Saturday, September 1, 2012

Ayn Rand, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Where That Can Lead

I've posted a whole bunch about Ayn Rand over the last few years, as her objectivist political philosophy has gradually become more and more influential on the American political right.  Pretty much none of what I've discovered in Rand is news.

Her understanding of human beings is radically binary, dividing humankind out into those who are either 1) the great and noble minds who stride glorious upon the earth they bend to their will and 2) the parasites, losers, and hangers-on.   Meaning Commies, pinkos, and presumably Democrats.  Oh, and Mexicans.  Rand really didn't like Mexicans.

Perhaps because of this inability to see human beings for what they are, her writing is adolescent and self absorbed, vastly overlong and utterly devoid of grace.    Her philosophy is equally adolescent, in that she was convinced that she was the first person to come up with the ideas she espoused.   Just like every teen is convinced that no one has every loved as they love, or thought as they think, Rand allowed only that she was like Aristotle, because she loved reason.

Most folks don't read philosophy these days, so Rand's statement gets a pass with those who encounter her.  But for those who do, on both the left and the right, Rand's objectivism is clearly just a simpler, clumsier version of Nietzsche's nihilism.

I've observed this before, but there's something in that that has been bothering me.  

Nietzsche was a complex, subtle thinker, who I've studied at length.   As the dude responsible for putting "God is dead" into the common vernacular, and who styled himself the Anti-Christ, it's my responsibility as a pastor to actually know what he was talking about.

His writing is elegant and florid, rich and subtle, although occasionally a tick overwrought and willfully obscure.  Nietzsche is not an easy read, nor do I agree with most of his worldview, but I can appreciate him.  He's all about Big Ideas, and the need not to restrict or delimit the creativity of the creative.  It's a radically artistic philosophy, with an emphasis on the need for human beings to remain unfettered by limitations.  Unfortunately, those limitations often include compassion and morality, but hey, them's the breaks.

What Nietzsche is most certainly not is the designer of a social and political system.   There can't be a nihilist political system, as that philosophy is hyper-individualistic, and radically resistant to any social order or structure.  

But there was a time, once, when the leaders of an economically struggling nation trying to find its path back to greatness decided to simplify Nietzsche and celebrate him as one of the conceptual foundations of their society.  Stripped of his complexity, Nietzsche became the one who taught that what that nation must value is the successful, and the powerful, and the healthy, and the strong.

It did not end well.


  1. Reading Atlas Shrugged really disturbed me. To a young man not familiar with philosophy, Rand is a dangerous thing. Her rhetoric makes it look like her extreme philosophy is the only logical philosophy to live by. I stayed disturbed for a long time after reading Atlas Shrugged. But it also opened up philosophy for me. I still won't call myself someone who's read and studied many philosophies but I think I have a deeper understanding than before.

    Another book that affected my philosophy a lot was Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It helped me get better after Atlas Shrugged. What are your thoughts on Robert M. Pirsig and his metaphysics of quality?

  2. Eddy: I did that the other way around. I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in my teens. Which may be why, to this day, I am never willingly without a motorcycle. I'll admit that the "maintenance" part is less my thing than the riding, but the principle remains. I honestly don't remember more than sense impressions of the book--I just loved it, and it resonated. At some point, I'll need to go back and re-read it.

    I read Atlas Shrugged when I was in my thirties, and found it monstrous. Rand's philosophy is the enemy of all that is good and gracious in my own Christian faith. This is by intent--her philosophy is utterly devoid of compassion, which she views as weakness. The level of influence it has in American political discourse worries me.

  3. You are right. If nothing else, ZAMM leaves you with a great desire to go motorcycle touring. I've read the book 5 times. And it's following book Lila once. The metaphysics of quality is very interesting and unique way of looking at things.

    Ayn Rand's views were used to support capitalism. But I doubt if any of the world's richest people are truly the 'movers' of her books. To me they seem more like Toohey than Roark.

    Anyways I thought you might be interested in this article about how capitalism will always inherently create inequality.