Rand and Christianity: Part 2
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?