Ayn Rand: A Centennial Appreciation

By Sciabarra, Chris Matthew | Freeman, January/February 2005 | Go to article overview
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Ayn Rand: A Centennial Appreciation


Sciabarra, Chris Matthew, Freeman


Born in Russia on February 2, 1905, the late novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand would eventually emigrate to the United States and make an indelible mark on intellectual history. (She died in 1982.) As we celebrate the centennial of her birth, it is fitting to recall Rand's unique contribution to the defense of capitalism as expressed in her magnum opus, the best-selling novel Atlas Shrugged.

In 1945, when Rand began outlining that work, she made a self-conscious decision to create a "much more 'social' novel than The Fountainhead."1 She wished to focus not simply on the "soul of the individualist," which The Fountainhead had dramatized so well, but to proceed "from persons, in terms of history, society, and the world." This new "story must be primarily a picture of the whole," she wrote in her journal, making transparent the cluster of relationships that constitute society as such:

Now, it is this relation that must be the theme. Therefore, the personal becomes secondary. That is, the personal is necessary only to the extent needed to make the relationships clear. In The Fountainhead I showed that Roark moves the world-that the Keatings feed upon him and hate him for it, while the Tooheys are consciously out to destroy him. But the theme was Roark-not Roark's relation to the world. Now it will be the relation.2

Atlas Shrugged explores these relations in every dimension of human life. It traces the links between political economy and sex, education and art, metaphysics and psychology, money and moral values. It concentrates on the union of spiritual and physical realms and on the concrete means by which certain productive individuals move the world, and by which others live off of their creations. It shows the social importance of the creative act by documenting what would happen if the prime movers, the "men of the mind," went on strike.

Most important, however, Atlas Shrugged provides a manifesto for a new radicalism-not a political radicalism per se, but a methodological radicalism, a radical way of thinking on which political and social change is built. As we celebrate the Rand centenary, it is fitting to explore the implications of Rand's radicalism.

"To be radical," Karl Marx said, "is to grasp things by the root."3 Unlike Marx, however, Rand repudiated communism and its root, the "basic premises of collectivism" it embodied. Rand's attack was "radical in the proper sense of the word." As she explained: "'Radical' means 'fundamental.' Today, the fighters for capitalism have to be, not bankrupt 'conservatives,' but new radicals, new intellectuals and, above all, new, dedicated moralists."4

The analytical power of Rand's radical framework went beyond a search for roots. In seeking to understand the system of statism, Rand showed how various factors often mutually support one another in sustaining its irrationality. She explores how coercive relations are at war with human beings and with life itself; they are "anti-man, anti-mind, anti-life."5

Mind-Body Integration

Rand's case for capitalism is a metaphysical and moral case built on a total and unequivocal rejection of the mind-body dichotomy and all the false alternatives it engenders. In her philosophic journals, Rand explained how her novel was meant to "[v]indicate the industrialist" as "the author of material production."6 But underlying this vindication was Rand's desire to secularize the spiritual and spiritualize the material:

The material is only the expression of the spiritual; that it can neither be created nor used without the spiritual (thought); that it has no meaning without the spiritual, that it is only the means to a spiritual end-and, therefore, any new achievement in the realm of material production is an act of high spirituality, a great triumph and expression of man's spirit. And show that those who despise "the material" are those who despise man and whose basic premises are aimed at man's destruction.

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