Volume 23, Number 03, Spring, 2005

A Century of Ayn Rand

By William H. Stoddard

Alissa Rosenbaum was born on February 2, 1905, in Saint Petersburg, Russia. In young adulthood, she emigrated to the United States, where she took the name Ayn Rand and pursued a career as a novelist. Her last two novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, both became best-sellers. She then turned to working out and promulgating her philosophical views. Both her philosophy and her fiction became major influences on the emerging libertarian movement, including the Libertarian Futurist Society, which chose Atlas Shrugged as one of its first two Hall of Fame award winners. Now, on the hundredth anniversary of her birth, we commemorate her achievements.

As a novelist, Ayn Rand favored dramatic, tightly plotted stories and larger-than-life characters. Her consistent theme was individualism. This took its purest form in the short Anthem, a portrait of a dystopian future where even singular pronouns had vanished from the language. The Fountainhead, written more or less at the same time, examines the same theme in a fairly traditional novel about individual characters and their relationships with each other, taking place at specific historical dates and largely in the real city of New York. Rand made its hero, Howard Roark, an architect, a choice that brought together two aspects of individualism: as a creative artist, he could work out his ideas and make his choices in the privacy of his own mind; but to actually realize any of his ideas in a building, he needed clients and a functioning economy to support the construction of buildings—and most of Roark’s dramatic problems in the novel grow out of the choices he makes for the sake of gaining the chance to build.

Her last novel, Atlas Shrugged, is something else entirely, and critics had trouble knowing what to make of it, in somewhat the same way that they often have trouble knowing what to make of science fiction. In a sense, Atlas Shrugged is science fiction, set in an extrapolated near future—not so much the near future of the 1950s, when it was published, as that of the 1930s, the “Red Decade.” But though it’s filled with ingenious inventions, its focus is not on technology or even science. Much of its technology is treated like the gadgets in recent technothrillers, which exists to advance the plot but is not its main focus. Its most important invention, the Motor, which “converts static energy into kinetic,” is not so much a scientific concept as a dramatized philosophical one: its operation violates the Second Law of Thermodynamics in much the same way that, in Rand’s view, the human mind does—and it’s found on a rubbish pile in a society that is turning against the freedom of the human mind. That turn, and its historical impact, is what the novel is really about. Rand’s imagined solution to the problem of the decay of freedom works better as melodrama, or even as myth, than it does as realistic narrative, but the problem is real, and has not become less so.

Rand’s philosophy, which she called Objectivism, came into definition as she was writing Atlas Shrugged, and she spent the rest of her life elaborating it. She combined classical liberal political ideas with a new underpinning, taken from the philosophical theories of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas; in a sense, Objectivism is an atheistic version of Thomism. Her admiration for Aristotelian logic led her to struggle for rigorous arguments for her positions, not always successfully. But her philosophical insights are often better than the argumentative framework that holds them, and her methods of argument provide useful tools for application to other philosophical questions, which are now gaining her a measure of recognition. At the most basic, she had remarkably sound judgment on what to defend: the validity of the scientific method, the ethical justification of the pursuit of individual happiness, and the market economy and its legal basis in individual rights.

Her advocacy of this philosophy, and the success of her novels, made Rand a public figure and brought her a large number of followers, including an inner circle who surrounded her in New York. As too often happens, being the focus of a circle of admirers did her harm; she became addicted to constant praise and admiration and unable to accept dissent or criticism. A love affair with one of her younger admirers damaged her marriage and eventually wrecked the Objectivist organization, even as the influence of her ideas was helping to spark the libertarian movement. Rand never accepted libertarianism, regarding its acceptance of adherents of individual freedom regardless of the philosophical basis of their ideas as a disastrous mistake; but libertarians, even those who reject her philosophy, find value in her ideas.

The Libertarian Futurist Society is among them. Rand showed us a picture of the dangers that lie ahead, especially for the United States—the danger of forgetting individual rights in favor of mass democracy, and of wrecking the world’s most productive economy in the process. And she showed us a picture of a freer society, devoted to creative work and mutually consensual relationships. Those two visions are what we look for in fiction, and what we honor with the Prometheus Award. Even the name of the award was influenced by Rand: she considered the titan who brought fire to man the greatest figure in human mythology and the proper symbol for the productive forces of an industrial society.

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