Come and have a taste
A rare vintage
All the finest wines
Improve with age
– Count of Tuscany, Dream Theater
The Fountainhead, by Ayn Rand, and The Abolition of Man, by C. S. Lewis, both came out eighty years ago, in 1943. Via an article by Micah Watson, C.S. Lewis on the Specter of Totalitarianism, I came across this: Ayn Rand’s marginalia on C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man.
“It’s true, some wine improves with age. But only if the grapes were good in the first place.”
After eighty years, let’s see which wine started with good grapes.
Regular readers know that I believe Lewis’s Abolition may well be the book that best describes our condition today, how we got here, and what is necessary to get us out – out, meaning out of the meaning crisis and out from under tyranny and toward liberty.
I lean on Lewis’s book heavily in the two “books” I have written, to be found here. One is The Search for Liberty, and the second is Natural Law and the Meaning Crisis. I also began this journey long ago, if you will, on Rand, discovering her through the band Rush and a reference to her short novel Anthem. I consider my travels as having taken me from milk to meat.
While I still find value in Rand’s work, as I have developed my thought the shortcomings in her view become ever more obvious – and even contribute to the mess of society we live in today. Certainly, when we needed him most at the beginning of covidmania, John Galt was nowhere to be found; John Galt is not our savior.
But Rand’s biggest and most damaging shortcoming is found in her views of Christianity and religion, and the tradition developed through this. Well, this and her acerbic personality. Which is where I will begin.
The aforementioned marginalia positions comments and reactions by Rand against various sections of Lewis’s book. In her marginalia, she refers to Lewis (not what he has written, but as a person) as follows:
- The abysmal bastard!
- …this monster…
- The cheap, awful, miserable, touchy, social-metaphysical mediocrity!
- (The bastard!)
- This is really an old fool – and nothing more!
- This incredible, medieval monstrosity…
- The lousy bastard…
- The cheap, driveling non-entity!
- This monstrosity…
- The abysmal caricature who postures as a “gentleman and a scholar” …
- The bastard…
- (The abysmal scum!)
And in the midst of a dozen ad hominem attacks, she accuses Lewis with the following:
- Ad hominem!
But enough of examining Rand’s less-than-cheerful personality. What are her substantial comments?
Lewis writes: “If [the Innovator] had really started from scratch, from right outside the human tradition of value, no jugglery could have advanced him an inch towards the conception that a man should die for the community or work for posterity.” To which Rand replies: “You bet he couldn’t!”
Rand, of course, is well known for her virtue of selfishness. So, the idea of working for the community or for posterity – for the sake of the other and not for the sake of one’s self – is anathema. Therefore, any tradition that advances such an idea – that you have some sort of obligation to care for your fellow man and your future men – is not merely a bad tradition, but an evil one. In other words, what Jesus did for humanity is the worst evil one could do.
Lewis: “Each new power won by man is a power over man as well. Each advance leaves him weaker as well as stronger.”
Here Lewis is writing of the control of some men by other men – recall from Abolition that man conquers nature, after which he conquers his fellow man. If this wasn’t obvious to Rand in 1943, it most certainly is obviously clear today. Lewis saw this, and is ridiculed by Rand for seeing this.
Yes, advances in technology have brought us great benefits; they have also afforded overwhelmingly greater control by some man over the vast majority of men.
Rand sees only one side of this reality: “So when you cure men of TB, syphilis, scurvy, small pox and rabies – you make them weaker!!!”
Lewis never said such things. He said what he said. So, I sit here with my smart phone, enjoying the benefits of the technology while still abhorring the uses for which the technology is used against me.
Lewis: “[Those who will replace traditional values] are … not men (in the old sense) at all.”
Of course, they are not. Today they are women, or fluid. They are oppressed while living in the most economically prosperous time in history. They see justice in the looting of businesses.
Rand, of course, would object to all of this – these aren’t the values she would choose to replace the traditional values she denounces or denigrates. All the while ignoring that she is standing on the foundations of a specific tradition while advocating her supposedly sui generis values. She responds: “So the state of being “men” is equated with tradition!(?)” No, Ms. Rand, not anymore. The state of being men is now being…whatever.
Lewis: “[Those who reject tradition] are not men at all: they are artefacts. Man’s final conquest has proved to be the abolition of Man.”
Rand doubles down: “Meaning if you choose your own values and drop blind faith, you are an “artifact”!”
When men “choose their own values and drop blind faith” we get what we get today. Who says they will choose Rand’s values? When there is no objective value outside of and beyond man’s “choosing,” who is to say Rand is right and Marx is wrong?
Lewis: “Either we are rational spirit obliged for ever to obey the absolute values of the Tao, or else we are mere nature to be kneaded and cut into new shapes for the pleasures of masters who must, by hypothesis, have no motive but their own ‘natural’ impulses.”
Rand: “The lousy bastard who is a pickpocket of concepts, not a thief, which is too big a word for him. Either we are mystics of spirit or mystics of muscle – reason? who ever heard of it?”
Reason, of course, leads Lewis to the Tao – natural law. Why does Rand assume that reason must lead us away from the wisdom that came before us? That using reason means abandoning all foundations and starting every day anew? That may be the most unreasonable concept ever derived.
Rand would object to my characterization. She would say that she isn’t abandoning all foundations, only the ones that she believes have to go. But on what basis? Who is to decide? She would say “I will.” Well, so does the bully. And he is winning, as Lewis knew he would.
Rand summarizes her comments with the following:
The bastard actually means that the more man knows, the more he is bound by reality, the more he has to comply with an “A is A” existence of absolute identity and causality – and that is what he regards as “surrender” to nature, or as nature’s “power over man.” (!) What he objects to is the power of reality. Science shrinks the realm of his whim. (!!) When he speaks of value judgements, he means values set by whim – and he knows that there is no place for that in nature, i.e. in reality. (The abysmal scum!)
A more confused summary of Lewis’s work may never have been written. Lewis recognizes reality; Lewis recognizes that values are not set by whim; Lewis most certainly sees that A is A.
It is the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of things the universe is and the kind of things we are.
You can read this and wonder: did Rand write this, or did Lewis? Of course, it could be either (it is Lewis). So, then you are left with wondering, what, exactly, is Rand’s beef? Tradition, Christianity, values that are objective but not of her choosing. She is just another wanna-be superman, convinced she can invent values from whole cloth.
Lewis, of course, sees things differently:
Either we are a rational spirit obliged for ever to obey the absolute values of the Tao, or else we are mere nature to be kneaded and cut into any new shapes for the pleasures of masters who must, by hypothesis, have no motive but their own ‘natural’ impulses. Only the Tao provides a common human law of action which can over-arch rulers and ruled alike. A dogmatic belief in objective value is necessary to the very idea of a rule which is not tyranny or an obedience which is not slavery.
Inherently, Rand’s philosophy, like all philosophies that abandon natural law, leads to slavery and tyranny. It leads to the world we find ourselves in today.
“Men are like wine – some turn to vinegar, but the best improve with age.”
Lewis has aged infinitely better than Rand. Having abandoned traditional values, we have gained the selfish virtue of creating ourselves in our own image. Rand would say that the problem is we haven’t embraced her values. But that never was going to happen; humans aren’t designed for her version of objectivism. It is, after all these years, little more than a bottle of vinegar.
Reprinted with permission from Bionic Mosquito.