MY last post concluded with a discussion of an apparent contradiction in Ayn Rand’s moral message. On the one hand, in Atlas Shrugged, Rand affirms the moral necessity of some correspondence between human acts and an objective order. On the other hand, she suggests in The Fountainhead that that the sole determinant of an action’s moral quality is its relation to the human ego; a good action being a freely selected means to a desired (self-satisfying) end, an evil action being one taken as a result of external pressure, or in opposition to personal desire. Rand is wholly committed to that which is, but she seems entirely convinced that the only authentic (and therefore, the only good) actions are selfish actions.
You have probably noticed the image which I selected as a heading for this post. It, of course, represents the sort of skin-deep analysis by which most debates on the internet proceed. If we are to limit ourselves to simply comparing the theological convictions (or lack thereof) of Ayn Rand and Jesus Christ, then we must concede that the two are essentially at odds. One cannot say that Rand and Christ are both right in their entirety, for in that case A would be not A. But, given the cultural importance of Rand’s work, along with the political significance of self-interest and the extent to which it should be allowed to guide human action, I think we must endeavor to understand exactly where these two positions diverge.
If there is to be internal consistency between Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead (and I believe there is), Rand’s moral message must be founded upon this proposition: complete self-centeredness constitutes the highest devotion to what is. Only if this is true will the subjectivity of the ego operate in harmony with objective reality. If there is to be further consistency between Rand’s work and Christian doctrine, then we must determine what “complete self-centeredness” implies and how these implications bear upon human nature (understood in the separate contexts of human depravity and redemption).
In order to understand exactly how Rand’s moral principle ought to be applied, I shall invoke the teaching of St. Augustine. In City of God, Augustine identifies goodness with existence, seeing evil as having no existential value in itself, rather defining it only as a privation or deficiency of existence. To make his claim, Augustine first writes that God’s self-descriptive statement, “I AM WHO I AM,” means that “God is Absolute Being and, therefore, all other being that is relative was made by Him.” Since God “supremely is and, therefore, is immutable, it follows that He gave ‘being’ to all that He created out of nothing; not, however, absolute being….Consequently, no nature—except a non-existent one—can be contrary to nature which is supreme and which created whatever other natures have beings. In other words, nonentity stands in opposition to that which is.” God’s first and foremost quality is His self-existence. Yet, His existence is not formless—He possesses an essence, an identity, from eternity. He does not say simply “I AM.” He says “I AM WHO I AM.” It follows, then, that His creative acts, which impart existence to created natures, will be consistent with this identity. Since He is the only creator and His essence is goodness, everything which bears existence bears goodness in proportion to that existence. Evil, therefore, does not exist, properly speaking. Instead, Augustine writes, “What ‘makes’ the will evil is, in reality, an ‘unmaking,’ a desertion from God.” Rebellion against God is the repudiation of the existence which He has ordained.
Not only is God “Absolute Being,” He is wholly concerned with His own pleasure and glory. He did not create the universe in order to please the universe, He did it so that the heavens would declare His glory (Ps. 19). He did not redeem rebellious creatures out of pity or obligation, He incurred an enormous cost “according to the purpose of His will, to the praise of His glorious grace” (Eph 1) “for the joy that was set before Him.” (Heb 12) It is, of course, true that all things to which God gave existence and for which God made sacrifice enjoy enormous benefits as the result of His action. These benefits are peripheral and secondary, however, when it comes to the motives for God’s actions. “The Son of Man came to serve, not to be served” (Matt 20:28), but only because man could no longer serve as He ought. Christ’s service to us was ultimately self-serving. Had it not been, Christ would have been an idolater. God’s good pleasure is the only motive for His actions. Our pleasure is the mere by-product of His plan. The fact that the two so nearly coincide should not allow us to believe that God is altruistic. Rather, He is just extravagantly brilliant: He crafted us in such a way that His pleasure would be served by our joy (as Piper writes, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him”).
