The Virtue of Selfishness
© 1964 Ayn Rand
How many books and movies have moved audiences by portraying a character who, struggling with persistent unhappiness, is pushed by their despair through to the realization that they’ve been living their life for another’s dream? That they married the man their parents wanted them to marry, even if they didn’t love him — that they became lawyers or doctors because their mom wanted them to, instead of pursuing their own dreams? The essential lesson there, the importance of honoring our inner being — our Self — is one we remind ourselves of frequently. It is in that vein that The Virtue of Selfishness puts forth a case for living in the honest pursuit of rational self-interest.
Like many readers, my initial reaction to Rand’s philosophy of ‘selfishness’ was one of surprise and contempt; based on the connotation the word carries in most cultures. My interest in Man vs State stories led me to her fiction, however, and somewhere amid the argument between Roark and Keating I found myself admitting that I’d misjudged her. Her ideas were far more substantial than expected; so too this title, which serves as a general introduction to Objectivism as a whole. She begins by establishing the importance of philosophy — particularly, epistemology and ethics, or how we come to find out what is true, and how we use it to guide our actions. Ethics, she argues, is not an artifact of human civilization, a code of behavior to keep unruly bipeds in crowded conditions from destroying one another, but the very genesis of progress. Reason is the great tool given to man by nature, our answer to the whale’s size and the tiger’s claws; without its consistent use to suss out the Truth and then act according to its dictates (ethics), we would amount to nothing but less hairy and more angsty apes.
An individual can think, conclude, and act. ‘Society’, being an abstract concept, a name for a collection of individuals, cannot. Rand therefore bases her worldview on the smallest concrete subject possible: the Individual. The Virtue of Selfishness is not a rationalizing defense for bad behavior, but rather defends the integrity of the self and reason against impulse, collectivism, and the ‘altruistic mentality ‘ — the latter being the habit of regarding one’s own existence as meaningless except when engaged in self-suppression on behalf of the tribe or even strangers. Other people do not justify your existence, Rand writes; there is no lasting meaning in identification with tribes, no reliability in following their whims. Joy is achieved through an individual’s dogged pursuit of excellence, through their successes in triumphing over challenges and their own impulses through clear thinking and hard work.
From here, Rand surveys the health of the Individual in the mid-20th century and finds it in very poor health indeed, nearly as oppressed by traditionalism, authority, and irrationality then as it was in previous dark ages. As belief in the old gods faded, the new god of the State and its collective lifeblood, The Nation, took the stage — and the new gods were far more potent than the old, coopting the tools of progress to serve instead the cause of decay. The Universities, too, having once been beacons of light allowing for the conquest of darkness, had fallen prey to postmodern confusion — and turned against the individual, especially the free exchange of economic energy between people that allowed the west to eclipse its own productivity decade after decade.
There is a savage and hard beauty in Rand’s writing, like the lines of a battleship. Far from catering to the worst of the human spirit, self-indulgence, Rand calls the Self forth to battle, summoning the best in us. Her Virtue demands the best from us — sharp thinking, hard work, constant self-evaluation. Her worldview is admirably integrated; the more I read her nonfiction, the more I realize it’s all of a piece. Even as I argued with her in my head (attempting to reconcile individualism and evolutionary psychology, as well as debating the role of the ego in well-being), I can’t help but admire her strength and consistency. She is shocking, but throws a cold and clear light on the world and I find that perspective illuminating despite its shadows.
Current plan: to continue reading Rand’s nonfiction, and then offer a response to her worldview including my reservations. Philosophy: Who Needs It will be next, followed by The Romantic Manifesto.