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August 08, 2007

Why People Find Ayn Rand Compelling

In addition to yesterday' interesting comment thread on the subject, Jake Young and Noumenal Self have defenses of their respect for Rand. I particularly found this bit, from Young, interesting:

She validates the individual and the power of the individual human mind. In Atlas Shrugged, she describes a world where the intelligent and the capable have made clear that they are not willing to be exploited by the violent, the ignorant, and the incompetent. They argue that this is a world that can be grasped and improved by an individual intelligence and all that is required is the application of effort and logic. As a scientist, a physician, an intellectual, and a human being, I find that appealing. I am neither the strongest, nor the most attractive, nor the richest, nor the most socially gifted kid in the room, but I am sure as hell capable of using my mind. Rand argues that this is all that is required for happiness.

I tend to not think much about philosophy as a form of self-validation, but it doesn't strike me as an obviously silly application, particularly for those who've long since rejected the comforts of religion.

Young also offers some hypotheses as to why people hate Ayn Rand so much. My short answer is that I don't merely find her worldview and premises unconvincing, I find them ugly -- which isn't to say those who respect her work interpret it as I do.

August 8, 2007 | Permalink

Comments

I knew a really attractive 18 year old blonde girl in college, and when she said how much she like Objectivism, I realized she was a very silly girl.

I often wonder where she ended up and if she's having amazing beautiful blonde babies while married to an equally blonde and attractive MBA.

Posted by: stm177 | Aug 8, 2007 2:09:57 PM

I don't merely find her worldview and premises unconvincing, I find them ugly

I think this is somewhat unfair. A lot of hostility to Ayn Rand comes, I think, from having to deal with her disciples who, despite believing in a rather simplistic line of thought, take themselves and their outlook on life Oh So Seriously.

She validates the individual and the power of the individual human mind

This focus on "the power of the human mind" reminds me a lot of Scientology and other "self-affirming" philosophies peddled to people looking for more control over their lives. In that sense, it's quite appealing to anyone's who's looking for something but doesn't want to turn to religion.

Posted by: Tyro | Aug 8, 2007 2:13:13 PM

"A lot of hostility to Ayn Rand comes, I think, from having to deal with her disciples who, despite believing in a rather simplistic line of thought, take themselves and their outlook on life Oh So Seriously."

Yeah, this.

Posted by: Korha | Aug 8, 2007 2:23:42 PM

Out of interest, does anyone know any Randians who actually work in business? All the ones I've met seem nothing like the go-getting entrepreneurs they so admire.

Posted by: Peter | Aug 8, 2007 2:53:17 PM

which isn't to say those who respect her work interpret it as I do

A key point.

Posted by: Sanpete | Aug 8, 2007 2:55:46 PM

Scientific and intellectual progress are not made up of individual human's endeavors. Newton stood on the shoulder's of giants. Einstein's towering intellect refused to acknowledge quantum mechanics and ended up frittering away the last half of his career. We are social creatures. We work together. Science relies on a community. A scientist who doesn't submit to peer review is viewed as a crack pot. I don't like Ayn Rand for many reasons, but to view the individual mind as the engine of scientific progress is a large reason. Even in physics, the most "logical" of sciences, ground breaking work is done as a collective project. Could one individual conceive of and execute what is going on at CERN?

I don't trust any philosophy that puts so much stock into the individual's logic and rationality.

Posted by: Chip | Aug 8, 2007 3:00:38 PM

There sure do seem to be a lot who work in IT...

There is a kind of might-makes-right rationality to most of Objectivism, but even when I was pretty sympathetic to her views, I found her ideas on what constitutes good art arbitrary and insane.

Posted by: tps12 | Aug 8, 2007 3:02:12 PM

Ayn Rand pushes the buttons of high school boys bright enough to plow through 800 pages of Atlas Shrugged, insecure enough to want to, and socially inept enough to have the time. "I'm John Galt," they say, "and the reason I can't get a date" is a) "I don't know any worthy Dagny at my high school;" or b) "I spend all my time and precious bodily fluids coping with pigmies" (mutatis mutandis, this also applies to high school girls). Most readers are self-aware enough to perceive the absurdity of this posturing, and they eventually return to earth. The rest become Objectivists.