In this light should Rand’s principle be examined. I submit that Rand’s moral teaching completely captures the essence of a being whose person is the source of existence and whose nature is the source of moral truth. Her mistake is to suppose that this being is man. God, as a being whose essence defines goodness, will necessarily have only desires which are good. Furthermore, being the source of existence, God’s complete self-centeredness constitutes the highest devotion to what is. Rand’s emphasis on man’s creative function as his most fundamental expression of morality suggests that, as so many have observed, her simple mistake is to treat man as God. I think, though, my exploration of her thought in the context of Sartre and Augustine shows that, while Rand is in error, she errs in style. Many writers have improperly deified mankind. Few writers have actually comprehended the moral implications of this mistake. Even fewer have completely captured the nature of human evil (rebellion against Being) and correctly identified the unity of existence and goodness while making this mistake. For this, Rand deserves immense respect. Rand’s absolute devotion to the authentic is an essentially Christian impulse; she errs only in supposing that the human ego is the fountainhead of the authentic.
Rand’s principle seems, then, to be correct when directed at God (whose self is the center, and therefore whose self-centeredness is always good and in accord with His Being), but appears to be mistaken when applied to mankind. It is clearly misguided to invoke her principle in the manner that she does, but this is only because, as Augustine observed, the Fall has vitiated human nature of some of its existential quality. In order to parse the application of this principle in both the pre and post-lapsarian contexts, I must first say a few words about human self-interest in general.
Rand is, I believe, unqualifiedly correct in claiming that man is a self-centered being. There are, in other words, no actions which can be described in terms other than “I want.” Selfish choices (choices made for the benefit of the self and to the detriment of others) require no exploration in order to fit this mould. What about acts of altruism? When a person gives of himself for the benefit of others, he does so either willingly or under coercion. If under coercion, the actor is choosing what he takes to be the more desirable of two undesirable choices (“I would rather give of myself than suffer x consequence”). If willingly, we must ask, whence comes the volition? Certainly, it is not the desire to accrue a tangible benefit, but even a so-called “selfless” act is the result of a personal desire to benefit someone else. Even when someone does something that they claim they did not want to do, what they really mean is that they had a choice between two things they did not want and chose the one of those two which they wanted (or for which they had the least distaste). It is literally impossible to make someone do something that they do not want to do. It is possible, however, to make someone “want” to do virtually anything, so long as one has the power to provide them with a worse alternative.
The problem, then, is not that human beings are irremediably self-centered. The problem is, that the self is centered on that which eradicates the self’s existence (opposition to Being, or God). Thus, in his fallen state man who does not seek after God is described as “dead in trespasses.” The spiritual death of which man was warned in the Garden was not figurative. Severing oneself from God is literally repudiating life, or existence. Understanding the Fall in this way perhaps explains why Western philosophy has arrived at its materialist existentialist destination. In some sense, this position “existence precedes essence” is actually descriptive of mankind. The good human nature, in its full existence as it was created by God, remains intact in the person of Jesus Christ. When man is born into the line of Adam, however, his depravity severs him from this nature, and he is in a state of “anguish” very similar to the one described by Sartre. For this reason, the self is improperly centered on non-Being and is, by both the Christian and Objectivist account, intent on evil. Furthermore, there is no self-centered action within the purview of the individual’s power by which he may restore his relationship with God. In other words, every act which the individual perceives as self-centered is actually an idolatrous act (since the self seeks to satisfy its ego on its own terms instead of on the Creator’s) and is therefore a step towards destruction, not bliss (and therefore cannot be properly called self-interested or even selfish).
