April 27, 2016

Women of Doubt: Ayn Rand spins drama into philosophy

On February 2, 1905 4, Alissa Zinov'yevna Rosenbaum 5 was born in St. Petersburg, Russia 4. The oldest of three sisters, Rosenbaum--who would become Ayn Rand--was born into a family of "greatly non-observant Jews." 5

Rand's family was middle class, and "as a child, she loved story-telling." 2 Rand was very literary:

At age six she taught herself to read and two years later discovered her first fictional hero in a French magazine for children, thus capturing the heroic vision which sustained her throughout her life. 6 Her love of literature led her to decide "at age nine to become a writer" 2.

Rand's early life was far from stable:

During the Russian Revolution of 1917 Rand was a twelve year old kid who witnessed political situations going against their family. With the sudden rise of Bolshevik party under Vladimir Lenin Rand's father's pharmacy was confiscated and Rand family was forced to seek refuge in Crimea. Rand completed her education in Crimea. She turned sixteen before returning to Saint Petersburg, where her family faced desperate conditions and at times nearly starving. 5

Some accounts put her view of the Bolshevik Revolution even more personal: "she witnessed the first shots of the Russian Revolution from her balcony when she was a mere 12 years old." 3


She also showed linguistic talent:

Rand was able to read French, Germany and Russian and as a voracious reader and academic found great interest in Fyodor Dostoevsky, Victor Hugo, Edmund Rostand, and Friedrich Schiller who became her all time favorites. 5

After returning from Crimea, Rand attended university:

At the University of Petrograd, Rand concentrated her studies on history, with secondary focuses on philosophy and literature. At university, she was repelled by the dominance of communist ideas and strong-arm tactics that suppressed free inquiry and discussion. As a youth, she had been repelled by the communists' political program, and now, as an adult, she was also more fully aware of the destructive effects that the revolution had had on Russian society more broadly. 2

Rand graduated in 1924, and followed up her studies with more study, this time in screenwriting. 5 However, Rand never forgot her first ambition from her childhood to be a writer. When thinking of writing in Russia, though, she had concerns:

Not believing, however, that she would be free under the Soviet system to write the kinds of books she wanted to write, she resolved to leave Russian [sic] and go to America. 2

In 1926, she went to New York City. After obtaining her visa, she pursued a career in Hollywood as a screenwriter. Cecile B. DeMille offered her a job on The King of Kings. During her Hollywood career, she met actor Frank O’Connor, whom she married in 1929 and remained married to for fifty years. 6

For several years, her Hollywood career was defined with non-writing jobs, but in 1932, she sold her first screenplay to universal pictures while her first stage play was performed in Hollywood and Broadway. 6

During her career in Hollywood, Rand made significant strides using her linguistic talents:

Over the next decade, Rand, whose mother tongue was Russian, mastered the English language, writing many screenplays and short stories. 3
Philosophy was always an integral part of Rand's work:

To create her unusual stories and characters, Rand had to define the new ideas and principles that guide her heroes. She had to create a new philosophy. 1

Rand completed her first novel in 1934, but it wasn't published until 1936 because of numerous rejections. It was in 1935 that she began her first major novel: The Fountainhead. It too took some time to be published--twelve publishers rejected it prior to publication in 1943. 6

The Fountainhead represented an important philosophical point for Rand, as well as a financial and literary success:

This great novel of American individualism presented her mature portrait of a hero—not a traditional swashbuckling hero, but a man of character and integrity: Howard Roark, architect. Roark demands the right to design and build in accordance with his own ideals and principles. In his long struggle to succeed—a struggle not unlike Rand’s own—he eventually triumphs over every form of spiritual collectivism. This novel first presented Rand’s provocative morality of rational egoism, and this at a time when collectivism was gaining ground all over the world. Made into a feature film starring Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal in 1948, the novel has remained a bestseller for over 60 years. 3

Her years in the Soviet Union gave Rand some enduring political and philosophical tendencies:

She rejected all forms of overpowering governmental set-ups which made her an opponent of ideas like collectivism and statism, fascism, communism, socialism, and the idea of a welfare state. 5