By the way, Rodino Raskolnikov, who wrote at length about the right of a superior person to kill his landlady and steal her money, could have been the prototype Objectivist, except that he had the twisted courage actually to follow through. Most Objectivists are cowards.

Posted by: Stuart Eugene Thiel | Aug 8, 2007 3:04:30 PM

Peter, I think that every so often one meets one in finance. But the stereotype of a libertarian or objectivist is almost invariably someone in middle management at a government contractor (given the overlap between libertarianism and engineering).

I treat objectivism like many other "self help" philosophies-- if it were so uniquely useful, you'd see lots and lots of really successful people being adherents of that program/philosophy. Yes, the Randians have Alan Greenspan, but, like how discussions of funny conservatives mention PJ O'Rourke, that's been the same answer for decades, now.

I sometimes wonder if part of the appeal isn't so much the end-result of Rand's thinking but the process-- Aristotle and Plato don't seem immediately applicable to the young mind. Rand allows the young reader to start churning his gears and thinking step-by-step about very tangible things that the reader encounters-- politics, thinking, economics. The process is accessible and enjoyable and doesn't require an instructor to delve right into it. It's an early, positive experience with philosophy, so they latch onto it.

Posted by: Tyro | Aug 8, 2007 3:05:15 PM

And excellent point, Chip, that's always been a weird contradiction even in Rand's fiction: all of the conflict in her narratives stems from the fact that the vast majority of humanity, even as portrayed by her, violate the supposed axiom that "man is a logical being," or however she phrases it.

Posted by: tps12 | Aug 8, 2007 3:06:03 PM

I don't hate Rand. I just find it simple minded. Yes, we all want to feel comforted. There are better ways to do it than having to deny uncomfortable complexities.

Posted by: akaison | Aug 8, 2007 3:16:23 PM

Newton stood on the shoulder's of giants.


Liebnitz was a German mathematician who was also credited with the "invention" of calculus and was considered the main scientific/mathematical "rival" of Newton. He was also abnormally short. When Newton said this he was NOT being modest and crediting others - he was taking a swipe at Liebitiz.

Posted by: r4d20 | Aug 8, 2007 3:16:40 PM

I don't hate Rand. I just find it simple minded.

Agreed. Much like Ezra on prostitution, I've never understood the appeal. My junior year of high school I cracked a few pages to see what all the fuss was about. Even at that precious age Atlas Shrugged struck me as truly atrocious writing, and the quality of the reasoning not far behind. Additionally, I was spared the Ayn Rand temptation simply because I didn't want to be like those who were enthused about Ayn Rand. Self-selection, sure. But she still reads pretty sophomoric these ten years later.

Posted by: Sangfroid826 | Aug 8, 2007 3:22:57 PM

"...but I am sure as hell capable of using my mind. Rand argues that this is all that is required for happiness."

So... Ayn Rand = The Secret/Law of Attraction?

Posted by: Adam Piontek | Aug 8, 2007 3:42:52 PM

I find value in the part of Rand's message that says something like "there are people in the world who contribute and accomplish nothing, and will try to drag you down to their level or destroy you in order to not have to see your light, and you shouldn't let them, and you shouldn't compromise your values."

You don't need thousands of pages of inelegant prose to get this point across, of course, but likewise, you don't need a book of Biblical length to get across the essence of Christ's message when Bill and Ted's "be excellent to each other" does it so much more succinctly.

Posted by: Hamilton Lovecraft | Aug 8, 2007 3:46:44 PM

r4d20-
I'm not sure I follow your thinking. The "standing on shoulders. . ." line is taken directly from Newton. My point is that Newton's ideas didn't come ex nihilo, but where formed from the work of Brahe and Kepler. True he was very isolated from his fellow workers of his age, but he still relied on other people. I was trying to show that a great mind will make no progress in complete isolation.