The miracle of redemption is, then, that God, at His own expense and by His own volition, removes the heart of stone (non-being) and replaces it with a heart of flesh capable of loving Him (“we love Him because He first loved us”). Loving God is not a selfless act (as Rand writes, “One cannot say ‘I love’ without the ‘I’”). God does not require that we turn away from ourselves and to Him, He requires that we turn ourselves to Him. In so doing, the contours of the desires which we pursue will look radically different from those which we sought in our rebellion. We never stop seeking that which we desire. In other words, we never stop having desires. In this sense we are always self-centered. But, by means of the love which grows as a result of regeneration, the self becomes centered on God—this love produces new desires which (like God’s redemption plan), have a by-product of satisfaction which cannot be reached if man “looks only to [his own] interests.” Man, as Rand argued, must be devoted to that which is. Rand thought that by seeking himself, man would find that which he desired. If man were the measure of existence, she would have been right. The principle, that goodness and existence are inextricably linked, is correct. It’s application, when understood in the context of human depravity, is better articulated by the Psalmist: “Delight yourself in the LORD, and He will give you the desires of your heart.” (Ps. 37:4) Every Scriptural injunction to “selfless” behavior is predicated upon cultivation of love which unifies the good of the self with the good of others. The Scripture does not teach that we must “look only to the interests of others,” it says “look not only to your own interest, but also to the interest of others.” It does not teach “whoever loses his life for my sake does well,” it teaches “whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Every action directed outside the self is first motivated by a love which is possessed by the self, the execution of which will have the incidental effect of satisfying the self by virtue of the unity that love forges between the creature and the Creator. (Eph 1)
So, if you combine the metaphysics and soteriology herein, you end up with a very interesting result: Reformed Existentialist Christianity.
AS I observed, Ayn Rand concludes that every evil is ultimately derivative of human self-denial. Whenever man turns from the production of his own ego in an attempt to absorb pleasure (in any form) radiating from other persons, he is guilty of real evil. Additionally, anyone who demands that others subordinate their ego to the needs of others partakes of this same evil.
Needless to say, this position tends to make a reader with any scruples at all feel rather uncomfortable (I’m sure you can imagine, then, how at home I was in her pages). This discomfort is usually compounded when Rand begins to promote her conception of virtue. As is my custom, I will bore you with a lengthy quote, so Rand’s position may be understood in all its awful glory. While I will by no means address every line of this quotation, I think the context is important for your understanding, and I will subsequently utilize several elements that will go without mention in this particular post.
Speaking to a jury as the defendant in a trial, Howard Roark explains what is truly proper to a man, in Rand’s mind. Beginning from a fundamental distinction between productive and consumptive dispositions, Roark states,
“Nothing is given to man on earth. Everything he needs has to be produced. And here man faces his basic alternative: he can survive in only one of two ways – by the independent work of his own mind or as a parasite fed by the minds of others. The creator originates. The parasite borrows. The creator faces nature alone. The parasite faces nature through an intermediary…The basic need of the creator is independence. The reasoning mind cannot work under any form of compulsion. It cannot be curbed, sacrificed or subordinated to any consideration whatsoever. It demands total independence in function and in motive. To a creator, all relations with men are secondary. The basic need of the second-hander is to secure his ties with men in order to be fed. He places relations first. He declares that man exists in order to serve others. He preaches altruism. Altruism is the doctrine which demands that man live for others and place others above self. No man can live for another. He cannot share his spirit just as he cannot share his body…Men have been taught that the highest virtue is not to achieve, but to give. Yet one cannot give that which has not been created. Creation comes before distribution – or there will be nothing to distribute. The need of the creator comes before the need of any possible beneficiary. Yet we are taught to admire the second-hander who dispenses gifts he has not produced above the man who made the gifts possible. We praise an act of charity. We shrug at an act of achievement…Here the basic reversal is the most deadly. The issue has been perverted and man has been left no alternative – and no freedom. As poles of good and evil, he was offered two conceptions: egotism and altruism…This was the device by which dependence and suffering were perpetuated as fundamentals of life. The choice is not self-sacrifice or domination. The choice is independence or dependence. The code of the creator or the code of the second-hander…All that which proceeds from man’s independent ego is good. All that which proceeds from man’s dependence upon man is evil. The egotist in the absolute sense is not the man who sacrifices others. He is the man who stands above the need of using others in any manner. He does not function through them. He is not concerned with them in any primary manner. Not in his aim, not in his motive, not in his thinking, not in his desires, not in the source of his energy. He does not exist for any other man – and he asks no other man to exist for him. This is the only form of brotherhood and mutual respect possible between men.” (Emphasis mine)
The virtuous man is, in short, a creator who secures his own substance through independent action toward self-selected ends. Actions comport with this conception of virtue inasmuch as they proceed from free choice – choice made without reference to others, made only with reference to internal desire and touching external constraints only to the extent that the independent mind has rationally selected the means by which those constraints are to be overcome. Since good is defined as that which proceeds from man’s independent ego, it cannot be said that good exists apart from or prior to egotistical choice. That is to say, there is no sterile conception of good to which all good actions must conform. Rather, by acting in accord with his personal desire alone, man manifests that which is good through the act of independent choice.
