She believed that the world -- the universe -- existed before humans. The universe does not magically come into existence only after someone observes it. The world is what it is, whatever that might be.
She believed we could learn definite, objective facts about the world. Not everything about it. Not even necessarily most things about it. But some -- many -- things we could know with certainty within a given context. She recognized that people could be astonishingly irrational at times, but that each of us possesses a mind with the capacity for rational, abstract thought...and when we choose to exercise that faculty, we will do our best at discovering knowledge about and control over ourselves and our surroundings.
She believed that no person is inherently a slave -- or even a servant -- to another. Our lives belong to us, not to our families or our neighbors, not to society or our country or tribe or any other group. The individual is primary. All other relationships -- no matter how crucially important or central to a particular person -- must be subordinate to this basic fact of social existence. We must live our lives first for ourselves. To be literally "selfless" is to cease to exist.
She believed that only voluntary, mutually agreeable interactions are acceptable among the members of a social order. Persuasion -- not the initiation of force -- must be the only permissible tool to gain the cooperation or resources of another individual. In the economic realm, only laissez faire capitalism fulfills this requirement of trading value for value. In the political realm, only a constitutionally limited republic whose sole function is to protect our lives, our property, and our rights from those who would force us to act against our own (correct or incorrect) judgment constitutes a legitimate government.
She believed that people need emotional fuel to sustain the effort needed to face the vicissitudes of daily life. Mistakes happen. Disasters strike. Others treat us unfairly. We can fail. To help us through these tough times -- to show us a path to how life could and should be, a beacon to guide us through our times of hopelessness and doubt -- our artists should create visions of hope and optimism, righteous struggle and, sometimes, triumph in their selective recreations of the reality with which we must contend. Focusing on what is truly important, writers and sculptors, musicians and artists help us recharge our mental batteries when times are rough...and help us celebrate when times are good.
Charles A. Beard once said, "You need only reflect that one of the best ways to get yourself a reputation as a dangerous citizen these days is to go around repeating the very phrases which our founding fathers used in their struggle for independence."
When many people hear the name "Ayn Rand," they have a similar reaction to her and her ideas -- and those who agree with her -- as do those skeptical citizens to whom Beard alluded. She has been called a fascist -- though she opposed the cult of the omnipotent state. She has been damned as heartless, cruel, and uncaring -- though she respected the moral autonomy of every person. She championed the common citizens in their struggles against the powerful who seek to impose their will on those who want only to be left alone. She was denounced for her atheism -- though that belief came merely as a consequence of her ideas and did not hold a primary place in her thoughts.
Her fiction has been damned as turgid and unreadable, quaint and archaic -- though her novels have sold (and inspired) millions around the world. Her essays have been dismissed as ranting exaggerations -- though what she has written on the state of philosophy, politics, and culture has helped bring about a sea-change in attitudes of citizens thinking about the role of the state in their lives.
Though Rand preferred to call herself a novelist-philosopher, many thought her a poor novelist and a mediocre (at best) philosopher.
One question remains, however: if she were so incompetent, her ideas so wrong-headed, her life so comical, why do her enemies fear and attack so vehemently what she had to say?
Rand was born Alissa (or Alice) Rosenbaum in St. Petersburg, Russia on February 2, 1905. Growing up, she witnessed the revolution which brought the Communist state to ascendancy in 1917. In horror, she saw firsthand the reality and the consequences of collectivism and the worship of the state. Graduating from college, she seized on an opportunity to visit relatives in America. In 1926, she landed in the United States and never went back to her homeland.
Finding her way to Hollywood, she found work in the film industry. In 1929, she married Frank O'Connor whom she had met on one of Cecil B. DeMille's sets. Her first novel, We the Living, was published in 1936. This book portrays life in a collectivized society through the eyes of young Kira Argounova. An unauthorized film version appeared in Italy in 1942. In 1986, the movie made it to America in a version authorized by Rand.
Rand's next, more ambitious project sought to depict the struggle between individualism and collectivism in people's individual lives. In The Fountainhead, architect Howard Roark exemplifies the morality of rational self-interest as he seeks to establish his career according to his own standards. Published in 1943 after a dozen rejections, The Fountainhead flourished on word-of-mouth and was made into a movie starring Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal. For many people, this novel forms their introduction to Rand's ideas and remains a favorite among all of her work.
