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Friday, May 27, 2016

Book Review: A Companion to Ayn Rand

A Companion to Ayn Rand
Edited by Allan Gotthelf and Gregory Salmieri
Wiley-Blackwell

Ayn Rand’s novels are full of nuance. There, in the entertaining and intense landscape of her fiction, her philosophical ideas are superbly communicated through a cast of characters who are larger than life and yet so lifelike. But Rand tends to introduce important ideas in the most unexpected places. A first-time reader, or even a repeat reader, faces the risk of missing many of her ideas and perspectives.

Scholarly studies of Rand’s works can play a critical role in facilitating a deeper understanding of her fiction and non-fiction. The recently published A Companion to Ayn Rand, an exhaustive study of Rand’s entire corpus, is targeted at the readers who are grappling with her powerful literature and unique philosophy. The volume takes a systematic approach in dealing with her novels, essays, cultural commentary, and several aspects of her life—it covers all the essentials in a condensed presentation of 544 pages.

A Companion to Ayn Rand is divided into six parts and it has 18 chapters, including the coda. The chapters are written in such a way that they can be read independently—you may, if you feel so inclined, dive directly into the chapter of your choice.

The contributors to the volume are: Harry Binswanger; Tore Boeckmann; Onkar Ghate; Allan Gotthelf; Lester H. Hunt; John David Lewis; James G. Lennox; Shoshana Milgram; Fred D. Miller, Jr.; Adam Mossoff; Jason G. Rheins; Gregory Salmieri; Tara Smith; and Darryl Wright. Here I can merely provide a brief account of all the chapters to give potential readers the general flavor of the book’s contents and arguments.

In the introduction, Gregory Salmieri explains that the “aim of the book is to facilitate the study of Rand’s works and thought by identifying Rand’s key theses and methods and her reasons for them, by tracing the role that these theses and methods play in her thought, by showing the evidence in her texts for all of our interpretive conclusions, and by drawing illuminating comparisons between Rand and other thinkers.”

The biographical sketch of Ayn Rand, by Shoshana Milgram, follows the introduction. In its coverage of the major turning points in Ayn Rand’s life, this chapter provides a clear view of the conscious choices that she made in her life to enable her to evolve into the artist and the philosopher who could write the thought-provoking fiction and non-fiction that many readers would want to reread many times.

In the chapter, “The Act of Valuing,” Salmieri’s focus is on explaining how the idea of valuing is central to the character of the heroes in Ayn Rand’s novels. He writes: “More than any other feature, what distinguishes Rand’s heroes is that they are valuers on a grand scale, and central to her own intellectual development was sustained reflection on what it is to value and on the alternative between valuing and its absence.”

Allan Gotthelf, in the chapter, “The Morality of Life,” deals with the new concept of morality that Rand has proposed in her works. The chapter expounds Rand’s views on why human beings need values and it goes on to explore her idea that man’s life is the standard of value. Gotthelf writes: “The term “hero” designates the exceptional, but this need not be a statistical exception. A rational ideal is the exceptional as measured against all other possibilities taken together. But Rand thinks that, as a rational ideal, her vision of moral greatness is open to everyone.”

The next chapter, “A Being of Self-Made Soul,” Onkar Ghate has dealt with Ayn Rand’s views on how the actions, character and happiness of any individual are shaped by the ideas, goals, and motives that he holds. He writes: “Thus for Rand man is a being of self-made soul in two senses. By his specific choices, man necessarily creates the kind of person he becomes: the basic premises and values that move him. And man’s faculty of volition gives him the power to (re)shape his soul in the image of his moral ideal — a process which any individual concerned with his own self-preservation and happiness should strive to undertake.”

In the chapter, “Egoism and Altruism: Selfishness and Sacrifice,” Gregory Salmieri deals with Ayn Rand’s defense of ethical egoism and rejection of altruism. Salmieri explains the reasons for which Rand insisted on describing the moral life as selfish, even though most people have a bad feeling about selfishness. He writes: “Structurally, Rand’s stance here is like that of other thinkers who seek to reform language that they think reflects and reinforces widespread prejudices.”

On the subject of the seemingly monstrous kind of selfishness that the protagonists in Rand’s two major novels seem to display, Salmieri has this to say: “Rand does not only ask us to recognize the selfishness of actions we already admire, she pushes us to reconsider our views of what is admirable. Central to the plots of her two major novels are actions taken by the heroes that, by conventional standards, are not merely selfish, but monstrously so. Roark demolishes a housing project — “the home of the destitute” —  rather than let it stand as a deformed version of one of his designs. And Galt abandons a whole continent to chaos and mass starvation. The plots of each novel is carefully constructed to create a situation in which she thinks an action so dramatically contrary to conventional morality is right and in which she can convey its rightness to readers. In this way the novels function as complex counterexamples to the conventional altruistic morality.”

Ayn Rand rejected the idea that man is a social being, because she believed that a man’s personal choices lead to the development of his ideas and values. In A Human Society: Rand’s Social Philosophy Darryl Wright has dealt with Rand’s social philosophy. He points out that Rand was of the view that “the only possible path to human good in a social context is through independent thought, productive achievement, and trade.”