When I said that I intended to offer a synthesis between Rand’s thought and Christian truth, I have a feeling that several of you reacted in the same manner as the crowd in the stadium when Babe Ruth called his shot by pointing to center field. Having explained further the way Rand understands good, I suppose that now my chances of hitting a homer seem even more remote. But, believe it or not, I am aware of the apparent absurdity that must overshadow my position. But, just hang on: I have some reputable Christian authority up my sleeve which will help vindicate my position. Just not yet. I’m trying my hand at the Scooby-Doo Method.
I hope that my summary of Randian virtue brought Jean-Paul Sartre’s Existentialism is a Humanism to your mind. In fact, Sartre’s articulation of Existentialism accommodates Rand’s Objectivism entirely (irony, no?). Existentialism is cogently summarized as the “belief that existence precedes essence.” Elaborating on this point, Sartre writes, “We mean that man first exists: he materializes in the world, encounters himself, and only afterward defines himself. If man as existentialist conceive of him cannot be defined, it is because to begin with he is nothing. He will not be anything until later, and then he will be what he makes of himself.“
Rand would not necessarily affirm that man’s existence metaphysically precedes his essence (she would probably say that doing so requires the same self-denial which leads man to deny that “A is A”). But, she must unquestionably concede that, for mankind, there can be no essential goodness prior to existential action (remember Roark’s point that nothing can be shared that has first not been created). Rand’s emphasis on choice and freedom reveal her fundamental alliance with Sartre. For, just as an egotistical choice made under conditions of true freedom must necessarily be good for Rand, so also Sartre writes, “Choosing to be this or that is to affirm at the same time the value of what we choose, because we can never choose evil. We always choose the good…” On the point of freedom, Sartre continues, “Indeed, everything is permissible is God does not exist, and man is consequently abandoned, for he cannot find anything to rely on – neither within nor without. First, he finds there are no excuses. For if it is true that existence precedes essence, we can never explain our actions by reference to a given and immutable human nature. In other words, there is no determinism – man is free, man is freedom…he is responsible for everything he does.”
There is, then, an underlying tension in Rand’s thought (which I will attribute to a single mistake). For, she simultaneously claims that evil is unfaithfulness to the self, and yet that evil most commonly takes the form of a refusal to acknowledge that which exists objectively. Evil is a withdrawal from what exists, good is bringing that which exists into presence by means of free acts. But, if there is an external order which cannot be denied without betraying the self, how can it be said that the external order is apprehended only be selfish action? How are the elements of existentialist subjectivism present in Rand’s Objectivism to be reconciled with (or overcome by) her dedication to absolute truth?