Posted by: Chip | Aug 8, 2007 3:47:44 PM

The enduring appeal of Rand is that her work is classic adversary philosophy; her adherents get to posit themselves as the enlightened philosopher kinds, resolutely challenging the norms of the witless plebes. Everyone, at some time or another, can enjoy that kind of thing. But you can't be 17 your whole life.

Posted by: Freddie | Aug 8, 2007 3:47:59 PM

It's adolescent in its worldview - you have to be self-centered to really find it appealing. Everyone is either out to get you, to bring you down to their level, except for the lofty few who are good enough to be your consorts.

Most people are far too involved in their own lives to spend time or energy trying to dim someone else's bright light. And if you want to spend your time wanking about how awesome you are with people who are equally awesome, join MENSA.

Posted by: maurinsky | Aug 8, 2007 4:05:37 PM

Just to note it wasn't a swipe at liebnitz but instead hooke who was basically a dwarf.

Posted by: Parmenides | Aug 8, 2007 4:23:49 PM

There's little to be added to what's already been said. It's basicly the Harry Potter storyline without the talent and imagination. Abused, put upon kid discovers that it isn't himself but the world that's at fault and that he is actually a very special, powerful and important person destined for greatness.

The fundamental difference is that the Potter books don't pretend to be anything more than fantasy.

For a fix of radical individualism, I much prefer Robert A. Heinlein. He's a far more entertaining and better writer than Rand and has no delusions about being a world historical figure.

It would take a man with heart of stone not to laugh at the opening pages of The Fountainhead.

Posted by: WB Reeves | Aug 8, 2007 4:40:35 PM

Hamilton Lovecraft: "there are people in the world who contribute and accomplish nothing, and will try to drag you down to their level or destroy you in order to not have to see your light, and you shouldn't let them, and you shouldn't compromise your values."

Bob Dylan sang about people like that too:

While one who sings with his tongue on fire
Gargles in the rat race choir
Bent out of shape from society's pliers
Cares not to come up any higher
But rather get you down in the hole
That he's in.

And he didn't get all bent out of shape about them:

But I mean no harm nor put fault
On anyone that lives in a vault
But it's alright, Ma, if I can't please him.

Posted by: Mitch Schindler | Aug 8, 2007 4:44:00 PM

Leibniz. "I" before "e" except after "l". And no "t".
Nietzsche. With a "t" and everything else you want to throw in.

Posted by: mijnheer | Aug 8, 2007 4:45:55 PM

We need Objectivists or other fans of Rand here to make this discussion even a little interesting. Tyro has tried to give some perspective, but this is way too one-sided. When a whole lot of really bright people like something, there's bound to be more to it than you'd conclude from this thread.

Posted by: Sanpete | Aug 8, 2007 4:51:37 PM

"Atlas Shrugged, she describes a world where the intelligent and the capable have made clear that they are not willing to be exploited by the violent, the ignorant, and the incompetent."

Strangely enough, the world that Rand followers are trying to create would hand things over on a silver platter to the violent, the ignorant and the incompetent.

And that's what annoys me about them.

Posted by: Karmakin | Aug 8, 2007 4:56:21 PM

Fundamentally, I think Objectivism is not only an adolescent worldview, but an autistic one as well. I don't think it is a coincidence that so many IT types are attracted to Rand; for various reasons, that profession tends to draw individuals who suffer from Asperger's Syndrome or mild autism. The same is true of the hard sciences, although most scientists are a bit more practical than IT types.

Mainstream neoclassical economics is another reductionist philosophy that is designed to appeal to the socially deficient. I wouldn't be surprised if half the members of most university econ departments suffered from at least mild autism or Asperger's, and a good portion of them probably have antisocial personality disorder as well.

Rand herself clearly admired the psychopathic personality. Her ideal person was a man "without pain or fear or guilt," which to modern psychologists is an almost perfect description of the sociopath. Moreover, in her youth, Rand actually wrote encomiums to one particular sociopathic murderer! See:

http://michaelprescott.net/hickman.htm

for some interesting and under-discussed information about Rand's infatuation with William Edward Hickman, child murderer.

Posted by: Josh G. | Aug 8, 2007 5:03:31 PM

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