One can hardly convey, a half-century after the publication of Atlas Shrugged
, the excitement of teenagers who became Objectivists in the early 1960s. Objectivism
was, clearly, the true philosophy; that much we knew. Perhaps more exactly, Objectivism was
philosophy—it was the very enterprise of philosophy restored, to live again as once it had lived in ancient Athens. With William Wordsworth, we could say:
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive.
But to be young was very heaven.
And yet the only texts of the Objectivist philosophy that we possessed were the speeches in Atlas Shrugged —
above all, that dense proclamation known as Galt’s Speech. Study them as we might, they left us with myriad questions and nowhere to find answers. Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology
did not yet exist. Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal
did not yet exist. The Virtue of Selfishness
did not yet exist, nor For the New Intellectual,
nor Who Is Ayn Rand?
“Man’s Rights” had not yet been written, nor “The Nature of Government.”
Then we heard of a program in Boston called Ford Hall Forum. Once a year, it was said, Ayn Rand
descended from her Manhattan apartment to appear in a building on Huntington Avenue. At that site, she not only delivered an address, but, mirable dictu,
answered audience questions on all topics. Ford Hall Forum became our Delphi. Her responses on those occasions, which were not included even when the talks themselves were printed, became part of Objectivism
’s oral tradition.
Now, Robert Mayhew’s Ayn Rand Answers has brought together more than two hundred pages of such answers, from thirteen Ford Hall Forum talks as well as other venues.
One warning: Mayhew has edited Rand’s answers, with the editing intended to (among other things) “clarify wording that, if left unedited, might be taken to imply a viewpoint that she explicitly rejects in her written works” (p. x). Thus, Ayn Rand Answers cannot be read as scholarship. It is a work in the tradition of the fioretti or “little flowers,” hagiographic stories that reverent followers tell about their leader. Indeed, one might well characterize these quotations by paraphrasing what the Catholic Encyclopedia says of The Little Flowers of St. Francis: “They breathe all the delicious fragrance of the early [Objectivist] spirit.” And that is all they do. But that much they do wonderfully.
A Question of Questions
At times, no doubt, our oracle was most oracular, but we did not mind. If one of Rand’s brief remarks was especially gnomic, we spent the next twelve months pondering it. If it was simply a quip, we treasured it as “ Ayn Rand
’s wit and wisdom.” Mayhew’s book contains examples of both sorts. Asked about her day-to-day attitude toward her work, Rand replied: “That I have no right to anything, except to run to my desk. No right to breathe, no right to live” (p. 230). Asked for a comment on women’s liberation, she said: “I’d be the last person to give you that. I’m a male chauvinist” (p. 106). Asked if she could comment on the current status of literature, Rand quipped: “No. I don’t have a magnifying glass” (p. 211). Asked what she thought of Maxfield Parrish’s artwork, she said only: “Trash” (p. 225).
Rand’s answers, though, were never our greatest problem. The difficulty lay in asking questions. Rand had a disconcerting habit of pronouncing questions illegitimate, a subject that she discusses explicitly in this book (pp. 146–147). Roughly speaking, illegitimate questions make assumptions that render a correct answer, or any answer, impossible, for example, “Have you stopped beating your wife.” Unfortunately, as one’s questions become more philosophical, the odds of asking an illegitimate question rise: “Who created existence?” is a classic of the type. Thus, the more philosophical one’s interest in Objectivism
, the greater was the danger of proving oneself a fool.
And then there was the danger of proving oneself a knave. Occasionally, Rand denounced an interlocutor’s question as not merely illegitimate but dishonest or personally insulting to her. For college students who inhabited the freewheeling world of classroom dialogue, dinner-table debate, and late-night bull sessions, these strict standards of intellectual manners could be terrifying. One questioner in this book asked why humor does not play a major role in the life of Rand’s characters, and she responded that it was a dishonest question. “The dishonesty here is the idea that humor does not play a major role in the lives of my fictional heroes. You’re goddamned right it doesn’t. Show me a person in whose life humor plays a major role” (p. 141). Personally, confronted by such attitudes, I never asked Rand but one question, and I was relieved when she declined to answer, on a plea of exhaustion.
