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Thursday, March 04, 2010

Ayn Rand and Blaise Pascal

   I recently finished reading Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. I feel like I ought to get some sort of attaboy just for doing so; there are an arm-wearying 1168 pages in the paperback version I own.
Most people are at least cocktail party familiar with the novel. Published in 1957, the novel describes, in obviously rich (and frankly, plodding at many points) prose the dissolution of the United States into a totalitarian—then anarchic—mess, all under the guise of laws designed to "spread the wealth" and "lift up the poor." Whole organizations have sprung up around this novel, and many accord it a Nostradamus-like prescience about where American society is headed.
   Personally, I found the novel off-putting for two reasons—one unintentional, the other unavoidable.
   The unintentional was that Rand preached too much. She spent page after page after page after page after page after page after page after page after page after page after page telling us over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over that government control over private enterprise was dangerous and ruinous, that taking profits at the point of a gun and giving them to people who won't work is deeply dishonest and unlawful, and that it would eventually bankrupt the nation.
   My willingness to cut her some slack was that this was written in 1957, years before The Great Society, food stamps and the GM bailout. I think she had to hammer it because, in 1957, probably only one in a hundred people would believe it could ever happen. Now, in 2010, polls indicate that as many as 70% of the people believe it will happen. So, to many, Rand is preaching to the choir. And many of the songs have already been sung.
   But the most disappointing aspect of the novel is that the heroes are all men of reason. Reason is king. Not feelings. Not faith. Life is to be governed by a rational moral code. That sounds good on the surface. But the antithesis of coerced self-sacrifice (what today's politicians call "paying your fair share") is not rational selfishness, or what Rand called "ethical egoism." Her philosophy is that intellectual and moral (based on reason) people will naturally lead others to fulfillment and beneficence to society. In other words, man is an upwardly evolving creature, and those more evolved will, and should, lead, although they don't have to.
Rand had no appreciation at all for religion, and detested the notion of Original Sin. But without original sin, we don't even have a basis for moral improvement, much less an objective standard for it. She worshipped the rational, the intellectual, the vaguely moral. She has more in common with Nietzsche than with any other philosopher.
   Her heroes are flawed but oddly likeable. They amass great fortunes, suffer great losses, and the central character, John Galt, almost dies in being reasonable, perhaps at tip of the hat to a suffering savior, at least as a type.
   If all you have is man and his measure, then Rand's utopia should be much desired. But if there is more than man, then Rand's world is simply not possible.
   One of the historical figures most like the heroes in Rand's book would be Blaise Pascal. He was a staggeringly smart mathematician, a scientist and inventor of some note (a calculator, public transportation in Paris, the vacuum, as well as work on probability and barometric pressure—in the mid 17th century!). Pascal would have been a hero in Atlas Shrugged. Except for one thing: Pascal, after his conversion in 1654, realized that intellectual achievement was a distraction in the search for truth and meaning. As he states clearly in Pensées:

What amazes me most is to see that everyone is not amazed at his own weakness. We behave seriously, and everyone follows his calling, not because it is really a good thing to do, in accordance with fashion, but as if everyone knew for certain where reason and justice lie. We are constantly disappointed and an absurd humility makes us blame ourselves and not the skill we always boast of having. But it is a good thing for the reputation of scepticism that there are so many people about who are not sceptics, to show that man is quite capable of the most extravagant opinions, since he is capable of believing that he is not naturally and inevitably weak, but is, on the contrary, naturally wise.

   I really thought I would like the book, and recommend it to others. After all, I am a believer in the "if they don't work, they don't eat" school, even though I usually eat better than I work. But alas, I cannot recommend it. At best I can say it is a cautionary, fantastical tale with an unsatisfying—and equally cautionary—conclusion.
W. S. 

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