Ayn Rand


Welcome to a special edition of Atheist Of The Week, wherein we shall explore the life and philosophy of the intellectual and literary giant Ayn Rand, in honor of the 50th anniversary of her magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged. (Published October 10, 1957) Also, we shall take a look at allegations of cultism surrounding Rand – which, as regular readers know, is of particular interest to the authorship of BSJ. Over the years, her works have been regarded with high praise, suspicion, and outright hostility, experiencing widespread popular success (her books sales continue in the hundreds-of-thousands per-year) in spite of critical disrepute, and have made a lasting cultural imprint here in The West. Perhaps her most important legacy is her objectivist philosophy and its unintentional contributions to the libertarian movement. Many 20th century intellectuals have claimed that objectivism is at its worst dangerous, at its best utterly devoid of philosophical merit – a position I consider to be very parochial; as the title of the “Most Helpful Review” (by Hoke) on the Atlas Shrugged Page exclaims, “Read Philosophy, Do Not Fear It.”

Rand was born in Saint Petersburg, Russia, in 1905. Life in Russia on the eve of and for a decade after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution put her right between the jaws of the Soviets, who would become a symbol for everything she considered to be philosophically and ethically bankrupt. Following the social upheavals and civil war which ensued, the Soviets confiscated Rand’s father’s pharmacy, and her family fled to Crimea, where they could recover financially. When Crimea fell to the Soviets in 1921, Rand burned her diary, which was filled with anti-Sovietism. We can thus infer that even at the youthful age of 16, she had understanding of the threat communism posed to humanity. She then returned to Petrograd (post-revolution St. Petersburg), where she attended the University of Petrograd. There, despite a climate stifling to free-inquiry, the literature she discovered would have a lasting influence on her life (such as Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, etc.)

After leaving Russia for good in 1925 (she obtained permission for a brief visit to relatives, never to return), she worked in Hollywood as an extra and a script-reader. There, she met her husband, Frank O’Connor, whom she married, and remained in matrimony with, until his death in 1979. Despite some difficulties, she published her semi-autobiographical novel, We The Living, in 1936. The plot of We The Living details the harshness of life for a family living under communist rule. Critically, it was met with mixed reviews. The Fountainhead was her next work, published in 1943, and again, the critics showed Rand no love. However, word-of-mouth put The Fountainhead on the map, as it sold several hundred-thousand copies. From this, Rand gained notoriety as a champion of individualism.

Objectivism as a Movement

In 1951, Rand moved to NYC, where she began to organize informal gatherings on weekends to discuss philosophy in her living room. Shortly before that time, she began mentoring a young man named Nathaniel Branden, who quickly became her protégé and eventually more than that. Together, along with Branden’s wife (Barbera Branden), the notable Alan Greenspan, Leonard Peikoff and other intellectuals and friends, they created Rand’s inner circle, ironically titled The Collective.

Members of The Collective would promote the spread of objectivism in various ways. They helped edit the manuscript of Atlas Shrugged, promoted the teachings of objectivism through a series of lectures disseminated by the Nathaniel Branden Institute (formed by Branden shortly after the release of Atlas), and contributed to The Objectivist Newsletter. During its most prolific period, NBI was distributing taped objectivist content in over 80 cities across North America. If you are unfamiliar with the history of Ayn Rand, then it may surprise you to learn that the NBI was suddenly dissolved in 1968. Something was amiss.

A significant focal point of controversy for objectivists and those formerly involved with the movement has been and still remains the relationship of Rand and her protégé, Branden. When Branden first picked up The Fountainhead, at age 14, he was mesmerized – it was his most exciting literary experience, and he felt that he had essentially been raised by her from a distance. The two began corresponding intensively, by phone and by post, and they met just shy of Branden’s 20th birthday. Initially, their relationship was professional, then became intimate after several years (Branden and Rand famously called a meeting between them and their spouses, in which they divulged their relationship and convinced the unwitting parties that it would be unnecessary to divorce). Branden became a champion of objectivism recognized as second only to Rand during the course of their 18 year relationship (in fact, The Collective disbanded gradually after the couple split). What could have caused such an impressive parting of the ways, and what does said cause imply for the movement as a whole? I shall return to this question momentarily, but first let us examine the philosophy of objectivism.

