Ayn Rand: A Personal Reappraisal

Sydney A. Mayers

[Reprinted from Fragments, Summer 1995]

It is more than a decade since her demise, and about thirty years have passed since she reigned majestically as Queen of the Libertarians. Yet strangely, at this late date, for reasons I cannot easily fathom, Ayn Rand comes to mind from time to time, and I find myself cogitating with renewed interest upon her off-beat philosophy, her unorthodox psychology, and her hard-nosed individualism. I recall the impact of her personality, the devotion of her disciples, and how these phenomena led to a cult-like following. But she was maligned as well as worshiped, and quite intriguingly was the object of widespread "mixed feelings."

Rand and her concepts were applauded by many in high place -- albeit often with reservations. Conservatives approved her economics while deploring her atheism; business leaders praised her espousal of free enterprise but viewed rather dimly her high industrial standards; libertarians took delight in her urge for freedom, looking askance, however, at her deep regard for moral restraint. Her appeal to the young was enormous, especially those of college age, and, whether it pleased her or not, there emerged in the Sixties a vast coterie of eager-to-serve devotees. (I am sure that even today there is a goodly contingent of believers who continue to wave the banner of Objectivism.)

It would probably be most interesting to ascertain the current status of the Ayn Rand "movement" or the extent of her influence on contemporary thought. Nonetheless I choose not to engage in so broad an inquiry, but instead, to limit my search to the question of what Rand hath wrought vis-a-vis this scrivener. After all, she was a vehement proponent of individualism, and as an adherent of that noble creed, I deem it my prerogative to be primarily concerned with her effect upon me.

Biographically and otherwise, she has been roughly treated by some whilst almost deified by others. My view of both such Rand-bashing and Rand idolatry is one of disdain. I care naught for reports of the lady's amorous adventures, however spicy, nor am I carried away by adulation directed at her person rather than at her ideas. I quite agree with Albert Jay Nock in the belief that what really matters is the performance or product of a creative individual, and not his or her eyebrow-arching peccadillos. So let it be with Ayn Rand. She was without doubt a unique thinker, of immense intellectual stature, many (if not all) of whose views are admirable. A wise course herein clearly is to concentrate on her philosophy, and in so doing, carefully follow one of her basic principles: never mind the "truth," let's get to the facts!

Ayn Rand has moved me intellectually in three ways: by providing logical support for certain of my pre-formed opinions; by prompting greater clarity in my thinking, and by offering new insights as to numerous long-held but somewhat dubious beliefs. She has revealed to me an intelligent raison d'etre for ideas I had previously only sensed were valid. All this derives from the mental approach Rand named Objectivism -- her special word for Reality. She decried the common tendency (whether political, economic, or social) to create a sort of dream world, wishfully built upon what might be or should be or could be, and not what factually exists.

Rand pleaded for reason in all things, for objective consideration of any and every issue, for determination on the basis of intellectualism as opposed to emotion, prejudice, or ignorance. She passionately urged that at all times one should face, recognize, and accept actuality. She insistently posited that A is A and B is B and neither can ever be the other; that what is is and what is not is not, and therefore it is senseless to assert that what does not exist does in fact exist. To me this comprehensive concept is self-evident, and represents the purest form of logic.

A major preachment of Rand's was, of course, the Virtue of Selfishness. Obviously, her concept of the meaning of "selfishness" is far removed from the generally-held definition of that term. She stressed what she considered the vast importance of self-esteem and the transcendental value of one's own talents and accomplishments, these being the major thrusts of her two best-sellers, Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. Her point, as I take it, was simply that not to value oneself is the surest route to being worthless to others. Which leads, in an oblique way, to another Randian creation: the non-person, which is merely the bland refusal to acknowledge the existence of an especially obnoxious person who has proved unworthy of acceptance as a decent human being. I have found this delightful expedient a splendid means of obliterating undesirable acquaintanceships.

I also learned from Rand that rationally any action or statement must be considered in the context of the prevalent time, place, and occasion. For example, a happening of today cannot be judged by the standards of another time, nor can the act of a particular person or society be assessed by reference to the mores of a different person or society. Here again can be seen Rand's emphasis on the continuing need to employ objective reason in connection with just about every human endeavor.

There are those who, observing her unyielding demand for emotionless, self-serving rationality in the conduct of human affairs, look upon Rand as completely cold and calculating, lacking in normal warmth and tenderness. Even I did, to some extent, but only until I was privileged to meet and talk with her. (It happened twice, at lectures given by her then practicing apostle, Nathaniel Branden.) I found her intense and serious in manner, but at the same time quite outgoing and responsive. When a group formed, and mention was made of a heinous crime that had recently been perpetrated, Rand's entire reaction and demeanor were full of compassion and sympathy for the victim involved. This was no cold and calculating woman!