Was Ayn Rand A Secret Altruist?

Was Ayn Rand A Secret Altruist? November 27, 2014


“No one will hate this book [Atlas Shrugged] as much as the Catholic Church. Not even the Communists.” — Ayn Rand

I’ve only recently been appraised that the anti-Catholic writer Robert Tracinski has produced a response to a column I wrote, trying to approach Ayn Rand charitably.

To some extent, Tracinski’s critique misses the mark. For example, here’s what he writes:

He explains that he doesn’t like the book because, among other reasons, Ayn Rand held that the “parasitic weak deserve to be trod upon by the capitalistic powerful.”

Here’s what I actually wrote:

[Rand] makes for a convenient punching bag for progressives, because she embodies the caricatured version of what progressives imagine conservatives really think: that egotism and greed are good and that the parasitic weak deserve to be trod upon by the capitalistic powerful.

In other words, my point was not so much to put this forward as the entirety of Rand’s philosophy (such as it is) but rather to say that the fact that so many conservatives enjoy Rand seems to vindicate this progressive caricature of conservatism.

Tracinski’s column stays on this off-beat trajectory throughout, denying that Rand’s heroes are all rich, which is really neither here nor there.

But, in any case, let’s tackle the case on the merits. Is it true that Rand’s worldview–as she repeatedly insisted throughout her life–is incompatible with Catholicism and, indeed, orthodox Christianity?

The thrust of Tracinski’s thesis, I think, is reflected here: “If you’re on the right, you think that the only alternative to Christian altruism is the Nietzschean ubermensch.” The implication, as I understand it, is that Rand’s worldview is not Nietzschean as so many of her critics would have it, but rather represents a third way out of what would then be a false dichotomy between “Christian altruism” and Nitzscheanism. (Why anyone, especially a Christian, would be dissatisfied by “Christian altruism” is a question I will leave more sagacious writers to answer.)

In particular, Tracinski writes, Rand’s heroes are not motivated so much by money, but by a search of love and an urge to create. Money only symbolizes the productivity and creativity that is the mark of the true human spirit, and when asked to choose between the former and the latter, Rand’s heroes invariably choose the latter. Rand’s heroes are also motivated by a search for love–to find the kindred human spirits in the world around them. By contrast, it is Rand’s villains who care only about money (or power, as the case may be).

All of this is fair enough. As I said, it basically misses the point.

It is an underlying thread to Tracinski’s post that shows why so many Christians find Rand repugnant. Rand’s heroes seek love, Tracinski writes, and these relationships:

…are not based merely on the possession of dollars, no matter how they’re gained, but on a kinship of values among productive people. And while this is seen mostly in the form of friendships between extraordinary individuals, we can also see it in the camaraderie Dagny enjoys with the blue-collar workers on the railroad and in her friendship with Ayn Rand’s stand-in for the common man, Eddie Willers—a connection she unknowingly shares with Galt. We can also see it in her offer of “sisterhood” with Cheryl Taggart, which she explains comes not through being sisters-in-law, but through their shared values.

See, here’s the thing: in Rand’s cosmology, there are only two kinds of people: the “productive people”, the creators, the makers, and then there’s everyone else.

Rand’s philosophy, like Nietzsche’s, was very much influenced by Aristotle’s ethics, which held that the goal of human life was to reach self-realization through the development of virtues, which, in the Ancient world, were more like skills or capacities than virtue in our post-Christian moral sense, virtues through which one can realize one’s profound nature. The goal of human life is to “become who you are.” Rand’s heroes are those who succeed at this task; in particular, since the highest human good is creativity and productivity, the greatest heroes are the producers.

Now, of course, this view of human nature has a very strong pedigree within Christianity as well, particularly Western Christianity and Augustine and Aquinas. So where’s the difference with Nietzsche and Rand?

What Aristotle would say (I believe–Nietzsche and others would dispute this) is that the true realization of one’s nature is only possible through an orientation towards the Good. And to the Christian writers who followed Aristotle, this ultimate Good can only be the God revealed in Jesus Christ. And, in particular, and this is where the doctrine of the Trinity has such importance for orthodox Christians, the good can only be realized through self-gift. Because God is Tri-Une, because God is a mutual self-giving union of Persons, and because God is also the very nature of Being itself, then the nature of Being is self-gift, as revealed by Jesus Christ’s self-gift on the Cross. Classical Christianity regards productivity and creativity at least as highly as Rand (yes), but only as it exists for the sake of the One through whom all creativity, beauty and goodness are mediated.

To Nietzsche and Rand, of course, this is all patent rubbish. Because there is no transcendent reality, no ultimate Good whence we came, towards which we are drawn, and in which we find our true realization, the end of this self-realization is ultimately only itself.

Moreover, because Rand’s worldview has no room for original sin, those who do not reach this heightened state of self-realization have no excuse, and therefore deserve–and Rand has said this so repeatedly, in both her fiction and non-fiction, that it is striking that one has to point it out again–only contempt.

