Monday, 24 September 2012

Was Ayn Rand's main subject politics? Is Objectivism just a political philosophy?

Ayn Rand's main interests in her writing career were creating novels as art, and fundamental philosophy, not politics. Objectivism is a full philosophic system of which politics is just one section.

The media's main interest in Ayn Rand, unsurprisingly, is her work as a political thinker, and her influence on modern politics. Often this translates into treating it as though that had been Ayn Rand's main interest as well. Journalists will matter-of-factly refer to Ayn Rand as a "political philosopher." Others will go so far as to claim, falsely, that her novels are mere vehicles for her political views. But Ayn Rand, judging both by her stated intentions and her body of work, was above all a novelist and a philosopher, not a political activist.

That her political writing is so original and expansive likely makes it easier for many to believe this myth. But that merely goes to show how much more original and expansive her writing is as a whole. A simple survey of her body of work makes it clear enough that politics was only a fraction of it. Of her two longest and most famous novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, the first is the story of a man's career and romantic life, with themes of character and morality, that hardly references politics at all. The second, while more political than the first, has a moral theme that is equally or more prominent. Indeed, on one level, the actual theme of Atlas Shrugged is neither political nor moral but metaphysical: "the role of man's mind in existence."

Surveying Rand's nonfiction indicates the same. Of the seven anthologies that make up her prominent non-fiction work, only two are about politics. Two are about philosophy in general, one is about ethics, and one is about epistemology (the branch of philosophy regarding how knowledge is obtained, verified, etc.) And of the 12 chapters that make up the summary of Objectivism written by Ayn Rand's intellectual heir, only two of them are about politics.

One reason for this is that Ayn Rand considered politics, as a subject, a secondary consequence of more fundamental philosophy. Rand's arguments for her distinctive political views are rooted in her distinctive views in ethics and epistemology. As she put it: "I am not primarily an advocate of capitalism, but of egoism; and I am not primarily an advocate of egoism, but of reason. If one recognizes the supremacy of reason and applies it consistently, all the rest follows." And Rand argued that changes in, and battles for, cultural philosophy ultimately had far more consequence, that "A political battle is merely a skirmish fought with muskets; a philosophical battle is a nuclear war." [pg. 201]

Just as Rand's primary interest in philosophy was not politics, her primary interest as a novelist was not to argue for her philosophy.
The motive and purpose of my writing is the projection of an ideal man. The portrayal of a moral ideal, as my ultimate literary goal, as an end in itself - to which any didactic, intellectual, or philosophical values contained in a novel are only the means. 
Let me stress this: my purpose is not the philosophical enlightenment of my readers, it is not the beneficial influence which my novels may have on people, it is not the fact that my novels may help a reader's intellectual development. All these matters are important, but they are secondary considerations...  
My basic test for any story is: Would I want to meet these characters and observe these event in real life? Is this story an experience worth living through for its own sake? Is the pleasure of contemplating these characters an end in itself? [pg. 162]
It has been used as proof that Ayn Rand's work is political and polemical, or even that her fiction are "not even novels," that they feature definite themes about real life and include sometimes-lengthy character speeches on those themes. Such accusations make little sense. Philosophically and morally relevant themes are an essential part of fiction writing, not contrary to it. Writers such as George Orwell and Robert Heinlein, for instance, often included long non-fiction-like inserts, and their work is never accused of "not being novels" for it. And Ayn Rand, in my view at least, does a much better job than writers such as those at integrating the direct statements of ideas into the actual plot.

So not only is Ayn Rand much more an artist and philosopher than political writer, her art and philosophy are intrinsic parts of understanding her political views. The trait that perhaps most distinguishes Rand from other political writers is that she explicitly and consistently rooted her political ideas in a basic philosophy. Not nearly as many people would be intrigued by her unique and radical political views if she didn't also challenge the cultural philosophy that underlies mainstream political thought. Indeed, this is most likely why her critics spread this myth. Don't make the mistake of buying it.