and even kindness. To pay one’s debts is an important lesson to learn, if one doesn’t know it already. One hopes this and similar acts might have been Rand’s onion. But sadly, even the kindness is directed to her own ends and interests. She does not escape, even with a niece, the prison of the self.

I will tell you the reasons for the conditions I make: I think that the person who asks and expects other people to give him money, instead of earning it, is the most rotten person on earth. I would like to teach you, if I can, very early in life, the idea of a self-respecting, self-supporting, responsible, capitalistic person. If you borrow money and repay it, it is the best training in responsibility that you can ever have.

I want you to drop — if you have it in your mind — the idea that you are entitled to take money or support from me, just because we happen to be relatives. I want you to understand very clearly, right now, when you are young, that no honest person believes that he is obliged to support his relatives. I don’t believe it and will not do it. I cannot like you or want to help you without reason, just because you need the help. That is not a good reason. But you can earn my liking, my interest and my help by showing me that you are a good person. . . .

I will wait to hear from you, and if I find out that you are my kind of person, then I hope that this will be the beginning of a real friendship between us, which would please me very much.

The normal person knows he should help his relatives and share in their lives, and they in his. They have a claim on him. We do have reason to like them and want to help them: that they’re family. We are obliged to do so. In what that obligation consists and how far it takes you is a matter of prudence filtered through love, but we have a kind of preferential option for our family. They do not need to be our kind of person or earn our friendship.

The call, for the Christian, is to extend the boundareies of family, to increase the number of people who have some familial call on you and you on them. It is in that way to increase the amount of kindness in the world and the chances to practice charity.

But for Rand, if you’re my kind of person, that would please me very much, and only then can we be friends (though what kind of friends is a question). Even in showing some concern for a niece’s character, it’s all about her. Like the old lady in Dostoevsky’s folk tale, her final word is “mine!”

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