The Vanity of Ayn Rand

In past columns I’ve explored the deadly sin of Vainglory (or Vanity) and its key role in the American Church’s sex-abuse crisis. I’ve looked into the opposing virtue, Humility, and pointed up exemplars like the anonymous Capuchin friars who willed that their skeletons be dismantled to form the decorations for their chapel. Now it’s time for the fun part, which we might call Zmirak’s Inferno: Digging through the annals of history to find an Olympic-level practitioner of the Deadly Sin, then using him as a piñata. For medicinal purposes only.

Remember how St. Thomas distinguished Vainglory from the fundamental evil that corrupted Lucifer, Pride: Vainglory amounts to feeling puffed up over qualities that either a) you don’t have, or b) you didn’t earn. In today’s culture wars, Afrocentrists and Latino nationalists are frequently guilty of a, white racialists of b.
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History’s pages are filled, of course, with rulers akin to Shelley’s Ozymandias:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
From the global polis of Alexander’s dreams, up through fantasies of Thousand Year Reichs, international proletarian revolutions, and New World Orders, we can stroll through the picturesque wreckage, kicking rocks and snickering. Since few of us will ever command a platoon, much less an empire, this seems to me too easy. I’d rather pick an example of Vainglory whose abuses I find accessible — someone like a writer.
It would, again, be easy to pick on random bloggers or trolls who commandeer comboxes, fancying themselves the voice of this or that. But I fancy myself as above the task of microwaving gerbils. Instead, I’ll take on somebody my own size — in fact much larger, who has sold millions of books, created a political ideology, even launched what former followers call a cult: the philosopher/novelist Ayn Rand.
Let’s first get through the obvious stuff: Rand was a programmatic atheist, who sneered at any and all religious believers as self-deluding “mystics.” Here’s her analysis of faith, from Atlas Shrugged:
A mystic is a man who surrendered his mind at its first encounter with the minds of others. Somewhere in the distant reaches of his childhood, when his own understanding of reality clashed with the assertions of others, with their arbitrary orders and contradictory demands, he gave in to so craven a fear of independence that he renounced his rational faculty. At the crossroads of the choice between “I know” and “They say,” he chose the authority of others, he chose to submit rather than to understand, to believe rather than to think. Faith in the supernatural begins as faith in the superiority of others. His surrender took the form of the feeling that he must hide his lack of understanding, that others possess some mysterious knowledge of which he alone is deprived, that reality is whatever they want it to be, through some means forever denied to him.
That’s just a letter-perfect description of Sts. Paul, Augustine, Thomas More, Joan of Arc, Ignatius Loyola, and Edmund Campion, isn’t it? Rand should have run their pictures surrounding this paragraph as a “cloud of witnesses.”
Goaded by an entirely justified hatred for 20th-century collectivism, Rand went far beyond Classical liberalism and even libertarianism in her disdain for sharing the wealth: While small-government Manchester liberals or principled Austrian economists might argue that the Corporal Works of Mercy are best performed willingly by individuals, churches, and civic groups, Rand opposed even private charity on principle. She condemns “altruism” as a radical perversion of ethics. Hence her most famous phrase, “the virtue of selfishness,” an axiom Rand explained this way:
Just as life is an end in itself, so every living human being is an end in himself, not the means to the ends or the welfare of others — and, therefore, man must live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself.
I’ve argued elsewhere against the postmodern, liberal Christian impulse to reject a God-given concern for one’s own well-being (psychologists call it “healthy narcissism,” and it’s the reason babies cry and battered spouses flee). This self-loathing, projected onto politics, results in socialist multiculturalism. If you need a visual, picture a pallid, blue-tinged Anglican bishop staring from the porch of his empty cathedral at the swarms pouring into a London mosque . . . and forcing himself to smile. Or just go visit Canada.
