Understanding the “Ayn Rand Phenomenon”
Although Ayn Rand is virtually unknown in France, the release of the French edition of Atlas Shrugged (La Grève) in paperback this March has sparked a burst of interest in Rand in the French media. Over the past few months, there have been articles in Le Point and Les Echos, a television segment on Arte TV and a five-part broadcast on the public radio channel France Culture, which includes interviews (in French) with, among others, author and philosopher Alain Laurent – publisher of the French edition of Atlas Shrugged — and French-American novelist Antoine Bello. Some of this media coverage is accurate and even favorable, and some of it is not, but one thing is clear: the phenomenon of Rand’s popularity has captured the attention of the French, and they are trying to understand her.
Perhaps in response to this recent media interest, Matthieu Ricard — French author, TED speaker, and Buddhist monk — published a short article (in English) on his LinkedIn page, “Ayn Rand: Is This the Right Model for a Great Nation?” warning his vast following away from her philosophy. Ricard’s article — which draws on material from Chapter 25 (“The Ayn Rand Phenomenon”) of his 2013 book Altruism: The Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World — provides a perfect example of how not to understand the “Ayn Rand phenomenon.”
The problem with Ricard’s article — which it unfortunately shares with a great many pieces on Rand — is not just that it presents a distorted view of Rand and her ideas, but that it lacks any sincere intellectual engagement with Rand’s thought.
Ricard states, disapprovingly, that Rand advocates “the virtue of selfishness,” but never explains Rand’s original perspective on what it means to be “selfish” or why she regards selfishness as a moral virtue. He writes that Rand regards altruism as a vice that “threatens our survival and leads us to neglect our own happiness,” but never explains what she means by “altruism” or why she thinks (counter-intuitively) that altruism is actually incompatible with kindness and goodwill. Regarding “the poor, the sick, and the elderly,” he laments that, according to Rand, “people should not be made to pay taxes to support them” and “it should not be considered to be a social duty” without ever explaining why (or in the name of what values) she adopts such a controversial position.
Commentators who approach Rand as Ricard does leave readers with their conventional notions comfortably intact, untouched by any contact with Rand’s radical reassessment of the nature of self-interest and its relation to morality. As a result, they do nothing to explain why Rand has been a source of moral inspiration for millions of readers around the world.
Yes, Rand advocates selfishness — what she calls “rational selfishness,” which means pursuing the values and practicing the virtues that objectively sustain and enrich one’s own life, not just in the immediate moment, but over the course of one’s entire life. Rational selfishness means living by the judgment of one’s own mind, by one’s own productive effort, and enjoying the results — both materially and spiritually. The list of moral virtues that Rand regards as essential to living selfishly may surprise you — it includes rationality, independence, integrity, justice, productiveness, honesty, and pride.
Yes, Rand is opposed to altruism — but by “altruism” she does not mean kindness and goodwill — nor does she mean compassion or “concern for others” (all of which she regards as appropriate in the proper context). By “altruism,” she means the sacrifice of self to others — the subordination of one’s own life, interests, and values to others as a moral obligation. Altruism, in this sense, is something that Rand regards as deeply self-destructive.
Rand’s philosophy is striking and unconventional. If one wishes to understand or assess Rand’s ideas and their popularity and cultural significance, one has to begin by engaging her philosophic thought on its own terms. One has to try to understand what her perspective is and why she holds that perspective. Part of what this requires is a willingness to consider and to take seriously the arguments that she presents for her views, as is done impressively in the recently published A Companion to Ayn Rand. Absent such an approach, the “Ayn Rand phenomenon” will remain, as Ricard puts it, “a puzzling enigma” to commentators both at home and abroad.