Rand’s characters seek love, yes–but only the love of their fellow enlightened equals, and hold up as a moral duty the contempt which is owed those who refuse to accomplish their own self-realization. There is love in Rand’s fiction, yes, but only for the deserving; whereas the core of the Christian revelation is precisely that no one deserves love, and yet it is freely showered upon us. And this is exactly why Rand, who knew this as well as anybody, explicitly despised Christian altruism so deeply.

I’ve heard somewhere that, as he was being arrested by some Southern policeman, Martin Luther King quipped, “You do realize that you’re going against the metaphysical grammar of the universe?” For the Christian, altruism, then, is not just an extra, not even something one does, properly speaking, but rather the very meaning, structure and life of existence itself, the very glory of the theophany that shines through every encounter with the Universe and with the other, particularly, the poor, the widow, the stranger, the not-very-creative, the not-very-productive, the lazy, the pathetic, the pitiable.

Yes, Mammon is ultimately only a minor god in Rand’s pantheon, but the God Most High, her prime mover from whom all the other gods draw their substance, really is what Nietzsche, drawing on the same cultural baggage as Rand, called the will-to-power. Rand’s ascetic refusal of all transcendence left as the only ethical goal man’s own self-realization for its own sake, which only leads to what she very accurately called an ethics of egotism. There is simply no possibility of reconciling this view with Christianity, as Rand herself (again) repeatedly emphasized.

Now, we are called to make use of “whatsoever things are good” and to make other thoughts prisoner to the Messiah. There is something noble to the Randian lust for heroic creativity, and kudos to the Christian who breaks it out of its nihilistic chains and fits it into a Christian framework. Which is why I tried to write a sympathetic column to begin with.

But, ultimately, there are only two armies, under only two standards: the banner of Christ, and the banner of the Devil, of every throne, power and principality that holds God’s creation in bondage. Whom will you serve?



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  • MesKalamDug

    I despise Rand too. And I agree her books are wish-fullfillment fantasy – except I would call them porn. And I fear I would call them capitalist pornography. There aren’t many other books aound like Rand’s because – lets face it – capitalism is dull.

    Many people’s image of capitalism is Scrooge – almost as Randian as Rand. And, of course, capitalism has earned that reputation by its excesses.

    I think opposing capitalism is like opposing gravity. Like it or not we are stuck with it. All a Christian capitalist can do is try to make it work better. This is not an easy
    task. Everything one proposes is immediately gamed by some enterprising entrepreneur. Exhortations by the church to do better are I fear just so many words. There is nothing Christian – or Catholic – about free enterprise – it is the only game in town (pace Islamic Finance).

    All we can do is the best we can.

  • TomH

    Rand never really got the power of self deception in her own interior life. She could create fictional heroes which she must have vicariously identified with. But it takes more than being a successful author. Her personal life was far from heroic. She used her ‘friends’ and lovers unscrupulously. Nathaniel Brandon, no Christian altruist himself, came to see her for what she was.

  • “For the sake of My Name I delay my wrath, and for My praise I restrain it for you, in order not to cut you off. For My own sake, for My own sake, I will act; for how can My name be profaned? My glory I will not give to another!” -Isaiah 48:9-11

    What was that about God being fundamentally a “self-giver”? He gives, certainly! (and abundantly!) –– but only because He is so full of pleasure and joy and value in Himself. He gives to us, but it is not ultimately for us. It is for Himself. “For the joy set before Him, He endured the cross” (Heb.12:2). All of God’s giving is inspired by, and aimed at, His self-value –– which means: far from being the ultimate altruist, God is the ultimate egoist.

    • NICE. This actually takes Christian doctrine seriously. Thanks for this comment.

      You still don’t get a cigar, though, because you’re forgetting one thing: precisely because God has every pleasure and joy and value in His Tri-Une nature, this means that creation is a supreme act of *generosity*.

      • I already had the cigar. 😉
        I made it emphatically clear that all of God’s action toward us is supremely generous. The question is this: is His generosity *motivated* out of altruism (nothing in it for Himself), or egoism (all ultimately for Himself). It’s a pretty big difference. Is God the Chief Altruist, or the Chief Egoist?

        • Dan F.

          This being the Catholic channel, I would venture that final question is ultimately a false dichotomy (more both/and vs. either/or). 😉

        • Let me try it this way: what you’re missing is God’s Trinitarian nature. Your argument might work for a monist God. But because the Christian God *is* (is, not “does”) a self-giving union of Persons, that means that His very nature is self-gift. So even His “egoism” is generosity.

          And because God is not one being among many, but rather, the very nature of existence itself, this means that to fully participate in Being is to give oneself.

          • Oh, I love the Trinity! I do not think I am missing it (or any implications). The truth of the Trinity does not negate the nature of what I am arguing for; it merely adds glorious details. Before (logically, not necessarily chronologically) each individual member of the Trinity gives, He *exists* –– and He either views the incomparable glory of His existence as something to be celebrated and shared (like a good egoist), or He views it as something to be effaced and denied (like a good altruist).

