The egoist

I was intrigued by the buzz surrounding Jennifer Burns’ book on Rand (the first chapter can be downloaded from Amazon [pdf]) and headed over to Google Books to see what it was all about. What was her opinion on Mises given the fact that he was a Kantian in metaphysics and epistemology, and a utilitarian in ethics?

Rand looked more favorably on Ludwig von Mises… As she explained to Leonard Read, Mises made mistakes when it came to morality, going “into thin air, into contradictions, into nonsense” whenever he discussed ethics. But at least he was “for the most part unimpeachable” on economics. Unlike Hayek, Mises was unwilling to consider political compromises that restricted the free market. Like Rand, he considered capitalism an absolute, and for that Rand was willing to forgive his failure to understand and reject altruism.

And Hayek? She saw through his ifs and buts and maybes-

Rand cast a gimlet eye on Hayek. In a letter to Rose Wilder Lane…she called him “pure poison” and “an example of our most pernicious enemy.” The problem was that Hayek was considered conservative, yet acknowledged there could be an important role for government-sponsored health care, unemployment insurance, and a minimum wage. “Here is where the whole case is given away,” Rand noted in her copy of The Road to Serfdom. Addressing Lane, she compared him to Communist “middle of the roaders” who were most effective as propagandists because they were not seen as Communists.

Our “moderates.” Further down the page-

“The man is an ass, with no conception of a free society at all,” she scribbled in the margin of his best-seller. She assaulted Hayek on multiple fronts. She reacted angrily whenever he discussed how competition or societies might be guided or planned, or when he spoke favorably of any government action. She was unwilling to admit he had a point: “When and how did governments have ‘powers for good?'”…When Hayek spoke about the needs of different people competing for available resources Rand retorted, “They don’t compete for the available resources—they create the resources. Here’s the socialist thinking again.” Hayek didn’t truly understand either competition or capitalism, she concluded.

Searching for Nietzsche, I came across this part about the plotting of The Fountainhead which comes early in the second chapter. A portrait of the egoist-

In its earliest incarnations the novel was Rand’s answer to Nietzsche. The famous herald of God’s death, Nietzsche himself was uninterested in creating a new morality to replace the desiccated husk of Christianity. His genealogy of morals, a devastating inquiry into the origins, usages. and value of traditional morality, was intended to clear a path for the “philosophers of the future.” Rand saw herself as one of those philosophers. In her first philosophical journal she had wondered if an individualistic morality was possible. A year later, starting work on her second novel, she knew it was.

“The first purpose of the book is a defense of egoism in its real meaning, egoism as a new faith,” she wrote in her first notes, which were prefaced by an aphorism from Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil. Her novel was intended to dramatize, in didactic form, the advantages of egoism as morality. Howard Roark, the novel’s hero, was “what men should be.” At first he would appear “monstrously selfish.” By the end of the book her readers would understand that a traditional vice—selfishness—was actually a virtue.

To effect this transvaluation of values Rand had to carefully redefine selfishness itself. Egoism or selfishness typically described one who “puts oneself above all and crushes everything in one’s way to get the best for oneself,” she wrote. “Fine!” But this understanding was missing something critical. The important element, ethically speaking, was “not what one does or how one does it, but why one does it.” Selfishness was a matter of motivation, not outcome. Therefore anyone who sought power for power’s sake was not truly selfish. Like Rand’s neighbor, the stereotypical egoist was seeking a goal defined by others, living as “they want him to live and conquer to the extent of a home, a yacht and a full stomach.” By contrast, a true egoist, in Rand’s sense of the term, would put “his own ‘I,’ his standard of values, above all things, and [conquer] to live as he pleases, as he chooses and as he believes.” Nor would a truly selfish person seek to dominate others, for that would mean living for others, adjusting his values and standards to maintain his superiority. Instead,”an egoist is a man who lives for himself.”

What sounded simple was in fact a subtle, complicated, and potentially confusing system. Rand’s novel reversed traditional definitions of selfishness and egoism, in itself an ambitious and difficult goal. It also redefined the meaning and purpose of morality by excluding all social concerns. “A man has a code of ethics primarily for his own sake, not for anyone else’s,” Rand asserted. Her ideas also reversed traditional understandings of human behavior by exalting a psychological mindset utterly divorced from anything outside the self.

As Rand described Howard Roark, she reverted to her earlier celebration of the pathological Hickman from “The Little Street” again mixing in strong scorn for emotions. “He was born without the ability to consider others,” she wrote of Roark. “His emotions are entirely controlled by his logic…he does not suffer, because he does not believe in suffering.” She also relied liberally on Nietzsche to characterize Roark. As she jotted down notes on Roark’s personality she told herself, “See Nietzsche about laughter.” The book’s famous first line indicates the centrality of this connection: “Howard Roark laughed.”

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