“Just as no one writes to prove to men that they have faces, there is no need to prove to them that they have self-love. This self-love is the instrument of our conservation; it resembles the instrument that perpetuates the species: it is necessary, it is dear to us, it gives us pleasure, and it must be hidden.”—Voltaire, Philosophical Dictionary (1764)
Normal people, average people, people like you and me, find it easy to relate to heroes and villains, great saints and great sinners. We can do this because we’re not especially good. Nor are we especially evil. Instead, we’re somewhere in the respectably decent middle: sketchy enough to understand why the bad guys are doing what they’re doing, and yet noble enough to understand why the good guys are doing what they’re doing. We can sympathize with both because we are both, more or less.
But there are exceptional people, Nietzsche maintains, at either end of the spectrum, who fail to appreciate how thoroughly exceptional they are, and simply cannot understand those unlike themselves. For instance, exceptionally selfish people are, he says, deeply suspicious of noble intentions, magnanimous motives, and altruistic drives. Since they deem selflessness of any kind to be essentially stupid and irrational, they assume that those who claim to be motivated by feelings of this kind are either liars (concealing their real motivations) or deluded idiots (unaware of their real motivations).
They snicker cynically and smile knowingly when they hear about the heroic deeds of others. Their knee-jerk skepticism is obvious, as is their contempt. Indeed, says Nietzsche, you can tell that what they’re thinking, what they’d really love to blurt out, is: “Oh, come on! Don’t be so gullible! Trust me, dig a little deeper and you’ll see: there’s some sort of selfish motive behind all of this. Always is.” But what if you could convince these skeptics that the noble man was in fact devoid of selfish intentions when he behaved heroically? What if you could demonstrate, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he gained nothing, and lost much? Would they be willing, after that, to concede the point? Would they be willing, after that, to admit that the noble man really is noble? Nietzsche says NO. They will not. Instead, they’ll go from thinking him a liar, to thinking him a fool.
Sneaky people equate being smart with being sneaky. They don’t recognize other kinds of intelligence, and, as a consequence, they tend to assume that all of the honest and straightforward people they know are idiots. In fact, many honest and straightforward people are capable of being just as clever as sneaky people; they merely choose to refrain from being devious. Alas, Hannah Arendt always insisted that this was the central thesis of her much misunderstood classic, Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963): namely, that evil is, despite all of the hype, actually quite boring and predictable.
We didn’t get to the top of the food-chain because we’re the strongest (sorry, gym-rats), nor did we get to the top because we’re especially good at rugged individualism (sorry, survivalists); we got to the top of the food-chain because we’re exceptionally good at tool-making, technology, and teamwork. That’s why, after the zombie apocalypse, when we start running out of food, I propose that we eat the Ayn Rand fans first. Being rugged individualists who eschew cooperative, pro-social behavior, my guess is that most of them will be isolated, alone, and easy to pick off.
Ayn Rand Really Does Suck
I’ve just recently finished rereading Ayn Rand for the first time in 20 years. I don’t think I fully realized when I was young what a terrible writer she is. Seriously, it’s embarrassing. And to those who say that her great ideas make the terrible prose worth it: um, not so much. Her reasoning is actually worse than her prose. Her use of straw man arguments is especially egregious, as is her shocking ignorance of history.
When I read thinkers I expect to hate, thinkers like Foucault, I’m almost always pleasantly surprised to find that they’re richer and more interesting than both their detractors and their supporters might lead you to believe. But Ayn Rand is the exception that proves this rule. This is one of those rare cases wherein the worst caricature of a thinker’s thought is actually the most accurate: people really do like Rand because she tells them what they want to hear: namely, that it’s okay to be a selfish asshole. People are, it seems, surprisingly good at lowering their standards when you’re telling them what they want to hear.
A devout Randian recently told me that he regards Ayn Rand has “one of the best fiction writers of all time.” What’s more, he said that she is best compared with Dostoevsky. Seriously? Seriously! I reread The Brothers Karamazov last summer, and I reread The Fountainhead last week. It ought to be obvious to even the most ardent Randian that these two books aren’t even in the same league. That they don’t even live in the same literary universe is probably closer to the truth. The only thing The Brothers Karamazov and The Fountainhead have in common is that they’re both printed on paper.
The most sympathetic estimation of Ayn Rand I can muster views her as roughly comparable to John Bunyan: Atlas Shrugged (1957) as a kind of 20th-century equivalent of The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678). Few would accuse Bunyan of being a great writer or a penetrating thinker. And yet denying his immense influence would be a serious mistake; the same is probably true of Rand.
What’s more, I must confess that if I squint, and try hard, I can actually see how Rand’s books might have a salutary effect on a certain kind of person: a woman, for instance, who’s been brought up in a very traditional, very conservative, very religious environment—wherein she was taught to put the needs of others first at all times, to a pathological extent. I can sorta see how Rand’s writings might help someone like this find balance. But, as is so often the case with prescriptive writers, those most likely to profit from them are least likely to read them. So far as I can tell, those who least need Rand are most likely to read her.
Civilization and Its Discontents
Why do we hate Ayn Rand so much? I think it’s because we secretly suspect that she might be right. Civilization is now, as it has always been, an achievement. Freud saw this with unusual clarity (maybe it was all that coke?). We all feel the call of the wild tugging at us from time to time, we all hear a little demon’s voice whispering in our ear: beckoning us to call it quits, give up on this marriage of convenience we refer to as Society, and do our own thing.
Rand seems to have been possessed by this little demon. She found a way to channel its elemental energy and speak in its sirenic voice. Therein lies her mesmeric power. Therein lies her power to corrupt. Rand’s allure is, much like Rousseau’s allure, the allure of a promise of escape: an escape from the hated prison of modern life. Of course it never really delivers; but like the allure of forbidden fruit, that just makes it all the more alluring. Rand’s craziest and most hysterical critics said that she was an enemy of civilization. They were right.
It’s Nietzsche’s Fan Club I Can’t Stand
I’ve seen bumper stickers that read: “I’ve got nothing against God. It’s his Fan Club I can’t stand.” Nietzsche scholars should come up with a bumper sticker like that. But they should also frankly acknowledge that where there’s this much smoke, there’s usually fire.
Like those tedious talking heads who get on the news after every terrorist attack and tell us that Islam is actually a religion of peace, Nietzsche scholars too often sound like religious apologists, conveniently explaining away all of the nasty bits in their sacred texts. Honest Muslims and honest Christians are, in my experience, ready and willing to face up to the ugliness of their tradition, the ugliness of The Bible, the ugliness of The Qur’an. Nietzsche scholars, and Randians, should do likewise.
Nietzsche once sagely observed: “How well Stoicism conceals what one lacks!” Thinking along similar lines, we might quip: How well a certain kind of Nietzscheism conceals what one lacks: namely, the emotional intelligence of an eight-year-old. Why have selfish assholes so often found, in Friedrich Nietzsche and Ayn Rand, intellectual justification for their antisocial behavior? Probably because it’s there.
—John Faithful Hamer