In book reviews there are three clichés that often appear: ‘A book everyone should read!’ or ‘Something memorable on each page!’, or ‘A book you’ll never forget!’. With Ayn Rand’s 1964 book The Virtue of Selfishness all these clichés certainly can apply, but obviously for the reverse of their intention. Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism is one of those children of the 60s that just doesn’t seem to go away no matter how much you want it to; there are still plenty of people today who consider themselves Objectivists, and if you want to read about the ethics of Objectivism The Virtue of Selfishness is the main book to read.
Before any critique can be made of the ideas presented in the book let me neither be the first or last person to comment on the quality of Ayn Rand’s writing. It is abysmal. She keeps making statements as if they are revolutionary but that are in reality self-evident and apparent, and then analogizing them to their logical ends: stopping just short of herself, before her own analogies fall apart. Let me quote for an example:
There are plenty of better (worse) examples, but let us focus on this sentence. Visually the first thing that strikes the reader is the two italicized words, value and life. Of these two only Life could really be acceptable, she wishes to stress this word as life being also a result of existing by objective morals. This was her intention, and this, to us, is at least understandable. The italicisation of Value, however, is just not needed; and it does not add anything to the sentence, but only emphasises the meaning of a word that does not need to be centred. Ideally Rand would not need to italicise at all, but rather allow the syntax to stress the words itself, but this is something Rand repeatedly demonstrates she just cannot do.
Rand also has this very strange habit of backing up her own arguments with quotes from her own work, particularly her two staggeringly large books Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. This not good practise, especially in a philosophic argument; and the more The Virtue is read the more this became apparent, and grating; however, this is a philosophy, so effort on the part of the reader is required.
However. In her introduction to the book she claims that Objectivism is directly opposed to the ideas what she calls ‘Nietzschean egoists’. The philosophy of Fredrick Nietzsche can easily be seen in Rand’s work, almost to the point of Objectivism simply being another name for, and the expension of, the Will to Power; and Rand does not satisfactorily explain why her position is any different from Nietzchean Egoism, who she claims as being a product of altruism. This is, quite literally, non-sense. If one were to read Thus Spake Zarathustra, even badly, one would find there is not much of a difference between the character of Zarathustra, and the character of John Galt. The entire point of Nietzche’s work was moralising a world in a post-god era; about the abolition of ethical altruism (not, strictly, practical altruism however) in favour of reason, advancement of the self, and freedom from moralistic constraints. Nietzche was not opposed to ethics, just morals.
In Rand’s philosophy every conscious person is his own moral agent, and she criticises Immanuel Kant’s position (though never mentioning Kant directly) of recognising other people as moral agents in themselves. While she does criticise people who dominate in society, this is only because, so she claims, they are sub-human. Living on other’s produce and never and never thinking independently: thus not actually being either alive, or fully conscious. However she also has a morality based on rationality and Universality. This is where the Objective in Objectivism comes from.
Another part of her philosophy is the recognition of Capitalism as an ideal, because it is based on rationality and not an ideal; and to Rand rationality is the only thing that truly matters. Rationality is, according to Rand, the thing that mainly separates humans from the rest of the animal kingdom, and thus must be revered as an ideal in itself.
While these are self evident as the philosophy behind her novels, the fully meaning and development of these ideas need to be pulled out from so much clutter and waste. The book is, I must point out, a series of essays, not all by Rand herself, which attempt to deal with Objectivist ethics; however, after the first two essays the reader may stop, because the rest of the book is little more than repeating, already mentioned ideas, and approaching them from different angles. In fact, in the introduction to the book the first two essays are the only ones mentioned, and the rest is Rand shamelessly trying to promote her fiction.
As an opening to the ideas of Objectivism The Virtue of Selfishness is little better than waste paper, or waste storage if you have a Kindle. But the ideas presented by Rand are interesting as a critique of philosophers and philosophy of the past, and as a re-evaluation of Capitalism (contemporary culture not usually being the area for Philosophy) but as a system, and as a position Objectivism does not seem to be much more than a plagiarism of Nietzschean thought, and a cultish ideology of reason and self-advancement, that tries desperately to appear as a philosophy. On paper it succeeds, but paper is flimsy, and starts shows to show through itself when grease is applied.
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