Sunday, August 12, 2007

Ayn Rand and American Individualism

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In my recent post on Ayn Rand, "The Morality of Existence," I noted that I don't agree with every aspect of her philosophy. What I love about Rand's objectivism is the power of the individual as the master of of circumstances. In Atlas Shrugged, though, there were a few sections that seemed too ruggedly individualistic for me - or at least I thought if we were to organize society precisely as Rand envisioned, perfect achievers in the puritan Randian framework would be few and far between.

This week's U.S. News and World Report has
a retrospective on the year 1957, arguing that it was a year that changed America. Atlas Shrugged was published that year, and U.S. News assesses how well the book has publically aged over these last 50 years.

Who is Ayn Rand? More than two decades after her death, readers still debate the morality and cultural influence of the provocative Russian-born author whose "objectivist" philosophy culminated in her 1957 magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged. The 1,192-page novel unapologetically fictionalized an individualist philosophy that praises selfishness, scorns charity, and turns monopolists into paragons of virtue.

Some say it was Rand's personality, not her ideas, that secured her place in history. Biographies by spurned lovers and collections of her letters reveal Rand as a passionate, sometimes tempestuous, personality, a woman with devoted loves and sworn enemies, who relished sex and dabbled in swinging, and demanded absolute loyalty from her disciples.

But whether by writing it or reflecting it, Rand's contribution to American individualism makes her one of the most prominent figures of the late 20th century. Rand defied Judeo-Christian altruism by touting the virtue of selfishness. Each person, she believed, had a moral duty to live only for his or her own happiness. And that meant championing the tenets of unbridled capitalism: a free market economy, individual rights and responsibilities, and limited government. In many ways, Rand's idealism rang distinctly patriotic. But it also pushed American individualism into often uncomfortable territory. Beyond mere competitiveness, objectivism championed ruthless self-interest, a disdain for the poor, and, most controversially, atheism. A refugee from communism, Rand spurned all state-sponsored welfare, government social programs, and even, her writings suggest, private charity. The pledge of the rebellious intellectuals in Atlas Shrugged: "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."
Read the whole piece. I love Rand's emphasis on individual achievement. I don't reject spirtualism, though, and as a teacher I cannot be completely disdainful of the poor - we show compassion for others of less opportunity by teaching them the power of their own individualism to accomplish great things.

Still, as a benchmark, it's hard to beat Rand on the inherent superiority of the self in society.

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