Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature

I have had somewhat ambiguous feelings about Ayn Rand and her philosophy of Objectivism ever since I first discovered her in college. I agree with much of what she had to say: freedom, capitalism, and the use of reason are good; tyranny, socialism, and living off others are bad. Nevertheless, I have always felt vaguely repelled by her writings. Perhaps it is because I feel a slight malevolence underlying much of what she wrote. Ayn Rand was never one to forgive an enemy or maintain a friendship with someone of an opposing philosophy. Maybe the figures in her fiction are not much like real human beings. The heroes are completely good with no flaws, the villains completely evil with no redeeming characteristics. I am sure.

It is for that reason that I read Greg Nyquist’s Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature. Mr. Nyquist is a critic of Ayn Rand, but he takes a different approach than most of her critics. He does not spend much time examining the details of her philosophy, except to note where Objectivism is contradictory or incomplete. He does not refute Objectivism on a philosophical basis. In fact, at some points he concedes, for the sake of argument, that Objectivism is the most ideal philosophy imaginable. He also does not criticize Ayn Rand on a personal basis, except to show where her personality characteristics shaped Objectivism.

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What Greg Nyquist does instead is ask whether Ayn Rand and Objectivism actually works. Mr. Nyquist does not have much use for windy speculations about metaphysics or wordy conjectures about the way things ought to be. He is a practical man. He wants to know whether the assumptions about humanity and the world made by Ayn Rand that form the basis of Objectivism are actually in accordance with the observed facts. To this end, he has written Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature.

This book is divided into eight chapters, each chapter dealing with some aspect of Ayn Rand’s philosophy, her theories of human nature, history, epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, politics, and aesthetics. The final chapter considers the future of Objectivism. It should not be a surprise that Nyquist finds Ayn Rand’s theories wanting. In particular, he criticizes her ideas on human nature as being unrealistic. She was more concerned with human beings as she believes they ought to be rather than how they really are. She believed that human nature can be changed and that the widespread acceptance of Objectivism will cause people to think and act more rationally. Ayn Rand argued that people act according to the fundamental premises of their particular philosophy and if that philosophy is changed from one that accepts mysticism and collectivism to one that follows reason and individualism, then we can create a utopia of reason and capitalism. Nyquist disagrees, noting that human nature has changed little, if at all, throughout the centuries. People do not often follow a consistent philosophy. They act according to desires and interests and adapt their personal philosophy to justify their actions. He notes that history is less the result of various philosophical and ideological movements, as Ayn Rand asserted, but is more influenced by people’s desires and interests, particularly those of the ruling class. There is a lot more to his criticism, but the general idea is that Ayn Rand simply did not seek any sort of empirical verification of her ideas. She preferred to think about things rather than go out and see how things really are.

On the whole, I agree with Greg Nyquist’s criticism. I think that after some point, Ayn Rand lived in an imaginary world with John Galt and Howard Roarke. I have noticed in her nonfiction, she tended to refer to or quote her characters as if they were real people. She tends to make assertions that are completely reasonable and logical, but with she seldom presents actual evidence that these assumptions are true. I have also found her knowledge of history to be shallow.

While Greg Nyquist presents himself as a practical man, he sometimes crosses into cynicism. He seems to have a very negative opinion on human nature and regards politics as nothing more than the elite getting their way. While this is all true, it is not the whole truth. He believes that even if Ayn Rand’ s ideal of laissez-faire capitalism and the minimalist state is the best system possible, they will never come about into actuality because no political/economic elite will allow them to. Ayn Rand and her followers are idealists who fight for a cause no pragmatic politician would waste his time with.

In the end, I am going to side with the idealists. The idealist will sometimes bring about needed change because he doesn’t know it is impossible and even if he fails, he can at least push things in the right direction. The practical man knows it is impossible and so doesn’t bother to try.

Intellectuals

In his Republic, Plato had Socrates arguing that in order to create an ideal city-state of perfect justice either philosophers must be kings or kings must become philosophers. In other words, the only rulers of a truly just state must be philosopher-kings. Only the philosopher has the inner vision required to rule justly.

