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Ayn Rand's 100th Birthday

The writings of Ayn Rand were very influential on a young me, and it would seem fitting to write a bit about that on Rand's 100th birthday. I was first introduced to her writing via the book "Anthem" during my senior year of high school, as an assignment in my AP literature class. The book was almost shocking: I could not put it down, and read it twice in this same day. Later, I read the rest of Rand's opus, and wrote a detailed paper and presentation as the final project in my class. The fiction provided a concrete introduction to Rand's philosophy. The philosophy matched a lot of the ideas that I had been gathering at the time: The world is a big amazing place that can be known by observing and thinking carefully. Ideas are important, and a good person tries to understand the long-term implications of his thoughts and actions. A good society (based upon human rights) is one that allows the individual to think, act, and grow.

But there was more to Ayn Rand's philosophy than answers to particular philosophical questions. The philosophy was a system: It was organized from the ground up, with answers to the underlying questions of "what is?" and "how do we know it?" providing support for answers to questions of "what should I do?" and "how should I live with others?". This systems approach to philosophy was as much of an awakening as the particulars of the philosophy. Too often, I fear, students are given a laundry-list of philosophical issues, asked to critique particulars, and miss out on how the ideas hang together.

For all of my admiration for this philosophy (known as Objectivism), I do not really think of myself as an Objectivist, now. Perhaps I have been scared off by some of the more radical adherents to Rand's ideas, and their unending quest for ideological purity (is it brand management?). Perhaps I push away the label in order to provide enough room for my own thoughts and observations (maybe that is management of MY brand). Perhaps some areas of Rand's philosophy are not fleshed out enough to act upon (especially in areas that are very important to many people), such as the role of family or action under uncertainty. Perhaps I am too busy building my life that it seems strange to label myself with something that just seems fundamental. (Nobody would say "I believe in the quantum mechanics" or "I am a member of the group that believes that net force is the equal to the rate of change of momentum".)

The critics of Rand so often mischaracterize her, engage in ad hominem attacks, or simply miss the point. I cringe whenever someone regards Rand's philosophy as an excuse to "do whatever you want", or claims that Rand's ethics encourages people to lie, cheat, and steal. I wonder if commitment to a particular political system (or religion) is so strong that people cannot get around it and think about the underlying ideas. (I've seen an echo of the virulence of Rand-bashing in the current round of Bush-bashing from the recent election. I doubt that Rand would like to be grouped with an openly religious politician, and Bush wouldn't want to be grouped with the atheist firebrand.)

So that is my assessment. I enjoyed Ayn Rand's books, and found many things in her philosophy to be true. It provided a good starting structure for my intellectual growth, and I believe that I am better off for it. As with all powerful things, it should be handled with care. As with all essentially true things, it needs to be considered.

Some other 100th anniversary links:
Cathy Young of Reason does a synopsis of Rand's contribution to our culture

Alex Tabarrok of Marginal Revolution noted the explicitly modern nature of Rand's ethics.

Villainous Company asks if Rand has gone mainstream

Robert Prather of Signifying Nothing mentions the connection between Rand and the rock band Rush

Bryan Caplan of EconLog discusses why he celebrates Rand's work



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"Who is John Gault?" Ah yes, Ayn Rand. So many young men seemed to have been influenced by her novels. Why not more women I wonder? Or is that my filtered view? My exposure was sometime during grad school I think and was limited to "Atlas Shrugged". But it was a powerful reading experience and I think I'll re-read it during retirement along with her other tomes. I certainly have noticed that a few hugely thoughtful people in business can create wealth for millions of others, and yet governments seem to want to constrain them at every turn oftentimes turning them into villans in the public mind. Anyone who reminds us that we have free will, e.g., choices, is worth considering.

I have never finished one of her books or movies made from them, so I am interested in you views.

This fake blurb from the back of Jon Stewart/The Daily Show's AMERICA: THE BOOK"

"This is similar to my works in that anyone who reads it is sure to be an asshole for at least a month afterward." -- Ayn Rand

That was certainly my experience. I read THE FOUNTAINHEAD right before I started college, and for the first few weeks I equated ostracism with moral superiority. Then I lightened up.

I really haven't gone back to Rand's stuff since then, but I certainly appreciate her insistence on personal responsibility, and the meaningfulness of life with the necessity of god.

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