I first picked up Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged in high school and was, like many readers, immediately enthralled. I devoured the thousand-page book in a few days. The story is a mystery, and I had to see how it ended. But it was more than that. Rand’s mind was unlike any other I had encountered. She took ideas and morality seriously.
Good and evil were not bromides to be trotted out as a duty in corporate speeches and presidential addresses, only to be ignored in the next day’s activities as hot air. The nature of good and evil was to be thought about, understood, and then lived by. In Atlas Rand re-conceives the idea of selfishness and helps us see why selfishness is not evil but profoundly moral and, in fact, exceedingly rare. Further, she reveals that the ideas about morality we’ve been taught since childhood entrench injustice.
When the blessed are the poor in spirit—and this idea has much wider purview than just Christianity—the damned have to be those who choose to lead rational, productive lives, i.e., the rich in spirit. As a character in Atlas thinks to himself during a pivotal scene: “There is no escape from justice, nothing can be unearned or unpaid for in the universe, neither in matter nor in spirit—and if the guilty do not pay, then the innocent have to pay it.”
Rand excites young minds, as she did mine, because her writings brim with radical ideas. They offer a unique philosophy of life. Nevertheless, it’s fairly common to meet people who say that Rand was an important influence in their youth, which they’ve since outgrown. This phenomenon used to puzzle me, but no longer, because I now realize it’s not obvious how to live by a philosophy.
Most people have only one model: religion. To live by a philosophy, they implicitly assume, is to accept a list of out-of-the-blue commandments. “Thou shall have orange hair”—because the hero of Rand’s The Fountainhead has orange hair. “Thou shall make lots of money”—because the heroes of Atlas are industrialists. “Thou shall not work on teams”—because the hero of The Fountainhead works alone.
This converts Objectivism to dogma, and so what the philosophy promises does not materialize. The person attracted to Rand’s vision does not experience happiness and a sense of being at home in the universe. He experiences frustration and alienation.
His solution, often, is to discard, as an indulgence of youth, his interest in Objectivism and become an adult—which to him means: to live without a framework of basic principles, i.e., without a philosophy.
The person becomes pragmatic. There is no consistency in his ideas, no overarching theme or direction to his life, no overall harmony or integration in his soul. He may experience periodic joys, but not the lasting joy that is happiness.
To live a philosophical life requires that we approach philosophy not as dogma but as science. We must put in the long hours of thinking necessary to truly understand for ourselves why, say, contrary to religion’s teachings existence has primacy over consciousness and selfishness is moral. We then actually have to make use of these principles.
Just as more thinking is needed to use true scientific principles to build an airplane, so more thinking is needed to use true philosophical principles to become the architect of our own happiness.
In our teenage and college years we often think about the important issues of life, only to lose sight of them when we enter the adult world. Through a series of small compromises and surrenders, we abandon our youthful vision of what life could be.
To retain the conviction that big ideas matter, we must put in the intellectual work. We must work constantly to see philosophical principles embedded in the concrete facts of daily life: philosophical principles are true precisely because they enable us to make sense of the seemingly incomprehensible—our families, say, or the war in Iraq. And we must strive constantly to deal with the concrete facts of daily life, of decisions about our next career move or the next step in our child’s education, only in terms of philosophical principles.
If we do this, then a true philosophy, which is what I think Objectivism is, offers us an incomparable gift: it equips us to be happy.