Objectivism as a System of Values and Ethics

My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.

– Ayn Rand

According to Nathaniel Branden, objectivism teaches:

1. That reality is what it is, that things are what they are, independent of anyone’s beliefs, feelings, judgments or opinions—that existence exists, that A is A;
2. That reason, the faculty that identifies and integrates the material provided by the various senses, is fully competent, in principle, to understand the facts of reality;
3. That any form of irrationalism, supernaturalism, or mysticism, any claim to a nonsensory, nonrational form of knowledge, is to be rejected;
4. That a rational code of ethics is possible and is derivable from an appropriate assessment of the nature of human beings as well as the nature of reality;
5. That the standard of the good is not God or the alleged needs of society but rather “Man’s life” that which is objectively required for man’s or woman’s life, survival, and well-being;
6. That a human being is an end in him or herself, that each one of us has the right to exist for our own sake, neither sacrificing others to self nor self to others;
7. That the principles of justice and respect for individuality autonomy, and personal rights must replace the principle of sacrifice in human relationships;
8. That no individual—and no group—has the moral right to initiate the use of force against others;
9. That force is permissible only in retaliation and only against those who have initiated its use;
10. That the organizing principle of a moral society is respect for individual rights and that the sole appropriate function of government is to act as guardian and protector of individual rights.

Without attempting to distill too much philosophy into a few paragraphs, I shall elaborate briefly on the above quotations. objectivism teaches that self-interest is the basis for all morality; politically, that an individual is entitled to all which he hath wrought, so to speak; that violence should only be used as self-defense, and never initiated; that a proper government’s only function is to maintain an utterly free-market, devoid of taxation, of subsidies for corporations, etc., with protection of individual properties, and protection for individuals from the use of force by other individuals. Metaphysically, it teaches that the capacity for reason is instilled in every human being, and that it is by this capacity which we survive and promote our own well being. Overall, it teaches that opposing reason, individual freedoms, and/or laissez-faire capitalism will lead to the moral bankruptcy and ruin of a society and its constituents. [Note: I am not an expert on objectivism, so if I got anything wrong, feel free to correct me]. Obviously, the tenets of objectivism are rather detailed. The internet has a wealth of societies and critics from which you can learn A LOT more (lengthy philosophical essays, just around the corner). objectivism seems at first to be an honest celebration of the individual human spirit, and at its best, can be a very positive outlook. However, like all claims to the truth, we must hold up a microscope and examine closer.

Objectivism, Human Nature, and Objectivism vs. Human Nature

Interestingly enough, my last AOTW article on Steven Pinker happens to be very poignant right about…now. If you have read any of Rand’s works, especially Atlas Shrugged (this I will detail further in just a sec), you know that her fictions deal with characters of extraordinary intellect, will power, and faculties of reason. They are endowed with Herculean characteristics, and their brilliance is very absorbing and inspiring. Under our microscope, this brilliance is shattered.

Rand held that the human mind is a tabula rasa, which is Latin for ‘scraped tablet’ or ‘clean slate’. The reason I brought up Pinker is because he wrote one of my favorite books on human nature, The Blank Slate. He spends a large portion of the text debunking any possibility of a tabula rasa. Thus, her notions of man’s golden will, his rationality, his capability to utilize reason – all of these standards of objectivism are put to question. For if the human mind is not free to shape it’s own will, if it is subject to instinct, emotional pressures, and the tendency for these pressures to override the intellect, then all of these fictional paragons of individual achievement that she has developed are completely disconnected from reality – they really are Herculean.

Furthermore, she never accepted evolution. However, she never rejected it. Perhaps she maintained a cognitive dissonance about the subject: realizing that the theory of evolution would expose large holes in the fabric of her philosophical “space”, she could not endorse it. This, according to Branden:

I remember being astonished to hear her say one day, “After all, the theory of evolution is only a hypothesis.” I asked her, “You mean you seriously doubt that more complex life forms—including humans—evolved from less complex life forms?” She shrugged and responded, “I’m really not prepared to say” or words to that effect. I do not mean to imply that she wanted to substitute for the theory of evolution the religious belief that we are all God’s creation; but there was definitely something about the concept of evolution that made her uncomfortable.

