Ayn Rand, C.S. Lewis, and Objectivism

So, I’ve been reading Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand and have almost finished the book. It’s long. And wordy. And philosophically dense. And, I find that I have some pretty conflicting opinions about her philosophy. Ayn Rand (born Alisa Zinov’yevna Rosenbaum February 2, 1905 – March 6, 1982) was born and educated in Russia, and moved to the United States in 1926. She was an American novelist, philosopher, playwright, and screenwriter. She is perhaps best known for her two best-selling novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, and for developing a philosophical system which she called Objectivism. Objectivism’s central tenets are essentially, that reality exists independent of consciousness, that human beings have direct contact with reality through sense perception, that one can attain objective knowledge from perception through the process of concept formation and inductive logic, that the proper moral purpose of one’s life is the pursuit of one’s own happiness (rational self-interest), and that the only social system consistent with this morality is one that displays full respect for individual rights embodied in laissez-faire capitalism. Since her philosophy acknowledges the absolute nature of values and ethics, promotes hard work, invention, and creativity, and ultimately leads to politics that promote the rights of the individual and capitalism; many Christians (particularly American Christians) and conservative Christian politicians (I’m looking at you Rand Paul and Paul Ryan), have spoken glowingly of her.

Points of Agreement

I myself agree with some aspects of her philosophy and have argued in previous posts for both the application of logic and reason to faith, and the objective nature of truth and reality. Unfortunately, Ayn’s ultimate conclusions are not only far different than mine, but also aggressively anti-Christian making it practically impossible for me to straddle the fence. She herself said, “If you agree with some tenets of Objectivism, but disagree with others, do not call yourself and Objectivist; give proper authorship credit for the parts you agree with—and then indulge in any flights of fancy you wish, on your own. If you should ask why I take all these precautions, while other philosophers do not, I shall answer: today – when modern philosophers reject the concepts of reason, existence, reality, logic proof, knowledge, integration, system, and regard philosophy as a verb, not a noun (they are not studying or creating philosophy, they are ‘doing it’) – mine is the only philosophy system that holds consistency as necessary virtue.” 1 She doesn’t exactly come across as humble does she? She is quoted elsewhere as saying that she could only recommend the “three A’s” — Aristotle, Aquinas, and Ayn Rand.” 2 which in itself strikes me as a bit of a contradiction since Thomas Aquinas, was himself a renowned Catholic philosopher and theologian. Indeed, Ayn seems almost wistful when speaking of him. “There is an element of sadness in this spectacle. Catholicism had once been the most philosophical of all religions. Its long, illustrious philosophical history was illuminated by a giant: Thomas Aquinas. He brought an Aristotelian view of reason [an Aristotelian epistemology] back into European culture, and lighted the way to the Renaissance.” 3 I will however, take her advice and pointedly not call myself an Objectivist. I will also note proper authorship with the parts that I agree with – although unfortunately I cannot credit her with either discovering the Aristotelian view of reason and logic which she applies, nor the exclusivity of holding consistency as a virtue.

Existence Exists – At least the part that we can see…

So, where exactly does she go wrong? Rand held that existence is the perceptually self-evident fact at the base of all other knowledge, i.e., that “existence exists.” She further held that to be is to be something, that “existence is identity.” Rand argues that consciousness is “the faculty of perceiving that which exists.” As she puts it, “to be conscious is to be conscious of something”, in other words, the mind does not create reality, but rather, it is a means of discovering reality. So far, so good, but here’s the problem. Objectivism rejects belief in anything alleged to transcend existence.4 In other words, her reality doesn’t encompass a spiritual reality. I really liked Vic Sizemore’s critique of Atlas Shrugged. “She starts with existence exists, which is her axiomatic principle, the starting point from which she builds her belief system. From there she is quick to deny even the possibility of spiritual reality. Eventually she ends in a place where selfishness is a high virtue, altruism a despicable vice, and capitalism the only sane economic system…Rand’s fiction sucks for the same reason so much Christian fiction sucks. It is endlessly didactic, so busy preaching it forgets to pay close attention to life. Her characters deliver lectures. You don’t have to look closely to see they are puppets with Rand’s own lips moving eerily under the mask, her angry eyes staring out through holes in the rubber face. The bad guys in her books are straw men called collectivism, and altruism and they speak only in bromides and Rand gleefully bats them down.”5 Never one to shy away from, “telling it like it is” the inestimable Flannery O’Connor once wrote, “I hope you don’t have friends who recommend Ayn Rand to you. The fiction of Ayn Rand is as low as you can get re: fiction. I hope you picked it up off the floor of the subway and threw it in the nearest garbage pail. She makes Mickey Spillane look like Dostoevsky.”  {As a side note, I highly recommend the works of Flannery O’Connor if you haven’t read them. I’ve put a link to her collected works from Amazon at the bottom of the page. Full disclosure – I get a 4% kickback which comes out to something like .89 cents. Do us both a favor – put some spare change in my pocket, and get the book – you won’t regret it! 

