November 27, 2007

Objectivism requires dose of humility

I discovered Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged as a curious ninth-grader looking for something to read. I stumbled across the book randomly; my mother had an unread copy from her college years in a box in the basement.

Atlas Shrugged, despite the scathing reviews that greeted its publication, remains in print after 50 years and will soon be made into a movie. It has sold over 22 million copies, and a Library of Congress survey once ranked it as the most influential book in America after the Bible.

Atlas Shrugged had the same effect on the ninth-grade version of me as it has had on so many others: It became my favorite book, changed my entire worldview and much of my personality, and made me question every personal and political belief I had inherited. I read it three times while in high school and passed it on to many others, collecting used copies and distributing them to friends.

In polite society, Ayn Rand is mocked, ridiculed, and dismissed, oftentimes rightly so. Her ideas are extreme and sometimes self-parodying. They have given rise to a sort of cult of true believers centered in the Ayn Rand Institute, a group of Rand’s “intellectual heirs” who write extreme right-wing op-eds and travel to college campuses around the country to convert the heathens, all in the name of “Objectivism.”

In my first year, I wrote a column attacking a Rand-ist speaker who came to the U of C to rant against religious belief and other “mysticism.” The Objectivists, I argued, worship Rand like a god and quote Atlas Shrugged like Scripture. But for most of high school, Objectivism was my religion, and my family’s Christianity was beneath my dignity.

At first, I tried to have it both ways. At age 14, I wrote an e-mail to a staffer at the Ayn Rand Institute, informing him that I was attracted to Objectivism but I was also a Christian who loved the environment. (One tenet of Objectivism is that nature exists solely for man’s profit and pleasure, and can be destroyed at will.) I asked him whether I could reconcile these beliefs. No, the staffer said; one cannot be an Objectivist while believing in “irrational” things like Christianity and environmentalism. You have to swallow the entire pill.

And, after a month or so of hesitation, that is exactly what I did. I read almost the entire corpus of Rand’s work—books like The Fountainhead, We the Living, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, and The Virtue of Selfishness (this one I at least put cover-down on the kitchen table).

What makes Objectivism so appealing to the intellectually curious? What made it such an apparently ideal answer to my questions?

First, it is necessary to state what Objectivism is. Objectivists believe that reason and logic are our only guides to action. They believe that each individual’s highest end is the pursuit of his own happiness, and that no individual has any obligation to any other. They believe in using violence only in retaliation, but in retaliating with overwhelming force. They believe in unrestrained and unregulated capitalism. And they believe in a minimalist, radically libertarian state built on these principles; that is, a state that provides no social safety net and does nothing more than provide police, courts, and national defense.

But perhaps more important and attractive than the tenets of Rand’s “philosophy” are the style and personality of the characters who inhabit the world of her novels. Rand’s heroes have sharp, angular names like Roark, Galt, Rearden, Dagny, and Ragnar. Their features match; no novel ever written, I imagine, has included more descriptions of characters’ proud and erect postures than Atlas Shrugged. The villains, in contrast, are “parasites” who ask for handouts and leech off of the hard work of the productive and successful. They whine and mope about, and they wait for others to help them instead of helping themselves.

For a ninth-grader in search of self-confidence and identity, this vision fits perfectly. Inspired, I injected pride and self-esteem into my speech, posture, and work ethic; I kept my head high, met peoples’ eyes, and began to work furiously at everything I did. I remain grateful to Ayn Rand for the confidence that Atlas Shrugged gave me.

Eventually, of course, I came to realize that most of Rand’s political ideas are cruel, absolutist garbage that leave little room for tolerance and respect for others. Humility is a prerequisite to intellectual discovery and to the sense of reverence, wonder, and gratitude with which we should move in this world. A better worldview would value both the life-affirming confidence displayed by Rand’s characters and the life-affirming humility of a monk, a saint, or Socrates.

Ryan McCarl, a member of the Maroon Editorial Board, is an M.A. student in international relations.