How Ayn Rand misunderstood Aristotle
The founder of Objectivism claimed her philosophy was inspired by the sage from Stagira. Boy, was she mistaken.
Generally speaking, I have the utmost respect for books. Even pretty bad books. But over three decades ago I almost threw one into the ocean. It was a collection of essays by Ayn Rand, which a fellow graduate student at the University of Connecticut had loaned me. We used to have a lot of discussions about politics and philosophy, and she finally got so frustrated with my obtuseness, as she saw it, that she handed me the book and said, “Here, read this, and you will understand.”
I did not understand. Or at least, what I understood of Rand’s Objectivist philosophy was highly repugnant to me. I was truly astounded that my friend, whom I considered a smart and kind person, could buy into that sort of garbage. Nevertheless, I resisted the temptation to jettison the book into the waters off the coast of the New England and kept reading.
Many years later I moved to New York City and became close friend with yet another Objectivist. Well, at least I cannot be accused of close-mindedness! (Though, as a matter of fact, people who disagree with me regularly do.) This second friend is also smart and kind, and yet claims to live in accordance with the utterly selfish worldview articulated by Rand in her novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, as well as in two collections of essays, The Virtue of Selfishness (Signet 1964) and The Voice of Reason: Essays in Objectivist Thought (Signet 1988).
One especially puzzling aspect of Rand’s philosophy is her claim to be influenced first and foremost by Aristotle. As she wrote: “The only philosophical debt I can acknowledge is to Aristotle. … There is no future for the world except through a rebirth of the Aristotelian approach to philosophy.” (Review of J.H. Randall’s Aristotle, The Objectivist Newsletter, May 1963, 18)
And yet, if one is even superficially acquainted with both Rand and Aristotle one can hardly imagine what possible points of contact the two may have. So let us take a look, first by briefly exploring the basics of Objectivism, then moving on to Aristotle, and finally more explicitly comparing the two.
My experience is that Rand’s followers are very touchy whenever her leader is scrutinized, and often accuse her critics of mischaracterizing what she said. So I’m going to present Objectivism mostly through Rand’s own words. (Of course, her supporters will then likely say that I quoted selectively and misleadingly. Whatever.)
In an essay entitled The Objectivist Ethics she writes: “The objectivist ethics, proudly advocates and upholds rational selfishness—which means: the values required for man’s survival qua man—which means: the values required for human survival. The Objectivist ethics holds that human good does not require human sacrifices and cannot be achieved by the sacrifice of anyone to anyone. … The principle of trade is the only rational ethical principle for all human relationships.” She continues:
“Love, friendship, respect and admiration are the emotional response of one man to the virtues of another, the spiritual payment given in exchange for the personal, selfish pleasure which one man derives from the virtues of another man’s character. … To love is to value. … It is only on the basis of rational selfishness that man can be fit to live together. … If civilization is to survive, it is the altruist morality that men have to reject.”
Let’s pause for a moment and highlight three main points. First, like many modern philosophers, Rand draws a sharp distinction between altruism and selfishness. Unlike most modern philosophers, she thinks selfishness, not altruism, is virtuous.
Second, she also values rationality or, to be more precise, rational self-interest. The two are not the same. Rationality refers to the general (if controversial, nowadays) idea that logical reasoning is universal, applying not just to all human beings, but to the cosmos at large, whenever there may be sentient creatures capable of thinking. Rational self-interest, by contrast, is a type of applied rational discourse which assumes (but does not demonstrate) that self-interest ought to be the foundation of all our actions.
Third, in the above passages Rand also claims that human survival (and flourishing, presumably) depend on what she calls the principle of trade, or qui pro quo, a favor for a favor. I scratch your back only if you scratch mine. I will be nice to you if you are nice to me. I will be your friend because I derive benefits from you and I will pay you back with in-kind benefits of my own. This principle, she says, applies to all major human relationships, including love and friendship. Accordingly, she talks about the oxymoronic-sounding notion of “spiritual payment.”
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