Yet despite our fear and trembling, and the occasional chastisement, we returned to Ford Hall Forum year after year. The reason, I think, was given by an acquaintance of mine, a man who was older than I by a generation and who had access to Rand’s New York circle. Given all that he knew of Objectivism
, I once asked him, why did he go to Ford Hall Forum? His answer: “Miss Rand always says something surprising.” I do not see how anyone can read this book and fail to agree.
In 1977, Ayn Rand
was asked about the television miniseries Roots.
In her very long answer (pp. 208–210), she said:
What came across was a national legend, the creation of a myth about the black people in America, a myth in the best sense of the word. . . . The black people never had a mythology, at least not in this country. . . . They had no spiritual past in the way that Western civilization has a past in mythology (particularly Greek mythology), in religious stories, in the history of heroes. This kind of heritage gives you some idea of the nature of your society—not your own identity, but the meaning or the nature of the culture in which you live. That is what Roots has done for black people.
Who, today, in the Objectivist movement, discusses an ethnic group’s need for their own mythology?
Surprising in a different way is Rand’s remark about Shakespeare and the “tragic flaw.” “Othello is presented as jealous, but we’re never told why he’s jealous” (p. 219). Well, I am no Shakespeare scholar, but surely the foundation of Othello’s jealousy is clear. He is a black African and a tough old general, while his wife and friend come from the white, beautiful, aristocratic youth of Venice. Isn’t Othello’s romantic-sexual jealousy of Cassio rooted in knowing that Cassio and Desdemona share a universe into which he, an outsider, can never enter? Or am I missing something?
Rand could also be surprising in the realm of psychology—by being entirely conventional. For example, many of Rand’s readers in the Sixties assumed that the supreme heroine of Atlas Shrugged ,
Dagny Taggart, would have become the lover of the novel’s supreme hero, John Galt, whatever the circumstances of her life when they met. Would not egoism and love dictate such a conclusion? Not so, Rand said, not if Dagny had been happily married to a somewhat lesser man. “If her relationship with Hank Rearden, say, had been different, and they were both fully committed to romance—if they were married or living together permanently—she would still have responded to Galt by finding him attractive and appreciating his value. But she would not have left Hank Rearden” (p. 138). Interesting.
But Rand had surprising and very unconventional ideas when it came to the degree of control humans possess over their intellectual powers. Asked if she would re-write a notoriously recondite work for individuals of lesser IQ, she replied: “I’d prefer that people raise their IQ from 110 to 150” (p. 179).
Many of Ayn Rand
’s fans will be quite surprised by her thoughts on topical political issues. Asked about gun control, she did not mention the Second Amendment, but mused:
It’s a complex, technical issue in the philosophy of law. Handguns are not carried for hunting animals—and you have no right to kill people. You do have the right to self-defense, however. I don’t know how the issue is to be resolved to protect you without giving you the privilege to kill people at whim (p. 19).
Rand was also dubious about assisted suicide:
If a man makes arrangements stating that he does not wish to feel unbearable pain, and it can be proved that this was his desire, in principle I’d say it is his right and the doctor’s right to perform euthanasia. But it would be difficult to put this into law, because of the safeguards needed to prevent unscrupulous doctors in cahoots with unscrupulous relatives from killing somebody who is not dying and in pain (p. 16).
Rarely would audience members ask Rand a strictly historical question. But one such question did arise at Ford Hall Forum in 1967 when a questioner asked Rand if similarities existed between the tendencies of contemporary America and those that occasioned the fall of Rome. She said yes: “The growth of taxation and government control destroyed the Roman economy and caused the collapse of Rome, which allowed the barbarians to take over” (p. 5). Though I was present, I did not then have the wit or the temerity to ask: “Why, then, did the Eastern Roman Empire outlast the West for a thousand years?” I wonder what she would have said.
