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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