This was the birth of Objectivism, or as Rand described it, "the philosophy of living on the earth." 3 This was an important purpose of her writing:

Rand's novels and nonfiction work are heavily influenced by and intended to promote her philosophy of objectivism, which holds that individual self-achievement is more important than tradition or altruism, a theory closely tied to laissez-faire capitalism. 4

In 1946, Rand continued her work, beginning Atlas Shrugged, widely considered her magnum opus, and in 1951, she moved back to New York City to work on the novel full-time. 6 Eventually, she finished and published the novel:

Published in 1957, Atlas Shrugged was her greatest achievement and last work of fiction. In this novel she dramatized her unique philosophy in an intellectual mystery story that integrated ethics, metaphysics, epistemology, politics, economics and sex. Although she considered herself primarily a fiction writer, she realized that in order to create heroic fictional characters, she had to identify the philosophic principles which make such individuals possible. 6

After her novels, Rand continued to develop these themes in a series of essays and books written throughout the 1960s and 1970s. 2

Objectivism itself is centered on the individual, sometimes described as ethical egoism:

Rand’s philosophy is in the Aristotelian tradition, with that tradition’s emphasis upon metaphysical naturalism, empirical reason in epistemology, and self-realization in ethics. Objectivism is rational self-interest and self-responsibility—the idea that no person is any other person’s slave. The virtues of her philosophy are principled policies based on rational assessment: rationality, productiveness, honest (in order to rationally make the best decisions we must be privy to the facts), integrity, independence, justice, and pride. 2
Rand passed away on March 6, 1982, in New York. 4

During her life, Rand was an outspoken critic of religious belief. Here's a handful of quotes to take us out:

Ask yourself whether the dream of heaven and greatness should be waiting for us in our graves--or whether it should be ours here and now and on this earth.

The good, say the mystics of spirit, is God, a being whose only definition is that he is beyond man's power to conceive- a definition that invalidates man's consciousness and nullifies his concepts of existence...Man's mind, say the mystics of spirit, must be subordinated to the will of God... Man's standard of value, say the mystics of spirit, is the pleasure of God, whose standards are beyond man's power of comprehension and must be accepted on faith....The purpose of man's life...is to become an abject zombie who serves a purpose he does not know, for reasons he is not to question.

Qua religion, no - in the sense of blind belief, belief unsupported by, or contrary to, the facts of reality and the conclusions of reason. Faith, as such, is extremely detrimental to human life: it is the negation of reason. But you must remember that religion is an early form of philosophy, that the first attempts to explain the universe, to give a coherent frame of reference to man's life and a code of moral values, were made by religion, before men graduated or developed enough to have philosophy. And, as philosophies, some religions have very valuable moral points. They may have a good influence or proper principles to inculcate, but in a very contradictory context and, on a very - how should I say it? - dangerous or malevolent base: on the ground of faith.

Those are odd words from a darling of many members of conservative movements that we also associate with socially conservative Christian ideas, but there you have it. Ayn Rand, Woman of Doubt.

Sources

1 “About Ayn Rand.” Ayn Rand Institute. <https://www.aynrand.org/about> Accessed April 25, 2016.

2 “Ayn Alissa Rand (1905-1982).” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. <http://www.iep.utm.edu/rand/> Accessed April 25, 2016.

3 “Ayn Rand.” The Atlas Society. <http://atlassociety.org/objectivism/atlas-university/new-to-ayn-rand/launchpad-blog/5610-ayn-rand> Published November 10, 2014. Accessed April 25, 2016.

4 “Ayn Rand Biography.” Biography. <http://www.biography.com/people/ayn-rand-9451526> Accessed April 25, 2016.

5 “Ayn Rand Biography.” The Famous People: Society for Recognition of Famous People. <http://www.thefamouspeople.com/profiles/ayn-rand-215.php> Accessed April 25, 2016.

6 “Biography of Ayn Rand”. Ayn Rand Lexicon. <http://aynrandlexicon.com/about-ayn-rand/bio.html> Accessed April 25, 2016.

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