Problematic Premises

“Contradictions do not exist. Whenever you think that you are facing a contradiction, check your premises. You will find that one of them is wrong.”6 Here are a couple of places where I think Ayn got her premises wrong.

  • The idea that existence is only material. If this premise is true, then it would make sense to live only for the here and now, a concept which she avidly recommends. “Ask yourself whether the dream of heaven and greatness should be left waiting for us in our graves-or whether it should be ours here and now and on this earth.”7 But if this supposition is not true, then perhaps as Jim Elliot famously suggested, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.”
  • The idea that selfishness is a virtue and altruism a vice. “Now you want me to speak about the cross. What is correct is that I do regard the cross as the symbol of the sacrifice of the ideal to the nonideal. Isn’t that what it does mean? Christ, in terms of the Christian philosophy, is the human ideal. He personifies that which men should strive to emulate. Yet, according to the Christian mythology, he died on the cross not for his own sins but for the sins of the nonideal people. In other words, a man of perfect virtue was sacrificed for men who are vicious and who are expected or supposed to accept that sacrifice. If I were a Christian, nothing could make me more indignant than that: the notion of sacrificing the ideal to the non-ideal, or virtue to vice. And it is in the name of that symbol that men are asked to sacrifice themselves for their inferiors. That is precisely how the symbolism is used. That is torture.”8 But here I would note that Christ (the ideal) did not sacrifice Himself to us (the non-ideal) – But that rather, He sacrificed Himself to the Father (the ideal) for us (the non-ideal) so that we could partake in His divinity (become the ideal).

It was not virtue which was sacrificed to vice, but rather vice that was redeemed by virtue – vice which was made virtuous. [Tweet This]

  • The idea that love for others, or service for others is harmful to the individual. “Jesus (or perhaps His interpreters) gave men a code of altruism, that is, a code which told them that in order to save one’s soul, one must love or help or live for others. This means, the subordination of one’s soul (or ego) to the wishes, desires or needs of others, which means the subordination of one’s soul to the souls of others.”9 Contrary to this, the Catholic doctrine of solidarity, reminds us that, “we are all in this together.” That we all share an innate dignity and value because we are all created in the image and likeness of God.  That, “…everyone should look upon his neighbor (without any exception) as ‘another self,’ above all bearing in mind his life and the means necessary for living it with dignity.”10 There is a communion which we all share in, and through Christ, and this is a communion that extends to God Himself. “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” 11 Jesus illustrates powerfully that service to others is service to Him, and ultimately because of the communion that we share in Him, service to ourselves.  This is the analogy of the body which we see expressed over and over again in Scripture – one organism dedicated to the good of all of it’s members for the sake of the entire body.

If Flannery O’Connor’s indictment wasn’t enough to make me think twice about Ayn Rand’s works; Ayn’s own treatment of C.S. Lewis, found scribbled in the margins of her copy of The Abolition of Man, was. I’m not going to give you the blow by blow color commentary, but rather let you read Lewis’ quotes and Rand’s comments for themselves. The following are excerpts; you can refer to the full list here.  What really leapt out at me was Lewis’ precise reasoning and Ayn’s sloppy (and often emotional) responses. Often she criticizes him for positions which he hasn’t taken and ideas which he hasn’t expressed.

Ayn Rand’s Marginalia on C. S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man

Lewis’ Abolition of Man followed by the margin notes of Ayn Rand (AR). Throughout this excerpt Lewis frequently refers to the Tao or the “Great Way.”

