Nuancing Ayn Rand’s Polarizing Fiction
Ayn Rand is one of the most polarizing literary figures in American history. She’s also one of the most politically influential. Rand (1905-1982) was a Russian-born American novelist, playwright, essayist and philosopher. Having personally suffered under what she considered a brutal, collectivist Soviet state, she came to exalt the value of the individual over that of the collective body in both political and philosophical contexts. And this, naturally, spilled out onto the pages of her fiction—the work she’s most known for. The thing about Ayn Rand, though, is that people tend to love her or hate her, to spit her name through clenched teeth or to speak it in hushed, wide-eyed reverence.
Detractors see her as a heartless champion of greedy industrialism, with zero regard for the poor and a philosophy that touts personal selfishness as the highest moral aim of man. Supporters rally behind her as a champion of freedom and a passionate fighter for the liberty of all individuals from all forms of slavery, mental or material. And her staunch atheism draws equally strong reactions from both sides.
There’s certainly fault to be found with her philosophical system and the message of her fiction. And many followers simply adopt her scheme wholesale, failing to concern themselves with the lack of solid grounds for, or the damaging effects of, her moral ideology of “Man-worship” (as she puts it). But a great many others seem entirely too comfortable throwing the baby out with the bathwater because of their unease with this and other parts of her formula.
Most people, when they speak of her creative work, talk about Atlas Shrugged or The Fountainhead, Rand’s two massive, bestselling novels. But her little book Anthem—variously called a “poem,” a “dramatic fantasy,” and a “dystopian novella”—is the most succinct, direct expression of her ideas in fiction. And, like her other novels, it has sold millions worldwide. It’s one part moving ode to the necessity of recognizing intrinsic value in every human individual, and one part gross attack on the very origins of the concept.
Consider the final line, indeed the final word, of the book:
And here, over the portals of my fort, I shall cut in stone the word which is to be my beacon and my banner. The word which will not die, should we all perish in battle. The word which can never die on this earth, for it is the heart of it and the meaning and the glory. The sacred word:
The rest of the book, in countless ways, bears out the same idea. Rand plays with the sacred “I AM” designation of God—a God outside of us, who himself is the center of the universe, in whom we live and move and have our being—and tries to get us to turn back to ourselves, to a literal worship of “I.”
Rand’s Ego-as-God idea is in one sense abhorrently, wildly off. But, in another sense, it’s strangely close to the mark. The rights of each human individual to life and liberty—at least—are sacred, inviolable, because, as Genesis 9 puts it, all humans are made in the image of God, the great I AM. Thus, each individual is invested with a special status, a dignity not to be degraded or infringed upon. That all humans are image bearers of God is precisely the reason it’s always and everywhere objectively wicked to murder them, steal from them, lie about them, rob them of personal freedom. This is one place where Rand’s thought gets particularly tricky, and where the various polarized reactions to her tend to get muddled.
In a well-known 1959 interview with Mike Wallace (which is worth watching), Rand claims that “altruism,” the precept of “self-sacrifice,” is actually “evil.” Man’s highest goal, she emphasizes, is “rational self-interest”—being an end in himself, to himself. She considers evil the belief that “men need to serve others.” On this particular point, she again comes extremely close to historical, Biblical Christian doctrine: in this case, to Christianity’s insistence on freedom of conscience. Man being forced to serve others—whether through the binding of conscience, livelihood, or body—is evil. Its ultimate form is one of the highest evils our world has ever known, and it’s called involuntary slavery. But that—along with Soviet Communism, which also forced service on people—is profoundly different from Christian self-sacrifice.
However—and here’s one arena in which it’s important to stay nuanced about Rand—one could argue, from a political perspective, that forcing a morality of voluntary generosity on every individual is an immoral thing for a government to do. Yet alongside this, one could still maintain an ethical stance of the goodness and rightness and even necessity of voluntary generosity among human individuals. As is the methodology of classical Christianity—prescribed by her Lord—such a system must be spread through Word, through argument, through personal, voluntary example, not through coercion by a government with an army and prisons at its back.
Rand believes, as Christians do, that individual humans ought to be treated—by other humans—as ends in themselves, not as means to some other person-or-group’s end. In other words, Christianity agrees with Rand in resisting a foundational dystopian principle: that each human exists only to serve the greater good, and ought not bother about his own, or anyone else’s, selfhood. But we differ in that Christians do believe it’s good and right, and even a mark of the divine nature, for individual humans of their own wills to sacrifice themselves for the benefit of others. Even if those others haven’t ‘earned’ any of it. This was completely anathema to Rand. In the words of Christ: “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you.”
In that same 1959 interview, Wallace asks Rand a significant question: “[Aren’t] we our brothers’ keepers?” She emphatically answers, “No.” And she goes so far as to call that line of thinking evil. Christianity would emphatically answer Wallace’s question, “Yes.” But, as I discussed in a recent post on dystopian fiction, Christianity would also say—like Rand—that an active moral injunction like being your brother’s keeper should not be forced on individuals by either political coercion or strength of arms. Radical generosity is the right way to be. We all recognize it in our heart of hearts. It’s a beautiful way to be. And human beings touched by God want to be that way—even if they only ever succeed imperfectly. It’s at the very core of Christian doctrine because it’s the approach God takes with us—seen at its highest level on the cross, in the giving of His own Son for people who didn’t ‘earn’ it, even enemies, those who were hostile to Him. With what could we possibly pay God back? That is radical generosity. It’s also what the Apostle John in his first epistle (4:10) defines as “love.” And—despite the fact that such morally beautiful behavior should not be forced on anyone—our world would look much more like heaven if we took that approach with one another.
So how can Rand hold such seemingly opposed positions? And so vigorously, so consciously? The reason it’s possible is because she’s wrenched these beautiful elements of her thought out of the context that gave them birth. She champions the moral good of protecting liberty of mind, conscience, and body for every human individual. But seeing religion as a primary source of both material and intellectual slavery, she discards it—along with all its emphases on self-sacrifice. Abuses of power perpetrated in the name of God, however, have nothing to do with classical, Biblical Christianity. And by discarding religion as a rule, she ends up with a value for liberty founded only on what she calls her “conviction.” In orthodox Christianity, though, one has solid, tangible grounds for championing both the moral necessity of protecting individual liberties and of individuals willingly sacrificing themselves for others. It’s a combination built into the fabric of the system. Only in the unique context of Christianity do we see God sacrificing Himself for Man, and doing so despite a lack of corresponding merit. This is one beauty completely lost to those who follow Rand’s philosophical program of self-worship.
It’s important to be nuanced when talking about such a polarizing thinker. Regardless of a person’s philosophical bent or faith background, tossing Rand out the window entirely may ultimately mean supporting the kind of dystopian thought we all recognize as evil. And for those coming from a classical Christian perspective, rejecting Rand outright—or accepting her wholeheartedly, on every point—may mean rejecting one or the other of two equally essential Christian values: individual liberty and individual self-sacrifice.
Garret Johnson teaches creative writing at Houston Baptist University and for Writers in the Schools, and has taught previously at the University of Houston-Downtown. Aside from being a longtime devotee of theological and philosophical study, and of the works of CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien, he holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Houston and is currently touching up his first novel.