Today a friend posted this article critiquing Ayn Rand’s philosophy for being adolescent on my facebook wall. He said he thought it might make me “amusingly angry.” I definitely was very amused by Gerson’s article (“Rand’s achievement was to turn a phase into a philosophy, as attractive as an outbreak of acne”) but not angry.
Gerson isn’t entirely wrong that Rand’s philosophy is adolescent. Her characters themselves are developmentally stunted. Her antagonists are completely unrealistic and reveal her inability to grasp the full humanity of people who approach life differently than her. Her protagonists treat others with contempt, don’t explain their actions or teach others how to improve themselves and then get frustrated at the world for not being able to appreciate them. They’re like Sheldon in The Big Bang Theory who is condescending, always assumes he’s right and often insulting but decides that when people don’t like him it’s because they’re threatened by his exceptionality instead of facing the fact it’s because he acts like an arrogant jerk.
More could be critiqued about Rand but what is valuable in Atlas Shrugged is hard to find anywhere else. It’s sad how even the people who laud her book rarely catch on to the true genius that lies in it, which maybe happened despite her. Atlas Shrugged is a defense of human dignity.
She saw, from first-hand experience in the USSR, that communism doesn’t affirm human dignity. It is for this reason, though Rand would not have phrased it this way, that she condemns altruism and self-sacrifice. In Atlas Shrugged it becomes evident that she is actually condemning a certain type of altruism and self-sacrifice that is hypocritical, destructively selfish and demeaning. All of her characters that claim to be altruistic and helping others are actually concerned most with themselves. When they “care for” others it is to benefit themselves or done as a means of control, by making others dependent and feel incapable of caring for themselves. The self-sacrifice these characters practice is actually a disdain for life, their own included, not a fierce love for life or others that will sacrifice itself in devotion for that love. Those characters neither recognize the value of their own life and work nor that of others, this is what Rand believes is criminal and deserving of condemnation.
She went too far by claiming that all altruism and all self-sacrifice is wrong but her extreme exclamation are tempered by the actions of her protagonists. Until they go on strike, they all do more to care for others than any of the people who claim to be altruistic. They treat their workers well and care about their dignity. They also inspire others through their love for life and for their work. That they do not coddle others weaknesses but demand their strengths is not a lack of love but a bolder kind of love.
Though her protagonists claim to be selfish, they’re actions are not motivated by their best interest. They at times even make sacrifices for each other, though they would never admit it was a sacrifice. What makes the difference in Atlas Shugged is the reason for their actions. Her protagonists work hard not to make money or look good but because they take pleasure in their work and in doing it well. Making money is simply the byproduct of their work and why shouldn’t it be? Should we only be rewarded for doing something we hate that we do begrudgingly and not well? Do we take money to just a pragmatic item we exchange for necessities instead of also a reward for a job well done, a sign of appreciate and desire for something that is valuable to us?
People act as if Atlas Shrugged is all about big companies and trickle-down economics. But it isn’t. One of the worst antagonists is a big company owner. The inactivity implied by the “trickling-down” would be repellant to her protagonists. Atlas Shrugged is about the connection between human dignity and valuing our work and ourselves. For our lives to be meaningful, we must love what we do and doing it well. For our lives to be good, we must enjoy being ourselves instead of wanting to be someone else. Any sacrifice that we make for what we love will not be a sacrifice because what we love compensates for what we lose. As basic as all of this may be it is a message that our culture does need at this time. Most contemporary literature and tv shows evidence that we are hurting for not valuing our work and enjoying who we are.
But if you’re looking to gain better social skills or become more empathetic, don’t look to Rand. In those areas she was very adolescent.