1. The Innovator attacks traditional values (the Tao) in defence of what he at first supposes to be (in some special sense) ‘rational’ or ‘biological’ values. But as we have seen, all the values which he uses in attacking the Tao, and even claims to be substituting for it, are themselves derived from the Tao. If he had really started from scratch, from right outside the human tradition of value, no jugglery could have advanced him an inch towards the conception that a man should die for the community or work for posterity. [pp. 27/21/28]
AR, “You bet he couldn’t!”
3. The later a generation comes – the nearer it lives to that date at which the species becomes extinct – the less power it will have in the forward direction, because its subjects will be so few. There is therefore no question of a power vested in the race as a whole steadily growing as long as the race survives. The last men, far from being the heirs of power, will be of all men most subject to the dead hand of the great planners and conditioners and will themselves exercise least power upon the future. [pp. 36-37/29/36]
AR, “It is unbelievable, but this monster literally thinks that to give men new knowledge is to gain power(!) over them. The cheap, awful, miserable, touchy, social-metaphysical mediocrity!”
4. There neither is nor can be any simple increase of power on Man’s side. Each new power won by man is a power over man as well. Each advance leaves him weaker as well as stronger. In every victory, besides being the general who triumphs, he is also the prisoner who follows the triumphal car. [pp. 37/29/36]
AR, “So when you cure men of TB, syphilis, scurvy, small pox and rabies – you make them weaker!!!”
5. In the older systems both the kind of man the teachers wished to produce and their motives for producing him were prescribed by the Tao – a norm to which the teachers themselves were subject and from which they claimed no liberty to depart. [pp. 38/30/37]
AR, “And which brought such great joy, peace, happiness and moral stature to men!! (The bastard!)”
6. [Those who will replace traditional values] are … not men (in the old sense) at all. They are, if you like, men who have sacrificed their own share in traditional humanity in order to devote themselves to the task of deciding what ‘Humanity’ shall henceforth mean. [pp. 40/31/39]
AR, “So the state of being ‘men’ is equated with tradition!(?)”
7. [Those who reject tradition] are not men at all: they are artifacts. Man’s final conquest has proved to be the abolition of Man. [pp. 41/32/40] AR, “Meaning if you choose your own values and drop blind faith, you are an ‘artifact’!”
9.Their extreme rationalism, by ‘seeing through’ all ‘rational’ motives, leaves them creatures of wholly irrational behaviour. If you will not obey the Tao, or else commit suicide, obedience to impulse (and therefore, in the long run, to mere ‘nature’) is the only course left open. At the moment, then, of Man’s victory over Nature, we find the whole human race subjected to some individual men, and those individuals subjected to that in themselves which is purely ‘natural’ – to their irrational impulses. [pp. 42/33/41]
AR, “The ‘rational’ to him is blind faith!!! So man, by nature, is irrational – but faith makes him rational!!!
10. If the fully planned and conditioned world (with its Tao a mere product of the planning) comes into existence, Nature will be troubled no more by the restive species that rose in revolt against her so many millions of years ago, will be vexed no longer by its chatter of truth and mercy and beauty and happiness. [pp. 43/34/41-42]
AR, “– all of which are unnatural!?!”
13. Either we are rational spirit obliged for ever to obey the absolute values of the Tao, or else we are mere nature to be kneaded and cut into new shapes for the pleasures of masters who must, by hypothesis, have no motive but their own ‘natural’ impulses. Only the Tao provides a common human law of action which can over-arch rulers and ruled alike. A dogmatic belief in objective value is necessary to the very idea of a rule which is not tyranny or an obedience which is not slavery. [pp. 46/36/44]
AR, “The lousy bastard who is a pickpocket of concepts, not a thief, which is too big a word for him. Either we are mystics of spirit or mystics of muscle – reason? who ever heard of it? – such as in the Middle Ages?”
16. The serious magical endeavour and the serious scientific endeavour are twins: one was sickly and died, the other strong and throve. But they were twins. They were born of the same impulse. [pp. 47-48/38/46]
AR, “The cheap, drivelling non- entity!”
18. It might be going too far to say that the modern scientific movement was tainted from its birth: but I think it would be true to say that it, was born in an unhealthy neighbourhood and at an inauspicious hour. [pp. 49/38-39/47]
AR, “!!! You bet your life, you God- damn, beaten mystic at the Renaissance!”
20. [Lewis claims we must stop at tradition if we wish to avoid an infinite regress of rational explanations.]*** You cannot go on ‘explaining away’ for ever: you will find that you have explained explanation itself away. You cannot go on ‘seeing through’ things for ever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that the window should be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? It is no use trying to ‘see through’ first principles. If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To ‘see through’ all things is the same as not to see. [pp. 50/40/48]w
AR, “The abysmal caricature who postures as a ‘gentleman and a scholar’ treats subjects like these by means of a corner lout’s equivocation on ‘seeing through.’! By ‘seeing through,’ he means ‘rational understanding’!”
21. [Lewis ends his essay with the previous passage. On the next page, above the beginning of the Appendix, Ayn Rand made her last statement, apparently a summary of the essence of the whole essay.] [pp. 51/41/49]
AR, “Oh, BS! – and total BS! The bastard actually means that the more man knows, the more he is bound by reality, the more he has to comply with an ‘A is A’ existence of abso- lute identity and causality – and that is what he regards as ‘surrender’ to nature, or as nature’s ‘power over man.’ (!) What he objects to is the power of reality. Science shrinks the realm of his whim. (!!) When he speaks of value judgements, he means values set by whim – and he knows that there is no place for that in nature, i.e. in reality. (The abysmal scum!)”