Atlas Shrugged

Charting in at just over 1000 pages, Atlas Shrugged covers the gamut of philosophical and ethical questions with answers straight from the progenitor of objectivism herself. Rand has been lauded for simultaneously creating a philosophical system and demonstrating how it should be applied in real world situations. This, she achieves by examining and scrutinizing the struggles of her characters as they face demons of many shapes and fallacies.

The story takes place in mid 20th century America, perhaps the only industrial country left in the world that has not become a “People’s State”, though it is well on its way by the time we enter the narrative. The main character/protagonist is Dagny Taggart, Vice President in Charge of Operations at Taggart Transcontinental, a consumer railroad corporation in the throes of politics, bureaucracy, and corruption. She faces a world of dying creativity and achievement, in which the great industrialists, intellectuals, and artists are disappearing one by one. The operator behind these disappearances is referred to as “the destroyer”. Dagny’s America is plagued by the mysterious question, “Who is John Galt?” which has become a colloquialism for expressing general hopelessness or resignation. But is there more substance to this question? Is there a reason that his name strikes at the very core of this dying society?

To me, the book is most fascinating not because of the obvious philosophies that it challenges, but for some of the more esoteric questions not often asked. For instance, what would happen to the common man if there were no entrepreneurs, no great scientists, or industrialists; if all of the things he takes for granted on a day-to-day basis, like the grocery store having food stocked for purchase, the lights turning on and the toilets working; all of these things organized and carefully set up into what might as well be a magic show, given the average person’s understanding of his/her life’s underpinnings; what would happen if the support beams of society suddenly buckled?

However, if it seems to you like that question is lacking a lot of nuance, well that’s because it is. Obviously there is an interconnected setup of governments, corporations, worker-bees, small-businesses, independent contractors, etc. that keep the world running to some degree of what might be considered in some schools of thought to be efficient (haha). It is not as though some abstract “prime-movers” could just up and walk away and that would be that. There are too many parties of interest involved in any given successful industry, and therefore I can’t imagine these prime movers as being anything more than groups of humans motivated by money and power and fame – hence the concept of singular individuals holding the “keys” to the “motors of industry” seems really caricatured to me.

Perhaps I am guilty of doing the caricaturing though. Perhaps what she is really asking is, “What if men of action allowed their spirits to be eaten, from the inside out, by ideologies that opposed their right to be rewarded according to the creativity of their actions? What if instead they said, ‘enough is enough’, and simply let the rest of the world rot in its own indecisiveness and self-hatred?” These questions make me think of all the negative mindsets I’ve encountered over the years, all of the anti-progress lyricists that are called “brilliant”, and all misanthropes of all colors. What Rand despises is the way that modern society protects these people from the weight of their own words.

As far as literature goes, Atlas Shrugged is a very interesting, very wordy novel. One character’s speech on objectivism lasts around 60 or 70 pages, in my paperback. Such are the perils of writing philosophical fiction. I liked the book and highly recommend it. Let it inspire you with its wisdom, yet recognize its faults.

Allegations of Cultism, Nathaniel Branden Continued

Why did Ayn Rand and Nathaniel Branden split after 18 years of promoting objectivism together? Branden fell in love with a young actress, and kept the affair secret from Rand for several years. Branden broke off his relationship with Rand in 1968. When Rand found out about Branden’s affair, she smeared him publicly, claiming that he had financially and professionally exploited her. Based on what I have read, Rand was lying. According to Branden, concluding his public response to her smear article:

She writes: “About two months ago (at the beginning of July), in an apparent attempt to terminate the discussions he himself had initiated, Mr. Branden presented me with a written statement which was so irrational and so offensive to me that I had to break my personal association with him.”

In writing the above, Miss Rand has given me the right to name that which I infinitely would have preferred to leave unnamed, out of respect for her privacy. I am obliged to report what was in that written paper of mine, in the name of justice and of self-defense.

That written statement was an effort, not to terminate my relationship with Miss Rand, but to save it, in some mutually acceptable form.

It was a tortured, awkward, excruciatingly embarrassed attempt to make clear to her why I felt that an age distance between us of twenty-five years constituted an insuperable barrier, for me, to a romantic relationship.

