Rebirth of Reason

Ayn Rand

by Lindsay Perigo Ayn Rand

I doubt that Ayn Rand would have had much enthusiasm for a biography that was simply a time-line, and this writer has no enthusiasm for writing one. Accounts of her extraordinary life can be found in the superb biography by Barbara Branden, The Passion of Ayn Rand, the less elegantly written Judgment Day by Nathaniel Branden, the ARI-sanctioned documentary, Sense of Life, and elsewhere.

Suffice it here to note that Ayn Rand was born into a society (Tsarist Russia) steeped in mysticism, self-sacrifice and collectivism, and endured a few years of its ultra-collectivist successor (Soviet Russia) before escaping to the United States. At nine she had fallen in love with a fictional hero, and decided to become a writer. At thirteen she had decided she already was an atheist. Through her teens she was sustained by a sparkling vision that was a composite of heroic figures from literature, of the world of operetta, and of tantalising intimations of life as it actually was in freer countries, gleaned from foreign movies. Before leaving Russia, she informed one of her university professors that her ideas would one day be part of history.

In America, she turned her attention to learning English, and to staying alive. The pursuit of both took her to Hollywood, where she became a screen-writer. As her literary skills improved she concentrated on creating her own versions of the heroes who had inspired her in her youth. These eventually became Howard Roark in The Fountainhead, and John Galt, Dagny Taggart, Francisco d'Anconia and Hank Rearden in Atlas Shrugged.

In the course of conceiving her heroes, Ayn Rand came to realise that the philosophy on which they proceeded, implicitly or explicitly, did not exist - and that she, therefore, would have to formulate it. The first comprehensive statement of what she came to call "Objectivism" was a three-hour radio address by John Galt in Atlas Shrugged. She spent two years on the writing of it. It was nothing less than revolutionary. As she herself remarked, "I am challenging the cultural tradition of 2,500 years." Though not confined to ethics, her revolution was probably at its most arresting in that realm, as she eulogised "the virtue of selfishness." Typically, by "selfishness" she did not mean what it was conventionally taken to mean, but her novel viewpoint seriously startled the horses nonetheless.

One might capture her moral revolution in a paraphrase of the philosopher she despised below all others, Immanuel Kant:

"Hitherto it has been assumed that we live in order to be moral - which means, we have been taught, to sacrifice ourselves for others. But all attempts to ascertain why this is so and to build a coherent, non-contradictory code of morality came to nothing on these assumptions. Let us try, then, whether we may not make better progress in the tasks of ethics if we assume - nay, demonstrate - that we should be moral in order to live, and proceed further to demonstrate that for morality to serve life it must posit an individual's own happiness as his highest moral purpose. This at all events accords better with the facts as we know them."

Ayn Rand herself stated her conclusions much less tentatively than that! She held firm to her convictions through a maelstrom of abuse and misrepresentation, championing reason, individualism, freedom, capitalism - and what she called "romantic realism" in the realm of art - with a ferocity, consistency and courage that swept all critics before her.

Shortly before her death, asked if she had lived her life by her ideas, she answered: "Yes, resoundingly!"

And so she had.

Just as her ideas have indeed become part of history.

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