October 10 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the greatest work of one of America’s most controversial and inspiring writers: Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.
Rand’s novels continue to be wildly popular among the young. Some 22,000 high school and college students this year submitted entries to essay contests on her books and, in the past year alone, teachers have requested over 300,000 copies of Anthem, The Fountainhead, and Atlas Shrugged to use in their classrooms. They know that students respond to her stories and heroes as to few other books.
It remains, however, all too common for a young person to be told that his interest in Ayn Rand is a stage he will soon grow out of. “It’s fine to believe in that now,” the refrain goes, “but wait until you’re older. You’ll discover that life is not like that.”
But when you actually consider the essence of what Rand teaches, the accusation that her philosophy is childish over-simplification stands as condemnation not of her ideas but of the adult world from which the accusation stems.
The key to Rand’s popularity is that she appeals to the idealism of youth. She wrote in 1969: “There is a fundamental conviction which some people never acquire, some hold only in their youth, and a few hold to the end of their days–the conviction that ideas matter.” The nature of this conviction? “That ideas matter means that knowledge matters, that truth matters, that one’s mind matters. And the radiance of that certainty, in the process of growing up, is the best aspect of youth.”
To sustain this youthful conviction throughout life, Rand argues, you must achieve a radical independence of mind. Independence does not mean doing whatever you feel like doing but rather forging your convictions and choosing your actions rationally, logically, scientifically. Independence is refusal to surrender your ideas or values to the “public interest,” as liberals demand, or to the “glory of God,” as conservatives demand. It is refusal to grant obedience to any authority, human or divine. The independent mind rejects faith, secular or supernatural, and embraces reason as an absolute. “The noblest act you have ever performed,” declares the hero of Atlas Shrugged, “is the act of your mind in the process of grasping that two and two make four.” Rand meant it.
The conviction that ideas matter represents a profound dedication to self. It requires that you regard your own reasoning mind as competent to judge good and evil. And it requires that you pursue knowledge because you see that correct ideas are indispensable to achieving the irreplaceable value that is your own life and happiness. “To take ideas seriously,” Rand states, “means that you intend to live by, to practice, any idea you accept as true,” that you recognize “that truth and knowledge are of crucial, personal, selfish importance to you and to your own life.”
Her approach here is the opposite of the view that ideals transcend this world, your interests and human comprehension–that idealism is, in President Bush’s words, “to serve in a cause larger than your wants, larger than yourself.”
The advice Rand offers the young? Think, reason, logically consider matters of truth and morality. And then, because your own life and happiness depend on it, pursue unwaveringly the true and the good. On this approach, the moral and the practical unite. On this approach, there exists no temptation to think that life on earth requires compromise, the halfway, the middle of the road. “In any compromise between food and poison,” she writes, “it is only death that can win. In any compromise between good and evil, it is only evil that can profit.”
In a world where our President (as well as the religious warriors we’re battling in the Middle East) equates idealism with otherworldliness, faith, and sacrifice of self, and where secular thinkers have long ago abandoned the Enlightenment ideal of “the perfectibility of man”–Ayn Rand stands alone. She argues that perfection is possible to man the rational being. Hold your own life as your highest value, follow reason, submit to no authority, create a life of productive achievement and joy–enact these demanding values and virtues, Rand teaches, and an ideal world, here on earth, is “real, it’s possible–it’s yours.”
Does an adult world that dismisses this philosophy as “simplistic” not convict itself?
The anniversary of the publication of Rand’s greatest work is an appropriate time to recognize the thinker who was courageous enough to take on that world and challenge its rampant skepticism, eager cynicism and unyielding demand for compromise, the thinker who in Atlas Shrugged portrayed and explained–at the most fundamental level–the heroic in man.