The aforementioned tactics of smear were just the beginning. Read in this fascinatingly telling article about Ayn Rand’s personality cult, by Murray N. Rothbard: The Sociology of the Ayn Rand Cult.

Further Criticisms

Further undermining her potency as a speaker for rationality was her position on gays. In her sincere opinion on homosexuality, “it’s disgusting”. She believed that homosexuals were psychologically and morally flawed.

On drug use:

Drug addiction is the attempt to obliterate one’s consciousness, the quest for a deliberately induced insanity. As such, it is so obscene an evil that any doubt about the moral character of its practitioners is itself an obscenity.

And finally, concerning Native Americans, a rather damning quote, something she said in a speech given at West Point Academy on March 6, 1974.

[The Native Americans] didn’t have any rights to the land and there was no reason for anyone to grant them rights which they had not conceived and were not using…What was it they were fighting for, if they opposed white men on this continent? For their wish to continue a primitive existence, their “right” to keep part of the earth untouched, unused and not even as property, just keep everybody out so that you will live practically like an animal, or maybe a few caves above it. Any white person who brought the element of civilization had the right to take over this continent.

I have no idea how she could ever reconcile this with her emphasis on property as an individual’s fundamental right.

In Closing

For all that I have criticized, Ayn Rand did something great. She inspired generations of people who have been told, in essence, that “Life’s a bitch, and then you die” (at least that’s the one I’m familiar with). In closing, I would like to quote a passage from Robert Greene’s blog, who is far more rational and connected to human psychology than Rand:

It is always easier to argue from the negative side–criticizing other people’s actions, dissecting their motives, etc. And that is why most people will opt for this. If they had to describe a positive vision of what they want in the world, or how they would accomplish a particular task, this would open them up to all kinds of attacks and criticisms. It takes effort and thought to establish a positive position.

– Robert Greene

Thanks for reading!

Addendum: Alan Greenspan

Alan Greenspan is one individual influenced by Rand, and his economic policies have had enormous impact. Read about his involvement in the objectivism movement HERE. Also, you may want to check out his book, The Age Of Turbulence, Adventures In A New World.


Rand, Ayn. Atlas Shrugged. New York: Signet, September 1996

Comments (11 comments)

Richard Bramwell / October 12th, 2007, 5:44 pm / #1

I am afraid you have ended by giving too much emphasis on gossip level stories about Rand; on popular, shallow interpretations of just how Branden exposed his fundamental deceit of Rand; on out of context interpretations of her views on the behavior of many homosexuals (she clearly felt the same of heterosexuals who behaved that way), and of the early American Indians (a tribe cannot own property, they were defending territory and were barbaric to each other and to the Europeans).

Most of her detractors failed in seriously examining the negative claims you echo, and so the misrepresentations continue like so many mindless rumors.

guest / September 24th, 2010, 10:58 am / #2

you still living off your ex wife or did you finallly start to earn a living in this world like Ayn would like

The Gay Black Jew / October 12th, 2007, 6:38 pm / #3

Thank you for writing this, Shady. I’ve only read The Fountainhead, and it did inspire me. I came to a personal belief that I should be wary of acquiring too much knowledge. As a manic-depressive who has been psychotic (before taking meds, as I do now), studies have shown that I am more likely to be capable of original thought. Reading the thoughts of others too much can contaminate my own, unique views of the world. You can create your own box if you let the thoughts of others carve the four sides.

I appreciate your mentioning the deplorable aspects of her belief system…I was not aware. Thank you. But, I take from her one absolute truth, IMO. An intelligent and creative man or woman should follow his or her own path in life and not settle for a job in a creativity-stifling atmosphere. This has left me unemployed, but my parents are very wealthy and support me. I am a culture warrior, and I will settle for nothing else than using whatever talents I may have as a writer…even if it means being dependent for the rest of my life.

