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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