MANY of you are (I hope!) familiar with the works of Ayn Rand. In her fiction, she employs a cast of characters composed almost entirely of foils. The nature of the opposition between these characters is, however, cleverly obfuscated; Rand slowly reveals the principles motivating each character, only showing her hand entirely with the resolution of the plot (a philosophical equivalent of what we might call the “Scooby-Doo Method”). Rand’s habit in narrative is, of course, tied to her pedantic mission (one which, if it were not pursued in the context of fascinating literature, would be incredibly irritating). For those who have the patience to swallow a seven-hundred page sermon, however, a rich reward awaits. Rand’s Objectivism is an internally consistent materialistic individualism whose moral and political prescriptions present a simultaneous concurrence to and dissent from Christianity. Typically, the evils which Rand so ably identifies and predicts are the same ones which conservatives (paleocons, neocons, libertarians, evangelicals, and rainbow-giraffecons all included) also tend to vilify. Rand traces social and political evils to a fundamental dishonesty within the soul: man’s determination to deny that “A is A” (Atlas Shrugged) or his constant endeavor to live “second hand” by seeking affirmation from others, embracing collective values on the basis of their popularity instead of their truth, or pursuing power (The Fountainhead). It is only by lying to himself, reasons Rand, that man may accept the redistributionism of our politics or the celebration of the decadent and nonsensical which characterizes our culture.
Those with right-leaning sensibilities are, often, in step with Rand up to this point. They tend to affirm that confiscatory taxation for the purposes of redistribution is unjust (or at least ineffective), and they will typically be willing to say that a urinal on a wall or a can of feces should not be lauded as great art. Rand’s conception of virtue, however, tends to alienate the allies she attracts through her condemnation of vice. For, since most of the self-deception Rand observes may also be called self-denial, Rand turns to self-centeredness as a panacea (Rand freely uses the term selfishness, but I’ll let a spoiler slip and suggest that the distinction is critical if her view and the truth are to be reconciled). In so doing, Rand solidifies the loyalty of libertarians while making conservatives scratch their heads and hasty Christians run in a leftward direction. Conservative and Christian though I am, I could react in neither of these ways since I’ve recently taken up wearing a hat and because my laziness always overcomes my haste. Being forced to sit tight, I burned through plenty of late nights and an overabundance of pipe-tobacco in order to secrete what I believe is a workable synthesis between Rand and Christianity. It isn’t simple. I’ve spent probably more time in shortening this post than I have in writing it, and it still is only part one of a three-part attempt. So, just to help you follow me, here’s how I’m going to proceed: (1) A closer look at Rand’s understanding of evil, (2) A strong whiff of her conception of virtue with an attempt to explain the sources of its odor, and (3) An exploration of the Christian understanding of man, good, and God by which Rand’s thesis may be fruitfully comprehended and cautiously affirmed.
SO, now for a few words about evil. Since I’ve misplaced my copy of Atlas Shrugged, I’m going to rely solely on The Fountainhead as I explore Rand’s thought. If you’re a fan, feel free to supplement or undercut my analysis in your comments with allusions to Atlas Shrugged. If you haven’t read it, do. In our political climate, it’s a “drop everything” kind of read.
As I mentioned, Rand’s target in The Fountainhead is the self-denial which is implicit in the choice to live through other people. To illustrate her meaning, she selects characters from professions which have strong relations to personal creation or to an essential reliance on the production, opinions, or sufferings of others. Thus, her protagonist, Howard Roark, is an architect; a profession symbolizing the highest union of creative and productive genius. Other characters include artists, playwrights, journalists, social workers, investors, and common workmen, who rely on one of two things for their substance: their own energy or the energy of others. For a description of the antagonist, Ellsworth Toohey, I will simply turn to Rand’s notes:
“The non-creative, ‘second-hand’ man par excellence – the critic, expressing and molding the voice of public opinion, the average man at large – condensed, representing the average man’s qualities plus the peculiar qualities of his kind which make him the natural leader of average men. Theme song – a vicious, ingrown vanity coupled with an inane will to power, a lust for superiority that can be expressed only through others…[Toohey] has realized ahead of many others the tremendous power of numbers, the power of the masses which, for the first time, in the [20th] century, are acquiring real significance in all, even in the intellectual, departments of life. In that sense, he is the man of the century, the genius of modern democracy in its worst meaning. The first conerstone of his convictions is equality – his greatest passion.”