Her short novel, Anthem, 1938, unveils a world where the word "I" has been expunged from the world. Rand shows the liberating effects of its rediscovery.
The popularity of The Fountainhead -- among general readers if not among critics -- led to a pivotal event in Rand's life: a young man named Nathaniel Branden contacted and later met her and Frank at their home in California. The someday-to-be psychologist and his eventual-to-be wife, Barbara Weidman, became fast friends of the older couple. Discussing philosophical and political issues, their friendship grew.
The two couples separately found their way to New York City, Nathaniel and Barbara to pursue their academic careers, Ayn to continue work on her magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged (initially called The Strike). An affair with Nathaniel began -- with the full knowledge of their spouses -- while Rand struggled to finish her book.
A bout with depression followed the 1957 publication of Atlas Shrugged and put Rand's affair with a man twenty-five-years her junior on hold. Nathaniel created NBI (Nathaniel Branden Institute) to spread the philosophy of Objectivism (as Rand had named the system encapsulating her ideas). The success of NBI accompanied Rand's forays into nonfiction writing. In short essays in The Objectivist Newsletter, The Objectivist, and The Ayn Rand Letter, she explored questions from readers, applied her ideas to the issues of the day, and expanded on more technical issues of her philosophy, especially in the area of epistemology (the study of knowledge, or how we know what we know). Many of those essays were collected in books such as The Virtue of Selfishness, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, and Philosophy: Who Needs It?.
An attempt to rekindle her affair with Nathaniel (who had become involved with a third woman) ended in disaster for Rand, the Brandens, and eventually, hundreds of Rand's followers. Breaking all ties with many of her former associates, Rand continued to write her essays. She never wrote more fiction.
Her husband, Frank, died in 1979. Three years later, in 1982, Rand herself succumbed to death, perhaps hastened by decades of smoking.
Nearly two decades have slipped by since Rand's death. The debate about the validity of her ideas and their lasting impact (if any) continues.
Some academics and politicians believe Rand and her ideas have run their course, appealing now primarily to impressionable teenagers and rebellious college students seeking to break the chains of a constricted upbringing. Her discussions of various philosophers are disparaged as woefully inadequate, naive, and distorted. Those who champion her ideas are frequently judged to be "cultists" who mindlessly ape her words.
Unfortunately, an objective discussion and evaluation of Rand is often complicated when her sometimes abrasive personality, her lapses in rationality, her inconsistencies in applying her own principles to herself are confounded with the ideas themselves. Some of those who find individualism (or egoism) and rational self-interest abhorrent, who reject the possibility of objectivity, who view free enterprise as a debasing way of conducting human relationships go first for Rand's figurative jugular. Every character flaw, every supposedly "mean-spirited" comment or action, every human weakness or discrepancy is dragged forward, gleefully displayed, and cited as evidence of the corruption, the weakness, the incoherence of Objectivism.
But, of course, attempting to discredit certain ideas by vilifying the person who believes them is an example of the elementary logical fallacy, the ad hominem attack. The proper standard for judging the truth of some statement is its correspondence with reality. Dismissing ideas by maligning the proponents, by belittling those people as "rude" or "unsophisticated" is not a good excuse for discounting the ideas themselves.
Condescending, snide, self-righteous condemnation is no substitute for proof.
What leads so many to adopt such postures when it comes to Rand and her philosophy? What do opponents find so incredible in a belief in an objective reality, reason, valuing one's self, and voluntary, non-coercive social relationships? Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, and James Madison would have found such notions congenial and hardly controversial. The stridency of Rand's adversaries is merely a stark signpost of how far we have regressed from the ideals upon which our country was founded.
Perhaps these foes of freedom are merely afraid of the logical implications of the principles Rand gathered, systematized, and discovered. To grant any validity to her beliefs would shred the house of cards representing their own positions. To acknowledge the cogency of Objectivism would be to abandon the power, the prestige, and the perks they have garnered for themselves in academia and government. To face up to the bankruptcy of their worldviews would leave them stranded and scrambling for real jobs based on their actual worth and not the false value imposed by legal extortion.
Even after Rand's death, the schisms and contentions among her followers have continued. The Ayn Rand Institute (ARI), headed by Rand's legal heir, Leonard Peikoff, had a well-publicized split with David Kelley in the mid-Eighties. This mirrored the "excommunication" of Peikoff's cousin Barbara, her husband Nathaniel, and their allies in the Sixties. In the Nineties, other Objectivists were expelled from the ARI camp for disagreeing with Peikoff and his cronies. Such internecine struggles have done nothing to still the charges of "cultism" and "kookiness" pinned on Objectivism.
