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Ayn Rand: Agent Provocateur of Good versus Evil

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Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to reconcile all the competing views and opinions out there? How many times have you found a writer or thinker you love, and then found out that they are intransigently opposed to someone else you have taken into your heart?

 

  

 

As a case in point, I was recently reading a collection of essays by Ayn Rand. Now I admire Rand’s work enormously (as do millions of others – Atlas Shrugged is considered one of the 20th century’s most influential works), so I was dismayed to read that she wouldn’t consider reading any Tolstoy: it was a case of good vs evil.

Reading his writing was, she said, Iike stepping into someone’s unkempt backyard – it was on the nose. Tolstoy may not be for everyone, I thought, but he is not to be dismissed like this – he is one of the giants. If he is degenerate, then so are millions of us who think he touches on universal truths.

That was just the start of my troubles. Like most of my generation I recall reading Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and can keenly remember the protagonist Phaedrus denouncing Aristotle as a pedant, and emblematic of everything that had sucked the Quality out of life.

I may not have gone out and bought a BMW motorcyle, but I like Pirsig, and so he went into my ‘good’ file, alongside Miss Rand. The problem is, Miss Rand loves Aristotle. Uh oh, it’s good versus evil again, and I am stuck with another seemingly irreconcilable conflict.

Maybe its just Rand, I think – maybe she is just unusually combative, just a little bit ‘out there’. I wouldn’t be the first to think so: remember the Simpsons episode where little Maggie tries to escape the Rand kindergarten (where the blocks spelt out A = A).

But it goes deeper than that. How do I reconcile the left wing and right wing in politics? How do I reconcile my own contradictions: I want world peace, but I can get so angry I want to run another motorist off the road. Even in myself I see good versus evil.

 

 

Some have contended that the answer is that there is no answer; that everything is in a state of flux (think Heraclitus), and that good and evil must always be in conflict. Or perhaps, I have thought at times, the answer is to be as confident as Miss Rand, and simply denounce anything that I don’t agree with as wrong. Maybe I would try that if I didn’t find myself inconveniently agreeing with aspects of both sides – it makes taking a stand very difficult.

I recently came across a website called The World Transformation Movement that seems unusually promising in terms of being able to provide a system where these disparate elements are reconciled. This system, which is put forward by the Australian biologist Jeremy Griffith, explains human behaviour in terms of a battle that broke out between our emerging intellect and our pre-established instincts.

The key to Griffith’s theory in terms of being able to reconcile Rand and Tolstoy, left and right wing, good versus evil etc., is that Griffith says that our original instincts were oriented toward behaving cooperatively. Suddenly we have two factions in our makeup – on the one hand, there is the intellect and egocentricity, and on the other the instincts’ cooperative orientation.

If we apply Griffith’s system to Rand and her right wing philosophy we can see that she is on the side of the search for knowledge; egocentricity is OK, she says, because it is the cost of searching for knowledge. On the other hand, Tolstoy, living on his commune, is reaching into instinctive truths – hence his occasional profundity. Rand doesn’t like him because he has backed away from the search; and for the same reason he thinks ambition futile and that all men should just be brothers. The beauty of Griffith’s theory is that no one is condemned by it: we all are equally courageousr; it’s just that some of us get too egocentric through our encounter with the battle and have to retreat from it. When we do this, we resurrect the cooperative ideals we had once battled.

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About Think It Over

  • http://randex.org Mark Wickens

    “dismayed to read that she wouldn’t consider reading any Tolstoy”

    Where’d you read that? It’s wrong. See The Art of Fiction, where she discusses Anna Karenina. It seems she also read War and Peace (see The Romantic Manifesto).

  • Igor

    Rands writings are feeble and insipid compared to Tostois short stories “Yardstick”, “How Much Land Does A Man Need” or “The Kreutzer Sonata”.

    They can be read in an afternoon (I recommend the B.G. Guerney translations) and have more impact than all the tedious maunderings of Rand.

  • Think It Over

    Thanks for the comment Mark. I perhaps should have just said that she hated his philosophy (and reading his books) – although I am pretty sure I captured that sentiment in what I wrote. On page 55 of The Romantic Manifesto, Rand says, “I cannot stand Toltstoy, and reading him was the most boring literary duty I ever had to perform, his philosophy and his sense of life are not merely mistaken, but evil, and yet from a purely literary view point, on his own terms, I have to evaluate him as a good writer”.

  • George

    You should correct your post. You clearly state that Ayn Rand refused to read Tolstoy which is simply false.