One of the most famous and controversial philosophical figures of the mid-20th century was Ayn Rand. She was a best-selling author who gave lectures about her philosophical ideas across the United States. Her books Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged have been incredibly influential in political philosophy. She also wrote several other works, including We the Living and the New Intellectual. In her book The New Intellectual, Rand describes that she is both a novelist and philosopher.
"I am often asked whether I am primarily a novelist or a philosopher. The answer is both. In a certain sense, every novelist is a philosopher because one cannot present a picture of human existence without a philosophical framework; . . . In order to define, explain, and present my concept of man, I had to become a philosopher in the specific meaning of the term."
While Rand described herself as a philosopher, her position in philosophy was a source of controversy. Since her death in 1982, her books have become more popular. Her philosophy has been influential, particularly in the libertarian movement. Here, we delve into the story behind who Ayn Rand was and explore her legacy.
Born in Saint Petersburg, Russia, in 1905, Rand's parents tutored her at home during her early childhood. Later, she went to a progressive school. At school, she was a star student and excelled academically but was socially isolated. Following the Russian Revolution in 1917, authorities stole Rand's father's shop. This experience made her resentful of authority and might have influenced her philosophy.
Around this time, her family moved to Crimea. There, she finished high school. Eventually, Rand returned to Russia to attend Leningrad State University. History was Rand's subject of study, and philosophy was her subject of interest.
In 1924, she graduated and decided to pursue further education in Cinematography. Her goal was to become a screenwriter. In 1926, Rand left Russia and moved to the United States to gain experience in the film industry. She intended to use her experience in the Soviet film industry. However, she never moved back to Russia.
Changing Her Name
What most people don't know about Rand is that Ayn Rand is not the author's actual name. Ayn Rand is the pen name for Alissa Zinoviena Rosenbaum, who adopted the name when she moved to the United States. She chose the name Ayn because of a Finnish writer who inspired her. Rand never identified who the writer was. The last name was an abbreviation of her original surname, Rosenbaum.
When Rand first moved to the United States, she worked as a screenwriter for the Cecil B. DeMille studios. She wrote a play called Night of January 16th in 1935. In the following couple of decades, Rand produced her first four novels, including, We the Living, Anthem, The Fountainhead, and Atlas Shrugged. After the novel's publication, Rand started her nonfiction works where she delved into the philosophy in the novels she wrote. She lectured at universities, colleges, and private groups across the United States. She took up permanent residence in the States, first in Hollywood, then in New York.
Rand's approach to writing was something she described as "romantic realism." Her fiction doesn't represent the world as it is. Instead, she represents the world as she believes it could and should be. This creates the setting for some strong characters.
A theme throughout her writing is presenting heroism as morally right and collectivist moral ideals as morally wrong. Her protagonists are always heroic, attractive individuals who are more self-interested. Her villains, on the other hand, support collectivist moral ideas and are usually described as unattractive. A book where these moral ideas are particularly noticeable is Atlas Shrugged.
Atlas Shrugged is generally considered to be Rand's masterpiece novel. The book takes place in a dystopian futuristic version of the United States. After collective misrule, the country is on the verge of economic collapse. Society exploits its creative citizens, such as industrialists, scientists, and artists. Their handwork benefits everyone in the population, even those who have done nothing and are undeserving. In the book, the hero is John Galt. He is a creative physicist who leads others like him on strike.
In the appendix of Atlas Shrugged, Rand describes her systematic philosophy that she calls objectivism. This is the concept that people are their own heroic beings with their own happiness as the moral purpose of their lives.
Ayn Rand's significant contribution to philosophy was her new philosophical system she called Objectivism. There is no official book written by Rand outlining her philosophy. However, her sci-fi novel "Atlas Shrugged" includes a brief summary of her ideas.
Objectivism starts with the idea that reality is objective and the universe exists as it is, not how we want it to exist. Wishing the universe was otherwise won't make it happen. Objectivism says to understand the world, our reason is all we have and all we need. In this view, there cannot be moral contradictions. The goal of life, according to Objectivism, should be our own selfish happiness. By selfish happiness, Rand didn't mean exploiting others for personal gain. She intended the word to mean that everyone should pursue their highest potential for what they need to be happy. In this view, everyone must also recognize the right of others to achieve their own selfish happiness.
In her Brief Summary on Objectivism, Rand best describes her view on Objectivism as "I am not primarily an advocate of capitalism, but of egoism; and I am not primarily an advocate of egoism, but of reason. If one recognizes the supremacy of reason and applies it consistently, all the rest follows."
Academic Reaction to Her Work
Ayn Rand's philosophy and books were controversial at the time. To some people, her characters were immoral and cartoonish. Her philosophy of Objectivism also faced criticism. Objectivism advocates for self-interest and claims altruism is evil. This is something considered strange and opposite to true morality by many people.
During Rand's lifetime, her books weren't given much academic consideration, and she wasn't considered a literary figure. While today her books are well known, there is debate about whether they are in fact full of philosophy. Some people believe Rand has more merit as an author than as a profound philosopher. Robert Nozick pointed this out in his essay 'On the Randian Argument.' Nozick claimed Rand's arguments about ethics were unsound and didn't lead to the solutions she hoped. Another philosopher, Michael Huemer, made similar observations about Rand's philosophy, suggesting her ideas on ethics were incoherent.
Legacy and Influence
Ayn Rand died in 1982 in New York City, leaving behind her a controversial legacy. Throughout her life, Rand's inability to get other academic philosophers to recognize her work was a significant source of frustration. She attributed the dismissiveness of others in her work to collectivist bias. While her work might not have gained as much recognition as she would have liked in philosophy, today, her novels are relatively well known.
Her Objectivist philosophy remains a topic of hot discussion in philosophy and politics. Her political philosophy places emphasis on individual rights such as freedom, life, and property. She also supported laissez-faire capitalism. In her view, this was the only system that actually protected these rights. These are views typically held today by conservative thinkers and libertarians. Her political philosophy has had an influence on political movements in the States. In 2009, she became an iconic figure in the anti-government Tea Party movement. While her books and philosophy are well known, people will likely remember Rand for her political influence more than anything else.
Learn More About Rand
Despite her controversial ideas, Rand is a popular figure in political philosophy circles today. Whether you agree with Rand or not, considering her influence, she is worth learning about for anyone interested in politics and philosophy. The best way to learn more about her ideas is by reading at least one of Rand's books. Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged are her most famous novels. They are a great starting point for delving into some of Rand's ideas.