Even when Rand was not asked directly about history, she often cited history, presumably on the principle she articulated regarding her own education in that field: she needed history in order to have an empirical base for her philosophy. But was her historical knowledge always accurate? Asked whether a country could change course without confronting disaster, she answered: “Yes. England, at the time of the American Revolution, was moving in the direction of absolute monarchy. The influence of the American Revolution, and of the United States thereafter, led in England to one of the freest and greatest periods in their history” (p. 47). Was she conflating the American Revolution and the Glorious Revolution?
One might suppose that Rand’s rigorous consistency in political philosophy would keep her from being surprising in that field, but not so. Asked about libel and slander laws, she said: “They are appropriate laws, because the freedom of ideas does not permit you to lie about a person. . . . This type of law is strictly to protect specific individuals; it has nothing to do with ideas” (p. 21). So, is freedom of speech confined to the realm of ideas?
Asked about the common law, she answered:
Common law is good in the way witchdoctors were once good: some of their discoveries were a primitive form of medicine, and to that extent they achieved something. But once a science of medicine is established, you don’t return to witchdoctors. Similarly, common law established—by tradition or inertia—some proper principles (and some dreadful ones). But once a civilization grasps the concept of law, and particularly of a constitution, common law becomes unnecessary (p. 44).
A generation after her death, Rand can still provide philosophical surprise—and even to her followers. For example, this observation might come as a shock to many of her most zealous fans:
The only way to attempt this [psychologizing about a person’s ideas] would be to identify a philosophic idea, and ask what could be the psychological motive of anyone holding it. If you wanted to expose a psychological aberration, you’d need to analyze what’s wrong with an idea and then demonstrate that only improper motives A, B, and C could lead to anyone holding such an idea. To discuss the psychological roots of certain evil or irrational ideas in this way is proper, because you are dealing solely with the implication of an idea that’s available to you; you are not passing judgment on a person. To deduce the motives of a man from his writings is improper and nonobjective, because there could be ten million motives for the same kind of action (p. 169).
In light of this, I will just mention that Mayhew’s index attributes the authorship of Nathaniel Branden’s “Counterfeit Individualism” to Ayn Rand
(p. 236). From this fact, I deduce absolutely nothing and presume that a correction will be made in the next edition.
In discussing the attitude that students of Objectivism
should take toward her philosophy, Rand said:
It’s not wrong to accept an idea originated or discovered by another, provided you don’t accept it on faith, but conclude by your own rational judgment that it is true. In this respect, philosophy is in the same position as the physical sciences. It’s not wrong to accept a scientific truth discovered by someone else. … But whether it’s science or philosophy, you cannot claim to know or understand or accept an idea if you merely memorize it or take it on faith. You must use your mind—your rational judgment (p. 145).
Would that we young Objectivists had taken that injunction to heart in the philosophy’s early days.
A Question of Questioning
No one who reads Mayhew’s book can fail to be impressed by the coherence of Ayn Rand
’s philosophy. Coherence, though, was not her aim (pp. 158–59). She aimed at truth and believed she had discovered it. She also hoped that others would learn truth from her. Perhaps she was correct, and perhaps they did. But I was not among them, for I never got beyond the logical structure of Objectivism
: Objectivism as apologetics, Objectivism as scholasticism.
said: “Anyone who knows my writings or lectures knows that I give more clearly thought out and logical reasons for my views than anybody today—and I mean anybody” (p. 132). She was right. Yet that alone could not prevent an acolyte from accepting her philosophy uncritically—reasons and all—as a perfect work of logic; as a philosophical jigsaw puzzle in which evidence and implications became the holes and plugs.
In that way, some young Objectivists—myself included—failed to do what Rand demanded of us: determine by our own rational judgment whether what she said was true: about the common law, about the evolution of English freedom, about Rome’s fall, about Shakespeare’s drama, about each issue and every issue. For us, Mayhew’s book has the quality of an elegy, for through it we can begin to see why we failed Ayn Rand
. Her novels depicted a cause that was a crusade; her philosophy dressed us in impervious armor; and when we saw her in public debate, she showed us the intellectual as Cyrano, deftly turning aside a mob of hostile questioners. How could we doubt her?