A Departure From Reason

Here’s what I find fascinating.  Lewis’ book the The Abolition of Man is not a theological book.  Much like his work in Mere Christianity, Lewis uses reason and logic to argue against moral relativism and for what he refers to as the Tao, the great Way, or what we could call natural law.  In her margin notes, Rand proves herself to be far less than the champion of cold clear reason that she claims to be.  In attempting to maintain her philosophy of Objectivism, she comes off as decidedly un-objective in her critique.  She claims objective knowledge through reason and logic, but stoops to school yard name calling when confronted with Lewis’ careful reasoning. In spite of herself, Ayn would find herself in agreement with Lewis’ on several points if she were to just approach his arguments calmly and rationally.  Ayn writes that, “Joy is the goal of existence, and joy is not to be stumbled upon, but to be achieved, and the act of treason is to let its vision drown in the swamp of the moment’s torture.”12 and Lewis would agree.  He would argue however that joy finds it’s culmination in the spiritual reality which she rejects.  “I do not think that the life of Heaven bears any analogy to play or dance in respect of frivolity. I do think that while we are in this ‘valley of tears,’ cursed with labour, hemmed round with necessities, tripped up with frustrations, doomed to perpetual plannings, puzzlings, and anxieties, certain qualities that must belong to the celestial condition have no chance to get through, can project no image of themselves, except in activities which, for us here and now, are frivolous.  For surely we must suppose the life of the blessed to be an end in itself, indeed The End: to be utterly spontaneous; to be the complete reconciliation of boundless freedom with order–with the most delicately adjusted, supple, intricate, and beautiful order? How can you find any image of this in the ‘serious’ activities either of our natural or of our (present) spiritual life? Either in our precarious and heart-broken affections or in the Way which is always, in some degree, a via cruces?  No, Malcolm. It is only in our ‘hours-off,’ only in our moments of permitted festivity, that we find an analogy. Dance and game are frivolous, unimportant down here; for ‘down here’ is not their natural place. Here, they are a moment’s rest from the life we were place here to live. But in this world everything is upside down. That which , if it could be prolonged here, would be a truancy, is likest that which in a better country is the End of ends.

Joy is the serious business of Heaven.”13

A final distinction. Lewis writes, “One thing, however, I learned, which has since saved me from many popular confusions of mind. I came to know by experience that it is not a disguise of sexual desire. … I repeatedly followed that path – to the end. And at the end one found pleasure; which immediately resulted in the discovery that pleasure (whether that pleasure or any other) was not what you had been looking for. No moral question was involved; I was at this time as nearly nonmoral on that subject as a human creature can be. The frustration did not consist in finding a “lower” pleasure instead of a “higher.” It was the irrelevance of the conclusion that marred it. … You might as well offer a mutton chop to a man who is dying of thirst as offer sexual pleasure to the desire I am speaking of. … Joy is not a substitute for sex; sex is very often a substitute for Joy. I sometimes wonder whether all pleasures are not substitutes for Joy.” 14 And it is this confusion, this substitution if you will that is finally and fundamentally where Ayn Rand goes wrong.  She has substituted the temporal for the eternal, the love of self for the love of others, human wisdom for divine wisdom, and mere pleasures for the truest joy.

