“The issue is now quite clear. It is between light and darkness and every one must choose his side.” G. K. Chesterton

Friday, August 17, 2012

7 Thoughts on Ayn Rand

Since being named by Mitt Romney as his running mate, Paul Ryan has been roundly criticized for his professed admiration for the works of author Ayn Rand.  While to be expected from the political left and the secularist media, some of the sharpest criticism has come from fellow Catholics.  This criticism is not new; it was made in the letter signed by 90 Georgetown professors and alumni before his April speech:
In short, your budget appears to reflect the values of your favorite philosopher, Ayn Rand, rather than the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Her call to selfishness and her antagonism toward religion are antithetical to the Gospel values of compassion and love.
Ryan has repeatedly explained his attraction to the works of Rand, and placed it in context.  For example, there was his interview in National Review a few months ago:
I, like millions of young people in America, read Rand’s novels when I was young.  I enjoyed them,” Ryan says. “They spurred an interest in economics, in the Chicago School and Milton Friedman,” a subject he eventually studied as an undergraduate at Miami University in Ohio. “But it’s a big stretch to suggest that a person is therefore an Objectivist.”
“I reject her philosophy,” Ryan says firmly. “It’s an atheist philosophy. It reduces human interactions down to mere contracts and it is antithetical to my worldview. If somebody is going to try to paste a person’s view on epistemology to me, then give me Thomas Aquinas,” who believed that man needs divine help in the pursuit of knowledge. “Don’t give me Ayn Rand,” he says. (emphasis added)
But in spite of this and similar statements, Ryan is still criticized because of his admitted liking of Rand's works and his assigning of her magnum opus Atlas Shrugged to his Congressional staffers and interns.  Most of the criticism is aimed at his specific budget proposals, which are said by critics to reflect more Rand than Aquinas.
Father Thomas J. Reese, a Jesuit priest at Georgetown, told the Huffington Post that Ryan’s views do not reflect the tenets of their shared faith. “I am afraid that Chairman Ryan’s budget reflects the values of his favorite philosopher Ayn Rand rather than the gospel of Jesus Christ,” he said. “Survival of the fittest may be okay for Social Darwinists but not for followers of the gospel of compassion and love.”
(In fact, the criticism demonstrates an accepts the Obama Administration's caricature of the Ryan budget proposal as "social Darwinism".)

The criticism of Ryan's liking of Rand has continued, and has grown sharper.  Among Catholic writers in particular, Rand is a particular target (see, for example, the usually thoughtful Mark Shea's comments).  But much of the criticism of Rand is based on a caricature of her thought and writings.  For example, in a Huffington Post article, Professor Charles J. Reid, professor of law at the University of St. Thomas writes of Rand:
Rand is best understood as a faded modern epigone of the social darwinist movements of the latter 19th century. Claiming the mantle of Charles Darwin but drawing the wrong lessons from his work, these pseudo-scientists tried to transfer insights from the workings of biology to social structures. All life, they argued, was a struggle. Man had to compete to live. Nature was "red in tooth and claw," and so also, by extension, were human relations...
Ayn Rand, to her great credit, rejected racism emphatically. But she celebrated much of the rest of the social darwinist creed. There is no room in her work for cooperation, for community, for concern for the less advantaged. The maximization of individual productive capacity, freed of the impediments of state control, is the byword of her philosophy, so-called "Objectivism." The noble entrepreneur, the far-sighted man of wealth and power, the bold individualist who casts off the shackles of the "takers" and the "hangers-on," is the hero of her fiction. Without him, society itself would crumble to dust.
[Ryan's] tepid protest that he reads the Bible and so cannot be a follower of Ayn Rand rings hollow. The record of his public life is that of a man in thrall to a curdled, warped individualism.
What is clear from most of these criticisms is that they are based on either a superficial reading or Rand's works, or no reading of them at all.

Like Ryan, I read Atlas Shrugged in my mid-teens.  I probably have read it through about half a dozen times in the last 30 years.  It, along with the works of Milton Freedman and other free market economists, formed my thoughts concerning the superiority of the market, the danger of socialism and excessive government, and the superiority of the private sector to solve problems of poverty and create a society of freedom and prosperity for all.  But also like Ryan, as a Christian I have rejected Rand's underlying philosophy.

So, how is a Catholic to think about Ayn Rand?  To help, here are 7 thoughts.

