I just watched another documentary about the controversial Ayn Rand, who wrote Atlas Shrugged. The program, “Ayn Rand & the Prophecy of Atlas Shrugged,” claimed that book is the number one selling hardcover in history (following the Bible, of course).
Although I haven’t read it, I witness it’s growing influence as it becomes more frequently referenced in political discussions. It is a favorite (sometimes even referred to as the “gospel”) of Libertarians.
Rand was a Soviet refugee, and much of what she anticipated, has come to pass. Unbridled government regulations, she predicted, would strangle creativity and production. The welfare state would collapse upon itself as it eroded the incentive to work. In her call for less government interference and oversight, she echoes the concerns of growing numbers of Americans on both the left and the right.
This reflects a reversal of her argument’s reception when it was published. In 1957, the dystopian novel apparently did not receive a single positive review. After William F. Buckley published a scathingly negative review, she never spoke to him again.*
And that raises one of the problems with Rand’s work. In actuality, this flaw is a failing common to all literature. It is difficult to separate what is written from its author. This is especially true when the person who wields the pen possesses a unique or outlandish personality. This was certainly the case with Rand. One of her primary goals was to be provocative.
The title of this column was inspired by a recent post I read entitled, “Ayn Rand Really, Really hated C.S. Lewis.” You can read it at First Things.
In the article, Matthew Schmitz provides excerpts of Rand’s underlining and marginalia (notes) in her copy of Lewis’ Abolition of Man. His opening paragraph says it all, though. [Warning: Those offended by rude language should skip the next paragraph.]
Ayn Rand was no fan of C.S. Lewis. She called the famous apologist an “abysmal bastard,” a “monstrosity,” a “cheap, awful, miserable, touchy, social-metaphysical mediocrity,” a “pickpocket of concepts,” and a “God-damn, beaten mystic.” (I suspect Lewis would have particularly relished the last of these.)
Lewis’ indomitable spirit, as hinted at in Schmitz’ parenthetical comment, is precisely what inspired the title of my post.
So, why am I discussing Rand’s work at all, if she so despised Lewis? Well, because I want to explore just why she was so offended by his philosophy.
There is great irony present here. While Rand devotees and serious Christians would share many fears about oppressive governments . . . they are ill-suited allies.
Despite this commonality, the basic reasons for distrusting secular institutions, and more expressly, their solutions to the problem are diametrically opposed.
For Lewis, the atheist turned Christian apologist, hope comes only from God, not from a laissez faire government. While most Christians do not believe in the “coerced compassion” of unlimited taxation to support people unwilling** to work, we utterly disagree with Rand’s elevation of selfishness as virtue.
And that last phrase is not hyperbole. Rand actually wrote a book entitled The Virtue of Selfishness. She viewed altruism as inherently illogical, and thus, essentially immoral.
So, it’s no surprise she disliked Lewis. He had been delivered from a self-centered worldview, and recognized that we have been created by a loving Father for a grand, and eternal purpose.
In the Christian worldview, selfishness provides evidence of our corruption by the Fall. Our disobedience—our selfish desire to have things our way—is at the root of humanity’s problems.
Altruism, giving of oneself for the welfare of another without anticipation of benefit, is—for the disciple of Jesus—a genuine virtue.
We’ll end this brief discussion of a complex subject with a passage from C.S. Lewis. It is a discussion of altruism (in the context of Moral Law) drawn from Mere Christianity. One can only imagine what Ayn Rand would write in the margins, but I’ll take my stand with Lewis.
Some of the letters I have had show that a good many people find it difficult to understand just what this Law of Human Nature, or Moral Law, or Rule of Decent Behaviour is. For example, some people wrote to me saying, “Isn’t what you call the Moral Law simply our herd instinct and hasn’t it been developed just like all our other instincts?”
Now I do not deny that we may have a herd instinct: but that is not what I mean by the Moral Law. We all know what it feels like to be prompted by instinct—by mother love, or sexual instinct, or the instinct for food. It means that you feel a strong want or desire to act in a certain way. And, of course, we sometimes do feel just that sort of desire to help another person: and no doubt that desire is due to the herd instinct. But feeling a desire to help is quite different from feeling that you ought to help whether you want to or not.
Supposing you hear a cry for help from a man in danger. You will probably feel two desires—one a desire to give help (due to your herd instinct), the other a desire to keep out of danger (due to the instinct for self-preservation).
But you will find inside you, in addition to these two impulses, a third thing which tells you that you ought to follow the impulse to help, and suppress the impulse to run away.
Now this thing that judges between two instincts, that decides which should be encouraged, cannot itself be either of them. You might as well say that the sheet of music which tells you, at a given moment, to play one note on the piano and not another, is itself one of the notes on the keyboard. The Moral Law tells us the tune we have to play: our instincts are merely the keys.
Another way of seeing that the Moral Law is not simply one of our instincts is this. If two instincts are in conflict, and there is nothing in a creature’s mind except those two instincts, obviously the stronger of the two must win. But at those moments when we are most conscious of the Moral Law, it usually seems to be telling us to side with the weaker of the two impulses. You probably want to be safe much more than you want to help the man who is drowning: but the Moral Law tells you to help him all the same.
And surely it often tells us to try to make the right impulse stronger than it naturally is? I mean, we often feel it our duty to stimulate the herd instinct, by waking up our imaginations and arousing our pity and so on, so as to get up enough steam for doing the right thing. But clearly we are not acting from instinct when we set about making an instinct stronger than it is. The thing that says to you, “Your herd instinct is asleep. Wake it up,” cannot itself be the herd instinct. The thing that tells you which note on the piano needs to be played louder cannot itself be that note.
* “Big Sister is Watching You,” written by a former atheist Soviet spy turned Quaker capitalist, is available online here.
** By “unwilling,” I am referring to people capable of supporting themselves, but consciously choosing to live off of the produce of others. While some Christians feel morally compelled to support even these, most would follow the guidance found in II Thessalonians 3:
As for other matters, brothers and sisters, pray for us that the message of the Lord may spread rapidly and be honored, just as it was with you. And pray that we may be delivered from wicked and evil people, for not everyone has faith. . . . May the Lord direct your hearts into God’s love and Christ’s perseverance. . . .
In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers and sisters, to keep away from every believer who is idle and disruptive and does not live according to the teaching you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example. We were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s food without paying for it.
On the contrary, we worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you. We did this, not because we do not have the right to such help, but in order to offer ourselves as a model for you to imitate.
For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.” We hear that some among you are idle and disruptive. They are not busy; they are busybodies. Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the food they eat.