Rand and Christianity: Part 1
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?