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17 February 2018updated 28 Jun 2021 4:39am

Four key thinkers more deserving of a revival than “Trump’s philosopher” Ayn Rand

If thinkers have enduring value, it is because their ideas are timeless, not timely.

By Amol Rajan

A recent story in theTimes carried the headline, “Trump’s philosopher is heading for your local pub”. The philosopher in question was Ayn Rand, whose works The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957) have been a profound influence on the American right since they were published, and are apparently enjoying a resurgence.

The story went on: the previous week, “about 15 people packed into a room above the Plumbers Arms in Victoria, central London” to discuss Rand. You read that right: 15! Three more than a dozen! Their cups runneth over indeed. We later discovered that Britain’s first Ayn Rand Centre is being set up. Moreover, new groups dedicated to Rand have popped up in Reading and Milton Keynes.

Everything about this story was designed to make me angry. For one thing, Rand was above all a novelist, not a philosopher. For another, it’s generous to suggest that the star of America’s Celebrity Apprentice, who is also the current occupant of the White House, is deeply familiar with her overall body of work. He said he enjoyed The Fountainhead; that’s some way short of her being a favourite philosopher.

But the thing that really riles me is this fashion for stories about intellectual fashions. Last year, apparently, there was an upsurge of interest in, and sales of, George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. During the financial crisis, displaying knowledge of Hyman Minsky’s oeuvre became the columnist’s trope du jour – just as, in the recession that followed, flaunting one’s knowledge of John Maynard Keynes’s The General Theory was a mark of cool and learning.

If thinkers have enduring value, it is because their ideas are timeless, not timely. So here, apropos of nothing in particular, are four other key thinkers that are being unfairly neglected.

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1. Polonius The true hero of Elsinore, who manages to distil in one speech more wisdom than the self-indulgent prince manages over five acts. Where Hamlet’s meandering vanities take him hither and thither to no great end, Polonius speaks the language of uncommon common sense to which this column aspires. And how prescient is he? His “neither a borrower nor a lender be” anticipated the post-monetary policy era four centuries before Mark Carney took the reins in Threadneedle Street. And his advice to “Give every man thine ear but few thy voice” is the perfect coping mechanism for social media. 

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2. Judith Kerr If you have young children, chances are you are more than familiar with Kerr’s seminal work, The Tiger Who Came to Tea. In it, Sophie is having tea with her mother in the kitchen when a big, furry, stripy tiger knocks on the door. It joins them and promptly eats and drinks everything in the house, forcing the family to go out for a special dinner when Sophie’s father comes home from work. Naturally, I don’t approve of the stereotypical gender roles in this plot; but the message of instinctive generosity and openness to unfamiliar outsiders, with unforeseen benefits for family life, undoubtedly carries lessons for our age of mass migration and rapid demographic upheaval.

3. Meryl Streep Less neglected than my other candidates for your attention, I’ll grant; but I really think Meryl Streep’s assertion, when asked in 2015 by Time Out if she was a feminist, is crucial. She said: “I’m a humanist.” In doing this she proclaimed the connection between feminism and universal ideals, placed feminism within a broader philosophical tradition, and revived interest in humanism at a time when religiosity is again on the march. Given the current conniptions over gender in our public domain, this was an important contribution, don’t you think?

4. Humphrey Appleby Have you noticed that, amid the toxic warfare over Brexit, the once unimpeachable integrity of Britain’s civil servants is now being traduced? Jacob Rees-Mogg criticised them only the other week. I recommend he revisit Yes, Minister, in which the peerless Nigel Hawthorne played the ultimate British bureaucrat. His dictum that “a cynic is what an idealist calls a realist” is both plausible and the perfect coolant for our
overheated democracy.

Back to the Ayn Rand philosophy club: I don’t believe I’ve tried the Plumbers Arms in Victoria. But I’ll make an exception if some New Statesman reader is prepared to start the first UK society dedicated to the propagation of these thinkers’ ideas. Anyone fancy a pint? 

This article appears in the 15 Feb 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist