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Culture And Society in Voice for Reason
Culture & SocietyMore

Ayn Rand’s Appeal

by Onkar Ghate | August 21, 2012 |

Paul Ryan is Romney’s pick for Vice President and now Ayn Rand’s name is on everyone’s lips.

Many on the left are pillorying Ryan as an unrealistic “ideologue” because of his Rand connection. Many on the right accede, quickly trying to set aside Ryan’s admiration for Atlas Shrugged as youthful indiscretion. “Every young conservative has a fascination with Ayn Rand at some point,” Romney’s strategist Eric Fehrnstrom says dismissively.

But hold on. If we actually consider the essence of what Rand advocates, the idea that her philosophy is childish over-simplification stands as condemnation not of her position but of the many adults from whom this accusation stems.

Ayn Rand's Appeal

The key to Rand’s enduring popularity is that she appeals not to the immaturity but to the idealism of youth. This is why more than 29,000 students submitted entries this year to essay contests on her novels and, in the past five years alone, high school teachers have requested over 1.5 million copies of The Fountainhead, We the Living, Anthem and Atlas Shrugged to use in their classrooms. They know that students respond to her stories and heroes as to few other books.

“There is a fundamental conviction which some people never acquire,” Rand wrote in 1969, “some hold only in their youth, and a few hold to the end of their days — the conviction that ideas matter.” The nature of this conviction? “That ideas matter means that knowledge matters, that truth matters, that one’s mind matters. And the radiance of that certainty, in the process of growing up, is the best aspect of youth.”

If Ryan is a man who takes ideas seriously, as numerous supporters and detractors claim, this is an attitude he would have encountered on every page of Rand’s writings.

But how as an adult do you sustain the conviction that the truth matters, in the face of constant calls to compromise your views and give in?

You need to achieve, Rand argues, a radical independence of mind. Independence does not mean doing whatever you feel like doing but rather forging principles and using them to choose your actions rationally, carefully, scientifically. Independence means refusal to subordinate your ideas or values to the “public interest,” as too many secularists demand, or to the “glory of God,” as too many religionists demand. It means refusal to grant obedience to any authority.

The independent mind instead embraces reason as an absolute. “The noblest act you have ever performed,” declares the hero of Atlas Shrugged, “is the act of your mind in the process of grasping that two and two make four.” Rand meant it.

On Rand’s view, to take the truth of your own ideas seriously is a remarkable achievement: it represents a profound dedication to self. Crucially, this dedication requires that you not passively absorb your society’s moral views, however well-entrenched, but instead question and study the entire field of good and evil. This is precisely what Atlas Shrugged — with its critique of the regulatory-welfare state and the moral ideas that spawned it, alongside its presentation of a new moral code of rational self-interest — challenges us to do.

Most of us are passionate about morality only when young. As we grow older and discover the impractical, even self-destructive nature of the moral slogans we were taught to bandy about, we abandon the field. After all, we tell ourselves, “we’ve got to live.”

But this split between the moral and the practical poisons the soul. “To take ideas seriously,” Rand writes, “means that you intend to live by, to practice, any idea you accept as true,” that you recognize “that truth and knowledge are of crucial, personal, selfish importance to you and to your own life.”

Her approach here is the opposite of the view that ideals transcend this world, one’s interests and human comprehension — that idealism is, according to a former president whose words are echoed by virtually every leader today, “to serve in a cause larger than your wants, larger than yourself.”

In a world that equates idealism with otherworldliness and denial of self, while simultaneously reminding us that, as one conservative commentator puts it, “perfection in the life of man on earth” is impossible — Rand stands alone. She argues that perfection on earth is possible, if only we’re ready to work for it.

Hold your own life as your highest value, follow reason, bow to no authority, pursue unwaveringly the true and the good, create a life of productive achievement and personal joy — enact these demanding values and virtues, Rand argues in Atlas Shrugged, preserve “the hero in your soul,” and an ideal world, here on earth, is “real, it’s possible — it’s yours.”

Does an adult world that decries this philosophy as “simplistic” not convict itself?

Instead of criticizing Ryan’s Rand connection, perhaps the question we should be asking is why her ideas have not had a much greater impact on his worldview.

About The Author

Onkar Ghate

Chief Philosophy Officer and Senior Fellow, Ayn Rand Institute