Ayn Rand and Aristotle
I wrote here a while back about how much I was enjoying the flurry of reviews and essays occasioned by the publication of two biographies of Ayn Rand. The Nation‘s June 7 issue has a late entry to this category, “Garbage and Gravitas,” by political science professor Corey Robin. I thought perhaps I’d had my fill of Rand by now, but Robin’s first few sentences sucked me in:
St. Petersburg in revolt gave us Vladimir Nabokov, Isaiah Berlin and Ayn Rand. The first was a novelist, the second a philosopher. The third was neither but thought she was both.
Robin’s take focuses on Rand’s philosophizing (or what passed for it), and the virtue ethicists among us may be interested in his discussion of Aristotle, whom Rand apparently claimed as a forebear. “It’s not clear how much of Aristotle’s work Rand actually read: when she wasn’t quoting Galt, she had a habit of attributing to the Greek philosopher statements and ideas that don’t appear in any of his writings.” Robin explains briefly how morality works for Aristotle, and goes on to explore how Rand applied “a superficial Aristotelian gloss” to objectivism (which Robin says is more closely related to “the drill march of fascism”).
I was intrigued by Robin’s conclusion, both in its vision of “the task of the left” and its explanation of how Rand’s approach differs:
Since the nineteenth century, it has been the task of the left to hold up to liberal civilization a mirror of its highest values and to say, “You do not look like this.” You claim to believe in the rights of man, but it is only the rights of property you uphold. You claim to stand for freedom, but it is only the freedom of the strong to dominate the weak. If you wish to live up to your principles, you must give way to their demiurge. Allow the dispossessed to assume power, and the ideal will be made real, the metaphor will be made material.
Rand believed that this meeting of heaven and earth could be arranged by other means. Rather than remake the world in the image of paradise, she looked for paradise in an image of the world. Political transformation wasn’t necessary. Transubstantiation was enough. Say a few words, wave your hands and the ideal is real, the metaphor material.