Regarding religion: How can mankind make progress with a rusty anchor in the past? With religion, we cannot.

shady character / October 14th, 2007, 1:05 pm / #4

Hey guys

Richard Bramwell, in response to your critiques: well, I read a number of articles on the Rand-Branden split and evaluated it based on the consensus expressed in those articles, so perhaps I am guilty of bias. However, when you talk of

shallow interpretations of just how Branden exposed his fundamental deceit of Rand

I think that you are skewing the picture. Calling it a “fundamental deceit” seems rather caricatured to me. People in relationships break up! Rare is the marriage or partnership predicated on “true love” that lasts until “death do us part”. Perhaps I don’t know the whole picture. I read Branden’s response to Rand, and it seemed that he was being honest about the situation. Perhaps I was taken in? You’re going to have to elaborate or point me to an article that refutes Branden’s statement.

The thing that threw me off the most was the way that Branden was so quickly and effectively banished, as though a tactless courtier who had inspired a king’s wrath. How do you explain the way that all the courtiers in Queen Rand’s Court turned against Branden as suddenly as she had pointed her finger? I am incredulous in believing that he was given a “fair trial” and “due process” in the matter. It seems to me that he had angered the so-called “God of Reason” and was duly punished.

on out of context interpretations of her views on the behavior of many homosexuals (she clearly felt the same of heterosexuals who behaved that way)

And what “way” was that? It is pretty common knowledge that she took a resoundingly negative stance when it came to homosexuals. I know that she didn’t think it was anybody’s right to tell a man that he couldn’t be with a man, just that she thought a man ought-to-not be with a man. She thought it was a psychological corruption. Did I miss the nuances?

…and, on the American Indians:

(a tribe cannot own property, they were defending territory and were barbaric to each other and to the Europeans).

Of course, this historical assessment predicates the moral basis for the Europeans to have done what they did. That assessment is widely disputed, however. What I do know is that colonialism throughout human history has generally wrought the horrific treatment of indigenous peoples. Genocide, rape, religious conversion – were these not the policies of colonization? The excerpt from her West Point speech proves to me that she had a very limited understanding of what actually happened. Let’s review:

[The Native Americans] didn’t have any rights to the land and there was no reason for anyone to grant them rights which they had not conceived and were not using…What was it they were fighting for, if they opposed white men on this continent? For their wish to continue a primitive existence, their “right” to keep part of the earth untouched, unused and not even as property, just keep everybody out so that you will live practically like an animal, or maybe a few caves above it. Any white person who brought the element of civilization had the right to take over this continent.

That is sooooooooooo Anne Coulter.

The Gay Black Jew: Haha, I feel you on that. I read as much as possible, but submit my allegiance to any single school of philosophical thought as little as possible. I know the “boxed-in” feeling.

By the way, my purpose in mentioning the deplorable aspects of her belief systems was not to discredit her. I think that she was a complex person with many insights, and I completely agree with you when you say:

An intelligent and creative man or woman should follow his or her own path in life and not settle for a job in a creativity-stifling atmosphere.


Regarding religion: How can mankind make progress with a rusty anchor in the past? With religion, we cannot.


C. Fahy / October 15th, 2007, 7:03 pm / #5

You need to read a book that will dispell your ideas about what happened between Rand and Branden: The Passion of Ayn Rand’s Critics by James Valliant. It contains Rand’s own journal entries from the period in question, published for the first time only two years ago. They prove without a doubt that Rand not only told the truth, but spared both Brandens the lashing they deserved and the extent of the congame they subjected Rand to.

shady character / October 15th, 2007, 9:21 pm / #6

C. Fahy, would you instead care to summarize?

BlackSun / October 16th, 2007, 12:40 am / #7

I think what is evident here is that Ayn Rand was a brilliant intellect with some personal problems, and also some views which reflected some of the narrow-mindedness of her time.

I’m not sure how important it is whether or not Rand or Branden is telling the truth. They were attempting something highly difficult and unusual with regard to relationships. That it didn’t work out so well is unsurprising. That they tried is admirable.

Having said all that, there is no way you can cleanly separate a philosopher’s (or any leadership figure’s) personal life from their philosophy. If they can’t live it effectively, then how can they expect anyone else to do so?

Walking your talk is important. On the other hand, sometimes a person can come up with ideas which transcend their human foibles and hold an archetype which others later may explore, expand on, and use in their own quest for enlightenment.

We’ve seen all throughout history the perils of deifying any leader. Starting with ancient despots, or mythical or historic figures such as Jesus, Abraham, Mohammed, continuing through the great dictators and charlatans of the 20th century and up to the present. I fear this process of objectification of leaders will continue until humanity transcends the need to place people on pedestals.