Fred D. Miller, Jr. and Adam Mossoff have authored the chapter, “Political Theory: A Radical for Capitalism.” Here the authors deal with various aspects of Rand’s political theory—they explain why she believed that a government is necessary for ensuring the voluntary cooperation of rational individuals in a free society. They point out that Rand does not assume that we need government because men are driven by irrational passions or are incurably immoral. They write: “Rand not only rejects the pessimistic view of human nature, but she also maintains that, even if all men “were fully rational and faultlessly moral,” they would still require government.”

Tara Smith, in the chapter, “Objective Law,” deals with Rand’s ideas on legal theory. “Ayn Rand agrees that the Rule of Law is imperative. Indeed, a recurring theme in her discussions of political relations is the evil of some men ruling others by physical force. The only way to avoid this, she believes, is through objective law, and her understanding of that, I think, sheds light on the value of the Rule of Law.” The discussion on Rand’s condemnation of non-objective law, in areas such as obscenity law and antitrust, is particularly interesting.

Onkar Ghate deals with Rand’s philosophical perspective on capitalism, in the chapter, “A Free Mind and a Free Market Are Corollaries.” He begins his chapter with a quote from the first paragraph of Rand’s introduction to her book, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal: “This book is not a treatise on economics. It is a collection of essays on the moral aspects of capitalism.” Ghate points out that Rand believed that a book like Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal is vital because capitalism was perishing from a lack of a moral base, and that the alleged defenders of capitalism have accepted the basic philosophical tenets of the mystic-altruist-collectivist axis.

Ghate also discusses Rand’s views on economists like Henry Hazlitt, Ludwig Von Mises, Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek. She recommended some ideas of Hazlitt and Von Mises, but she also cautioned that her recommendations not be taken as an unqualified endorsement of their total intellectual positions. Her judgement of Friedman and Hayek was much harsher. On Friedman, she said: “He is not for capitalism; he’s a miserable eclectic. He’s an enemy of Objectivism, and his objection is that I bring morality into economics, which he thinks should be amoral.”

Jason G. Rheins, in his essay, “Objectivist Metaphysics,” deals with Rand’s views on the key questions of metaphysics and the answers to these questions. In Philosophy: Who Needs It, Rand has described the “province of metaphysics,” as the “study of existence as such.” Rheins explains that the view of existence that Rand has endorsed is the one of “primacy of existence,” which is “a fundamental claim about the relationship between the world, which is identified as mind-independent, and the mind, which is awareness of the world.”

Ayn Rand’s theory of knowledge is covered in Salmieri’s essay, “The Objectivist Epistemology.” Salmieri’s stated aim is to make Rand’s book, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, accessible to the readers. He points out that Rand has credited “Aristotelian epistemology for such achievements as the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Scientific Revolution, and the Founding of the United States.” He examines Rand’s affinity with the Enlightenment ideas and her view that the Enlightenment was undermined by philosophical failings.

James G. Lennox, in the chapter, “Who sets the Tone for a Culture?” deals with Rand’s approach to the history of philosophy. The chapter is divided into three broad sections—in the first section, Lennox talks about the approach that Rand has taken in her exploration of the history of philosophy; in the second, he dwells on the distinct conclusions that she derives from her study of the history of philosophy; in the third section, he presents her ideas on the critical role that Aristotle and Kant have played in the history of philosophy.

There is no dearth of commentators who seem to have ample reasons for associating the ideas of Friedrich Nietzsche with the literature and philosophy of Ayn Rand. Lester H Hunt clears the misconceptions, about the relationship between Rand’s ideas and those of Nietzsche, in the chapter, “Ayn Rand’s Evolving View of Friedrich Nietzsche.”

Ayn Rand was a prolific writer on political and cultural issues. Between the publication of Atlas Shrugged in 1957 and the end of her life in 1982, she wrote hundreds of articles and gave many talks. This commentary from Ayn Rand is discussed in the chapter, “A Philosopher on Her Times: Ayn Rand’s Political and Cultural Commentary,” which is written by John David Lewis and Gregory Salmieri. The descriptions of Rand’s views on the political figures like Goldwater, Kennedy, Nixon, Reagan and a few others is quite enlightening.

The section on Art has two chapters: The first is “The Objectivist Ethics” by Harry Binswanger and the second is “Rand’s Literary Romanticism” by Tore Boeckmann. The Romantic Manifesto, Rand’s main work on aesthetics, comes in for a detailed examination in Binswanger’s chapter, which also deals with the aesthetics-related ideas that Rand has proposed in her other works. The chapter by Tore Boeckmann gives an overview of the romanticism in Ayn Rand’s novels. Boeckmann has also dealt with her views on the classicist and naturalist schools of art.

The book closes with a brief “coda,” in which Allan Gottehelf and Gregory Salmieri present their insights on Rand’s benevolent universe premise and her heroic view of man.

A Companion to Ayn Rand lets the reader get a deeper insight into Rand’s philosophical ideas and her methods. Ayn Rand was a controversial and understudied thinker with an expansive body of work, and the Companion therefore is a rare triumph for a scholarly study.

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