Ayn Rand's Enduring Lesson

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“Ayn Rand is
dead,” wrote conservative author William F. Buckley in an obituary
in 1982 about the best-selling novelist-philosopher. “So, incidentally,
is the philosophy she sought to launch dead; it was in fact stillborn.”

Maybe
so. But there it was last week, still going strong more than six
decades after its publication, The
Fountainhead
, Ayn Rand’s first major literary success, on
the “Our Staff Recommends” shelf at my local Barnes & Noble.

As regards
“stillborn,” it takes sales of a few hundred thousand copies to
make The New York Times best-seller list. The Fountainhead
has sold some six million copies and continues to sell more than
100,000 copies a year (Rand’s total book sales have reached 30 million,
and they continue at more than 400,000 a year).

What keeps
up the interest is Rand’s unwavering advocacy of individualism and,
on a larger scale, her celebration of capitalism and resistance
to collectivism.

The hero in
The Fountainhead (the title refers to Rand’s assertion that
“man’s ego is the fountainhead of human progress”) is Howard Roark,
an architect with uncompromising creative talent and an ego that
doesn’t depend on the approval of others.

Sent packing
by the dean of an architecture school for failing to adequately
bow to traditional styles of the past, Roark, a true individualist,
refuses to compromise his work to gain business or satisfy clients.

Commissioned
to design Cortlandt Homes, a low-rent housing project, Roark agrees
to do the job on the condition that the project will be built precisely
as designed. The condition is violated and Roark destroys the disfigured
building.

Arguing in
his own defense to the jury, Roark makes the case that he destroyed
a piece of collectivism in dynamiting Cortlandt, a collectivism
that’s destroying mankind.

“If physical
slavery is repulsive,” asks Roark, “how much more repulsive is the
concept of servility of the spirit?”

Repulsive because
the servility is voluntary, a conscious decision to destroy one’s
own integrity and autonomy in order to appease the group, to keep
the collective pacified, a deliberate decision to destroy one’s
own soul in order to gain a commission, a nod of approval.

“The ‘common
good’ of a collective — a race, a class, a state — was the claim
and justification of every tyranny ever established over man,” Roark
declares. “Every major horror of history was committed in the name
of an altruistic motive. Has any act of selfishness ever equaled
the carnage perpetuated by the disciples of altruism?”

And the earnestness
and sincerity of those seeking to compel servility for the common
good? “The most dreadful butchers were the most sincere,” charges
Roark. “They believed in the perfect society reached through the
guillotine and the firing squad. Nobody questioned their right to
murder since they were murdering for an altruistic purpose. It was
accepted that man be sacrificed for other men.”

Roark is acquitted.

As Roark’s
archenemy, Rand presents Ellsworth M. Toohey, a pro-collectivism
journalist and architectural critic, “a man who couldn’t be, and
knows it,” the complete antithesis of Roark.

Consciously
recognizing evil as his only means to power, Toohey, resentful of
Roark’s integrity and creative talent, plans to incite the public
against Roark through a smear campaign.

A power-seeker
with limited talent, Toohey explains how he plans to gain control
over others by way of instilling guilt, by poisoning their self-confidence.
“The soul is that which can’t be ruled,” he says to one of his own
victims. “It must be broken. Drive a wedge in, get your fingers
on it — and the man is yours. You won’t need a whip — he’ll bring
it to you and ask to be whipped. Set him in reverse — and his own
mechanism will do your work for you.”

There are many
ways, he says, to destroy a man’s soul. “Here’s one. Make a man
feel small. Make him feel guilty.” Instill “a sense of guilt, of
sin, of his own basic unworthiness.” To cement the obedience, “Don’t
allow men to be happy,” “kill their joy of living,” “take away from
them whatever is dear or important to them.”

The result
— a man afraid of not being controlled. “His soul gives up its self-respect.
You’ve got him. He’ll obey. He’ll be glad to obey — because he can’t
trust himself, he feels uncertain, he feels unclean.”

The above,
“stillborn”? Not quite.

July
24, 2007

Ralph
R. Reiland [send him mail]
is an associate professor of economics at Robert Morris University
in Pittsburgh.

Ralph
R. Reiland Archives

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