Love dispels the philosophy of objectivism
Published in the Daily Illini October 17th, 2011
The secret affair between the two lovers was reaching an exhaustive end-point. The woman desperately needed an outlet to communicate her genius to the world, but the man, 25 years her junior, felt trapped in love with his philosophical heroine. Both parties were married.
The implications of this affair, and its ultimate demise, were far from ordinary: It would become the primary contradiction in a philosophical tradition that has profoundly shaped American culture, politics and economic theory to this very day. The philosophy it brought into question was objectivism, and the woman it shattered was Ayn Rand.
Despite this fall from grace, Rand’s ideas are still widely accepted. As a supporter of free-market capitalism during a time when government economic intervention was en vogue to prevent another Great Depression, she saw selfishness as a virtue to the point of justifying rampant inequality. To Rand, one’s own satisfaction was more important than the needs of others — an ever-present, often subconscious motive in modern America.
Upon moving New York City in 1951, Rand accumulated a close group of inspired followers (calling themselves the Collective) that she invited into her apartment every weekend to discuss philosophy. From here she developed objectivism and expressed its tenets in her magnum opus, “Atlas Shrugged,” which was published in 1957.
Objectivism is a radical branch of individualism that Rand defined as seeing “man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.” She theorized that there is an objective reality or truth in nature that humans must strive to obtain then dominate through the use of reason alone. She attacks head-on the notion of altruism, or living one’s life with the moral obligation to consider and help sustain the happiness of other people.
This philosophy of individualism is ridden throughout American cultural discourse. Her literary works continue to have profound impact on how people perceive their own importance: “I am a ‘Randian hero’: I, and I alone, created my success.” Advertisers use personal pleasure catch phrases to entice positive emotions about their product: “You deserve it,” “I’m lovin’ it.”
Ayn Rand’s teachings were profoundly flawed from the beginning.
She denies that humans have an active interdependence with other humans, even saying in an interview, “I have a sole debt to Aristotle, the only philosopher who ever influenced me, but I devised the rest of my philosophy myself.” It is simply impossible for any human brain to develop healthily without intellectual and emotional interaction with others. We invariably perceive constant stimulation from others, in the most basic sense of everyday living, which ultimately come to shape our worldviews, emotional capacities and moralities. No matter how powerful her mind was, it had been nourished by her interactions with others (one example: the Collective’s support for her ideas). This dependence she denied, but she unknowingly contradicted her principles by expressing romantic love with one of her most dedicated followers, Nathaniel Branden.
Many objectivists argue that we should distinguish between Rand’s theories and her personal life. This is impossible because her moral philosophy — the rational pursuit of one’s own happiness as the central goal in life — deals directly with the inner workings of personal relationships, which she was no exception of having. In an interview for the magnificent documentary “All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace,” Branden reveals that Rand told him during the affair “You are my lifeline to reality. How could I survive without you?”
Branden, distressed to be loved by his own idol (the affair went on for 14 years), met and fell in love with another woman who attended his lectures on Rand’s philosophy. The details were eventually revealed to Rand, which devastated her and her disciples. Rand and Branden met on one final occasion; she slapped him three times. The affair, and the Collective, had been torn apart.
Rand and her philosophy were, and still are, shape-shifters of world events. Her influence must be confronted directly because it has validated individualistic happiness above compassion for others in mainstream American society. But even the mighty Ayn Rand could not dispel the power of love: for 14 years, her happiness rested on the shoulders of another person — objectivism had been disproven by the tragic events of her own life.