Ayn Rand’s Philosophy and Her Resurgence in 2012: A Quick Primer by Stanford Historian Jennifer Burns

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In 2009, Stanford historian Jennifer Burns published Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right, which traced Rand’s intellectual development and her relationship to the conservative and libertarian movements. It was somewhat fortunate timing. Indeed, from the first day President Obama took office, the defenders of pre-2008 capitalism began buying Rand’s well-known book, Atlas Shrugged, by the dozens. Now, with Paul Ryan, a card-carrying Randian, getting the VP nod from the Grand Old Party, Burns and her book are getting another moment back in the spotlight. They’re helping answer some very basic questions people might have: How do you pronounce her first name? What is her philosophy of objectivism all about? Why does the right adore someone who mercilessly mocked their core religious beliefs? And, what would Rand have thought about a political figure like Paul Ryan? Would the love have been reciprocated?

They’re all good questions — ones that Burns recently addressed on The Colbert Report (above), in the Op-Ed pages of The New York Times, and now in the latest edition of Stanford Magazine. We’ve extracted a few of the key Q & A’s:

First things first, I always stumble on her name. What is the correct pronunciation of Ayn?

Here’s a good trick to remember it. In keeping with her philosophy of selfishness, “Ayn” rhymes with the word “mine.”

So what does Rand’s philosophy of objectivism boil down to?

Here is how Rand summed it up in ten words or less: “metaphysics: objective reality; epistemology: reason; ethics: self-interest; politics: capitalism.”

If I was going to break that down a little bit, metaphysics is objective reality, which means we can only rely on our mind and on reason. It’s our only guide to thought and action. Epistemology, reason. The only way we can know anything is through the reasoning mind. Ethics, self-interest. Rand claimed that selfishness was a virtue. It was virtuous to pursue your own interests and defend your own interests. And politics is capitalism because laissez-faire capitalism for her was the only system that allowed the individual to realize his or her full potential and to keep the fruits of his or her labor and not be obligated to others or punished for success.

Was she concerned about the less fortunate?

That was not a big part of her ethics. Her ethics were based on the individual and on the individual’s right to pursue his or her goals. The individual was not obligated to other people. If you chose, because of your own values, to help other people or to engage in charity, that was fine, but that did not make you a moral person. What made you a moral person is relying on yourself, pursuing your own interests, and not being a burden on others.

Some of the characters she depicts the most negatively in her novels are people like social workers. She thought social workers were [about] the most evil people possible because they made their lives on the misery of others. Morality and ethics, for her, had nothing to do with helping other people.

Why has Ryan started to measure his support for her?

She is very hard for politicians to embrace because not only is she not religious, she’s antireligious. The fact that Ryan gave Atlas Shrugged as a Christmas gift [to staffers] is a tremendous irony because Rand was a fire-breathing atheist. She did not believe in God. She called religion a psychological disorder. She truly believed you needed to use reason and logic and no faith whatsoever.

So as Ryan’s star began to rise, he quickly began to back away from her for that very reason. And he made this sort of clumsy substitution of St. Thomas Aquinas as his major inspiration rather than Ayn Rand, although he’s on the record in multiple places very recently talking about Rand and not talking about Aquinas.

You can read the full interview here.

Related Content: 

Ayn Rand Instructs Johnny Carson on the Virtue of Selfishness, 1967

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  • Hanoch says:

    I am not a Rand adherent, but to the extent she held that it was “virtuous to pursue your own interests and defend your own interests”, that point seems correct. If you look at the economic system that has created the most wealth for the most people, it is capitalism. By contrast, the economic system that espoused the community good above self-interest — i.e., communism — led to horrendous misery and poverty. Thus, if Rand’s point was that the pursuit of self-interest ultimately leads to the more ethical society, she seems to have historical fact on her side.

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