Why everyone hates Ayn Rand

Dear Hannah,

Ayn Rand is a historical anomaly not only because Objectivism is so brilliant, but because she was able to sabotage it.  I doubt we ever got such a fun philosophy from somebody so sour.  Jesus was so magnetic that He spent His days ruining dinner parties and insulting His followers.  Despite this He was so fun that even the children loved playing with Him.  Joseph Smith was so popular with women that he felt forced to reintroduce polygamy to the Americas.  Mohammed was so interesting that he was illiterate and still ended up with one of the most propagated books in human history.  Ayn Rand would blow your mind and ruin your day.  She could have made lots of followers, but instead made lots of enemies.

William F. Buckley wrote, in her eulogy, not only of her infamous romantic split with fellow Objectivist Nathaniel Branden, but of her "incompatibility" with libertarians such as Henry Hazlitt and Ludwig Von Mises.  Her first words to Buckley were that he was too smart to believe in God.  She was known for throwing fits when she couldn't get her way.  She was (according to Slate Magazine) addicted to speed, and cheated on her husband as a (literal) matter of principle.  The producer of The Godfather fell in love with Atlas Shrugged and wanted to film it, but she was so difficult that she forced him to drop it.  In short she was a woman who preached happiness and was almost incapable of showing it; and as she was incapable of showing it, to those who knew her personally she was incapable of sharing it.  

It seems natural that someone who named her masterpiece The Virtue of Selfishness should herself be kind of a jackass.  But, in fact, it can be safely said that in order to be truly happy you have to be interested in the happiness of others.  Objectivism isn't a philosophy of loners and sociopaths.  It's a reactionary backlash against the idea that you should only live for others; and even more importantly, a backlash against the idea that others should choose who we're going to live for. 

In all fairness to Rand, the idea that you ought to live for yourself is something that everybody already does and most of us are afraid to admit.  The question is, why?  Well, first off, admitting it makes people wonder what exactly you're about to do.  You say you're in it for yourself and everyone thinks you're going to screw them over.  But second and probably more importantly, we know that other people living freely for their own happiness means we could be dumped at any minute.  

So everyone begins to wonder if anybody loves him, and whether he's got anything to offer, and if anyone's offering more than he is, and whether others stick with him because they want to or because they have to.  It's the difference between having a wife and having a girlfriend.  One relationship is held together by duty.  The other is ruled by pleasure.  Objectivism challenges the whole spectrum of duties, and leaves everyone wondering whether we're worth it.  Jesus says love your neighbor as yourself.  Rand says if you love yourself, make your neighbor love you.

In many respects (try marriage and patriotism) Rand's hatred of duty was regrettable.  But it's worth asking if the alternative is worse. An Objectivist, after all, was never opposed to giving your life for your country.  He's only asking whether your country is worth giving your life for; and he has the nasty tendency to ask the question about every other relationship as well.  Rand never said that you had to lack a life-defying meaning.  She merely said you had to mean it.

Probably the least fair thing we've done to Rand is to judge her for what she couldn't control -- and that is her (ironically) being a product of Soviet Russia.  Orlando Figes writes in A People's Tragedy that centuries of extreme censorship had been debilitating to the Russians; and that like the sheltered Russian intelligentsia who'd discovered Hegelianism in the 1840's and Darwinism in the 60's and Marxism in the 90's and took them too seriously, a person who's never heard anything but an "official" philosophy is likely to take his next one religiously.  

So we might wish she'd found religion in something like Acton's or Buckley's liberal Catholicism, but she found it instead in an unbalanced worship of man -- in a philosophy well-known as capitalism.  We often give foreigners a pass for some of the backward things they do after coming from backward countries.  Rand's godless and inflexible dogmatism is a product of her intellectual starvation; and while people laugh at her for saying Aristotle was the only good philosopher (!), maybe she thought so because when she was young she never had a chance to read Burke or Macaulay.       

Ayn Rand, of course, lived so unhappily and so foolishly that she made it hard for lots of her contemporaries to take Objectivism seriously.  But she had purpose, and pleasure is much different from purpose.  We might also say it's inferior to purpose.  We might even say that if you want to have a really good time, you're going to need a gospel.  Well, Ayn Rand believed in a gospel.  And when we look at Rand's life and we see her falling in love with freedom while the free world was openly flirting with tyranny, and insisting on truth when so many Americans were toying with relativism, and holding so passionately to the things that a lazy and willfully ignorant society was taking for granted, we begin to see something more than just a frumpy, bigoted, implacable Jewish girl running from communist Russia.  We see classical liberalism being born in someone's soul, fresh, alive, and fanatical, right as she was entering a civilization where classical liberalism was dying.

When put in this light her misery and frustration make sense.  We only wish that in her love of classical liberalism she had remembered her liberality; and that in her love of abstract concepts she had remembered to love the people they're made for.

Your father,


  1. I like this. Thought provoking and relatively accurate (her masterpiece, of course, was Atlas Shrugged, and she titled The Virtue of Selfishness the way she did because "selfish" is such a loaded term).

    When I was a kid, I used to get screamed at, called vile names and slapped around a lot for being selfish. When I would ask a simple question like What Did I Do?? the response was usually something like "it's nothing you did; it's your selfish attitude" (I was raised in a very mean-spirited variety of Catholicism, and would bet that I am far from the only post-objectivist libertarian with this kind of history).

    I get into college (which I selfishly financed myself with no help from parents, BTW) and discover Ayn Rand. Lo and Behold!!! She says selfishness is a moral duty. Wow. Talk about an earthshaking paradigm shift. Paradigm shift does not even begin to describe it. Neither does earthshaking (maybe that's what college is for??)

    Anyway, discovering her work saved my sanity; possibly my life.

    But there is no doubt in my mind that she was pretty much her own worst enemy. Looking past that and all the goose stepping randroids and considering her work on it's own merits is key.

  2. You are insightful, and I appreciate you (much younger than me) know what I was "told" by older students when I arrived at 18 to study what Friedman was teaching about economics. I had read Von Mises, and Menger.
    They warned me away from "Objectivists," because they were friends with Rothbard and they had attended "the collective" gatherings in Rand's apartment. They described her exactly as you have formulated your profile of her. Her "true believers" are indeed sometimes obnoxious, but once one masters their jargon (and some useful categories), they can be quite pleasant even if one disagrees with some sentimental aspects of the "boundries of benevolence" in Aristotle's chapter on Friendship.


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