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Ayn Rand

In comments on an essay on The Imaginative Conservative (Whittaker Chambers and the Strenuously Sterile World of Atlas Shrugged) the question has been raised as to the value of discussing Ayn Rand and her teachings on a site dedicated to conservative thought. Below, in brief, is my thinking on why this discussion is worthwhile.
Ayn Rand’s philosophy of selfishness, materialism, and denial of the created nature of the human person continues its pernicious mischief fifty-four years after Whittaker Chambers’ (1957, National Review) powerfully condemning review of Atlas Shrugged. So what is the conservative to do? To quote Sun Tzu: “If you know the enemy and know yourself, your victory will not stand in doubt; if you know Heaven and know Earth, you may make your victory complete.” Simply dismissing her is not enough.

In my youth I tried to follow her philosophy and it took me far from the True, the Good, and the Beautiful for almost two decades. Fortunately, I knew just enough of Russell Kirk’s books that the seeds were planted for a true conservatism. But, first the Rand weed had to be torn from my mind.

Rand has been dismissed as an inferior intellectual and literary talent yet her influence on young minds remains. These young people, often of conservative inclination, are seeking a muscular presentation of the purpose of human life. Nothing less than a bold conservatism anchored in the best of Western, dare I say, Christian tradition will suffice.

I recently had the opportunity to speak at a conservative Christian college to seventy or so of their brightest students. When I finished my talk of thirty minutes, which ranged from Russell Kirk to Will Durant, from ancient Rome to the dimming liberal arts tradition in today’s academy, I took numerous questions from the students. More than half of the questions were regarding Ms. Rand. This even though my mention of my experience with her philosophy was less than five minutes of my lecture.

It seems that among these young people were “recovering Randians” who wanted to know what to read to further their recovery. A few had “Randian” friends that they wished to persuasively offer the Truth of Faith. Also, there were students who wanted to know why today’s “conservative” talk show hosts keep recommending Rand’s books when her philosophy is incompatible with conservative principles.

The new movie version of Atlas Shrugged will most likely bring an increased interest in her destructive “Objectivism.” While I would rather discuss greater thinkers, it is worthy of our time to offer a principled conservative tradition, rooted in Christian faith, as an alternative to the “Virtue of Selfishness” Ms. Rand offers to another generation of young people. For they are really seeking understanding and Truth (even if they don’t know it.)

I am grateful to the always brilliant Stephen Masty for his very clever comment on this topic:

We have all been exposed to the so-called Randroid Virus (identified by pathologists at The Mecosta Laboratory for Bacteriological and Viral Ideology as Libertariensis Boobus Objectivus, Type R). Then our conservative antibodies rejected it immediately, or (with G2 therapy, God’s Grace) our culturo-philosophical auto-immune systems built up resistance over time. Either way, now we are safe. Not so for the young (apart from those souls fortunate enough to hear you live on campus tours). To ignore the peril would be, as you imply, to abandon America’s youth to a particularly communicable and pernicious strain of ideo-pathogen and the metastasizing, psycho-cultural mutations that often follow infection. This much is simple science.

What is needed desperately is a vaccine such as Dr. Jonas Salk’s 1952 polio treatment. Nowadays administered on a tasty sugar cube, a similarly pleasant and painless delivery system for any ideocide must be an integral part of pharma-cultural design if we wish to eradicate this or any ideo-endemic disease. Without going deep into the bio-chemistry, like any vaccine it must prime the recipient’s conservative auto-immune system with an immunogen, an infectious agent that mimics (safely) the dangerous virus, so that the patient’s own body can recognise and eliminate the targeted ideo-pathogen. So far, modern conservative science understands the religio-molecular structure of an optimal ideo-immunogen but not the ideal delivery system for which the most effective media may be media (print or broadcast: see Leubsdorfer, Die Biologisch Mechanismus der Ideologie, Leipzig, 2002). Meanwhile, many top researchers known to this website are working around the clock to generate a conservative, culturally-borne vaccine that can awaken a young patient’s/reader’s immature defenses against this potentially disabling disease.