Perhaps my early exposure to Rand — whose works I read, and followers I had to argue with incessantly in college — inoculated me against such religious masochism and made me view with a jaundiced eye the wave of vague, self-flagellating statements that sluice out of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. (Those clerics really should be strapped down and forced to read some Rand — a la A Clockwork Orange.)
But Rand’s ideal of selfhood amounts to self-deification, fed by the pretense that the individual is wholly self-created, owing nothing to history, ancestors, neighbors, or the future. Think I’m being unfair here? I’ll cite Ms. Rand again: “And now I see the face of god, and I raise this god over the earth, this god whom men have sought since men came into being, this god who will grant them joy and peace and pride. This god, this one word: ‘I.’”
Which recalls me to my first reflection on Deus Caritas Est:
When a follower of Ayn Rand (for instance) demands of me why he should give a penny of unearned charity to the unfortunate, I like to respond this way: “Did you invent the English language? Did you develop Common Law, or write the Constitution that protects your cherished rights? Did you build up urban civilization, or invent the technology that lets you live better than what man is by nature — a hunter-gatherer? I didn’t think so. It seems to me you inherited a great deal of social capital that you did absolutely nothing to earn. So now it’s time to pass along a little bit of the largesse you received. Or else you really ought to strip naked and go hunt wildebeest on the savannah.”
Rand‘s idea of the autonomy of the individual is so autistic, so clinically isolated from any real, human knowledge of how people grow up in families and cultures, that it recalls the lab experiments with baby monkeys raised by wire mothers. Rand never had or claimed to want children, and neither do her heroes and heroines. A true wire monkey mama, Rand bore fictional offspring who never fall in love, breastfeed, change diapers, or do any of the things that for a moment allow for the loss of self. They do sometimes engage in sexual activity, but it’s almost always a rape — albeit a rape where the steely-eyed, Art Deco female genius allows herself, after a struggle, to be overwhelmed by the broad-shouldered, hunky industrial mega-tycoon. Bodices are ripped with some enthusiasm, before the characters get back down to their real monkey business — ecstatically swapping contempt for the sea of primate mediocrities that surrounds them. It’s telling that Rand simply could not visualize and convincingly depict a willing erotic surrender that didn’t first need the use of force. No wonder she couldn’t differentiate the impulse to engage in willing self-sacrifice on behalf of a needy fellow man from the hatred, envy, and powerlust intrinsic to every form of socialism — even, or even especially, those that label themselves “Christian.”
Given Rand’s picture of the person as self-created, ex nihilo, it’s not surprising to learn that she hated giving credit to other thinkers from whom she’d learned — most obviously, Nietzsche. By the time her cult following had grown into a kind of church from which she would literally excommunicate errant sheep, Rand held that there were only two serious philosophers in history: Aristotle and Rand. She thought her didactic pop novels the artistic equivalent of Dostoevsky’s oeuvre — except that they weren’t marred by his “pathological” mysticism and altruism. And indeed, they aren’t. All Rand’s heroes and heroines are as calculated, and as human, as a mathematical equation.
I’m teaching The Brothers Karamazov this semester, and I’ve noticed that the author gave some of its ugliest characters his very own characteristics: the sensualist buffoon Fyodor shares Dostoevsky’s first name; the self-destructive Dmitri spends money as addictively as the author used to gamble it; and the murderer Smerdyakov is, like Dostoevsky, an epileptic. The creator of “The Grand Inquisitor” (the other Grand Inquisitor!) wasn’t self-hateful, cringing in abject adoration of the imposed opinions of others — as Rand imagined every believer must secretly be. Instead, he had the magnanimity and self-confidence to acknowledge his very real flaws. His Selfhood wasn’t a brittle concrete statuette of Atlas, cherished like a fetish in a self-created church. It was in fact a landscape, a vast field he knew he hadn’t himself created, with room for many mansions that could welcome countless guests. And at its heart there hung an icon, where burned a lamp, for the great Guest Dostoevsky hoped would take up residence there.


  • John Zmirak

    John Zmirak is the author, most recently, of The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins (Crossroad). He served from October 2011 to February 2012 as editor of Crisis.

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