There are, of course, myriad facets of Toohey’s character which merit comment. But, to stay on point, I’ll allow him to speak for himself. Near the conclusion of the book, Rand (in accord with the Scooby-Doo Method) allows both Roark and Toohey multi-page soliloquies in which they unveil their motivating principles. Explaining how he means to rule the world, Toohey’s words reveal how the promotion of self-denial may be used to enslave mankind:
“Don’t allow men to be happy. Happiness is self-contained and self-sufficient. Happy men have no time and no use for you. Happy men are free men. So kill their joy in living…Make them feel that the mere fact of a personal desire is evil. Bring them to a state where saying ‘I want’ is no longer a natural right, but a shameful admission…Look at any great system of ethics, from the Orient up. Didn’t they all preach the sacrifice of personal joy? Under all the complications of verbiage, haven’t they all had a single leitmotif: sacrifice, renunciation, self-denial?…Preach selflessness. Tell man that he must live for others. Tell men that altruism is the ideal. Not a single one of them has ever achieved it and not a single one ever will. His every living instinct screams against it. But don’t you see what you accomplish? Man realizes that he’s incapable of what he’s accepted as the noblest virtue—and it gives him a sense of guilt, of sin, of his own basic unworthiness. Since the supreme ideal is beyond his grasp, he gives up eventually all ideals, all aspiration, all sense of personal value…That’s one way. Here’s another. Kill man’s sense of values. Kill his capacity to recognize greatness or to achieve it. Great men can’t be ruled. We don’t want any great men. Don’t deny the conception of greatness. Destroy it from within. The great is the rare, the difficult, the exceptional. Set up standards of achievement open to all, to the least, to the most inept—and you stop the impetus to effort in all mean, great or small…Don’t set out to raze all shrines—you’ll frighten men. Enshrine mediocrity—and the shrines are all razed.”
This attempt to find happiness in the disavowal of all personal desire creates a logical contradiction reminiscent of the postmodern quandary (the absolute absence of absolutes). For, even the resolution to seek happiness by banishing personal desire must still be motivated by a personal desire for happiness. In the face of this contradiction, man flounders. As Roark explains to a friend, “But [men have] been taught to seek themselves in others. Yet no man can achieve the kind of absolute humility that would need no self-esteem in any form. He wouldn’t survive. So after centuries of being pounded with the doctrine that altruism is the ultimate ideal, men have accepted it in the only way it could be accepted. By seeking self-esteem through others. By living second-hand…It has become a dreadful form of selfishness which a truly selfish man couldn’t have conceived…If any man stopped and asked himself whether he’s ever held a truly personal desire, he’d find the answer. He’d see that all his wishes, his efforts, his dreams, his ambitions are motivated by other men. He’s not really struggling even for material wealth, but for the second-hander’s delusion – prestige. A stamp of approval, not his own. He can find no joy in the struggle and no joy when he has succeeded….The things which are sacred or precious to us are the things we withdraw from promiscuous sharing. But now we are taught to throw everything within us into public pawning.”
The great evil, then, is the sentiment which condemns all choices which are made for oneself, seeing the self as incapable of rightly serving as the sole motive for an action. It is here that Rand appeals to the mind which prizes freedom and individual enterprise. When, however, she extends her claim to suggest that all injunctions to selfless behavior partake in this evil, Rand appears to stand in direct opposition to Christian doctrine. Certainly we can agree that all abdication of the self for the purpose of finding pleasure in the approval of other men is wrong, but did God not say that “whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” or “look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others”? How are we to understand this claim?