Thursday, October 13, 2011

Being Ayn Rand

I could never understand the appeal of Ayn Rand or see why otherwise intelligent folk, even big shots like Alan Greenspan, were/are devoted fans.

After seeing an excellent Showtime movie starring Helen Mirren, "The Passion of Ayn Rand," the appeal becomes more understandable. The movie reveals the emptiness of this Russian-born novelist's ideas and her own absurdity. An opening scene reveals much: she has died, and cult-like followers are lined up to see the corpse, which is situated beneath a gold statue of the dollar sign.

So it's capitalism, ruthless individualism, and selfishness presented with impressive-sounding jargon like "social metaphysics" that would appeal to some right-wing types even today, 29 years after her death. This movie, which deals chiefly with Rand's unorthodox sex life, also reveals the truth of her "philosophy," which has duped many readers for the past fifty years. It is wonderful to see Rand contradict herself in scene after scene. Extolling the virtue of reason, she is, in the deft hands of Mirren, a passionate advocate of herself at all cost.

Who cares if others are hurt badly by her actions? Who cares if she laughs at altruism ("the cowardice of self-sacrifice") and claims that every emotion can be controlled by logic and reason, even when the story of her life as a adulteress reveals just the opposite?
Everyone else, as she says, is a "lesser person" incapable of understanding her genius. She is portrayed as a person tragically incapable of love.

The life of Ayn Rand, it seems, is a study in the dubious appeal of self-interest, which is at the root of most evil and as appealing as evil can be. It demonstrates how easily many people are taken in by simple answers to complex issues.

Just before viewing this movie, I read several articles on evil as seen by neuroscientists, who are claiming these days to have the key to all wisdom. One promiment neuroscientist, Steven Pinker, uses data to support his dubious contention that people are becoming less violent, with each passing century. Others ask whether science has finally destroyed evil, or disproved it, as they claim to disprove free will.

As Will Wilkinson points out in a recent blog, the existence of evil can't be proved or disproved by looking at human brains since evil is not a neurological reality. Anyone who doubts the existence of evil is "just confused." And what about people who are apparently normal (not lacking empathy, not being psychopathological) and still do awful things?

I would send anyone interested in exploring evil today, not to neuroscience but to Terry Eagleton's recent book On Evil. He may be a Marxist, but his view of the subject is essentially in keeping with the mainstream Christian tradition going back to Augustine.

As one who used to teach courses in evil, I am glad to see the topic re-surface regularly in the secular sphere. As for the possibility that there is less violence, hatred, and attendant evils than in the past, I can only think of otherwise intelligent people like Ayn Rand, who scoffed at the very things the world needs more of if it is to "overcome" evil: empathy and altruism and love.

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