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Published: Apr 2, 2011
W. Winston Elliott III
W. Winston Elliott III is President of The Free Enterprise Institute, Editor of Imaginative Conservative Books and Editor-in-Chief of The Imaginative Conservative. Mr. Elliott is Visiting Professor of Liberal Arts and Conservative Thought at Houston Baptist University. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in History from Washington College and a Masters of Business Administration, with Honors, from the University of Houston.
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."
6 replies to this post
  1. Thanks for this extremely insightful blog, Winston. Much appreciated. I have some thoughts–and I might even defend Rand (but only a bit!). I'll post them later today or tomorrow as a short blog. Again, thanks, Brad

  2. Winston, Brad, try hosting a live program with telephone access and crossing the Randians. I encountered one gentlemen who for 3 days demanded an on-air an written apology for my "pseudo-intellectual stupidity."

    The fantasy world of the ethereal paradise to be enjoyed when one is free of all commitments and responsibilities (other than to one self) assumes that all who enter will be immune to the feeling of wonder and joy one may receive from the silly things like love. Heaven forbid (literally) they should ever wonder WHAT or WHO to thank for that!

  3. Winston, If anyone is qualified to to comment on this, it is you. I seem to remember you writing your undergradate thesis on Ayn Rand. As we get older and accept the grace of God, we see the piece of the puzzel that is missing in Rand's work.

  4. Of course, Mr. Elliot may be a good boost for the conservative immune system, much like a mega-dose of vitamin-C, but it would seem that the most effective way to build a healthy immune system in offspring is through the parents adopting healthful habits early in life. Beginning with offering a nurturing environment in which the moral imagination is developed and a love of the the good, true, and beautiful is established efficiently (much like the immune system is established by the mother's passing along her antibodies to her infant via nursing her baby). Then, of course, a steady diet of healthful and nutritious foods, which have the effect of not only ensuring good health but also creating a mature palate that prefers such healthful foods over the junk food alternatives. This may not ensure that the patient never contract the Randroid virus upon exposure, but even should the patient acquire the dreaded virus, it results in a case so mild that it is the equivalent to a case of sniffles (which, is all that many who contract polio actually suffer) and builds a stronger immunity against future exposure than a vaccine.

  5. The problem with Ayn Rand is not her lack of faith, but rather her lack of prudence, not to mention what I percieve to be a peculiarity of eastern European intellectual disdain for the mystic Christianity of the peasant class, which in many respects is more akin to practical paganism rather than scholastic, rational christianity. Rand does in fact have an esoteric theology. In one interview posted on youtube, she admits that if you define "God" as truth, then she would conceed its' existence (but not His existence, since it is a far cry from a Prime Mover to a personal God). In her rather lengthy condemnation of a papal text on economics, she praises St. Thomas Aquinas and Christian rationalism and blames the church for discarding its rational tradition.

    The problem is that Rand was never able to discuss the subject of religion without falling into a vulgar view of religious practice. The nature of Christianity is that it admits both high minded moral philosophy and the simple faith of peasants. In fact, and quite alarmingly for Rand, the former often teaches the superiority of the latter. A good example of a contemporary thinker who errs in a manner similar to Rand is Dawkins, who has an equally juvenille concept of and approach to religion.

    The one atheist humanist I have come across who is judicious in his treatment of faith is Isaac Assimov, whose prose are so rich in Judeo-Christian symbolism that my faith is actually enriched by reading his prose.

    Ultimately, there is something to be said for the notion that faith is a state of grace. We can't blame atheists too harshly. The danger with Rand is that she is inadvertantly egalitarian. Selfishness is a virtue proper to the rational man in her works, but the many, who have merely the potential for reason, find in the objectivist philosophy the justification for the gratification of subjective desires. Rand actually spoke against this conflation of hedonism with objectivism as well. However, she never considered it a flaw in her work.

    I remain sympathetic to her work, and pity the caricature it has become – the sad fate of popularized philosophy that is incapable of prudence. Randian man is not mindful of political necessity and would consider prudence a compromise rather than a godsend meant to protect philosophy from the city, as was the case with Socrates' daimon.


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