--- 1 ---
Regardless of what you may think of her underlying atheism and materialism, you should recognize Ayn Rand as one of the first novelists to write seriously about the evils of totalitarianism.   Unlike many of her critics, Rand saw those evils first hand.  Born in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1905, she was 12 at the time of the Russian Revolution;  when the Bolsheviks took over, they seized her father's drugstore and her family fled to the Crimea.  Along with millions of Russians, Rand suffered through the social and economic upheavals as her homeland slipped into totalitarianism.  She experienced the shortages, the desperation, the deprivation caused by a state controlled economy.  Her first novel, We The Living, was based on her experiences in the Soviet Union and was one the first fictional depictions of life under a communist regime.  These experiences also informed her thinking and views put forward in Atlas Shrugged.  Unfortunately, unlike another witness to the totalitarian horrors of the 20th Century, Blessed John Paul II, she accepted the underlying worldview of the Soviets--materialistic atheism--and said the antidote to totalitarianism was individual self-interest.
--- 2 ---
In spite of what her critics and her acolytes may think, Rand was not primarily a philosopher, nor a n economist; she was a novelist.  While I loved Atlas Shrugged and have read most things she wrote (though for some reason I could never get into The Fountainhead),  I read them as novels.  While I admit in my own youthful agnosticism I found her philosophy attractive (particularly for someone like myself who was a bit of a loner), as a system her philosophy of Objectivism is an odd amalgam of Nietzsche, Aristotle, and pop psychology and does not work in the real world.   Her understanding of free-market economics is not original, but reflects numerous other influences.  Her novels are not blueprints; they are fiction.  Anyone who treats them as anything more is in for a difficult time.
--- 3 ---
Atlas Shrugged is an impressive and expansive novelistic description of what happens when governmental regulation of the economy runs amok.  For me, like for Paul Ryan as I would expect, this  part of the novel had the biggest impact.  The gradual process by which industries were driven into bankruptcy by regulation; the inability of the state to provide goods and services;  the replacement of free exchange and contracts with force and coercion; the take over of industry by the state--Rand touches on all of these points in the novel.  She is particularly effective in describing what happens to a society when individuals are no longer rewarded for their work, but everyone is treated "equal".  Particularly memorable is her description of what happens when the Twenty-First Century Motor Company is managed as a collectivist experiment instead of a business (hint: nothing good).
--- 4 ---
Atlas Shrugged shows what happens when a society rejects God.  This aspect of the novel only struck me recently, surprising considering Rand's atheism.  Rand's atheism, as I understand it, was a general rejection of supernaturalism; she did not consider God important enough to think about.  It's not just her heroes that reject God; He is completely absent.  Both the villains and the heroes operate without reference to God.  With no God, there is no objective standard of morality.  For the villains, what is moral is what they determine is right for the group at the expense of the individual; for the heroes, what is moral is what they determine to be right for the individual at the expense of the group.  Without an objective moral standard (God), they look for another reference.  For Rand, the only proper reference to what is moral is the self-interest of the individual; in the words of John Galt's credo, "I swear, by my life and my love of it, that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine."
--- 5 ---
Rand's villains and heroes are mirror images of each other.  That's the best way to understand the characterizations.  The villains and the heroes believe the opposite of the other.  The villains, as mentioned under 4, believe in the collective over the individual; the heroes, the individuals over the collective.  The villains reject the material in favor of the spiritual; the heroes, the spiritual in favor of the material.  The villains have no positive attributes; the heroes no negative attributes.  The heroes are supposed to be noble, and the villains degenerate.  But the heroes themselves are immoral; for example, the adulterous relationship carried on between the two main characters.  Overall, the characters are not "real"; they are caricatures.  This is why ultimately the novel is unsatisfying; the reader cannot relate to the heroes.
--- 6 ---
Aspects of Rand's thought do contradict Church teaching.  Ironically, her basic rejection of collectivist economics does not constitute a rejection of Catholic Teaching, in spite of what "social justice" Catholics contend.  But her radical individualism does.  As the Catechism states,
1879 The human person needs to live in society. Society is not for him an extraneous addition but a requirement of his nature. Through the exchange with others, mutual service and dialogue with his brethren, man develops his potential; he thus responds to his vocation.
Another aspect of Rand's thought that contradicts the Church is her view of the human person.  She clearly sees some people as more worthwhile than others;  the industrialist and the artist have more inherent dignity than the poor or the sick because the former derive their dignity from the fact that they work and product.  This is the opposite of what the  Church teaches:
1700 The dignity of the human person is rooted in his creation in the image and likeness of God (article 1); it is fulfilled in his vocation to divine beatitude (article 2). It is essential to a human being freely to direct himself to this fulfillment (article 3). By his deliberate actions (article 4), the human person does, or does not, conform to the good promised by God and attested by moral conscience (article 5). Human beings make their own contribution to their interior growth; they make their whole sentient and spiritual lives into means of this growth (article 6). With the help of grace they grow in virtue (article 7), avoid sin, and if they sin they entrust themselves as did the prodigal son[1] to the mercy of our Father in heaven (article 8). In this way they attain to the perfection of charity.
People who are not producers, or who are not creative, or who are dependent on others because of various limitations are described by Rand as "looters" and "parasites."  The implication is that these people are a drag on the productive members of society. And for Rand, the goal of every individual is their own happiness and fulfillment   Any obstacle to this, any source of suffering is to be removed or avoided.  The logical conclusion is seen in Rand's views on abortion...
Never mind the vicious nonsense of claiming that an embryo has a “right to life.” A piece of protoplasm has no rights—and no life in the human sense of the term. One may argue about the later stages of a pregnancy, but the essential issue concerns only the first three months. To equate apotential with an actual, is vicious; to advocate the sacrifice of the latter to the former, is unspeakable. . . . Observe that by ascribing rights to the unborn, i.e., the nonliving, the anti-abortionists obliterate the rights of the living: the right of young people to set the course of their own lives. The task of raising a child is a tremendous, lifelong responsibility, which no one should undertake unwittingly or unwillingly. Procreation is not a duty: human beings are not stock-farm animals. For conscientious persons, an unwanted pregnancy is a disaster; to oppose its termination is to advocate sacrifice, not for the sake of anyone’s benefit, but for the sake of misery qua misery, for the sake of forbidding happiness and fulfillment to living human beings. ("The Last Survey," The Ayn Rand Letter, IV, 2, 3.
and birth control ...

