Ayn Rand is much in the news right now as her philosophy is being tied to Congressman Paul Ryan who was selected by Mitt Romney to be the vice presidential nominee. Ryan now says he disavows her atheistic philosophy but he's clearly found some merit in much she had written as he's been quoted many times praising her.
This has caused great concern among many Christians. But not me. I am a Catholic who was heavily influenced by Ayn Rand. I understand many of Ryan's remarks concerning Rand because I've probably said similar things about her. Many years ago, I read everything Ayn Rand wrote and believed her to be brilliant. I wouldn't have called myself an atheist at the time. But only because I thought atheists were just as illogical as Christians.
Simply put, I would've thought I was better than you if I'd thought about anyone but myself for a moment. Thankfully, those occasions didn't arise often. But I thought I was brilliant because I saw the futility in pondering life. I was just going to soak up the day to day. It's funny in looking back, for someone soaking up my days, my mind can't seem to remember much about my nights.
I was working as a security guard -- the job funded my drinking at neighborhood bars and road trips. Road trips were where I went and drank in someone else's neighborhood. But some girl I had my eye on at the time mentioned how the author Ayn Rand changed her life. I was a fan of this girl's...uhm... casual morality so I read it. While I was supposed to be preventing people from stealing from a store I read "The Fountainhead" and "Atlas Shrugged."
I was bowled over. For the first time in my life I'd read something that wasn't just interesting for passing time. Sad to say but true. This was a book about how to live and all the important issues that I never considered important before.
This was a philosophy that appealed to me because it said that life was whatever I made of it. The goal of my life is the pursuit of my own happiness! Yay! Codified selfishness. Score! But that's a simplistic view because I was a simple man. There was much challenging in her ideology as well. In a world where everything is someone else's fault there's something very counter cultural in Rand's philosophy. You are not someone else's fault. You are who you make yourself. There's something very inspiring in that concept. For someone who had intentionally created nothing with his life, Ayn Rand awoke something akin to personal responsiblity in me. And for that I am grateful.
But to be fair, her characters never seemed like actual people. They seemed like intriguing ideals. Bloodless. Statues.
And even as I read her novels many things repelled me as well such as when the lead character in The Fountainhead rapes a woman. When I read it the first time I had to go back and re-read it because I was so stunned. But I thought at the time that maybe there was something I didn't understand. And when Rand's protagonist Dagny Taggart killed a security guard because he was in her way that floored me. It didn't seem to fit with Rand's philosophy as I understood it. But the problem was that it fit Rand's philosophy just fine. And that was the real source of my misgivings.
But even as I questioned the personal philosophy, I was awed by the accuracy of Rand's warnings about the dangerous power of the collectivism versus the individual. Few things I've read since make more plain the dangers of socialism to the individual. Rand diagnosed the problems we are seeing today incredibly well. Socialism, according to Rand, dictates that the individual has no right to exist for his own sake and that the sole justification of existence is what they can offer to society. I think many Christians would express this similar concern about the culture of big government today.
I, however, strongly differ with Rand on the solution as I'm sure would Paul Ryan. She would advocate selfishness and I would argue love.
After I'd read just about everything Rand wrote, I read pieces by her acolytes. And one of them mentioned at one point William F. Buckley and Whittaker Chambers in an unflattering and dismissive way. So I decided to read these men and see what problems they might have. Chambers' Witness floored me. He too came to hate communism but he fought it with self sacrifice. I read Solzhenitsyn who spoke of communism's effect on the human soul.
This path brought me thankfully to the point where a few short years later I would argue with a pro-choice Jesuit who tasked me to read the Fathers of the Church and it was then that I became Catholic.
In the end, I am thankful to Rand. Whittaker Chambers once wrote "A man is not primarily a witness against something. That is only incidental to the fact that he is a witness for something." I believe that in as much as Rand acted as a witness against the horrors of collectivism she was profound and insightful but as a witness for a creed of selfishness I found myself rejecting her. But I absolutely understand why Paul Ryan would say positive things about Rand's writing. And I also understand why in the end he rejects them. Months ago, Ryan told National Review:
“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.
Couldn't have said it better myself.