The example of history seems to have shown that rule by philosopher-kings is more likely to be the worst and most tyrannical form of government. There have been few, if any, actual kings who have been philosophers or philosophers who have been kings, to be sure, but governments ruled by an inner vision of perfect justice have proved to be devastating in terms of human lives and freedom. The history of the twentieth century ought to have proved that beyond any doubt.

Despite the example of history and common sense, there remains a class of individuals who believe that they and they alone, possess the inner vision needed to reform or remake society into a utopia of perfect justice. These individuals have seldom possessed political power, but through their writings and thoughts have had an enormous influence on the society around them. These individuals are often referred to as intellectuals.

Paul Johnson profiles a few of these overly influential people in his book Intellectuals. As Johnson notes at the beginning, there have always been people who have held themselves as having a special capacity to determine proper behavior and beliefs and to use this capacity to enlighten their neighbors. These intellectuals, generally priests or teachers were limited by tradition or official doctrine. A preacher could try to create heaven on Earth, but his view of Heaven was determined by scripture or tradition. Beginning in the eighteenth century, the influence of religion in the West declined, and the cleric was gradually replaced by the secular intellectual.

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These secular intellectuals were quite different from their predecessors. Rather than upholding traditional rules and authority, these new intellectuals sought to tear down the old to make way for a new world based upon their inner visions of justice and reason. It is these people that Johnson writes about. He begins with Jean-Jacques Rousseau and continues with such diverse individuals as Percy Bysshe Shelley, Karl Marx, Leo Tolstoy, Bertrand Russell, Jean-Paul Sartre, and others. These individuals have been very different in their ideas and lives, yet there are some striking similarities, as Johnson notes. These intellectuals all believed that they should not be bound by the same rules as others. Instead, they needed complete freedom from mundane cares to work out their ideas. They professed to be great lovers of humanity, yet didn’t seem to like the people around them very much, often using their associates as tools.

Some might object that Paul Johnson spends too much time on his subjects’ scandalous private lives. One might argue that a thinker ought to be judged by the quality of his ideas rather than the sordidness of his private life. To a great extent, this is true, yet a person’s private and public life cannot really be separated that easily. The private lives of these intellectuals were either a reflection of their philosophy, in which case that life shows the real-life effects of that philosophy, or they were unable to live up to the ideals of their philosophy, which implies that perhaps no human being could live up to such ideals.

Most of the people profiled by Johnson might be considered somewhat “left wing” in their politics. This might be because of Paul Johnson’s own political prejudices, but I think that it is also likely that the sort of person who wishes to remake civilization according to his own wishes is far more likely to be drawn to progressive politics. A conservative intellectual, would perhaps, be more inclined to defend and preserve traditional institutions rather than tear them down to be remade. One exception to this rule might be the example of Ayn Rand. She was not a defender of tradition despite her defense of capitalism and she sought, through her Objectivist philosophy, to undo the past two-thousand years of “altruist” Judeo-Christian ethics, so perhaps she fits the pattern of the intellectuals better than it might appear at first glance. It is a pity that Paul Johnson did not include her with the intellectuals since the unreality of some aspects of her philosophy and her wretched treatment of most of her associated made her a better example than some of the people he did include.

I have no complaints about Intellectuals, however. It is a book that anyone who believes that the right sort of ideas or the right sort of people could usher in a perfect world would do well to read this book.

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Sign of the Times

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Coming True? (Photo credit: beachblogger42)

 

According to the Washington Examiner, sales of 1984 have increased dramatically recently.

 

Sales of George Orwell’s “1984” are up 69 percent on Amazon, according to a list on the website.

The book marked its 60th anniversary on June 6 amid a flurry of real-world news stories on secret government surveillance.

Amazon lists the paperback version of the sci-fi classic as the 19th biggest book on its Movers and Shakers list. The current sales rank is 110.

The list identifies the biggest gainers in sales rank compared to 24 hours ago.

Update: As of 3:22 p.m. EDT, sales of Orwell’s “1984” are up 91 percent on the Amazon Movers and Shakers list.

 

I guess that George Orwell’s dark vision of a totalitarian government that watches its citizen’s every move doesn’t seem like fiction anymore. Incidentally, Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged has also been making record sales for the past several years, for the same reason.

 

Interesting times we’re living in.