I’d hate to see the good ideas Rand (or Branden for that matter) articulated get lost in petty disputes over their personal lives. No matter what, they are both intellectual giants.

valhar2000 / October 17th, 2007, 4:56 am / #8

They prove without a doubt that Rand not only told the truth, but spared both Brandens the lashing they deserved and the extent of the congame they subjected Rand to.

How can diary entries do that? If anything, they would prove what Rand thought the Brandens had done, and how bad she thoguht it was.

It is comments like that, more than anything else, that make Ayn Rand seem like a cult leader. Who cares what disputes she had with other people? If some of her ideas were right, we adopt them, and reject the ones that were wrong.

Wether she was unjustly maligned, wether she beleived what she said or not, wether she ate babies and raped puppies for fun or not; those things have absolutely no bearing on the merits of the philosophy she spoused and developed.

The Blameless Vestal / November 14th, 2007, 11:09 pm / #9

Thank you so much for your wonderful approach in writing this! I am definitely a fan of a lot of what Miss Rand said, despite also knowing that some of her beliefs were loathsome. I’m really sick of running into people who dismiss her entire philosophy based on a few bitchy quotations, and I’m also incredibly tired of my fellow “Objectivists,” who seem to take every Randian (and, worse, Peikoffian) word as gospel. I’m glad to see that there are at least a few other people who think about these ideas as separate from both their advocate and their shared name. Ideas are individuals too!

Mathew Wilder / February 6th, 2008, 12:25 pm / #10

Somewhere on teh Internets I read someone say that Rand is like Nietzsche, just without the beautiful prose. From the little I know about Rand, that seems fairly accurate.

I think that Rand’s moral philosophy has some glaring errors. Permit me to quote from an interview with Martha Nussbaum in, ironically enough, Reason magazine:

Reason: On the other side, you argue that liberal contractarian theories of the sort many libertarians find appealing (David Gauthier, James Buchanan, etc.) tend to give rise to a (paradoxically illiberal) shaming or stigmatization of “abnormal” or dependent citizens; can you sketch that argument briefly?
Nussbaum: Sure. I should also say that this argument is the theme of my Tanner Lectures in Human Values 2003, which will come out as a book eventually, so the very brief allusion to those ideas in the present book is actually a forecast of my next book. To put it very briefly: All theories based on the classical idea of the social contract hypothesize that people are “free, equal, and independent” (to use Locke’s phrase) in the state of nature. Their rough equality in power and resources is an important part of such theories, since they hold that people will get together and bargain about the shape of a state only when it is mutually advantageous to do so. That condition would be defeated were the bargain to include people with unusually expensive needs, or people who can be expected to contribute less than most to the overall wellbeing of the group. People with severe mental disabilities are clearly in this class, as are many with physical disabilities. I then argue that the problem of care for and inclusion of people with disabilities (including elderly people who once were “normal”) is one of the major problems of justice that any modern society must solve. It is a problem of justice for the person with a disability, since such people need protection for their self-respect and citizenship; it is also a problem for the people, almost always women, who provide the needed care for people in a condition of dependency or disability. This problem cannot be solved if we conceive of society as a bargain for mutual advantage. We need to develop a richer account of the purpose of social cooperation. In my new book I also apply this insight to justice between nations (for nations, obviously, are grossly unequal in power and resources).

Of course, Rand isn’t a contractarian exactly, but I think she shares a similar blindspot, in conceiving people as completely free and rational. There is no place in her theory for the less than “normal.” Her moral philosophy has always struck me as very cold, and Machiavellian – antisocial, even.

I much prefer a constructivist account of morality (as I’m sure you’ve gathered from the discussion at Daylight Atheism), along the lines of Rawls or Scanlon, with a healthy Aristotelian (Nussbaum-ian) flavor and some Mill tossed in for good measure.

Alice McMahon / March 6th, 2015, 9:35 pm / #11

I am a fan of her writing specially her book "1936 We the Living" is a master piece for me. i have read it almost 3 times til now and still have thirst to read it again. In that book how she explains the truths behind our living is quite amazing. May her soul rest in piece.

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