Kelley went on to found the Institute for Objectivist Studies (IOS; currently the Objectivist Center [TOC]) as an alternative avenue for exploring the ideas and implications of Rand's philosophy. Those who run TOC are in the process of setting up the Ayn Rand Society for readers of her fiction. It is designed to appeal to those who are drawn to the sense of life Rand projected but who are less inclined to focus on the technical details of Objectivism.
Scholar Chris Sciabarra seeks to bring Objectivism into the academic fold, "kicking and screaming," if necessary. Some Objectivists hold a healthy skepticism of left-leaning, subjectivist-oriented academia and its tendency to reduce all systems to a kind of diluted, anemic parity. Sciabarra, on the other hand, wants to stage a kind of subversive coup by using the academics' own language and tools to introduce Objectivism into colleges and universities. "Respectability" in the academic realm is almost a disvalue for some Objectivists, but Sciabarra believes that Objectivism's best chance of gaining a deeper as well as wider influence in our society is by quietly storming the collegiate bastions. The "trickle-down" of ideas from cultural leaders to the average citizen to which Rand often alluded will only stand a chance of succeeding if Objectivism and Rand are no longer marginalized by the academic world.
To help achieve his goals, Sciabarra has published the controversial Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical (in which he attempts to reclaim "dialectics" in a manner similar to Rand's redemption of "selfishness") and started the Journal of Ayn Rand Studies. He and Mimi Gladstein edited the equally controversial Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand, a volume giving voice to those who both love and hate Rand.
Gladstein has also recently published a revised version of an earlier volume, The New Ayn Rand Companion, an overview and bibliography of Rand's writing and a listing of commentaries on Rand's work. She is also author of Atlas Shrugged: Manifesto of the Mind, a critical examination of Rand's masterpiece.
Philosopher Tibor Machan's Ayn Rand and Alan Gotthelf's On Ayn Rand both provide brief overviews of her thought complementing Peikoff's more complete presentation, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand. The late Ron Merrill explored similar ground in his The Ideas of Ayn Rand.
All of this represents a profound change from what admirers previously had available to them. For many years, the only "academic" tome devoted to Rand was The Philosophical Thought of Ayn Rand edited by Douglas Den Uyl and Douglas Rasmussen. (Den Uyl also recently authored The Fountainhead: An American Novel.)
Professor Tara Smith has written Moral Rights and Political Freedom and Viable Values: A Study of Life as the Root and Reward of Morality following from Rand's ideas. Louis Torres and Michelle Kamhi's new What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand examines and critiques Rand's theories.
New volumes of Rand's previously unpublished writings continue to appear. Journals of Ayn Rand, Letters of Ayn Rand, and Russian Writings on Hollywood provide glimpses into the influences affecting this most American of immigrants. The Ayn Rand Reader joins her old For the New Intellectual as an introduction to her major thoughts. The Art of Fiction presents edited group discussions she conducted dealing with the process of writing stories.
Rand's one-time proteges have also contributed to this growing stream of work. In addition to his Objectivist-oriented books on psychology, Nathaniel Branden wrote a memoir on his years with Rand, Judgment Day (now in revised edition as My Years with Ayn Rand). Barbara Branden's biography, The Passion of Ayn Rand, not only sparked controversy among Objectivists on its original appearance but continues to do so in its incarnation as a Showtime movie.
A filmed version of Atlas Shrugged appears moving solidly towards realization. References to Rand and her ideas continue to appear and expand in the media as they become almost taken-for-granted aspects of our cultural heritage.
Many more books and articles -- both appreciative and disapproving -- than can be detailed here have or will soon be published. Rand's presence is widespread on the Internet both in the form of webpages and discussion groups.
There's no indication that this mini-flood will soon diminish.
What will Rand's ultimate legacy be? Will she be a minor footnote in history or a major player in shaping the world, a thinker whose influence will one day rival that of Karl Marx?
It's impossible to say, even if her ideas are correct. The opponents of rationality and freedom have no shortage of adherents.
Those who accept reason, individualism, and liberty, however, are cautiously optimistic. If they -- and Rand -- are right, reality is, after all, on their side.