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  1. To the Readers of The Objectivist Forum, The Objectivist Forum, Vol. 1, No. 1 

  2. Sciabarra 1995, p. 12 

  3. Ayn Rand. Requiem for Man 1997. 

  4. Peikoff 1991, pp. 31–33 

  5. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/goodletters/2012/10/the-unbearable-badness-of-ayn-rand/#ixzz32g4KGKda 

  6. Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand. 

  7. Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged 

  8. Playboy Interview: Ayn Rand. Playboy, March 1964 

  9. letter to Sylvia Austin dated July 9, 1946, in Letters of Ayn Rand, p. 287 

  10. Gadium Et Spes 27 

  11. Matthew 25:40b 

  12. Ayn Rand – Atlas Shrugged 

  13. C.S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (San Diego: Harvest, 1964), 92-93. 

  14. C.S. Lewis – Surprised by Joy 

  2 comments for “Ayn Rand, C.S. Lewis, and Objectivism

  1. dreadrocksean
    October 8, 2015 at 5:57 PM

    You haven’t rebutted any of her tenets with any reasonable argument.
    You started off quite honestly. You stated her position accurately. I was quite surprised actually. Excited to see you write, “So, where exactly does she go wrong?”, I read on. “. . . but here’s the problem. Objectivism rejects belief in anything alleged to transcend existence, . . .”.

    Couldn’t wait! Finally someone having an honest discussion opposed to Ayn Rand without twisting her words or attacking her personality.

    Then you deferred to someone else’s quote that did just that and which had no substance rebuttal to the actual problem you had.

    Yours seems to be a dogmatic belief simply out of faith – which is not only precisely her point but proves her point.
    In any attempt to deny Reality, it must be acknowledged and used.

    Sigh – another win to the Russian.

    • Adam N. Crawford
      October 10, 2015 at 4:05 PM

      Dreadrocksean – thanks for the critique. You were excited to have, “an honest discussion” about Ayn Rand without someone, “twisting her words or attacking her personality.” Unfortunately you felt that I went on to quote someone who did just that. Twisted her words and attacked her personally.

      But I actually think Sizemore is right. He writes, “Rand’s fiction sucks for the same reason so much Christian fiction sucks. It is endlessly didactic, so busy preaching it forgets to pay close attention to life. Her characters deliver lectures. You don’t have to look closely to see they are puppets with Rand’s own lips moving eerily under the mask, her angry eyes staring out through holes in the rubber face. The bad guys in her books are straw men called collectivism, and altruism and they speak only in bromides and Rand gleefully bats them down.”

      This is a critique of her as a writer. It is not a critique of her as a philosopher or as a person. And, it’s actually a pretty valid critique regardless of whether or not you agree with her philosophy.

      That aside, you did read the quotes from Ayn where she wildly misrepresents the doctrines of the Christian faith – right? You did read her notes in the margins of The Abolition of Man where she twists C.S. Lewis’ words and attacks him personally – right?

      “Uhmmmm…Pot? Yeah, this is Kettle. You do know that you’re black…right? Right?!”

      On to the main points. You write, “In any attempt to deny Reality, it must be acknowledged and used.” Agreed, and this kind of gets at my problem. Ayn writes that she can only recommend the, “three A’s” — Aristotle, Aquinas, and Ayn Rand.” but, she is the only one of these philosophers to deny a supernatural or transcendent reality. In radically departing from Aristotelean and Thomastic philosophy she is effectively redefining reality and existence in a way that is profoundly different from the other two philosophers whom she compares herself to.

      To be clear – it is her redefinition of reality and existence as being merely material that becomes her faulty premise. And again, this is a radical departure from both Aristotle and Aquinas.

      The point of this article wasn’t to “prove” a supernatural or transcendent reality, but rather to note the way that Objectivism’s deficient understanding of existence and reality leads to a deficient understanding of the Christian faith.

      As to my own requirements for faith…in this article I linked to two other articles that I had written which address the subject of faith and reason in a far more comprehensive way:
      1. Thoughts on the Intersection of Faith and Reason
      2. Thoughts on Absolute Truth and Certainty in a Post-Modern Relativistic World.

      Hope that helps to clarify a few points, thanks again for the comments!

I want to hear your thoughts! Go ahead and keep the conversation going, but please keep it at least PG and respectful.

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