The capacity to procreate is merely a potential which man is not obligated to actualize. The choice to have children or not is morally optional. Nature endows man with a variety of potentials—and it is hismind that must decide which capacities he chooses to exercise, according to his own hierarchy of rational goals and values.
The mere fact that man has the capacity to kill, does not mean that it is his duty to become a murderer; in the same way, the mere fact that man has the capacity to procreate, does not mean that it is his duty to commit spiritual suicide by making procreation his primary goal and turning himself into a stud-farm animal . . . .
To an animal, the rearing of its young is a matter of temporary cycles. To man, it is a lifelong responsibility—a grave responsibility that must not be undertaken causelessly, thoughtlessly or accidentally.
In regard to the moral aspects of birth control, the primary right involved is not the “right” of an unborn child, nor of the family, nor of society, nor of God. The primary right is one which—in today’s public clamor on the subject—few, if any, voices have had the courage to uphold: the right of man and woman to their own life and happiness—the right not to be regarded as the means to any end.

When Ryan says he rejects Rand's philosophy, clearly this is what he is talking about.  Knowing what to accept and what to reject from Rand reveals that he, unlike his critics, is actually familiar with her work and thought.  Those Catholics liberals who accept contraception and abortion in the name of social justice are actually more Randian than Ryan is.  Rand, in fact, would despise Ryan for his Catholicism and his pro-life views.

--- 7 ---
A Catholic can read Rand, but carefully.  This is true of any work of literature.  A Catholic can benefit from a careful, thoughtful reading of even the most anti-Church writing;  even in heresies there is a glimmer of truth.  So a Catholic can read Rand as a critique of collectivist economics (which she intended) and as a critique of atheistic materialism (which she did not).  But they should not accept her philosophy as the be all and end all.  Reading Rand might spark an interest in economics, which should lead a Catholic student to see what the Church says about economics and society, about freedom and liberty, and about the dignity of the human person.   

For more Quick Takes, visit Conversion Diary!

1 comment:

  1. Wow. Thank you so much for this! I wish I could be this eloquent on the subject, but I'll have to settle for sharing your words.