            You see, the Christian God *is*, period. And He *loves* that (and what!) He is. He celebrates all that He is within Himself. The Father’s joy in the reflection He sees of Himself in the Son and the Spirit overflows in love for them. The Son’s joy in the reflection He sees of Himself in the Father and the Spirit overflows in love for them. And, the Spirit’s joy in the reflection of Himself in the Father and the Son overflows in love for them.

            The love, the generosity, the giving is *overflow* –– overflow of what? Of personal, egoistic, exultation in the panoramic glory of all that He is. Generosity, or “giving”, cannot be existentially primary over Being. God *is* [infinitely more than can be contained]. Therefore, He overflows (“gives”). This means that fully participating in Being will *result* in giving. Don’t try to flip the two. Remember: you could *give* all you have to the poor, and surrender your body to the flames, and it might *profit* you nothing (1 Cor. 13:3). If you want to give the way God gives –– the way He intends for us to give –– then it may be wise to learn how to *profit* in your giving… At least, according to Paul.

  • JPeron

    Odd thing is I have met many people who deserve love. What a sad view of others you must hold to say that no one does.

    • Depends on what you mean by “deserve.” Everyone needs and is ennobled by love; no one can earn it. The nature of love (like the nature of life, of existence itself) is such that it is freely given, not bought or earned.

    • What a charitable reading of what I wrote!

  • (Why anyone, especially a Christian, would be dissatisfied by “Christian altruism” is a question I will leave more sagacious writers to answer.)

    Because Christian altruism does not mean being kind or benevolent to other people. It means self-sacrifice for others’ sake; that is, the destruction of one’s own life and happiness on earth for the alleged benefit of others. Yet, in reality, one’s own self-destructive acts can never really benefit anyone else in the long term, all things considered; it is a pure waste of one’s time in the universe.

    I show the ugly idea of Christian altruism for what it really means in practice in this short essay: The Wages of Altruism: Domestic Abuse.

    • I do not see that response to domestic abuse as ugly. Instead, I see it as heroically beautiful.

      • Thank you for helping make my point about Christianity: That its stock-in-trade is pain, suffering, torture, self-abnegation, self-immolation, and destruction–the destruction of self-esteem in favor of humility, the destruction of the virtuous for the sake of the vicious, the destruction of those who wish to be good for those who are violent and evil.

        That which Christianity sees as “heroically beautiful” is that which destroys human life. The Biblical Jesus let his earthly self be destroyed for the sake of all the “vile sinners,” after all. And Christians are supposed to imitate their savior. Right, Theodore?

        “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” –Jesus (Mark 8:34)
        “Join with me in suffering, like a good soldier of Christ Jesus.” (2 Timothy 2:3)
        “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.” –Jesus (Luke 14:26)

        The real Christians are those who want self-sacrifice, pain, suffering, and early death in this world. And this is what you want, because you’re a real Christian, right out of the Middle Ages. Right, Theodore?

        • You see them as vicious, I see them as more virtuous than any secularist who has ever lived or ever will live. Humility is the real crux, and I have never known a self estemployed worshiper who was not also selfish.

    • Sublimely Nietzschean.

  • Dan13

    “What Aristotle would say (I believe–Nietzsche and others would dispute this) is that the true realization of one’s nature is only possible through an orientation towards the Good. And to the Christian writers who followed Aristotle, this ultimate Good can only be the God revealed in Jesus Christ. And, in particular, and this is where the doctrine of the Trinity has such importance for orthodox Christians, the good can only be realized through self-gift. Because God is Tri-Une, because God is a mutual self-giving union of Persons, and because God is also the very nature of Being itself, then the nature of Being is self-gift, as revealed by Jesus Christ’s self-gift on the Cross. Classical Christianity regards productivity and creativity at least as highly as Rand (yes), but only as it exists for the sake of the One through whom all creativity, beauty and goodness are mediated.”

    Since today is American Thanksgiving, I’ll say that you hit a home run here. Explaining theology to lay people is really your wheelhouse.

  • jackdoitcrawford

    Reasoning with a person of faith is like giving medicine to a dead person.

    • Spoken like a true Randbot!

      I wish you success in your endeavor to realize your heroic creativity by leaving angry comments on the internet. Go get ’em, Johnny Galt.

  • BTP

    There is a very strong theme against scapegoating, within her work, I’d say. Individual creators are identified by the strong (in her case, the strong being very often a coalition of losers) as the cause of whatever ills the country. The solution is always to steal their property (put differently, to remove their basic rights).

    For Rand, whatever the other problems with the moral universe her heroes occupy, the morally just never scapegoat. I would suggest that, if violence against a scapegoat is a central problem with humanity, Rand is a voice against that problem.

    Let me put it differently. I know a lot of Randian/Libertarian types. All of them are nuts, but they are naturally resistant to pointing fingers at others. Net-net: they’re a good deal.